The One Word Writers Should Never Use Again - Make a Living Writing

The One Word Writers Should Never Use Again

Carol Tice | 52 Comments

Shhh...don't say this word.Have you ever wondered if what you’re saying is a turnoff to your freelance writing prospects?

There’s a word I hear freelance writers use pretty frequently that I think is one of those little “tells” that your pitch might be off.

It also indicates you may not be serious about succeeding as a freelance writer. Maybe, you’re just kidding yourself about wanting to do this.

Decided I’d better stop and talk about it. I want you to know about this word, so you can think about why you might be using it, and how you’re presenting yourself to clients and to writing colleagues and mentors.

It’s a word that comes off sort of snobby.

It might be making prospects wonder who the heck you think you are. Or leave them confused about what you’re up to.

It makes me wonder if your head is really in this freelance writing game.

What is this toxic word?

It pops up in a question I get a lot:

“How can one find clients as a freelance writer?”

My prediction: You will start to find freelance clients when you stop saying ‘one’ when you mean ‘I’ or ‘me.’

You’re not asking on behalf of someone else. You’re asking for you. Aren’t you?

But apparently that’s too scary or maybe too direct for you. So we get this strange, indirect way of referring to yourself. “How does one…”

Like it’s some kind of armchair-sitting theoretical conversation, instead of a life-and-death, bankrupt or solvent type question that involves your life and your checkbook.

3 Reasons it’s a big problem

Why does this little three-letter word deserve a whole blog post? Because I think ‘one’ is a red flag.

It’s a warning sign of a mindset that is going to make you fail as a freelancer. Why? Three reasons:

  1. Your tone is snooty. You’re referring to yourself in the third person like you’re the Queen of England or something. That’s pretentious. Or odd. Or both. If this attitude seeps into your marketing, you may be talking down to clients and annoying them.
  2. You’re not all in. I think it’s not an accident that some writers pose questions this way. It’s because you’re not quite committed to doing this thing yet. You’re one toe in the water. Better to jump in and start swimming. So own your reality — you’re trying to freelance.
  3. You’re not present. People who say ‘one’ about themselves are often also people who are writing about themselves in the third person on their writer website. They pretend they’re an agency when it’s really just one person, writing, “We always complete your assignments on time.” That just creates confusion and potentially disappointed customers when they discover you don’t really have a team behind the curtain.

Talk about yourself in the first person — on your writer website, in person, when you ask questions on email or at a Webinar.

Say “I’m a freelance writer.” Ideally, find opportunities to say it over and over, every week.

It’s your writing career, not some”one” else’s.

The sooner you start saying that to everyone in your life, the faster you are going to make freelance writing happen for you.

How do you describe yourself to freelance clients? Leave a comment and give us your approach.

52 comments on “The One Word Writers Should Never Use Again

  1. Jessica Brecker on

    I guess if you are pitching yourself and it’s a personal letter that is different, it should be in your own language. However,I think it’s interesting so many people agree with the writer, but whenever you start using “I,” “me,” and “we” you are, as a journalist, editorializing. And that makes you look like you didn’t take journalism. 101. I just hope people don’t think that in the context of an article that it’s OK to editorialize. Many people are relating this to using excessive language and obscure vocabulary to show off. You are using literally one word. As for the psychology behind it, using “I” and “me” could indicate a person is self-centered. It’s about everyone, not just about me. Why is it snobby to sound literate?

  2. Don Wallace on

    Carol, I really like where you went with this.

    I think there is a whole raft of commonly used words and phrases that signal weakness, uncertainty, mediocrity, lack of resolve, etc. I’m trying to root them out of my own self talk.

    The bashful circumlocution of saying “one” in a sentence that is really (understandably) self serving is a great one.

    My own pet peeve is the word “just”. Example bad usages:

    Response to an introduction: “We’re JUST a little business and we can’t afford someone like you” (code for: we totally, completely suck and our aspirations are in the basement – inwardly we want to fail, so we will pretend that you have nothing that could possibly be useful to us.)

    Opening of a cold call: “I was JUST calling today to see if…” (indicates lack of self confidence.)

    Personal introduction: “I JUST xxxxx and yyyyy….” (miserably self effacing.)

    I’ll just wrap up now. 🙂

  3. Sophie Lizard on

    When I worked with an addiction rehab clinic, I wrote a factsheet for new intakes that began:
    “How does one recover from a drug abuse problem? Well, first one must acknowledge the problem. Second, one must acknowledge that it is happening to YOU.”

    It never occurred to me that freelance writers might distance themselves from their hopes and fears just the same way as an addict! Using abstract language is a defence mechanism we writers can do without –knowing the most effective way to phrase something is part of the job.

  4. Alex Sheehan on

    I almost thought that you were going for some irony and the word was going to be “never”. I have recently been thinking about this “I” “me” etc. and attempting to cut down on the number of references to myself in my writing. Which you would never be able to tell by reading this comment. Thanks for the advice as always!

  5. Paolo on

    From my writing experience I find it’s always a toss-up between ‘I’ and ‘one’ which often causes confusion in the flow of writing. Sometimes even if you read newsletters and magazines, you still often find ‘one’ unless the article is based on the author’s experience. Now that it’s explained, it makes sense to indicate your persona in your writing. That way your readers can relate to you.

    • Carol Tice on

      I’d love to hear what consumer magazine you’re reading where they say “one” in an article to refer to either the reader or the writer. Most magazines write in a very direct way and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it.

      Say “they.” Say “People affected by this.” Say “innocent bystanders.” Say “you.” Say “I.” Pick a mode that conforms to that publication’s style and stick with it.

      One is a hopelessly vague reference that to me signals you don’t understand or relate to the reader…or don’t understand how to report a story and take your opinion out of it and let your experts tell it. Or don’t understand New Journalism and how to tell a story where you ARE in the story.

      Read a AAA magazine for a good training course in that, as they run a lot of first-person travel articles.

      And they begin, “My husband and I are walking the cobblestone streets of Turin when the blind, toothless beggar approaches us…” or whatever it’s about. They don’t say, “When one is walking the cobblestone streets of Turin…”

      That’s uninvolving. The voice of it is just weird. I’ve never seen it outside academia…which as we’ve already discussed here seems to set people up to fail in the real world of paid writing!

      • Paolo on

        I’ll have to backtrack a little and see if I can find them. But I’m sure I’ve seen a few. If I read this article sooner, they would be fresh in my head. I find this no different from other grammatical errors such as “for” and “four”, “affect” and “effect”, and so on, although these have nothing to do with pronouns. Even as far back as grammar school I was told “one” was not that proper to use, but was taught as part of the program anyway. It goes to show how word usage has changed.

        • Carol Tice on

          Paolo, “one” instead of “I” isn’t anything like for/four. It’s not a typo, it’s a deliberate choice of voice…one that’s pretentious while also being weirdly vague. Sort of the first person indefinite. It just comes off odd, and has no place in communication in the 21st Century, I feel.

  6. Colleen Kelly Mellor on

    Is the topic here “I” or “We” in stead of “I” or “one”?..Geez….I guess an argument for the “we” effect is the writer’s voices I always hear in my head…Therefore, we are a team…

    If we’re good, we’re a team of one.

  7. Linda H on

    As a journalist student and a freelance writer now, I’ve always learned to say “you” for the client and “I” or “me” for myself. It’s writing to someone with more gusto and impact. Gets better results too, from what I’ve seen over the years. I agree using “one” sounds like you’re in a cave or drifting around cyberspace wondering where to land. When I’m writing for my audience I look directly at them to engage them as an individual. It’s like talking to someone in a crowd, rather than focusing on the crowd I focus on the individual reader. How often do you hear someone at your networking group saying, “One has a freelance writing business and one would love to help you with your copywriting needs”?

  8. marilyn cada on

    in academic writing, we are not allowed to use “I” or “me”. it is like a mortal sin. this is why many of us are using “one” even if only means “me.” but most of the time the plural “they” is encouraged..

    what word do you recommend for academic writers like us if using one is not recommended

    • Carol Tice on

      Just say “Me.”

      I’m so glad you bring up the academic training. It’s a sad fact that the writing people do in college seems to actually cripple them when it comes to trying to earn out in the real world. No client, no business or magazine, wants something written in that academic style!

      Writers who want to cross over into the freelance writing world can start by saying “How do I find clients?” It is a huge mindset change that needs to happen, from theoretical ivory tower discussions, to serving real customers in the real world.

      Most people don’t want to read stiff college papers with footnotes and quotes out of books. They want to be spoken to directly and to hear lively quotes from other actual humans. So it’s a big change…and you can take the first step on the way there by not saying “How does one…”

      • marilyn cada on

        hi carol. i absolutely agree. i am used to writing articles in an academic style and wanted to shift into different style by creating my own blog to practice a more casual style of writing. but since i need to increase my monthly income, i have to learn other writing styles aside from blogging or boring academic style.

        perhaps the writing style that i should learn first is how to write white papers and case studies for corporations and SMEs although it may be hard to penetrate this market . a journalism course might help if i want to learn magazine style writing. can you suggest any online course to learn how write for magazines?

        • Carol Tice on

          Hi Marilyn —

          As it happens, I teach a class with Linda Formichelli that’s 4-Week Journalism School. We don’t have a current session but I’m sure we’ll teach it again in the next few months — you can check it out here:

          https://freelancewritersden.com/landing/4-week-journalism-school

          White papers and case studies are a great niche as well. And there’s plenty of money to be made from blogging for clients, too! At one point I was earning $5K a month from paid blogging alone…check out the sidebar for my post about that.

  9. Sherri on

    It could be a case of a non-native English speaker writing and not knowing how “one” sounds. They may not mean anything by it. For an American English speaker it could mean many things or nothing at all. A beginner writer may think that writing “formally” is the way to go. That’s how I was taught in school English class…no contractions, and to write in a stiff, formal style.

    • Carol Tice on

      I don’t think that is the cause of it. I do think it is a bit of a British thing…or at least it feels that way to me. But maybe you’re write, it’s just people who’re recovering English majors who had icky formal writing styles beaten into them.

  10. Samra Khan on

    I must add: some freelance writers use ‘one’ as a sign of humbleness which kind of sucks..

    And i think that there must a weekly practice where freelance writers are told to tell themselves that ‘I’m a freelance writer’ almost 100 times. 😀

    I really wish that all freelance writers should start taking themselves seriously with an aura of self-realization !

    Thanks for a great post Carol,
    Samra.

    • Carol Tice on

      I don’t think it’s a sign of humbleness. It’s a sign of fear. I’m afraid to say “I’m a freelance writer” so I ask how “one” becomes one or how “one” finds better paying markets.

      Maybe if you’re claiming credit for something, but that sentence wouldn’t even work.

    • Carol Tice on

      Ha, I’d been meaning to take a look but just did. And loved it of course! He definitely wouldn’t be OK with the “One” thing.

      But it turns out I’m doing something right, since Freelance Writers Den members are Denizens. 😉

  11. Shauna L Bowling on

    Carol, I learned years ago, when I was in broadcasting school to talk to the audience as if only one person is listening to you. Refer to the audience as ‘you’, not ‘all of you out there’. The same goes with our websites. I am a single freelance writer. I don’t have a staff. I also own my site, so I offer the same consideration to whoever happens to be reading. I use the words ‘I’ and ‘you’. After all, even if several people in various locations are viewing your site simultaneously, they are doing it as individuals having a one-on-one conversation. It’s more personal to address your readers as ‘you’. It creates a relationship right from the start when your words come off as having a personal conversation with your readers and prospective clients.

    • Carol Tice on

      I personally think it’s the best way to go with your website copy too, Shauna.

      Though I recently learned that if your target customer is big corporations, third person copy is still getting results. But not “one” or “we,” but “she has been writing about technology for 15 years.” That sort of thing.

      Feels awkward to me on the Internet, but I gather it can be the voice bigger companies relate to.

      • Shauna L Bowling on

        Carol, AP style dictates you write in the 3rd person. I find that so awkward and it’s hard to put your voice into the article when writing in the 3rd person. If my site featured several writers, I can see referring to myself as ‘she’. But that’s not the case. First person is more comfortable for me. I guess that tells me who my target audience is! I’m not sure I want to write for large corporations. I would more than likely be required to promote something or a philosophy that doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe the mom and pops are a better fit…

        • Carol Tice on

          AP style for what when? I don’t think AP style applies to writing your writer website copy. That’s copywriting, not article writing.

          At first I felt awkward switching out of third person on my website, but A-List Blogger Club really beats it into you to talk personally to your blog readers. And once I switched I became a total convert to writing online in first person. I believe it just works better, for the vast majority of situations.

  12. Lori Ferguson on

    Very interesting way to look at this issue, Carol! I hadn’t really thought about it in quite this way, but now that you mention it, it’s true. Thx for the reminder that it’s not just an exercise in semantics….

  13. Nina on

    I actually define myself as “we” because I do have a small team of writers I outsource to. While I do 90% of the writing, I am stepping into a managerial role in my biz. I let clients know this up front. Some clients are okay with me outsourcing, while others prefer me to write.

  14. Allena on

    Oh my goodness, Carol, I don’t have time to read a lot of the blog posts that come into my inbox, but I was definitely curious as to this ONE word (<ha). I get that question a lot at About.com: "how does one do X, Y, Z?" It does sometimes bug me, but I can assume they really are asking for more general advice for the more general population, since I encourage FAQs.

    The "toe in the water" topic: Lately, it's been bothering me how often you see a freelancer-until-something-better-comes-along in the news/blogs/Times etc. I worry it gives us ALL a certain vibe. That is probably not true, but it still bothers me. *I* CHOSE this career! I'm not going anywhere! Why are you profiling someone who doesn't give a rip about it?? (Uh oh- does that mean I'm jealous? Yuck)

    As for what I call myself– I call myself a freelance writer. But I do have an agency (ie a pretty static team behind my company) so I do call my agency, well, an agency. I wonder why people who are solo are afraid to admit their solo? When I WAS by my lonesome, I never noted any kind of aversion from clients. In fact, it seems to be the expectation…

    Have a PRODUCTIVE day! :}

    As for

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi Allena !

      And yes, good point. If in fact you ARE a team, feel free to describe your company that way!

      But I much more often see solopreneurs writing about how “we” do this. Which always gives me a picture of the Queen of England in my head. Hellloooo! You are not a “we.”

      • Linda H on

        Interesting point about the “we” concept Carol. When I’m writing my website content I use “I” instead of “we”, but I’ve seen a lot of competitors using we. When I know it’s a solopreneur working with multiple offices to project a team, and they use we over I, it makes me wonder what they really want to pull off. Glad you mentioned this. Now for sure, I’ll be using I for my content.

  15. Jennifer Roland on

    This absolutely kills me. I worked at an education publisher editing research papers for a while, and I got so sick of papers that always said everything was done by the “the researchers.” You did it, you can say “we conducted an experiment” or “we reviewed the research”!

    • Carol Tice on

      Yeah, it’s almost like an out-of-body experience there. Who ARE these researchers you speak of? Oh, they’re YOU! It’s weird. But a lot of people think this sort of faux-formality makes them sound important. I think it just makes them sound vague and disconnected.

    • Linda H on

      You know Jennifer, sometimes those research paper writers are forced to use “the researcher” or “the author” when writing those papers. It’s based on the format style used. But I get your point. It’s so much easier to just say, “I’m a freelance writer” or “How can I help you?”

  16. Daryl on

    That’s an interesting slant on how people view themselves (or is it how we view ourselves? 🙂

    It is hard for some people to make the leap from whatever they may have been before in a job (e.g. teacher/student) to the rather self defined role of ” freelance writer”.

    But I totally agree – if you can’t identify yourself as a freelance writer, how can anyone else?

    • Carol Tice on

      I so agree. There’s so much power in saying, “I’m a freelance writer” out loud.

      When you’re still asking about how “one” does it, that doesn’t help you start seeing yourself as a business owner.

  17. Lindsay Wilson on

    Ugh, I’ve always hated that word. Thanks for validating the groan I always feel rising up when I see it written anywhere other than in the most formal academic texts whose authors think that writing sentences that are six lines long makes them look more intelligent…

    • Samra Khan on

      Oh yes Lindsay, and by intelligent they mean to make simple things complicated and make sure that the reader should not get the gist in first reading. 😉

    • Linda H on

      I have to agree with Lindsay about those long sentences writers use thinking they make them look intelligent. But I have to admit, sometimes I have to catch myself from doing it too. Not because I’m super duper intelligent, but because I have a thought and I’m verbose. Your comment reminds me how important short, succinct writing is. It’s effective. It punches you in the face with tone and attitude at times. However, I used to write for academics. It killed me to read their textbooks. I’d sometimes read a sentence that was four lines long, then I’ve have to analyze it to understand what they said. I’d rewrite it in about five to eight words sometimes. Always cracks me up now to read them now.

  18. Nicola King on

    As a trained NLP Practitioner I’m the first to agree that our sentence constructions often give away our underlying insecurities, and in the example you quote, the speaker does, probably, mean “how might * I * find clients?”. However, the use of the third person informal “one” does have a place where (ahem) one is discussing the general case, or seeking more abstract examples.

    Personally, I wouldn’t want to see it fall into desuetude, as I do feel it has a place, though perhaps that is not in the informal world of blogs and fora.

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