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When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I’m a copywriter. The questions that follow are usually some variation on “What books have you written? Any bestsellers? People tell me I should write a book about my life, can you help?”
I then explain what kind of writing I do, and I’m always surprised how unaware people are when it comes to noticing the many places they’re reading a copywriter’s work.
I tell them to think of the websites they go to, the sales emails they receive from businesses they patronize, the commercials they see on TV, even the back of the brownies mix they buy. All of those items have copy that was most likely written by a professional copywriter.
If you’re considering a career in copywriting, you too might be pleasantly surprised to learn the many different ways to apply your writing talent. I answer the most frequent questions I get below.
Every day is different, based on the projects and the clients. I enjoy the variety and the opportunity to learn about new subjects.
I typically work on multiple projects at once, all with different deadlines, so my days can look a bit fragmented.
Every day is different, based on the projects and the clients. I typically work on multiple projects at once, all with different deadlines, so my days can look a bit fragmented. As an example, here’s a quick list of the items I’ve been working on the past few weeks:
I’ve written product labels, warnings on toys, menus, map content, catalog product descriptions, recipes, textbooks and dating profiles.
How I work depends on the project. Sometimes I am part of a team, and we collaborate (usually through emails, phone and Zoom calls) to create various components of a campaign.
It varies, of course. I just checked my project spreadsheet, and I currently have 22 projects in various stages of production. That sounds like a lot although many of them are in some sort of holding pattern. They fall into one of four categories:
I try to keep all the projects moving along, especially since I can’t send a final bill for the work until the project has been completed and approved.
As I mentioned, I use a spreadsheet to track all projects and progress. I used to keep much of that information in my head but that was risky, as things occasionally fell through the cracks. I credit my husband with persuading me to “act like a real business” and track all jobs in a professional, organized and well-documented manner.
You have several options. You can:
Each of those options has its downside, particularly the last one. If the client finds another resource, you can’t be sure they’ll ever come back to you for future projects.
I like variety and new challenges, so it’s hard to choose one or two that are my favorites. I do enjoy writing web copy for About Us pages and FAQs. Those pages allow me to learn about my client’s business and what makes them unique. I’m fascinated by how entrepreneurs get started and how they position their business in a competitive marketplace.
I also enjoy writing landing pages because they’re tightly focused. I get to write in-depth on a particular subject and incorporate lots of marketing strategies such as clever headlines, graphics and persuasive calls-to-action.
That’s up to you once you figure out where your interests lie. B2B copywriting has historically paid better. The subject matter is often more complicated and you’re writing for a more sophisticated customers.
As I mentioned previously, I enjoy variety so I’ve written for both B2B and B2C clients but my more lucrative accounts have been B2B.
My knowledge regarding my clients usually comes from a combination of online research and talking with people from the company, their subject matter experts.
At a basic level, you need to understand how your client’s business operates. Here are the 10 questions I pull from to ask a new client:
Your client’s answers to these questions will inform your copywriting for their business.
They try to sound smart in their copy. They use multi-syllabic words when simple ones are sufficient. They write long, complicated sentences and paragraphs.
I’m a fan of writing like you speak. Formal copy has its place but for marketing copy, conversational copy works best.
I’m also big on simplicity and using active voice, not passive voice. Good writing conveys its point concisely, in as few words as possible. Don’t make the reader work to get through your copy.
In fact, the writing should be “invisible.” Then the reader can focus on the point you’re making, not how you said it. Or, as the great author Elmore Leonard once said, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”
Renowned ad man Leo Burnett , who created Tony the Tiger and the Jolly Green Giant, explained, “We want consumers to say: ‘That’s a hell of a product’ instead of ‘That’s a hell of an ad.’”
Drayton Bird, who had a 50+ year successful career as a copywriter, once gave this pointed answer on how to approach copy, “Use decent language. Get to the point. Be precise. Don’t bury the offer or the incentive. Write more than you need and edit fiercely.” That’s good advice no matter what project you’re working on.
Yes, that happened when I was just starting out and it still occasionally happens today, decades later, if you can believe it!
I can easily lose sleep over questions like:
If I allow myself, I can come up with dozens of potential problems and go into hyper-stress mode. So I don’t allow myself that freedom. I change my self-talk because in the end, I know I will find a way to get the project done and done well, as I have so many times before. And, by the way, it’s not just me who has these types of insecurities.
One of the greatest ad men of all time is David Ogilvy. Here’s what he says about having doubts as a copywriter. “The copywriter lives with fear. Will he have the big idea before Tuesday morning? Will the client buy it? Will it sell the product? I have never sat down to write an advertisement without thinking ‘This time I’m going to fail.’”
Now that I’ve been at this for many years, most new writing projects are similar to something I’ve done in the past. So I tell myself that the new project isn’t scary; it’s just like others I’ve completed successfully.
Then I push myself to open up a new Word document and begin writing. I usually start with the smallest, easiest, least intimidating section. Once I break the project down into parts, it no longer seems so daunting. Soon I gain momentum and the pieces start to fall into place.
It’s like that old riddle, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” The best way to accomplish something big is to approach it in smaller pieces.
Let me add one more thought to the idea of self-confidence. I used to think I was the only one who had doubts but I had a conversation once with another writer, someone who has published books and regularly writes for world-class magazines like Time and The Economist.
She told me she still occasionally goes into a tailspin when she gets a tough writing assignment, even now after 20+ years as a professional. She is certain she can’t do it. She doesn’t know where to begin. She’s sure everything she writes will be garbage. When she told me this, all I could think was, “I have those days too!”
So what’s the difference between someone like me or my writer friend or even David Ogilvy with our thoughts of self-doubt and some other aspiring copywriter? We say yes to the assignment, despite the self-doubt. We ignore the little voice in our head that says we can’t and then get to work proving we can.
We don’t wait to be inspired or think of excuses to get out of doing the assignment. Maybe we procrastinate a bit, check emails and Facebook. But soon we buckle down and start writing, just as we have hundreds of times before.
We keep working at it until the copy is complete. We soldier on. We don’t give ourselves a pass until we’re satisfied with what we’ve created. The assignment is non-negotiable. We get the job done as though that’s the only option. And with every accomplishment, every achievement no matter how small, we build a little more self-confidence.
Discover what it’s like to work for yourself in the next post in the series, Self-Employment Vs. Being a Copywriter Employee.