Why being “just the writer” is more than enough

Credit: Patrick Fore
Credit: Patrick Fore

You will continue to be best at the thing you love the most.

When it was my turn to introduce myself on a recent call with a new client, I said, “I’m Ellen, the vice president of content. That basically means I’m the writer at the agency. I write everything from X to Y to Z.”

One of my colleagues quickly messaged me saying, “Don’t undersell yourself like that! You’re much more than ‘just a writer.’” 

She meant well. I appreciate the sentiment. And sure, I am more than a writer. But there’s more to the story.  

I didn’t mean “I’m the writer” to come off dismissively, or even humbly. I’m proud to be the person at my agency who makes words “work,” who best understands the order they should fall in, which words need to go away and which should absolutely stay. I understand what should be persuasive or playful; what’s going to bore, offend or titillate.

People who write for business need to be far more than creative; they must also be rational to a fault, and not attached to their ego. Because before you write about something, you absolutely have to understand it. And after you’ve written about something, you have to be able to see it as entirely separate from you. If what you’ve written is crap, it doesn’t mean that you are crap. But it does mean that you will need to fix it.  

The same isn’t true for those who write purely for pleasure. In that case, you’re welcome to start with a blank page and go freewheeling into oblivion. I like that kind of writing, too, but I don’t get paid for it. 

Over the years, I’ve learned to write in a way that I hope sweeps readers along. As a kid, my favorite place to be was ankle-deep in the creek in my backyard. I took very seriously the job of unclogging that creek, flinging sodden leaves and debris onto its slick banks so it would flow freely again. Today, I still remove impediments, break dams, make things burble and hum again. 

To create ease in a piece of writing, one has to put words together in ways that are interesting without being outlandish; to make sentences charming without stealing the show.  

But words are only the vehicle. Take pleasure in them, but don’t get carried away with how cleverly you’ve worded something. What matters is that the vehicle moves passengers — readers — to their destination by saying what needs to be said as efficiently as possible. That is far easier said than done. Making a “quick read” takes, in fact, a very long time. 

Lately, I’ve been telling people I’m our agency’s “writer-in-residency.” I enjoy the smug academic sound of it, but I also like the notion that my role is that specific.  

For years, I downplayed my skill set. I can’t count how many times I’ve said, “When I majored in creative writing, I never thought I’d make a career of it. I’m incredibly lucky.” And I am. I couldn’t have dreamed that I’d get to push words around a page for a living.  But over time, my imposter syndrome gave way to a realization that I’ve been employed as a writer for so long because I’m damn good at it. As it turns out, my specific skill set is, if not a dying art, then an ailing one. That makes it, and me, more precious.

In an industry that’s constantly shifting to remain relevant for clients, there’s plenty of talk about upskilling employees. At my agency, “staying in your lane” is a no-no. We’re trained on topics adjacent to our expertise. Project managers pitch in with graphic design. Media experts write a mean speech. Interns come up with the award-winning campaign ideas.

I’ve learned plenty in recent years about SEO, content optimization and best practices on social. With consumer appetite for content and preferences for outlets evolving, it’s important that I grow with them. Thankfully, my aptitude as a writer and a human will remain a work-in-progress; I cringe thinking of the inane columns I wrote for my college newspaper. There will always be more for this writer to learn. 

We are told to do what we love for a reason. Throughout your career, it’s likely that your core skill set will remain more or less the same, no matter how many conferences you attend or articles you read. You will continue to be best at the thing you love the most. 

You don’t have to be the sum of your parts. You can play your one part, so long as you play it well. And that’s something to be proud of. 

So, hello, I’m Ellen, and I’m the writer. ­­

Ellen Mallernee Barnes is VP of content at Red Havas

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