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I was recently interviewed for a book titled, The Complete Guide to Writing Web-Based Advertising Copy to Get the Sale published by Atlantic Publishing Company. The author and interviewer was Vickie Taylor.
I thought I’d post the interview because it tells a little about me and might also prove helpful to other freelance copywriters, especially those just beginning their careers. (Scroll down to bottom for photos.)
Vickie Taylor: What made you want to become a copywriter?
Susan Greene: I decided I wanted to become a writer almost as soon as I learned to read. I loved books, and I always felt a desire to write.
As a child, I kept journals, wrote short stories and kept in touch with dozens of penpals from around the world, most of whom found me via a poem of mine that was published along with my name and address in an Archie comic book.
Even though I didn’t know what type of writer I wanted to be until my 20’s when I got my first job at an advertising agency, I always knew I’d choose a career that was based on my writing abilities.
Vickie Taylor: What was your first copywriting assignment?
Susan Greene: As I mentioned above, the first thing I ever had publishedwas a poem I wrote for Archie comics. Each Archie comic book had a couple of pages dedicated to a contest in which they awarded prizes to the top three writers and published their works, usually a short story or poem about the Archie characters. A poem I wrote won second place. I received $5. It might as well have been a million I was so thrilled!
The check I received had a drawing on it of all the Archie’ characters, and my dad pleaded with me to save the check for posterity. But I really wanted the $5, so I cashed it. Now I wish I’d listened to him, since it really was the start of my writing career, and it was probably the coolest check in terms of appearance that I’ve ever received. I think I was about eight years old.
My actual first copywriting “assignment” wasn’t nearly as much fun. It was a feature article for a New Hampshire business magazine on a local pasta and cheese shop. I think I was paid $100 and given a couple of free cheese samples.
Vickie Taylor: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started?
Susan Greene: Everything! There’s so much I’ve learned over the years. I guess one of the most important things I now know is that not everyone likes to read as much as I do. So I need to be concise and focus on the key points. Long, rambling paragraphs and excessive amounts of detail will overwhelm and bore the reader.
Vickie Taylor: What is the toughest copywriting challenge that you faced?
Susan Greene: Whatever project I’m working on at the moment feels like my toughest copywriting challenge. I just have to remind myself that I’ve somehow managed to get through every previous assignment, and I can get through this one as well.
Some of the harder projects I’ve worked on were writing about sophisticated high-tech and industrial products. I can remember composing sentences in which I focused simply on putting the subjects and verbs where I thought they belonged, even though I didn’t understand what the words meant.
I wrote on topics like non-ferrous investment castings, ferrofluids, printed circuit boards and integrating spheres used for spectroscopy. Now I’m a pseudo-expert on all kinds of esoteric subjects that hardly anybody knows or cares about!
Vickie Taylor: What copy have you crafted that you really loved?
Susan Greene: One of the most fun assignments I did was write about lizards, yes lizards. It was actually an art project for the City of Orlando in which local companies could sponsor 7-foot statues of lizards designed by area artists — LizArt.
The lizards, each created with a different theme, were to be placed in prominent locations all around the city like in front of City Hall and in city parks. I had to write the promotional literature that explained “Art Gecko” to the sponsors as well as the artists.
Since it was a fun undertaking for the city, I was able to write creative copy and throw in lots of puns. I even had to come up with suggestions for lizard names like The Lizard of Oz and Lizard Minnelli.
The LizArt promotion was one of my favorite writing assignments. Here
I am with my son Ryan posing with an “art gecko” in the city park.
Vickie Taylor: How does web copywriting differ from traditional copywriting?
Susan Greene: Web copywriting is much more conversational and personable than traditional copywriting. It should sound friendly, even casual, like you’re talking to a buddy.
My goal is often to make sure the reader likes me (or my client) and trusts me (or my client) after reading my copy. I speak to the reader as though we are chatting one-on-one, even using humor when possible. Most of all, I try to make the reader feel my enthusiasm.
When I write for the web, I make sure to keep my sentences short and simple. My paragraphs are usually no more than five lines in length. I use lots of headings, subheads, bullets and graphic elements. I think big chunks of text on a PC monitor are a turnoff to the reader.
Finally, you can’t talk about web copywriting without mentioning search engine optimization (SEO). When I write text for a website, I think about writing for two audiences: 1) the search engines, and 2) the visitor. I make sure to use keywords that will attract the search engines and then persuasive sentences that will nudge the visitor to take action.
Vickie Taylor: Who are some of the clients that you have worked for?
Susan Greene: I currently live in Orlando, so like a lot of the copywriters in this city, I’ve written various promotional materials for the theme parks like Walt Disney World and SeaWorld, for hotels and resorts, and for guest services like the I-RIDE Trolleys, which travel through the major tourist areas. I’ve also written for some big-name national companies like FedEx and Rosetta Stone.
For a long time I specialized in business-to-business writing, so much of my work was for business service, high-tech and industrial companies. I could tell you the names of the firms, but you probably wouldn’t recognize them unless you’d worked in those industries.
Vickie Taylor: Can you give us am example of a typical month’s projects?
Susan Greene: Sure. Here are the projects I’ve worked on for the past month or so. I wrote sales letters for a company in Canada that manufactures socks, a website for a Malaysian company that sells men’s leather briefcases, a brochure for a Pennsylvania insurance company, online ads for a New York City property management firm, a website for a company in South Africa that leads safari tours, and press releases for a video production company in Delaware. I love the diversity.
Vickie Taylor: What is your biggest success?
Susan Greene: The funny thing is that while I’ve written many ad campaigns, brochures and websites that have been successful for my clients, I’d have to say that my biggest successes – the ones of which I’m most proud and that have made me the most money – are copywriting projects I’ve done for myself. Let me give you two examples:
One is a book that I co-authored called The Ultimate Job Hunter’s Guidebook. I came up with the idea to create a book that told college students how to prepare their resume, research companies and interview successfully.
This was back in 1991, and the few books that existed on this topic at the time were complex and boring. I teamed up with a college professor to create an easy-to-use manual to job hunting, complete with hands-on exercises, role playing scenarios and practical career advice.
We were able to sell the book to Houghton Mifflin, one of the largest academic publishers in the U.S. Today, more than 20 years later, that book is in its sixth edition and is considered one of the leading career textbooks used in college courses around the country and the world. Best of all, the royalty checks just keep rolling in!
The second major success would have to be a family business that I helped found in 2004. My father and brother, both real estate brokers, said they’d heard of a unique type of real estate product called condo hotels, and they wanted to break into selling these properties. They asked me to help them write a four-page website.
I easily completed that assignment but then had ideas for expanding the website. That four-page website soon grew to be 20 pages, than 50, then 100, then 500, and it’s now about 700 pages and still growing! Plus we have five other related websites!
That venture has done very well and continues to grow. We’ve hired sales and support people. We sell properties throughout the world to buyers from all over the world.
All marketing is done via the web. We use no print media. In fact, other than the officers in the company, our employees don’t even have business cards! It is truly a global Internet business, and its success is largely due to the websites I’ve built.
Vickie Taylor: What’s one of the hardest things you find about being a copywriter?
Susan Greene: Of course, there’s a learning curve whenever you’re writing for a new client or about a new product or service. But beyond that, one of the most challenging aspects of being a freelance copywriter is pricing work.
Since every project really is a custom job, it’s hard to work off a set price list. I try to estimate how many hours the project will take and then multiply that number by my hourly rate. As I’ve become more experienced and confident over the years, I’ve raised my hourly rate, and naturally, I’ve become more adept in quoting accurately.
Nonetheless, I find there’s still a bit of guesswork in coming up with a price that is fair compensation for my efforts and also allows my clients to feel they’ve received top value for their money.
Vickie Taylor: Do you think it’s possible to make a decent living as a freelance copywriter?
Susan Greene: Yes, but it’s hard work. Every project is a custom job. Every client is unique. There’s a steep learning curve involved in most things you do, and even though most business is transacted via e-mail and phone, there’s still quite a bit of personalized service in all you do. Some days I find myself thinking that it’d be so much easier to sell some sort of manufactured product.
The advice I give freelance copywriters just embarking on their careers is to seek out multiple streams of income. That is, don’t just be a writer for others. Find ways to use your writing skills to generate revenue beyond writing for clients.
That may mean that you use your writing talent to sell affiliate products on auction websites like eBay. It may mean that you create e-books or other types of information products that you market online. It could mean going into a partnership with one of your clients in which in lieu of copywriting fees, you get stock in the company or a percentage of sales for your contribution.
In my case, my freelance copywriting revenue is well-supplemented by the royalties I get from the textbook I wrote, The Ultimate Job Hunter’s Guidebook. I also am a principal in Condo Hotel Center,www.CondoHotelCenter.com, the internet-based real estate company I started with family members that I alluded to earlier.
Vickie Taylor: Can you offer any other advice to freelance copywriters?
Susan Greene: Yes, one thing I tell most copywriters trying to launch their careers is to try to be more than “just a writer.”
If you can also act as a marketing consultant, search engine optimization expert or find some specialty or copywriting niche that makes you unique and adds value to what you can provide to a client, you’ll have the ability to 1) differentiate yourself from competitors, and 2) charger higher rates (read: less work, more money!).
Vickie Taylor: What do you like about being a writer?
Susan Greene: From a professional standpoint, I most like learning about different subjects. I love to delve into a new topic, immerse myself in reading about it, and then find a way to compose what I’ve learned into interesting, informative copy.
The research aspects of my job are as much fun to me as the actual writing. I like to tell people that every day I get a little smarter. At this rate, I expect to be a genius by the time I turn 90!
On a personal level, part of what I like about being a writer is that I can do my job from home. I have two children, and I am here when they get home from school. I’m also involved in their athletics and extracurricular activities.
Also, because I don’t spend time commuting or in meetings, I have more hours to do the things I love which include athletics (I’m one hell of a kickboxer!) and reading.
Vickie Taylor: You’ve been a writing professional for more than 20 years. How would you say things have changed in recent years?
Susan Greene: The Internet has changed EVERYTHING! While in previous years my work primarily consisted of print media—brochures, public relations materials, newsletters and ads—today I spend nearly all of my time creating copy for web sites and e-newsletters.
I’ve had to develop an understanding of Internet marketing and search engine optimization as well as hone a conversational writing style that converts web site visitors into customers. Lately, I’ve had to focus on learning about Web 2.0 and social networking online.
From the standpoint of getting work done, the Internet has made my life immeasurably easier. Now I can do most research without even putting on a pair of shoes. No more long days at the library or lengthy meetings or phone conversations with experts or my clients.
And, of course, the pace at which work gets done is so much faster. I’m sure this would apply not just to copywriting but to nearly every business. It sounds trite to say it, but I really don’t know how I survived without Google and e-mail.
Vickie Taylor: Did you study copywriting at school?
Susan Greene: I have a BS degree in journalism from Syracuse University and an MBA from Southern New Hampshire University.
Vickie Taylor: Did college help prepare you for your career?
Susan Greene: Yes and no. Yes, in that it gave me confidence, made me a generalist, and gave me a good foundation on which to base all future learning. Also, because I was a journalism major, it did help me hone my writing skills. No, because so much of what I know today didn’t even exist back when I was in school. I’m talking about the Internet, SEO and e-commerce.
I’m glad I received the education that I did, and I certainly hope and expect my children to go to college. However, I think the “real learning” comes from actually doing the job.
Vickie Taylor: Can you tell me a bit about your personal life?
Susan Greene: Sure. My husband Jim and I have two terrific children, Ryan and Katelyn. We’re a close-knit family. We live in Orlando, Florida, having moved here from New Hampshire about 17 years ago. Like so many Florida transplants, we’d had enough of cold, snowy winters.
Jim worked in television news for WKMG, the Orlando CBS affiliate, for 10 years as a director. He left that position about four years ago to spend more time with our children and also to assist me in my business, particularly the condo hotel real estate venture I referenced earlier.
While he still takes on some television consulting jobs, he loves the freedom he now has to do what he wishes with his time. I love having the help around the house plus all he does to assist me in my work. Our children love having both parents home, although they may change their views as they get older!
We’re all into athletics. Ryan runs track and cross country. Katelyn plays lacrosse and soccer. A natural athlete, Jim does a little bit of everything when it comes to sports, including helping to coach Katie’s soccer team. I run, bike and do kickboxing. I try to work out in some way at least six days a week.
For vacations we like adventures. We’ve been to Costa Rica where we rappelled down waterfalls, rode zip lines over the rainforest, climbed a volcano, and took surfing lessons. And we’ve been to Panama where we explored caves, went white water tubing and spent time in some primitive Indian villages. In the past we’ve enjoyed visiting the national parks like the Grand Canyon, the Smoky Mountains, Bryce National Park and Yellowstone National Park.
I’ll paste some family pictures below.
My husband Jim and me with our children, Ryan and Katelyn, hiking in the Smoky Mountains, North Carolina.
Me and the kids, Ryan and Katelyn.
We loved Costa Rica. Here we’re hiking near an active volcano.
Ziplining over the rainforest in Costa Rica was an exhilarating (and frightening) experience.
We’re all suited up for rappelling down a 600′ canyon with waterfalls in the Costa Rican jungle.
Katie, Ryan and I ready for tubing down white water rapids in Panama.
Here, along with my father, we’re exploring a cave in Panama. At least the hard hats kept the bat poop out of our hair.
I’m holding up the newly-released fifth edition of my book, The Ultimate Job Hunter’s Guidebook.
Here’s the whole gang, including my 74-year-old father, on Thanksgiving morning, just before the start of the 2007 Orlando Turkey Trot. Running this 5k road race has become a family tradition for us.
This winter we took a family trip to New Hampshire. It was the first time these Florida kids had ever seen snow.
Thank you for taking the time to read this interview and look at my family photos. If you’ve enjoyed “meeting” me, Susan Greene, and wish to discuss your copywriting project, please contact me in Orlando, Florida at FloridaCopywriter@gmail.com, 407-578-5528. I look forward to getting to know YOU!