It’s odd finding out what you can’t do

I was rather surprised when I found out that I could write.

OK, that’s sounding a bit special already. What I mean is that I can put words in order and sometimes it pleases some people. Enough so that I get paid to do it often enough.

It then comes as rather a surprise to find that I can’t do what is thought to be one of the simpler forms of it.

I’ve been casting around for a little side money-maker. Yep, that sort of $5 for this and $3 for that 50 words sorta stuff. Needs to be something where there’s a consistent supply of such work. No chasing around looking for the next commission. If there’s a spare couple of hours make $40 sorta thing. Finances are such that such a side gig is nice to have floating around but isn’t actually necessary for anything at all.

So, there is such work out there. Great vast gobbets of it. It’s writing product descriptions for websites. “This refrigerator is a double door delight which will feature your kitchen. With temperature controlled drawers and……” you get the idea.

Varies between 50 words and 200 for each description. Should take 10 -15 minutes tops to do each one. $4 to $6 for each one. So, I try it out.

And I just can’t do it. It’s weird.

Part of this is that they’re being very American about it, you’ve got to write according to Strunk and White and AP style and all that. Things I don’t really know. But it’s also, I guess, that it needs 50 or 100 attempts at practising the structure for me at least, with feedback as to why it’s not working yet. But you get 3 chances and if you fail all of those then you’re excised from consideration at all.

Yeah, I know, division and specialisation of labor. It’s just odd to find out that it’s the supposedly simple stuff, the near minimum wage crap, that I can’t do.

22 thoughts on “It’s odd finding out what you can’t do”

  1. You might try writing troll comments on discussion sites for CCHQ or Labour. I don’t know how well it pays but you don’t need to be very good, it seems.

  2. From your description it sounds like the blurbs could easily be written by an AI system, so I wouldn’t worry about not being able to lower yourself to the level of a machine.

  3. Brits are naturally too cynical to write that kind of blurb. “This wifi-connected SmartFridge™ may sound like the bees knees, but it constantly tries to nudge you into healthy eating. Given half a chance, it would email your dietary habits to your elderly mother.”

    Jeremy Clarkson’s car reviews in the Times are rather good for that sort of thing.

  4. I have always been struck by how few people can write decent operating instructions.

    American English poses problems of its own – particularly in its affectations. I once read instructions for a large bit of petrochemical plant – the sort that can go boom if you bugger it up. At one point the instructions said “a higher pressure is indicated”. Bollocks – that’s an American trying to talk like an American doctor. The indicator would in fact have shown a lower pressure. What the plonker meant was “increase the pressure immediately”.

  5. If you are interested in cycling technology there is a website I heard about recently called Disraeli Gears. The guy who runs it has curated photos of hundreds of rear derailleur gears from a huge variety of manufactures. For each he has a description of the history of the manufacturer.

    For Campagnolo he writes how he once attended a lecture on the 12 features a perfect screw would have. He didn’t think he would ever see the perfect screw but found it on a Campagnolo derailleur. He then goes on to say that when Campagnolo tried to make cheap kit to compete with low end Shimano equipment it was disastrous for them as they just couldn’t drop their standards to reduce costs enough.

    I suspect this is your problem. Your style of writing is economical with a high proportion of content to filler but you are now trying to write descriptions where there’s not much content but a lot of filler. With time you could probably adapt your style and have fun doing it but you aren’t being given the time so why bother.

  6. I know a lot of good drivers, or at least they think they are, and hardly any can do 20mph or fewer when they’re on one of those Twenty’s Plenty streets.
    May be this is an analogous situation
    Also lots of competent cyclists. Show them a red light, basic low end cycling proficiency level riders stop, but the good cyclists just can’t do it.

  7. In English lessons at school, we would be given a text and asked to write a precise. The text might be a short story or a chapter from a book, or an article from a newspaper.

    A precis involves writing a concise account, not bullet points, with just the salient points and maybe short commentary.

    This is something you could practice. Precis some of your own articles and those of others. As for the promo blurb, write out fully as you would, then precis it.

    Then precis the precis if still too long.

    Hope that helps.

  8. The trouble with product descriptions on websites is that they are written by ‘robots’; drones who know nothing about the product nor the sort of people who would buy or use it. Often pasted word for word from marketing concocted descriptions in the manufacturers brochure. There was a period when the way round this was to search the web for the manufactures manual or installation instructions, but now marketing has done their worst to evict such useful information and if you find it any useful content is buried beneath elfin softy mush. (vide any car manufacturer’s website)

    As for those descriptions on Amazon/Ebay: I cannot decide if it is an attempt to pack every possible keyword into the product title, or someone just took every synonym listed in their Chinese—English dictionary and threw them all in.

  9. Tim, how you must envy Spud, whose verbal brain farts flow effortlessly from him in a non-stop diarrheic torrent and who has practically invented every single tax or economic theory and development from the last 200 years.

  10. I know how you feel. A couple of weeks ago I was artworking a colleague’s election leaflet and and he was decribing what he wanted to say I was translating it into prose and typing away almost as fast as he was talking.
    Him: Wow, you should be being paid for this
    Me: I know, but nobody wants to pay.

  11. I have always been struck by how few people can write decent operating instructions.

    That’s my fall back position if I can’t find better paying work. Technical writing generally, operating procedures and manuals specifically. I once wrote a full procedure of how to replace the flare tip on an FPSO, by standing and watching people pretending to do it on a makeshift flare tower.

    On Tim’s broader point, I wondered why I couldn’t write book reviews to save my life until my podcast with Ben Sixsmith, who is excellent at them. I should have realised this sooner, but it’s all a matter of reading lots of what you want to write: Ben told me he must have read thousands of book reviews so understood how to write them, whereas I’ve barely read a dozen. So whatever you’re trying to write, find out who does it best, read everything there is to read of his/hers and then have a go.

  12. @John B April 19, 2019 at 11:13 am

    write out fully as you would, then precis it. Then precis the precis if still too long.

    That’s what works for me.

    As for can’t do simple stuff, have you morphed into a millenial? Can you boil an egg, change a light-bulb/fuse, inflate tyres?

  13. Years ago, I recall listening to a broadcast from Alastair Cook of ‘Letter from America’ fame, who was talking about how his broadcasting style developed into one which conveyed a subject in a succinct but engaging manner. He attributed this to writing in a conversational style and following his college tutor’s (one Quiller-Couch) advice, to ‘murder your darlings’.

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