Writing for Brands with Anna Goldsmith Stern of The Hired Pens
By Susan Johnston Taylor, Freelance Writer
Write Like You Talk
Following job layoffs, writers Anna Goldsmith Stern and Dan O’Sullivan teamed up to start copywriting agency The Hired Pens in 2001 (full disclosure: I’ve previously written for them). Along with their team of writers, they now craft content marketing campaigns, white papers, ebooks, and videos, among other materials.
We turned to Stern to find out how she and her partner started The Hired Pens, what she values in writers, and more. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Beat: What do you love about writing for brands?
Anna Goldsmith Stern: What I love most is helping clients find their distinct voice, and then helping give them the confidence to use it. I also really like helping brands get in touch with their unique brand of humor. Sometimes brands are too afraid to have a little fun. Often when people loosen up and let themselves have some fun with their writing, the audience really starts responding. That's the number one thing we hear from clients all the time: “Oh, it was so fun to read your website."
What inspired you and Dan to start The Hired Pens?
We started back in 2001. He and I had both been working at different startups that were acquired and we were both laid off. It was one of those things where we just thought like, "Hey, let's just put up a website and see what happens."
It's been almost 20 years and it was just the right time, the right partner, and the right idea. One of the big decisions we made early on, which I think was really smart, was to just do the content. That meant we could be a collaborator and a partner with agencies rather than being viewed as competition.
Right now about 50 percent of our clients are agencies because as an agency, you can hire a great writer, but a single writer isn't going to be able to handle a diversity of clients. They're not going to be able to do a long-form scientific paper and then turn around and write really fun, short social copy for a coffee brand. We have a big team of writers.
What do you look for in those writers?
I like to pay writers a good hourly rate and have them come in at a senior level. I don't really want to train writers. We look for a high level of skill and subject matter expertise first and foremost.
The writers that stick around are writers that know how to take feedback. I feel like it's our job to tell a client if we think that something can be done in a better way. But ultimately if you have a client that says, "We want every sentence to end in an exclamation mark," then that's what we have to do to make them happy. The client is the one who gets to decide, and I really like working with writers who understand that.
The other thing is writers who understand the importance of a deadline and they know how to manage their time well. I think that's a challenge for a lot of freelancers, but I think the freelancers who are the most successful figure it out pretty quickly.
What have you overcome to get where you are now?
I was an art major in college so I didn't really have a lot of marketable skills when I started out. One of the things I had to overcome was not being intimidated by powerful people. One of the best jobs I had was right out of college was working as a towel girl at an upscale health club. I really learned in that job how to talk to just about anyone. That was a really great skill to have. I could transition from that to going to these big networking events where I didn't know anyone.
Another great job I had was being a waitress in high school and learning time management. That's something I think about all the time. What's the most effective way to get something done. So those two jobs, which don't seem at all related to copywriting, actually help me every single day.
What's the best and worst writing advice you've ever gotten?
I went to graduate school for non-fiction writing and I think one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was: Learn how to write a shitty first draft. Just start writing and get it all down.
The worst piece of writing advice is actually a good piece of writing advice, but it's often misunderstood. It’s write like you talk. People want conversational writing, but I think that that's a misunderstood piece of advice. People take it to mean “just wing it.” What it really means is you want to sound like a real person, but a person who's very articulate and engaging. Writing conversationally actually takes a lot of skill. You go through multiple drafts.
What writers do you admire?
I think a lot about: How do you find the right voice? I admire writers who can find a voice and write in a different voice. I have two young sons and I read to them a lot. One of the things I really admire about Judy Blume is that she really can move in and out of different characters' voices and perfectly capture the voice of a four-year-old, and then perfectly capture the voice of twelve-year-old girl or a ten-year-old boy. That takes so much skill.
One of my favorite books is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I also love Liane Moriarty, who wrote Big Little Lies, which has turned into a TV series with Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. It’s maybe saying the obvious, but J. K. Rowling is a great storyteller. She just really captures the voices of all these different characters and pulls you along.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you or The Hired Pens?
Outside of The Hired Pens, I organize the TEDx Portsmouth. One of the things I love about it is working with people who aren't writers but have a great story to tell. That's incredibly satisfying work. It's definitely drawn on my background as a copywriter to help bring these stories to the TED stage.