Writing business: 10 reasons to build a creative-commercial portfolio

A creative-commercial mix is a great way to build a sustainable living as a writer. What does this mean? Doing commercial writing for businesses as a financial foundation, while you write your novel/screen play/ short story collection, or study for your creative writing MA or MFA. This kind of creative-commercial portfolio is a familiar model for filmmakers, after all. So why not for writers? It’s what I do, and I’m amazed more writers don’t. Here are my top 10 reasons to combine commercial and creative writing.

1. Commercial writing is a solid financial foundation

Businesses need writers. You need to make a living from your skills. It’s a perfect match! It’s also hard work and needs solid setting up. But it’s better paid than every other form of writing apart from TV. And it’s far, far better paid than poetry, which mostly isn’t paid at all. Once you establish good word of mouth, writing jobs will come to you. In fact, for established commercial freelances, one of the issues is having more writing work than you can handle.

2. Business writing is practical problem-solving

I suspect writers don’t go into commercial writing because it’s not so glamorous as creative forms such as (say) TV. But it’s creative in its own way, and far more accessible. If you’re a practical sort of person, an introvert and not that attracted to red carpets, commercial writing is ideal. I enjoy helping businesses to grow and find new customers. I can help them articulate their story better and get their message across. Often, they can’t see the wood for the trees, and clear writing helps them to focus their goals. Or it may be as simple as “we need a blog piece to do this job”, or an SEO writing job. Another form of writing I’ve been asked to do is transactional writing – again, the writing has a specific job to do.

If you’re practically oriented and enjoy the challenge of writing to a brief, you’ll love commercial writing. Actually, secretly, it’s not that different to writing in collaborative creative forms such as scripts. You’re writing for a team.

3. Commercial writing is a realistic writer living

If you’re new to creative writing, you may still have dreams of having commercial success as a bestselling novelist. In literary writing, unless you’re very well connected and also exceptionally brilliant, do yourself a favour and get real. You need private income to survive. Some writers make a living by writing genre fiction, so consider that if you write superfast and have excellent geek and online skills to drive your sales and marketing. Meanwhile, commercial writing is a realistic way to earn a living, and not such a long game. You can create a livelihood by adapting your existing skills, and still do your own creative work, as long as you cultivate effective time management.

4. Writing for businesses is helping your community

I suspect other writers don’t consider commercial writing because they think businesspeople aren’t their tribe. But not all business people are The Wolf of Wall Street. Most business people are familiar in your neighbourhood, and keeping the local economy and jobs alive. They’re part of the fabric of your community, which wouldn’t thrive without them. To me, it’s really satisfying to help these businesses with my sparkling writing and ideas. To play my part in the local economy. And it’s financially satisfying, too.

5. Commercial writing is sociable and validating

Most kinds of creative writing are solitary, with occasional forays to events or readings. Most writers are introverts, so you may not think that’s an issue. But in practice, long-term isolation isn’t good for the soul, and you can drift downhill without realising. We all need human contact for our mental wellbeing, for validation and even our sense of identity.

With commercial writing, you don’t need to rush out and about – nearly all of my work is done by email and phone, occasionally on Skype or Zoom. But it does help you to keep in touch with people and news in your community, and learn about interesting lines of work that may have been under your radar. You can also join business networking organisations if you feel the urge. This social aspect of commercial writing was transformative for me.  

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6. Commercial-creative portfolios are flexible

Commercial writing is usually short-term piece work, so you can decide what work to accept, depending on your changing commitments. Creative writing is often longform and you won’t see a financial return on your time investment for a long time, if at all. Having a mix of short-term and long-term income is really helpful for your cashflow, as you can often tuck in a few short turnaround jobs if there’s a financial bottleneck. Commercial writing also enables you be more flexible with time and find a productive routine to suit your circumstances and working habits. This makes it particularly good for people with family and caring responsibilities, as long as you have solid working systems in place.  

7. You can work from home

A commercial and creative writing portfolio doesn’t need a swish business office. You can do it easily from home, with little more than a computer, internet and zoom headset. Home working has become far more mainstream and acceptable since COVID. People are far more open to online meetings and the realities of homeworking life. Overheads are low and as long as you have a spare room to set aside, you can run a commercial writing business.

8. Commercial and creative writing are relatively COVID-resistant

Jobs where you can work from home have become far more sought after. Commercial writers, like web designers, can work for clients anywhere in the world without leaving the house. I’m sure we’ll see a surge in people interested in this kind of work, especially with looming redundancies in other business sectors. No business is futureproof, and who knows what apocalypses we will see if the digital world goes down! But at least an online business gives you flexibility, and a commercial-creative portfolio gives you diversification, so not all your eggs are in one basket. I found this to be a lifesaver when the pandemic struck, since although some work sources stopped, others kept going.

9. Commercial writing puts food on the table

There’s a pernicious myth that creative artists need to suffer to be any good. This is an ancient overhang from Romanticism that should be put to sleep. It benefits those who can afford it, and don’t have families to feed. It also gets perpetuated by college courses that are less than honest about the financial realities in the creative industries. It is good for the soul to feel useful, busy, valued, connected to others and, above all, fed and housed. Commercial writing does this for you.

Read this more about why real artists don’t starve.

Get the book Real Artists Don’t Starve here.

10. Commercial and creative writing complement each other

If you’re a fiction writer, poet or scriptwriter, you clearly have a lot of skills that can be adapted to commercial writing. You can write, edit and proof. You can handle writing to brief and deadlines. You’re practised in versatile storytelling, tone of voice, characterisation. You can respond well to feedback.

But what about the other way round? Does commercial writing feed into your creative work? Yes! In fact, to me, that’s where the commercial-creative writing mix really comes into its own. Imagine the privilege of going behind the scenes into fascinating occupations and hidden worlds. Being able to ask people about their jobs and see life from their viewpoint.

This is fantastic for material, stories and getting outside the bubble of the writing world. I love going into factories and onto shop floors, and meeting people in different lines of work. It often feels more real than the rarified world of literary writing, more socially varied and interesting. So that’s a fascinating plus! And it can also lead to great friendships.

So that’s an overview of my 10 favourite reasons for a diversified writing portfolio. If you’re still unsure about a creative-commercial mixed portfolio, read the Franz Kafka short story A Hunger Artist!

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