Pre-TLDR: This is an update article on my personal life/employment, mostly just me making sure people know I’m fine now and that I’m happy.
My last job was very good in a few senses:
It was the first job I ever had that really pushed my income to middle-class-ish levels, which is a whole different ballgame of life
It was partially unearned; I did not work my way up from the writing mines to writing mine management - I was just sort of noticed and given work
For a while, the company needed a lot of writing work done.
2-3 ended up working backwards to fuel my always-on stress machinery, because 2. meant that I wasn’t sure I could get another job like it if I ever got fired, and 3. meant that eventually said company would run out of bulk-writing needs such as necessitate a full-time writer, and then things would get awkward.
This running-out-of-writing happened, and then I was there for another six months to a year. It wasn’t a great time, including for people around me who had to hear me whine about it not being a great time. Then I got fired, which also wasn’t a great time. It was non-great times all around.
Looking for a new job, I wanted several things:
Proof that I could sort of be at the new income level long-term - that it wasn’t a one-off and I could do things like own houses and buying my kids stuff
A job with duties focused on the one thing I do particularly well and enjoy (writing) in the same way programmers aren’t really expected to do much besides programming. So no “20% writing, 80% cold outreach recruiting” situations, if I could avoid them
A job that could credibly promise that they wouldn’t “run out” of writing tasks
I frankly didn’t think I could get all these things, and I wasn’t confident I could get any of them. Then a couple of things happened: A lot of readers popped out of the woodwork trying to help, and the CEO of old-company-that-fired me and I were still on good terms, and she very kindly took some time to pitch me around to various other CEO-founder types.
Because of those efforts, I got to have a lot of conversations. And the practical upshot is: I have a job, it’s a good job, and everything is not just fine but very arguably better.
I accepted an offer letter to and am currently working at a relatively new writing agency called Quill, which is run by Richard Kong and Dan Bogachek. The agency makes/improves content for startup founders/startups, basically taking their ideas and outlines and turning them into content of various kinds, mainly writing.
Wonder of wonders, I can talk about this job - because we are mostly ghost-writing bespoke content that either carries the agency byline or none at all, I can just exist there as RC without any big identity issues.
A few of you use me for freelance, and I think the practical implication of this is that some small one-off need type of stuff (“RC, can you write me a single article, or critique something I’ve written?”) might still use me directly, while people who need anything more than that (“RC, can you fill some regular need and/or take over my content calendar?”) would use Quill.
I’ve been working on some internal thought-piece stuff for Quill, and below is one that might eventually go up on the site. It’s been through our editing process so it’s a little bit different than my normal voice, but close enough that I thought it would be fun to post as bonus content, and an example of the kind of work I’m doing. I won’t be talking about the job all the time (i.e. the blog is still the blog in the same way) but I figured this was as good a time to give context on the new job as I’m gonna get.
That’s about it - I’m in a good spot. Thank you very much to everyone who tried to help me during the tough time, and for everyone who reached out to make sure I was doing OK. It meant a lot, and it helped me get through.
I write for a living.
More specifically, I write business content. It’s a broad category, ranging from white papers to company blogs to advertisements and website copy. On any given day, I write thousands of words for businesses who want to communicate well.
Our clients are smart people with interesting ideas. Often, they are really smart; they are looking to communicate how they do things because they are the best in their specific domain, and have a lot of value to communicate. They have ideas; what they often lack, however, is the ability to communicate clearly.
That’s what I’m here for.
Good writers take complex ideas and make them easy to understand — for whoever the audience might be. The job is half writing, half research. Someone asks you to write about something, you learn about it, then you produce a piece. If you do this right, you restate the exact message they wanted to send in slightly better prose, and the combined effort of both parties produces a worthwhile read for their readers.
There are a lot of reasons companies are willing to pay for this content. Good writing sets a company apart from its competitors. It can shorten sales cycles. It can be a magnet in recruiting.
But there are many things it’s not good for at all.
What Writing Can’t Do (Or Can’t Do Well)
I’ve done a lot of work both as a freelancer and as an employee of companies that wanted large amounts of writing. Sometimes, clients will come to you and ask you to do something that writing just can’t do, something that stretches the bounds of the likely and gets you into awkward “let’s control our expectations here” conversations.
This is nowhere truer than in the world of startups. It’s a fast, big-results environment that wants fast, big results from writing, and so often asks for a bit more than writing can reliably provide.
Writing (Usually) Can’t be Consistently Viral
Do you know what you call a writer who can consistently generate millions-of-hits-articles? I’m joking, but only a bit. The best writers in the world are consistently good and often great, but writers who can generate massive hit after massive hit at will are rare to the point of non-existence. Most of a writer’s work is putting out the best they can, week after week; they are trying to catch lightning in a bottle.
Individual pieces of content go viral because they are exceptional. They go viral because they are the best thing that week. They go viral because they strike a chord and hit a synergy nobody expected between subject matter, tone, and timing.
Put short: a lot of stuff has to happen at once for your article to get a million hits.
It’s not that good article performance never happens; it does. And it’s not that a good writing agency can’t help you market the work they make for you - they can and do. But great writers often work their whole careers to gain only modest fame; catching lightning in a bottle is possible, but very few people can do it at will.
A good writing agency (or individual freelancer) creates good work. A very good writing agency enhances the work a bit beyond what you expected - they build a bit on your ideas, and they market the work a little better than you could yourself. Make no mistake: this is magic, and it’s hard to do. But it’s not a guarantee of virality; we can’t always make the near-impossible happen.
Writing Can’t Give You Ideas You Don’t Have
I’ve been approached to write thought leadership pieces, and a few occasions stand out. In these cases, my very first question — usually “What ideas and opinions would you like to put forward?” — was met with confusion or even shock. Their expectation was that I’d use my own thoughts - and just my own thoughts - to make them a thought leader.
I really do wish I could do this, but while writers have their own ideas, philosophies, and opinions like everyone else, we can’t express a client’s exciting new ideas if they don’t exist.
Thankfully, a founder of a company who has spent a lot of time managing people in a certain style usually has plenty of that kind of personal context to work from. Better yet, they often have a specific, unique context earned through experience. When a client brings that to the table, a writer can often mill that wheat into an astounding amount of flour - that’s our job.
When that doesn’t happen, we do our best with generics, and the client gets a generic product.
And like I mentioned, it isn’t the case the writers don’t have ideas. We do! It’s quite common that we find new angles and ideas which enhance the message as we work to express the client’s thoughts.
What we often don’t have - what we are most hungry for - is clear context on what you want to say. Give us that, and we can weave the thoughts into narratives.
Writing Can’t Fool Your Employees Into Thinking Your Culture Is Different Than It Is
I’ve anonymized every part of this story to protect the (mostly) innocent.
I once had a new freelance client come to me and ask me to write a culture piece that would help explain that his company worked hard to maintain an environment of freedom - that they made space for people to do their best work in the way that seemed best to them.
This isn’t common, but they gave me some access to talk to a few team members about how they experienced that freedom so I could have a little more contextual richness to work from. I talked to two or three of them, and each of them independently revealed the reason the article was needed: the founder was a micromanager’s micromanager, a person who kept a finger in every pie and never, ever left a single or project alone for longer than a few seconds.
Writing is great for talking about culture, but it doesn’t replace it. I could write the most compelling piece ever created about how great your company was at merit-based promotions, and it’s not going to change anything if you don’t actually promote based on merit. I could talk all day about your friendly and intimate team culture, but it’s not going to have any effect on the mood of a team who are barely avoiding stabbing each other as is.
What Writing Does Well
Given the limitations I’m setting, it’s fair to ask: What can writing do? I frequently ask people for money to write for them. Almost as often, they actually pay me. What are they getting?
Writing is a tool, often an incredibly effective one.
Providing The Expected Minimum
Imagine you are trying to hire for a high-value position. You want to make sure you have the best applicants possible, so you go on various hiring platforms and do cold outreach to high-quality candidates. If those candidates are at all interested, the first thing they’ll do is try to learn more about your company, and the first way most people do this is by going to your website.
Now imagine your website either has poorly written copy - e.g. typos, bad grammar, awkward language - or that it barely exists at all and there’s hardly anything for them to learn about you. The candidate can’t figure out what you do, why you do it, or why they should care about you. The candidate is now one you are very unlikely to hear back from — they expected to see quality, and didn’t find it.
Having the kind of writing people already expect to see is the bare minimum for keeping them engaged. Of course, this goes hand in hand with a few other essentials (web design, abstract messaging) but it’s likely the biggest part - a minimalist website with correct grammar might make it where a fancy page with no substance won’t.
Revealing The Unexpected Good
I once had a conversation with someone who worked at a payments company called Wave.
If “payments company, I guess” was all you knew about them, they’d fall into a mental queue with thousands of other nondescript payments companies. You wouldn’t want to invest there, work there, or talk about them.
But then you might find out that Dan Luu worked there, and had a hand in their thinking on tech. Or that, while they are a payments company, they are the payments company best positioned to make a positive difference in how the people of Africa interact with money.
Now, all of a sudden, we are dealing with a company with a backstory and a purpose. Now it’s compelling; you can see someone learning these things and wanting to work there because of them.
It still might not be a good fit for everyone, but that’s not the point — before, there wasn’t enough information for it to be a good fit for anyone. Writing made it a fit for someone.
Explaining The Difficult-To-Understand
You know the hottest market for good-paying writing jobs right now? It’s technical writing. Do you know why?
It’s because technical stuff is really, really hard to explain. Do you know what the difference between Argon2 and bcrypt is? Or DeFi yield farming? Maybe, maybe not (depending on who’s reading this). For people to be interested in what a company is doing, they have to first understand what it is.
Every writer has a different specialty. Some people tell emotive stories; some people write ads that make you click. There’s a whole subset of us that specialize in reading heady technical stuff, getting an accurate sense of what’s going on, and then explaining it to non-specialists.
Everyone can at least kind of write, in the sense that they can get words down on a page that attempt to convey information. Good writers go far beyond this by doing the same thing clearly; great writers do it clearly in a way that’s easy and fun to read. But there are fewer and fewer writers at every tier, and no tier contains a rarer skill than “writer who can explain an uber-complex tech concept in a way that doesn’t make your eyes roll back in your head”.
For companies that need that kind of complexity explained, good writing is often the difference between widespread adoption and crickets. It’s the difference between hiring good engineers who are interested in what they do or settling for “I’ll take anything” hires. It’s the difference between interested investors and running out of runway.
It’s a big deal.
I’m not writing this to bash on clients; I love them.
They let me spend my life doing the one thing I like to do most - arranging words in a way that helps people understand things better, do better work, and know more. But as stated in the intro, a big part of my job lies in managing expectations. This isn’t just practical; giving people an accurate idea of what they can (and can’t) expect from me is something I consider to be a moral responsibility.
Used correctly and with good direction, writing can do a ton for you. It can let your users know what each new product feature does and how to get the most out of it. It can let your applicants know who you are and how you work, which helps you get better applicants and applicant groups that are better filtered to fit your needs. It can let investors know why they’d want to take a bet on you, or even get them to take a look at you in the first place.
So yeah: There are some things I can’t do for you, or at least can’t do on command.
But the things I can do are a significant help, and more often than not, help companies chase down their goals.
Writing isn’t all-powerful, but there are few things that are as worthwhile.
Quill is an agency helping startups convert complex ideas into revenue-generating content. We’d love to talk to you - contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Awesome! Glad for you, RC.
It sounds like a kind of job I might have been a good fit for, and if I ended up unemployed I might consider it. But... in the age of the LMM, not something I think I would switch for. Not trying to say what you outline here is currently within reach of chatGPT, though--just that it's a lot closer than I would have thought, and a lot of people might be trying to use it instead of you. Actually, you might end up with a good career of cleaning up people who come to you wondering why people don't respond to their auto-generated gibberish.
Great news. Congrats RC!