How to become a copywriter

How To Become a Copywriter for Freelance & Agency Writers

How to be a copywriter in 4 steps (some of them easy).

  1. What is copywriting?
  2. Why are copywriters needed?
  3. Become an agency copywriter
  4. Become a freelance copywriter

For those who love it and do it well, “Copywriter” is the greatest job title in the world.

If you want to learn how to become a copywriter and start earning proper copywriter coin, you’ll need to make some essential moves that will take time and commitment. While it’s possible for many to get there, and it may seem relatively straightforward, you’ll still have to embrace the hard work needed to master the basic skills.

No formal education needed

Many of the highest-earning copywriters in the business have never been to advertising school, uni, college or even taken a writing course. Back in the pre-digital, pre-social media era, plenty of the most respected copywriters were self-taught polymaths, aka experts in many subjects. They tended to have outsized personalities, read voraciously, live curiously and colourfully, possess a rare command of language and vocabulary, and operate a hyper-creative imagination.

Due to the internet, today’s typical copywriter tends to be a different animal.

Let us now discuss the five steps required to go from where you are now – not being a copywriter – to being one.

1) Understand what copywriting is and does

What is copywriting?

In its purest essence, copywriting is the application of ideas and words in ways that persuade and sell.

Imagine you’re a business owner whose website currently gets .01% of its daily visitors to buy. You decide to hire me to boost that number. My job is now to convince, say, 1% of visitors to buy your product. That’s a 10% sales increase – from the same webpage, only rewritten. Can it be done?

Hell, yes

A talented copywriter knows how to do it using nothing more than words chosen and arranged optimally. Your copy must convey trust and credibility in the offering, then implant a desire to buy in the site visitor’s mind. To do that, you need to know about what you’re selling, who those site visitors are, what they want, what they lack, and how to convince them this is their answer.

All this, and other useful data, comes in a creative brief, which should be given the writer at the start of each project.

This is now where you apply your well of knowledge in human psychology. You already know what’s behind purchase decisions, don’t you? No? Then start googling.

Images and page design are also key. The copywriter will frequently be paired with a webpage designer to create those pages that drive up sales. Know this going in.

2) Understand why copywriters are needed

Virtually every business or organization of any type needs reams of quality copy and content. If it’s online, they’ll need it written, then constantly updated and rewritten. And they’ll have offline needs. A typical large business has to generate and maintain all this:

  • Ads for TV
  • Ads for the internet
  • Ads for radio
  • Ads on Google
  • Ads on Facebook
  • Twitter feed updates
  • Facebook page updates
  • Instagram updates
  • Website landing page content
  • Content for each product page
  • Press releases
  • Brochures for B2C & B2B
  • Brochures for specific product lines
  • Forms for customers, members, etc.
  • Forms that match products to buyers
  • Answers to FAQs

That business must also:

  • Ensure content is converting visitors into customers
  • Ensure customers can buy without getting annoyed, stuck or sidetracked
  • Send customers forms, welcome packages and other written materials
  • Maintain scripts for their phone salespeople
  • Maintain scripts for customer service staff

Then there’s internal communications, materials for suppliers, regulators and so on. Each and every one of these docs must be written by, or edited up to standard by, a copywriter.

That’s just one large company out of millions of large companies in the world.

So yeah, all companies today need copywriters

Many keep a large internal staff of writers. Some require that every member of their customer-facing team be writers of a certain level of competence, just to be employed there

Such companies pay copywriters to manage all the voices in all the slightly different tonalities they project to all their different audiences. For you, the new copywriter, to get your slice of a company’s copywriting budget, you need to start and maintain relationships at potential companies that require your services.

And to do that, you need to show enough talent to get a trial, freelance or full-time, gig.

What’s in a great copywriter?

If you’ve always been ruthlessly, fearlessly different in how you think, speak, do art, make music, write, read, sing, make love and do sports… if your imagination irrepressibly extrudes original thoughts and twists on existing things around you… you’re in the right neighbourhood.

But to create work that sells to clients, then sells clients’ products, takes more than a crazy imagination.

One school says if you haven’t read mountains of literature, plus the grown-up magazines and the online quality, and write for hours daily, you’re not going to amount to much of a copywriter. Whether that’s true or not, being that person certainly won’t hurt you. Another school argues for the “born with it” theory; if you were always smart, funny, witty, able to deal out words and ideas like kisses and bullets, have a hyperactive imagination, you’ll figure it out and make it. Such copywriters do exist.

In the end, who cares? Because… nothing matters but the work.

3) Become an agency copywriter

To get hired as an agency copywriter, you need a portfolio or “book” of well-written work – online content, one-off ads, full ad campaigns, videos, radio and publicity-grabbing stunts of genius. They can exist online or in hard portfolio form. Both are great.

If you’re trying to break in at an agency and you never went to copywriting school (which is about 1% of what a good CD is looking for anyway), do up some dummy ads for real products and services – like I did.

Don’t copy others’ work, because people will know. Be inspired by it, sure. Be bold and unafraid. Don’t be safe. Don’t show mediocre work, even if it’s your only work that ever saw the light of day. Few will hire you just because you’ve been hired. The work, the thinking, is what matters.

If you’re an ad school grad, you know who you’re up against. Be greater than.

You don’t need a ton of pieces: Three smart campaigns in different sectors, some strong stand-alone print, a video or two, a few radio spots or scripts. Three or four websites or blogs. Make sure it’s all letter-perfect – no typos, poor grammar or other signs of sloppy, inconsistent writing.

The more boring or over-advertised the product, the bigger your challenge. Excel at the bigger challenge to stand out.

If you’re a social media dominatrix, include proof of that. Getting hired as an agency copywriter is all about learning how to stand out.

Next, get it in front of creative directors

Or heads of copy. Or those who manage in-house copywriting teams at big brands. This is the most frustrating and confusing part.

CDs are all overworked and pestered by creatives seeking work all day long. They tend not to return calls. Most never check or return voicemail.

You must be inventive, creative even, to get their attention. The nature of that inventiveness must be tailored to each agency and CD. Research your targets. Ask how others in your peer group shouted above the noise to get hired. Attend the events, award shows, pub nights and so on where you have a decent chance to network and meet those juniors and mid-levelers with jobs. Then ask for intros, names, strategies.

Don’t be shy – even if you’re as green as the 18th hole in the rainy season. Everyone was green once. Enthusiasm and passion can fill in for experience.

Know the good and bad

As in, places to work, people to work for.

Pick agencies that suit your aspirations. Some are nasty sausage factories where you’ll work 18-hour days, seven-day weeks and no one’ll ever give a damn who you are or what you contributed.

Others are infested with jealous backstabbers ready to sabotage peers to advance their own careers.

But these days, it’s become harder to run a shite-show, because social media. Word gets out. Talent goes where it’s appreciated and enabled.

Beware of has-beens

CDs and agencies go up and down. They win and lose important clients like the weather changes. They steal, then lose, their superstars when those folks get better offers. Do your homework to discover the decent places to work, that are willing to nurture new talent.

If you get an interview

Look, speak and inhabit interesting. Be the sharpest version of your own style.

If you’re a skater, look like the shred-hungriest handrail paint remover in town.

If you’re a bookish nerd, own that from brainpan to sole, no detail unvarnished.

If you’re a glamour queen or deity of refined taste, be so well-put-together people fan their faces as you pass them.

Don’t try to be something you’re not. That will fail you.

Sound like someone who works with words

Eliminating uptalk, verbal tics, clichés and repetitive habits from your speech will go far in elevating you above the fugs who come to interviews spouting, “Dude, I’m like, like, so down with the, like, super-awesome attitude of this agency?!?”

Just don’t talk like that – whoever you are today, whatever you wish to be tomorrow. Ever again.

In the interview

Live by the maxim “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

Think before parting lips. Say less than you feel you should. Let your work talk for you. Answer questions thoughtfully, briefly.

Ask about the agency’s work, clients and stuff you like of theirs. Show interest. Don’t ask questions concerned with your needs. You shouldn’t care yet. Dues come first.

Don’t overplay how detached, edgy and sarcastic you are. Be a likeable contributor others can work with.

If you’re a narcissist or egotist, turn it all the way down. And leave it there.

Be understated, humble and useful.

Yes, always be useful. In work and in life.

4) Become a freelance copywriter

Establishing yourself as a freelance copywriter is essentially like building a new business from scratch. Except you get to rig the game somewhat. There’s a famous New Yorker cartoon with two hounds at a monitor, one telling the other, “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”

Well, no one knows you’re a n00b.

Before you take your bid for copywriting success public, spend time honing your craft, editing your writing down so it’s tight, fluffless and powerful. Show it to smart, nice people. Take their criticism to heart, and not personally. Then create a beautiful website to show off that work (whether it’s real or dummy work).

It’s a lot of effort in the beginning. To gain talent, you must feed it well and keep it fit through exercise. The more consciously you do this, you more in-demand you’ll be. Becoming a freelance copywriter is very difficult but when the clients start to trickle in the feeling of success is like no other.

Specialize in one sector first

If your Uncle Ralph owns a pizza chain, offer to write some portion of his content for free. If you do a good job, he’ll probably give you more work, and cough up a few bucks, as well. Especially if sales grow due to your efforts. Once you’ve amassed sufficient content, approach a related business. Then approach other related businesses. Then try different media, aiming to become media-agnostic.

As you gain experience, writing copy for clients in different industries will become second nature.

When ad copywriting, always get a tight brief

In advertising, briefing strongly correlates with results. The rub is in the copywriter. The creative brief should tell you about:

  • The business problem you’re aiming to solve
  • The unique selling proposition (USP) you’re communicating
  • The mindset of the client’s different audiences: What they know about you, the competition, and what the client needs them to believe after they see what you create
  • What the competition has going for it in terms of product, advertising, size, plus other advantages and disadvantages
  • What tone and manner you can use
  • What media your work will appear in
  • What examples of advertising the client likes

Immediate wealth is unlikely

If it were, everyone would be getting rich off this. But follow this advice and, assuming you have talent, work hard and don’t give up, you will build a niche, keep expanding it – and then the money will begin to flow to thee.

Last words…

Don’t be in this for the money. At least, pretend not to be. No one wants to work with the transparently greedy. Word spreads. The internet, while big, is also small.

Do this because “Copywriter” is the greatest job title in the world.

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