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Q&A with Copywriter Tom Smart: His Biggest Writing Achievement & Long Night with a Serbian Police Officer

How did your career in writing lead you to work for a small B2B agency? Was it something you had planned on or just fell into?

It’s been a combination of small companies and falling into things. I studied English lit in graduate school, but fell into technical writing when my roommate quit a job he hated and told me I should apply. (Uh, thanks, I guess.) I enjoyed it, mostly because we were a tiny startup that felt like family.

That job led to helping manage the documentation department for a large healthcare software company. When they spun off a small laboratory business, I decided to go along to manage the new documentation department. In fact, I WAS the documentation department. I did everything from helping to wire up the building’s network to running to Kinko’s at 3:00 a.m. It was hard work, but it felt like family again.

A few years later I was talking to an acquaintance about my work, and he offered to introduce me to the startup B2B agency he had recently joined. I talked my way onboard as the third hire. We grew to be a family of about 10 writers, and that’s where I first crossed paths with Symmetri. They had just landed several big projects and wanted our agency to help with the writing.

Several years later I was looking for a new gig and contacted Ryan Mannion about a writing sample I wanted to add to my portfolio. One thing led to another, and here I am. And you know what? This is the smartest and nuttiest family of all.

You have written some very extensive and very technical copy for Symmetri clients. Is there a project you’ve been particularly proud of?

I’ve always been kind of typecast as the go-to guy for long-form, technical marketing. Hey, I can write fluff too! The fluff is more fun, but it’s true that there’s a greater sense of accomplishment in learning difficult material and then helping others understand it in plain, readable language.

One example is the writing sample I just mentioned, which was a book chapter for Motorola. I had to learn a lot about how various wireless and mobile technologies work and where they’re going in the future. It was tough material to learn, but after a lot of research I completed what I thought was just a first draft. The client loved it and sent that draft for publication without changing a word. That just never happens, and I was pretty proud of it.

You write everything from Schawk articles to Appleton blog posts, Kollmorgen web copy and more. Do you have a process for becoming an expert on clients’ goals, products and brand voice?

I have to give a lot of credit to the account managers who do the groundwork with clients. By the time a project hits my desk, they’ve already done a lot to define the scope, voice and messaging. I’ve never had that luxury in previous jobs, and it’s golden. Then, it’s a matter of talking to clients, doing my own research, writing, revising, and learning from the client’s feedback to keep improving.

Tell us either about the most unique place you’ve ever been or the most unique person you’ve ever met.

My band was performing with a dance group in Ohrid, Macedonia while on a tour of Eastern European folk festivals. Very late one night, a couple of us climbed a castle wall, and were sitting on top when we heard someone shouting, “polizei! polizei!” We were escorted to a small shack, where a very drunken Serbian policeman named Stojce held us at gunpoint, swinging his 9mm Luger from my friend’s chest to mine while trying to make himself understood across a vast language barrier.

It turned out Stojce just wanted some company to help pass the time. My friend, who knows his way around a Luger, finally persuaded him to remove the magazine and clear the chamber, which made things a bit more pleasant. Stojce ended up feeding us stew and bread, sharing his cocta (similar to ouzo), bellowing Serbian folksongs, kissing our cheeks and even cajoling us into one last drunken kiss right on the mouth.
(Oddly enough, a couple of hours after I wrote that last sentence Carl Triemstra planted equally sloppy kisses on both my cheeks. Thank god that’s as far as he took it.)

We eventually managed to get away from Stojce’s shack as he drunkenly stumbled after us while attempting to reload his gun. A couple of days later, our music and dance group won the Grand Prize along with the Most Authentic and Most Congenial group awards – a complete sweep of the Ohrid folk festival.