Friday, February 22, 2008

Become a Successful Freelance Business Writer for Magazines

Writing about business, your major challenge will be injecting some life into IPOs, P/E ratios, 401(k)s and numbers, numbers everywhere. You’re often in the position of having to educate readers, yet you don’t want your article to read like a textbook or the small print of an annual report.

I recently spent some time in my library’s periodical room finding examples of business articles that were quite the opposite of dry. Here are some techniques skillful business writers use to make challenging intellectual material come alive with human interest and drama.

Explore the fringes. Any business or business sector with a high weirdness quotient becomes interesting. Worth magazine ran a well-written piece on an Internet pornography business with just the right touch of incredulity at the studio shenanigans and respect for the company’s profitability. In another issue of Worth, readers got a behind-the-scenes, hush-hush look at a private banking operation, whose clients are referred to in the article by pseudonyms.

Use a personal voice. Worth runs a good number of pieces in first person – such as the Internet pornography piece, and a gripping chronicle of one man’s marriage-threatening addiction to online auctions on eBay. Even Bloomberg Personal Finance, generally more conservative in tone, includes some first-person writing in this vein, surrounded by traditional journalistic facts: "Me, I’m patient. I’m not giving up on value. I’m not giving up on asset allocation, either. Yet many of us need to revisit the asset classes we’re using."

Find surprising anecdotes. An article in Worth on paying for health care begins with the case of a man who offered up his credit card for an $800 doctor’s bill instead of an insurance card – and asked for and received a discount. In Boston magazine, an article about how Boston has changed from a business capital to a branch office town begins with the story of the department store chain Jordan Marsh’s demise through the eyes of a local boy who grew up in its heyday and sold it off.

Insert quick ironic details. A profile in Boston magazine of the Citizens Bank CEO prominently mentioned that he once lived in an ashram in India. Likewise, Worth says this about a money manager whose performance is slipping: "And 'safe' isn’t exactly a virtue to the man whose idea of fun is sailing his 45-foot boat, Nunaga, into a storm off the Maine coast." In the Worth health-care piece, it turns out that the man who coaxed a discount from his doctor is a partner of a medical savings account management firm. Similarly, note this little fillip from the same piece: "The implacable daughter of a physician, Smith... files appeals on a client’s behalf when plans deny benefits."

Relate the esoteric to the familiar. If medical savings accounts seem new and forbiddingly complicated, tame them through a household name: "The basic notion was advocated by Ben Franklin (though, in his day, for fire insurance): Insure only the part of your risk you couldn’t possibly pay for, self-insure the rest, and bank the premium savings in an interest-earning account."

Put a mythical spin on money. In Worth, again, we don’t just read about billionaires, but about "The Ninth Zero Club" (which of course never actually meets or charges dues). The same lofty effect comes from a sentence like this, in a Worth real-estate piece: "Zinn may sound a bit like Scarlett O'Hara surveying Tara – though in the current housing market, Tara would be a teardown and the land would be subdivided into miniature 'estates.'"

Use unusual, colorful words. This example from Worth sent me to the dictionary: "Buy more stock or sell? You never know. It isn’t easy being an indecisive, anxiety-ridden mugwump." You can get a similar zing from using more familiar words in an unexpected context: "the value flameout"; "load up on market castoffs." Look how Worth brought up the two biggest names in travel guidebooks: "And what of the two F-words: Frommer's and Fodor's?" Bloomberg Personal Finance surprises occasionally too: "As you cuss traffic on your way to make a deposit to your savings account..."; "Then take all your funds and brokerage accounts and calculate a dollar-weighted average total return for the whole shebang."

Cop an attitude. This lead from Bloomberg Personal Finance assumes a certain cultural snobbishness on the part of readers: "Hearing a television guru tout a company with a name like Global Crossing, Level 3, or Qwest makes many of us wince. It isn’t that we’re Luddites – who doesn’t believe in the future of technology at this point? It’s just that we have a hard time buying a stock that sounds rather too much like a spaceship from Star Trek."

Use incongruous organizing metaphors. In Bloomberg Personal Finance, an article called "Anatomy of a Startup" began with the image of two different kinds of health checkups: "Traditional Chinese herbalists feel your pulse and lay on hands to monitor the flow of chi. Traditional American internists send fluids to the lab. Different approaches to the art of medicine, with identical conclusions: You’re fit. That’s how it goes with high-tech investing, too." The subheads for the "Anatomy of a Startup" piece carry through the biological metaphor: "Lifeblood: The Management"; "Great Bones: The Product"; "Lung Capacity: The Market": and "Muscle Mass: The Numbers." The illustrations pick up this theme as well.

Master these nine techniques, and you’ll be able to turn your fascination with business and talent for clear, accurate writing into a prosperous freelance writing career.

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