How I Write Today: Susan Johnston

by Meredith Resnick

I have long been an admirer of Susan Johnston and her fabulous writer’s blog, The Urban Muse. The Urban Muse has been a Writer’s Digest Best Site for Writers pick, and is one of Michael Stelzner’s Top 10 picks for 2009-2010. One of the (many!) reasons I believe Susan is such a successful blogger and writer is because she helps to promote other writers with a sincere interest in their craft and art. Another reason: Susan aims to make the business of writing a creative venture while many other writers mistakenly see the two as mutually exclusive endeavors. Check her out—you’ll see what I mean.

How I Write Today
by Susan Johnston

A year and a half ago, when a friend asked me to help her company get through a backlog of online catalogue descriptions, I figured it would be a good way to earn money as a copywriter while helping her out. Little did I know that I was about to discover a new niche!

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My first foray into writing product descriptions covered mostly sheets, rugs, and watches. But as I started doing more catalogue projects, I also branched out into toys, jewelry, athletic shoes, apparel, handbags, even an entire catalogue devoted to candles! (This despite the fact that I’m pyro-phobic. I can capture the ambiance created by candles even if they make me a little nervous.)

Here’s how writing for catalogues has improved my overall approach to writing:

1. Word economy. Depending on the client, some of my catalogue descriptions might be as long as a few paragraphs or as short as 150 characters (practically the length of a tweet). This means that every word counts and sometimes an artfully phrased fragment can set the right mood. It’s almost like writing haikus!

2.  Strong verbs. One of the ways to pack a punch in as few words as possible is to use verbs that are so compelling they don’t need any modifiers. For instance, using “strut” instead of “walk” or “luxuriate” instead of “relax.” Writing for catalogues has forced me to pull out the strongest verbs I can think up.

3.  Finding new ways to phrase things. A lot of times I’ll get a long list of watches or shoes that are very similar at first glance. The challenge is to come up with creative ways to differentiate products and make each one sound enticing.

4.  Adapting to the brand’s voice. Just as different catalogues have different ways of describing products and presenting information, different magazines use vastly different voices (although Good Housekeeping and Glamour are both women’s magazines, their approach to topics are sometimes worlds apart!). Remembering and internalizing these differences has made me a more versatile writer.

5.  Attention to detail. Whether you’re writing about a Swiss chronograph watch or 1,200 thread count sheets, details matter to the customer and it’s your job to get it right. Digging for information and double-checking product features also serve me when I’m writing articles for a magazine, because I need to fact check information to ensure accuracy.

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer and blogger who has covered business and lifestyle topics for The Boston Globe, DailyCandy.Com, and many other publications. She also blogs about writing at The Urban Muse.

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