James Chartrand, a copywriter from Montreal, built a reputation as the chief “man” behind the writing and web design firm Men With Pens. Frequent blogging on both that site and the popular Copyblogger won over a large and loyal audience, so Chartrand wasn’t sure what would happen to the business with the announcement that “he” was actually a “she” in December 2009.
Chartrand’s confession rocked the blogosphere — but, fortunately, since then it’s done nothing but help her career. Her business and blog are going strong, and she recently launched an online writing course for business owners, Damned Fine Words.
We spoke with Chartrand about her nom de plume, sexism in the workplace, and writing actionable web copy.
ISBB: When you were a struggling (female) freelance writer, you opted to use a male pen name. Why?
Chartrand: When clients knew I was a woman, many assumed that I had children and worked from home in a kitchen-table environment, even though I’d never mentioned my children or where I worked. There were also a few derogatory comments about kids hanging off my leg. I got tired of that pretty quickly.
After I took on a pen name, clients rarely mentioned children. If kids came up in conversation, people would often remark on my parental attention. Some called it endearing or sweet, as if I was going above and beyond the expected to be a “good dad.” And no one ever thought I worked from a kitchen table.
Pay rates were the same sort of story. As a woman writer, I had trouble getting fair pay for the quality of work I offered. Most clients tried to haggle and bring my rates down. Some rates they offered were insulting. When I used my pen name, haggling became rare. Clients accepted my rates at face value. That was surprising, considering that many times it was for the same type of work or project! Those who did negotiate would do so with respect and sometimes even apologies.
I even applied for a few writing jobs under both names — same language, same words, same rates, same project, with just a different signature at the end. When I saw the difference in treatment I received using the pen name, I dropped my real name. Why bother struggling?
The level of respect for my knowledge was different as well. I would offer business advice, ideas, and tips to clients, but when they knew they were discussing it with a woman, they’d often hesitate over my suggestions, say they had to think about it, or just didn’t take the advice seriously. That was frustrating, especially when I knew my advice was solid and would work. As a man, my advice and suggestions were met with an open mind and interest. I heard, “That’s brilliant. What a good idea!” far more when I used my pen name.
Work came more easily when I used my pen name, too. I landed more gigs, good clients, and better pay. I had noticed that the online industry of web copywriting and blogging was male-dominated, and I could see why: It seemed clients trusted men more.
Using my pen name, my bold, straightforward personality was accepted – even expected. Aggressive was good. Action was desired. Business was assumed. This seemed to fit people’s perception of “what makes a man.” As a woman? Not so much. It was almost as if people expected me to be some sort of warm, nurturing mother-creature, so my bolder personality was “odd” in their eyes.
After revealing my gender, many people didn’t quite know how to treat me. I didn’t “fit” their mental image anymore. Many altered their conversation and assumed I’d somehow become more “feminine,” whatever that meant. A few asked how my writing would change now that I was a woman… as if I’d somehow become a different person entirely.
How did you keep your true identity a disguise?
It wasn’t hard to use a pen name. My business operated solely online, so face-to-face meetings were never required. I didn’t share pictures on social media. I carried out 98 percent of communications via email. On the two occasions when I needed to speak with clients on the phone, my “assistant” took the call. And that was that, really. I was who I am, the whole way through, just with a different name.
What kind of reactions did you get when you “outed” your true identity?
Most people cheered and laughed — they thought it was brilliant. I received a lot of support. Some were sad and dismayed, though. They were disheartened to discover that gender bias is still alive and well. Others were angry and personally attacked or criticized me. They felt I’d done feminism a disservice and should have simply pushed harder, been louder, and fought harder.
The reactions that touched me the most came from the people who emailed me privately. Many shared their stories of prejudices they’d faced because of their race, nationality, sex, choice of life partners, and more. They knew the world wasn’t a fair and equal place, and some even thanked me for reminding people that we still have some work to do.
Men With Pens focuses on copywriting and web design for businesses. What are the key tenets of creating actionable web copy that gets conversions?
That’s a vast question, and I could write a book on this! In a nutshell, web copy that converts generally means reaching the ideal reader. You want to demonstrate that you understand people by addressing their specific needs, dismantling their arguments, and conveying how your solution is the best for helping them resolve their problems. All written, of course, in an emotional and compelling way.