Actress-Turned-Writer Hilary Sutton: “Write Like a Person”
By Susan Johnston Taylor, Freelance Writer
An Independent Spirit
Whether portraying a character on stage or crafting web copy for a client, Hilary Sutton lives and breathes storytelling.
After earning a journalism degree, Sutton worked as an actress for several years, then earned a Master of Arts in Communications and forged a new career as a writer for clients including USA Today, Levo League, Rising Tide Society, and McKinley Marketing Partners. Sutton also launched Hustle & Grace, a podcast that explores creativity, career fulfillment, and building community.
We talked to this multi-talented dynamo about how she moved from acting to writing, why she loves telling clients’ stories, and more. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Beat: Tell us about your transition from actress to writer
Hilary Sutton: I'd always been interested in writing and I'd always been interested in performing. For about four years after graduation, my primary focus was acting. After a few years, it got frustrating because I would have a three-month or six-month contract with a theater and then I would go back to being unemployed when it ended. It was constantly on and off. I knew I wanted more options and I wanted to be able to have work I could take anywhere so I could audition for whatever theater I wanted.
I got a Master's in Communications. I started writing for regional publications and I launched a blog. I did that pretty intentionally to use as a platform to showcase some expertise. It was a place where I could share content writing, marketing, or social media. The combination of those few things helped solidify the beginning of my career in writing.
I began doing some blog writing for companies. Some of it was ghostwriting and some of it was writing for company websites. One door opened into another. Since, I've started doing direct-response copywriting, which I love. I was energized by the freelance life. I liked being my own boss and having an entrepreneurial approach to work. I liked the variety of different clients. I never saw myself as a person who went to work at the same company every day. I've always been an independent spirit.
Moving from acting to writing was gradual because I was performing professionally even up to about two years ago. I am still open to performing professionally when the opportunity is right.
Does acting inform your writing? If so, how?
What acting and writing both have in common is empathy – getting into someone else's head and heart. In order for writing to work, I have to get clear on who my audience is. And in order for acting to be even remotely honest and therefore, believable, I have to spend time thinking about how that character ticks. At the end of the day, both are a point of connection with other human beings.
I don't think acting has informed my writing, per se, except that it's given me the opportunity to get to know many creative people, who are my favorite audience to write for.
What do you love about the writing work you do?
I love exploring people’s stories. That’s always been exciting to me. I love feature writing. I love profiles. That’s actually why I started a podcast. The podcast has been a unique opportunity to marry a few of my different passions and skill sets. I get to interview people. I get to craft what the story is about and I’m doing it on air. That’s really fun.
In terms of copywriting and direct-response, I've gotten to work with a couple of nonprofit organizations that I really believe in. Reaching out to their donors and potential donors and painting a picture of what those donations are doing to change lives is meaningful to me. To use the art of storytelling to tug at someone's heart is just really powerful.
In copywriting, I love helping my clients find the relatability of their story. Whether it's an about page or a bio, I think there's something compelling and engaging about any company, any cause, any association. I think everyone has a story. Everyone has something that can resonate with us all. Copywriting is a cool opportunity to connect more in that way.
Is there a writing project you're especially proud of?
On my website, with my podcast, through my blog, and email newsletter, my mission is to help people create careers that they find wildly fulfilling, whatever that means for them. Within that, I've written some e-books, e-courses, and workshops that have been meaningful to me. One that I developed is called "Get Your Dream Off The Ground." It's a 21-day e-course for people who could use just a little bit of hand-holding to get over that initial discomfort of moving in the direction of their dreams. Writing that course content is probably the most meaningful work I've done.
What would you say you have overcome to get where you are professionally?
A lot of times, it's just overcoming self-doubt. In the freelance world, while you can argue that you have more job security because you have checks coming from six or seven different clients at the same time, many companies don't use freelancers. The freelancers are expendable to them and so I think just overcoming the fear of losing clients, of not having what it takes to work for myself and to grow in my career. It's easy to make decisions based on fear. Overcoming that has been one of the biggest obstacles.
How do you overcome self-doubt?
It helps to have people believe in you, who value you and your talent. Building those relationships with clients, with mentors, with colleagues – it makes a big difference. There was a point in my career where I went in-house and I was mainly working for just one company. It got to a point where I felt the urge to move on, but there was a part of me that was scared to give up the benefits and the security. But because I had been able to build relationships with clients, I was able to be brave and listen to that voice telling me to move on. Building that network and a body of work that shows what I can do has helped me overcome those mental blocks.
What's the best writing advice you've ever gotten?
The first thing that pops in my mind is everything Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird. The writing advice I give is: write like a person. Too many people try to write their own website copy and feel like they have to show how smart they are by the words they're stringing together. The truth is, sometimes we forget that on the other side of every word is a person.