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Ask any professional copywriter how she began her career, and you’ll likely hear stories that reflect a mix of boundless enthusiasm, a compulsion to succeed and more than a pinch of good luck.
The truth is, making a living as a copywriter isn’t easy. And getting started rarely involves a smooth passage. For most people, it’s more of a two-steps-forward, one-step-back progression with plenty of soul-searching along the way.
Even when people didn’t come right out and say “You have to pay your dues,” the sentiment came across loud and clear to me many times in those early years. What was it about people that made them resent a young person working hard and beginning to see some success?
My first jobs easily fell into the category of paying my dues. I did work that was beneath me and was paid accordingly (read: just barely over minimum wage). I, and many of colleagues, have stories of being under-employed. We were frequently asked to do clerical work – data entry, photocopying, filing, shipping, etc. – which required almost none of the skills we’d spent four years at college learning.
I often had to bite my tongue when I wanted to tell someone lording over me what I really thought of them and their low-level assignment. But I knew that wasn’t the way to go. I needed to be building bridges to success, not burning them.
For me, and perhaps for you, you might not get the opportunity to flex your creative muscles right away. You might not feel challenged nor get paid what you’re worth. But with every accomplishment, no matter how seemingly insignificant, you are building your career as a copywriter.
Let’s get one thing straight. The only way to become a “real copywriter” is to write. It’s not enough to read about writing or to take classes. Much like losing weight, reading about dieting doesn’t shed pounds. Success comes only after you’ve done the work.
So how do you get those first few jobs? No one right answer exists. You have to make your own way.
My path to becoming a copywriter began in the classified ads department of my city’s daily newspaper, The Miami Herald. I would answer phones and help callers compose an ad to sell their 1979 Chevy or promote their upcoming yard sale. I also helped grieving families write obituaries about their loved ones. The work was far from glamorous, but it counted in terms of gaining writing experience. Every caller was a client I had to please. And with the price of an ad calculated per word, I learned to pack meaning into short staccato sentences.
One of my next jobs had me proofreading reports for executives at a theme park. I knew I could have written the reports far better than the executives who’d prepared them. It was humbling to have to clean up their disorganized, poorly crafted reports, but I gained their respect and they were soon seeking me out for help in writing letters and memos.
Another job I had early in my career put me in the credit department of a large bank. I spent several months writing rejection letters to people who didn’t qualify for a credit card for which they’d applied. The letters I created had to be reviewed by management. Their quality was noted and soon my letters became templates that people in other departments of the bank could use by simply changing a few words. Although it’s been more than 10 years, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those templates are still in use today.
As you can see, these were not glamorous assignments and the pay was equally unimpressive. But with each new job and project, I gained experience. I also got faster. What previously would have taken a full day could often be cranked out in just a few hours. And I got better too. My writing sounded more mature, more polished. I could see the progress in every sentence I constructed.
Perhaps most importantly, I gained confidence, and that self-assurance propelled me forward in seeking bigger writing challenges.
Eventually, I stopped looking for jobs and focused on finding projects as a freelancer. I loved the freedom it gave me and the variety of assignments.
One of my first moves in officially setting up my freelance business, was to join a local women’s business organization to begin networking. I soon learned they needed a volunteer to write their monthly newsletter, and I offered to do the work. It gave me experience, writing samples and confidence in pitching paying clients to write their newsletters. It also gave me exposure to members, some of whom ending up hiring me to assist them with writing marketing materials for their businesses.
I also began doing some volunteer work for local nonprofits. I worked with the Chamber of Commerce to promote its monthly guest speaker events and, in doing so, met various business people in my community who referred me to their contacts whenever they knew someone was seeking a copywriter.
I helped The United Way in my city write a series of ads encouraging donations. And I created a membership campaign for my local YMCA. The graphic designers involved in both of those projects ended up hiring me to write copy for some of the paying clients for whom they worked.
Little by little, I built my network of contacts, a portfolio of work and the confidence to pursue clients for my growing business.
By now you’ve realized there’s no easy answer to the question, “How do I become a professional copywriter?” To get started in a writing career, you need to look for any possible opportunity to practice and begin building up work samples and confidence.
Do you have any friends or relatives who own businesses? Ask if they need content for a brochure or their website. Perhaps they could use a sales letter to a prospective customer or a stern letter demanding payment for services.
I remember one of my neighbors decided to try to make a little extra money by playing Santa. I helped him create flyers which he gave out in local communities, some of which then hired him for their holiday parties.
My hairdresser was moving from one salon to another. I helped her write a letter to send to her customers so they would follow her to her new salon.
Might any local weekly newspapers in the area welcome reader submissions? One of my jobs was writing feature articles for a community newspaper. Sometimes they were about local events. Other times they were detailed profiles of local characters. As with other projects, I gained experience and self-confidence in addition to pocket change.
Don’t be afraid to take on jobs that may be “beneath you.” Instead look upon every situation as an opportunity to learn.
In between freelance jobs, I would often write about things I felt passionate about such as parenting and youth athletics. I published the articles on directories like ezinearticles.com.
With ingenuity and drive, I found ways to become accomplished as a copywriter. You can too.
So stop wasting all your brilliance on Facebook posts and Tweets. And stop reading all those blog posts and books about writing. If you’re reading, you’re not writing.
Instead, write something that will give you a sense of accomplishment. And keep writing to lay the groundwork for your brilliant writing career.
Most importantly, get started today. Every day that you write brings you closer to achieving your goals. Keep moving forward. And one day you’ll look back and realize how far you’ve come.
I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.