For the past five years I have led one of the UK’s leading copywriting agencies. We work with several major search agencies and brands to write web pages, emails, blogs, articles, news feeds, white papers, and just about any other type of marketing communication you would like to name.
But a copywriting agency doesn’t just mature. Many agencies come from a successful freelance writer whose workload is beyond their means. To do this, every freelance writer had to start somewhere: with their first paying client.
Even before you market yourself as a freelance writer, realize that copywriting is not a career for everyone. To be successful, you need talent, interest and a willingness to learn. So ask yourself a question before typing your first word:
‘Do I have what it takes to be a writer?’
In answering this question, I think there are four important skills you should have before you start marketing yourself.
1. Love Language
When I started working as a copywriter for a record label sixteen years ago, I already had quite a bit of practical experience as a writer. I wrote stories, prose, crappy poetry and developed a love of language through extensive reading. If you’re not interested in writing in all its forms, rethink your career options. It sounds obvious, but there are many people who think that copywriting is an easy way to earn a living. No – if you want to be successful, you have to love words.
2. Good understanding of spelling and grammar
When I got to work, I was already able to write structured, grammatically correct content with essentially no spelling mistakes. You might think that in today’s fonespeak and tweeting, no one really needs to use proper grammar or spelling. You would be wrong. Sure, some writers use idiomatic forms, but in my experience you need to know the rules to know when it’s appropriate to break them. Good grammar and spelling will make your communication more effective.
3. Know a good writing structure.
Structure starts with being able to choose the right words and then knowing how to write a good sentence that clearly conveys what you mean. What matters is how you put these sentences together to create the effect you want most effectively and efficiently. Different forms of writing use different conventions to create the effect you want, and being a good copywriter is understanding not only how to use those conventions imaginatively, but how to subvert them.
4. Realize that copywriting is for results
In my first job as a full-time writer, I learned a lot about producing engaging, well-structured writing. Working in a corporate environment quickly taught me that copywriting is very different from other types of writing – it has to elicit a response. In my case I write a press release. These are meant to get stories about our artists in the medium. There are plenty of tips and tricks I could give you about press releases, but that’s for another time. The point here is that copywriting is about generating action in the reader.
People (well, not many anyway) don’t read brochures, product descriptions, or sales letters for fun. They do it because they want to be persuaded to buy (or vote, or provide their email address, or donate), and copywriting is the art of getting someone to act. If you think copywriting is a fun way to write something you love, think again.
In fact, most copywriting requires you to completely forget yourself and only think about clients and clients. Copywriting is closer to a craft than art, and while it can be imaginative, creative work, the ultimate goal is functional: to convince readers to do what you want them to do.
If you can tick all these boxes and have fun doing it, then you are up for the challenge of becoming a freelance writer. In my next article, I’ll talk more about what it’s like to be a copywriter and the challenges and rewards you can expect.
Freelance Copywriter Secrets
If you want to become a better freelance writer, the best place to start is by studying successful ads written by others. I can’t think of a better place to start than the most famous ad in history.
In the mid-1920s, a Naval Academy graduate who had just completed a degree in electrical engineering was looking for a job. The army shrank after the war and John Capps was given the option to relinquish his command as ensign.
His first job was an engineer, but he found it boring. Seeking again, he landed a job as a copywriter for a mail order company. His first assignment was to write an advertisement for a correspondence course offered by the American Academy of Music.
John made a four-page copy, beginning with the caption: “They laughed when I sat at the piano – but when I started playing…”. The title was followed by a first-person account of a man who impresses all his friends (and silences his mockery) at a party with his newfound ability to play the piano.
The ad was an instant hit. Not only did it deliver record sales, but the title became part of the culture. The vaudeville comedian fakes the ad with punchlines like “…because someone stole my piano stool.” Other contributors have borrowed this formula and turned it into countless knock-offs.
Even today you see knock-offs.
But what made 25-year-old John Caples’ ad such a success? There are several factors:
He uses a story to market his product. Stories are powerful. They help us understand and believe in ways that no other communication device can. When we hear a story, we feel part of it and accept the emotions of the characters.
The main character kept silent to those who laughed at him. Who wouldn’t want to put our critics in their place. The party scene in the ad puts the man in the spotlight because of his musical skills. But then again, who doesn’t crave that kind of admiration from our friends?
This ad offers self-improvement. Not only did it show how he could play the piano, but it also improved his social life. The benefits offered go far beyond mere musical instruction, they give status.
Social proof. Although everyone realizes that the character is fictional, this ad still makes it easy to learn to play the piano. That’s the power of social proof, it proves to us that if other people (even fictitious ones) can do it, so can we. You can learn more about how to use social proof to write persuasive copy in Freelance Copywriter Secrets: Social Proof – An Awesome Copywriting Tool.
The ad is a two-step ad. This means that the reader does not have to make a purchase decision right away, he or she can send a coupon and ask for information. Two-step advertising lowers the bar and requires less commitment. Check out Freelance Copywriter Secrets’ latest article on Two-Step Advertising: Why Two-Step Advertising Drives More Sales.
Best of all, the information provided is free. The word has power. In a two-step ad, the questioner can be curious and get an answer without paying a cent. But the seller benefits because the applicant has “opt-in” to receive follow-up information (i.e. sales letters) to consolidate the sale at a later date.
You have no doubt seen or will see one of the many imitators of Caples. When a formula works well, other copywriters inevitably become their own.