Wanted: "Industrious" Writers


By Robert W. Bly


You don't need an engineering degree to write industrial promotions and publicity, or to earn the industrial-strength fees that come with the assignments.

I never set out to become a freelance industrial promotion writer. (I'm a failed novelist and newspaper reporter who decided to put his chemical engineering degree to good use.) But now that I'm here, I love it, and wouldn't trade places with any of the Madison Avenue copywriters working on the big consumer accounts. Here's why:

1. Freelance industrial writers are in demand. The technical fields are booming. And because they're so specialized, industrial manufacturers and their ad agencies farm out much of the publicity and sales promotion writing to freelancers with expertise in their particular industry. Furthermore, most agency and freelance copywriters seem to prefer to work on consumer accounts, so the competition isn't as fierce in the industrial arena.

2. Industrial sales promotion pays well. Industrial writers earn $25-$100 an hour (and sometimes more) ... and assignments are not in short supply.

3. I take pride in my profession. I'm a snob. Although your typical ad agency creative director will disagree, I believe it takes more skill to write a brochure on computers, compressors or communications systems than it does to script a 30-second TV spot selling some household product. The industrial promotion writer must combine the communications skills of a professional copywriter with the ability to understand complex, highly technical systems, equipment and services.

But don't let the technical nature of industrial writing scare you off. Contrary to what some might tell you, you don't need an engineering degree to become an industrial writer. You need only the patience and intelligence to read and learn about technical subjects, and the ability to write clearly and simply. Research can make you knowledgeable enough to write in any field.

What Assignments Are Out There?

As an industrial writer, you will write about industrial and high-technology products sold primarily to other businesses ... and not to consumers. Your readers will be engineers, technicians, purchasing agents, and technical managers working in aerospace, chemicals, data processing, electronics, heavy equipment, pharmaceuticals, and many other industries.

As a promotion writer, you will create just about any print or audiovisual communication the industrial marketer needs to help sell a product. These assignments include brochures, catalogs, case histories, direct mail, film scripts, trade journal articles, technical papers, press releases, speeches, slide presentations and newsletters.

Creating space advertisements and placing them in trade publications is the bread and butter of the industrial advertising agency. But the freelancer makes his living writing the publicity and sales promotions that support these ad campaigns. I could never make a living writing ads only, because writing ads pays less per project than most other assignments. A one-page trade journal ad can pay you $200-$500; most product brochures pay more than ten times that amount.

How much can a promotion writer earn? I know one freelancer who recently earned $15,000 for writing a brochure for a major defense contractor. It took him only three months to complete, and he was handling several other projects at the same time. Another freelancer I know charges $320 a day for writing "case histories" success stories about a company's products and plants. Recently, I wrote a ten-minute film script on a management information system and earned $1,000 for a rainy Sunday's effort.

Brochures and audiovisual scripts are the best-paying assignments in industrial sales promotion; in publicity, trade journal articles and press "back-grounders" are two profitable projects.

Technically Speaking

Before beginning work on an assignment (I'll discuss where and how to get assignments later on), take the PAP test: "Do I understand the product, intended audience, and purpose of this promotion?"

Product. As an industrial writer, you're a jack-of-all-technologies and master of none: You don't have to be a technical expert, but you must be able to grasp quickly the basics of an engineering-oriented product, pick out the key selling points, and communicate them in simple, readable English.

When I begin a project, I first ask for any previous material written on the subject-sales letters, proposals, inter-office memos, technical papers, engineering reports, brochures, and ads.

The more information I have, the better; although my copy is concise, it must also be complete and accurate.

Before I read this mountain of information, I ask the ad manager or creative director: "What are the key features of this product or service? How will your customers benefit from using it?" Once I know this, I can read selectively, taking notes only on information that will illuminate and explain the important features. Without this interview, I might not be able to distinguish the germane from the trivial, since I am no expert in electronics, oil, or any of the other industries I write for.

Audience. Publicity and sales promotion is not art; it is communication. To communicate effectively, you must know your audience and write in language the reader can understand.

      Engineers and other technical people are fascinated by graphs, cutaway illustrations, exploded drawings, bar charts, tables, figures, and other seemingly picayune information that would bore an ordinary mortal to tears.

      Managers have little time for such detail and are more interested in how buying the product saves time, money and manpower.

      The general public likes fascinating facts and odd technologies.

My rule for effective communication is this: Write so that the most uninformed and least intelligent of your readers will understand 90% of what you say. And, since the business people you're trying to reach don't have time to read a tenth of the material that crosses their desks, be concise, and tell the whole story in the fewest possible words.

Purpose. Ads, brochures and publicity do not sell industrial products directly. Instead, they build recognition and awareness that helps the salespeople sell the product.

A promotion can help increase sales in many different ways. It can introduce a new product, change a company's image, reach new markets, generate reader response, build mailing lists, or introduce new facilities. Ask your client: "What do you want this promotional piece to accomplish? What sales and marketing objectives does it support? What is its mission in life?"

A Few Tips on How to Write Industrial Copy

1. Write clearly and simply. The most effective industrial copy is easy to read. Don't dazzle readers with your technical knowledge and writing style. Be clear, simple and direct.

Recently, I wrote a brochure on a device that has no moving parts and is used to mix fluids--a "static mixing" unit. Here's how I used simple language to describe this rather unusual and complex technology to chemical engineers:

The Koch static mixing unit, an in-line mixer with no moving parts, is a simple, cost-effective solution to your mixing problems. It consists of a series of stationary, rigid elements placed length-wise in a pipe. These elements form intersecting channels that split, rearrange, and recombine component streams until one homogeneous stream exists.

2. Make the piece interesting, yet practical. Industrial writing does not have to be dull. Even highly technical subjects can be described interestingly. A direct mail piece I wrote told plant managers how activated carbon particles could purify their plants' wastewater streams. (The fine carbon particles have a large surface area that removes impurities from water.) A vial of carbon powder was taped to the mailer; underneath the vial was this headline:

This Tiny Thimbleful of Activated Carbon Has More Surface Area Than the Playing Field of the Houston Astrodome.

After hooking readers with this fascinating and relevant fact, the copy explained how this large surface area could solve wastewater treatment problems efficiently and economically. As I said, the piece also must be practical: Effective industrial promotions tell readers how the product or service being sold can solve their problems.

3. Find your advantage-and tell the reader about it. There must be some way in which your product, service, or company is different and better than the competition. When I wrote a mailer on Koch Engineering's mesh mist eliminator (a piece of equipment used for product recovery in chemical plants), Koch had just opened a new manufacturing facility so they could deliver to West Coast customers faster. We emphasized this selling point in the body copy and headline.


Koch Engineering Company, Inc. proudly announces the opening of its new mesh mist eliminator plant in Buena Park, California.

Now Koch manufactures Flexi mesh knitted wire mesh mist eliminators right in your own back yard. So our service-the fastest delivery in the West-is faster than ever, because our plant is closer to your plant.

In fact, you can often have a truck pick up your finished, ready-for-installation mist eliminator the same day you place your order!

4. Avoid jargon. If a technical term precisely conveys your meaning, use it. But avoid "jargon"-words more technical and complex than the ideas they communicate. For example, don't write "condensed atmospheric water vapor" when you're talking about rain.

5. Organize your material in short, easy-to-digest sections. Break up text into short sections and subsections; title them with headlines and subheads. Each section should be a self-contained mini-essay on a single topic or thought. Experience shows that a piece of writing is most effective when it expresses one simple idea. Witness the use of short, concise sections in this article, for example.

6. Use informative photo captions. Photo captions get twice the readership that body copy does. Therefore, write informative captions for the photos, drawings, figures and tables you use in your promotional material.

A brochure I wrote on a new radar system included a photo of a wiring machine used to manufacture some of the radar components. I wrote this caption:

This tape-controlled, fully automatic wiring device makes approximately 1,000 wire-wrap connections an hour. Such automatic devices provide increased product reliability and a significant savings in manufacturing costs.

The photo would have told less of a story if I had simply labeled it, "Automatic wiring device."

7. Call for action. Make it perfectly clear to your readers what steps they should take if they are interested in your product. Do you want them to call a salesperson? Send for a brochure? Return the enclosed business reply card?

This call for action usually comes in the closing paragraphs of the promotional piece. Here's how I ended that brochure on the static mixing unit.

Now that you've seen what our static mixing unit can do, why not put it-and us-to work for you? If you have a mixing problem, just complete and mail the attached Koch Static Mixing Specification Sheet. If you don't have the sheet, or need immediate service, give us a call.

Always include the company name, address and phone number on all the promotions you write. A promotion is wasted if the audience does not know where to buy the product.

Where to Get Assignments

Freelance industrial writers get assignments from advertising agencies or from the advertisers directly. Happily, both markets are large and easily accessible.

Advertising agencies. Just about every major advertising agency is listed in The Standard Directory of Advertising Agencies (also known as "The Agency Red Book"), published by the National Register Publishing Company of Skokie, Illinois. The Agency Red Book lists some 4,400 agencies in alphabetical order and by state, and lists major accounts (industrial and consumer), and personnel by title. In large agencies, contact the copy supervisor or creative director. In smaller shops, you'll deal directly with the president.

Your best prospects are local agencies with a fair number of industrial accounts. Size is unimportant-I get as many good assignments from one- and two-man shops as I do from the country's biggest agencies.

Advertisers. Almost every industrial manufacturer that advertises has a support program of print and AV material that you can help write. In large companies, contact the manager of advertising or marketing communications. In smaller companies, deal with the sales or marketing manager, or even the product manager.

National Register also publishes a Standard Directory of Advertisers, which lists 17,000 companies that spend $30,000 or more a year on advertising. The Directory details ad budgets, products manufactured, and key company personnel. Don't let a small budget put you off-small companies often pay better and faster than corporate giants.

Getting Started

When I started in this business, I sent a one-page cover letter and business reply card to the creative directors of the country's 50 largest ad agencies. This simple direct-mail campaign, which cost me only $60, generated a 12% response, half a dozen solid sales leads, and $2,000 in assignments.

Direct mail is, I believe, the most effective way of making initial contact with busy corporate ad managers and agency creative directors. Other freelancers I know send resumes or samples of their work; a few have created small brochures describing their skills and services. These materials must be well-written and professionally produced, since every written communication you send out is a sample of your work. Such mailings should use the seven writing principles I listed before.

A prospective client who calls you to discuss an assignment will expect you to quote a fee. The sidebar, "Job Directory," gives rough fee ranges only. To determine your fee, multiply your hourly rate (between $25 and $100) by the number of hours you estimate completing the job will require. If the client wants you to handle the production and printing as well as the writing, you must work with outside suppliers: artists, photographers, typesetters, printers. You are compensated for your time and trouble by "marking up" the fees on these outside services when you submit the bill to the client. Markups range from 15% to 35%.

The Write Job for Me

I have no illusions about my status as a writer: I am not John Irving, the ground radar brochure I just wrote is not The Hotel New Hampshire, and mentioning the publication of your latest ball bearing ad in Industrial Maintenance and Plant Operation causes less of a stir at cocktail parties than, say, a short story in this month's Esquire. But I'm my own boss, I earn a good living, and, most important, I earn it where I want to be, at the typewriter writing.