Can Writers be Purple Cows?

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I just finished reading the book Purple Cow by Seth Godin. Seth argues that the only way to sell a product in today’s overcrowded marketplace is to create something truly remarkable.

My goal in Purple Cow is to make it clear that it’s safer to be risky –to fortify your desire to do truly amazing things. Once you see that the old ways have nowhere to go but down, it becomes even more imperative to create things worth talking about.

I recently reviewed his book on SmarterFitter, where I wrote that many Purple Cow ideas can also be applied to health and fitness. Strangely, I’m having a harder time applying these rules to freelance writing, an actual business!

Can writers be Purple Cows? In the freelance world, it seems difficult, especially for new writers. Can we really afford to pass up paying jobs waiting for something remarkable to come along? Or is the whole concept of “remarkable” simply relative to the competition?

Seth actually discusses how Purple Cow thinking applies to freelance writers on his blog. He writes about “Bradley”, a freelance writer, who told Seth that Purple Cow thinking didn’t apply to his profession because all of his clients want average work. In response, Seth observed that there are loads writers out there who seem to get paid way too much for the effort they put in. How do these writers get those gigs?

It’s because they stand for something. Because they are at the edges. Because if an editor wants a ‘Bob-Jones-type’ article, she has to call Bob Jones for it… and pay Bob’s fees. Bob would fail if he did average work for average editors just to make a living. But by turning down the average stuff and insisting on standing for something on the edge, he profits. By challenging his clients to run stuff that makes them nervous (and then having them discover that it’s great), he profits.

This is scary. It’s really scary to turn down most (the average) of what comes your way and hold out for the remarkable opportunities. Scary to quit your job at an average company doing average work just because you know that if you stay, you’ll end up just like them. Scary to go way out on an edge and intentionally make what you do unattractive to some.

Which is why it’s such a great opportunity.

Seth added to this in an recent comment on Renegade Writer, where he suggests “If I could offer one idea, it would be to become ultra-specialized.”

Interestingly, other commenters point out that simple professionalism is rare enough in the writing world that simply adhering to deadlines and running spell-check is enough to be considered “remarkable”.

“Get articles in on time, according to spec, and error free,” says Brian Westover of WriterSpot, “that alone will purple your cow considerably.”

Cathleen of LoudWriter adds, “it’s not just any kind of professionalism that will make you go far. I’m talking about sincere, stick-to-your-word type of professionalism mixed with a healthy dash of spirit.”

I can’t argue with the importance of professionalism, but I do wonder how practical it is to be “ultra-specialized”, especially for new writers. At the moment, I spend about half my time writing for a client who isn’t in my target area of specialization, but who does send me a paycheck every month. I spend the other half chasing my specialty – pitching ideas, research, and occasionally writing an article or two. But it’s slow going and I can’t afford to give it my all.

Where do you draw the line between being a Purple Cow and making enough money to pay the bills? Is it possible to have both, even early in a writing career?

3 Responses to “Can Writers be Purple Cows?”

  1. Kathryn Says:

    I really enjoyed the article, but I’m already peculiar so do I HAVE to be a purple cow on top of that ;).

  2. Tumblemoose Says:

    Monica,

    As a relatively new freelance writer, I do struggle with this. On one hand, the folks at Mastercard would LOVE it if I took on any old thing that paid. Honestly, that’s kind of the mode I’m in. I will say that the advantage to doing that is that I’m expanding my circle of influence – one job is leading to another and another.

    I would love to ultra-specialise. Certainly specialisation would put me in a niche from which I could make myself stand out. Being a purple cow would be cool.

    I still think that maybe the way to stand out is to emphasize my writing style, and attempt to bring value to my writing though professional, conversational prose.

    Yes there is quite a bit of competition, but a lot of that competition is just plain second-rate. It’s amazing how often I’ll go to a writing site and the style is darn near un-readable. It makes me think, “Hmmm, if this is what the competition is like, then I’ll do just fine!!”

    Thanks for the book review. It was truly helpful.

    On another note, In the next week or so I’m going to sign up here. I think the idea is sound, and I want to have a focus on my portrait separate from Tumblemoose.

    Cheers!

    George

  3. Catherine L. Tully Says:

    Really neat post! I think even experienced writers stretch beyond their topics when the bills come due…

    I write primarily in my specialty areas, but do take the occasional cash cow (hahaha) assignment from time to time….