So, You Want to Be a Copywriter? 8 Things Every New Copywriter Should Know

Copywriting is enjoying quite the boom over the last year or so.

It seems people all over the world see copy as a way to financial freedom… or at least a way to escape the 9-to-5 and still pay the bills.

How do I know this?

Well, it’s part observation on social media and part observation of my inbox. Because there’s been more than a few people asking me to mentor or train them up in the grand game of copywriting. And each time, it’s a “no”. I’ve had this discussion with my own copy mentor, and trying to train someone from the ground up would be an exhausting process, no matter how rewarding.

But I try not to simply leave those email replies as simply “sorry, can’t help you”. I give them tips on what they could do to get past that newbie stage. And that’s what you’re reading today: a tidied-up, less-rambly version of the advice I’ve given new copywriters looking to crack into the industry…

1. Chase skills, not certifications

In my “past life” as a software tester, there was fierce debate around whether certifications were worth chasing. I wasn’t a huge fan of “certs” back then, and I’m even less of a fan now as a copywriter.

Certifications might prove you’ve taken a course, but they don’t necessarily mean you can write great copy. That’s what skills are for. And if you have a shiny certificate without the nous to back it up, you may be costing your clients far more than you charge.

2. Practice, practice, practice

It’s easy to tell someone to “just practice”. It’s another to put in the work day after day, especially when you feel you’re not getting anywhere.

However, practice was how I became a full-time copywriter. I started out with a couple of courses, did cheap work to hone my skills for years (copywriting was a side-project and I had a full-time job, so maybe this is a luxury you don’t have). If you’re able to, jump on freelancing platforms like Upwork – they’re a good way to practice and build your experience.

(Bonus: having said all that, you want to make sure you practice the RIGHT things. If you want to excel at writing emails, don’t spend every day writing blogs. If you want to specialize in the fitness niche, look for that kind of work or approach personal trainers or gyms.)

3. Don’t write for free…

Yes, you want to practice. No, you don’t want to work for free. Here’s 3 reasons why:

  1. Businesses might think you’re no good if you offer to work for free
  2. Free-loaders and penny-pinchers will happily take advantage of you (and these are not the type of clients you want to attract)
  3. You don’t get any sense of what you work is worth

You shouldn’t be charging the world at this early stage, of course. When you’re new to the copy game, you’re probably going to have fees on the cheaper side. And that’s OK, because you’re getting paid to practice, build experience, and grow a portfolio you can share with other potential clients.

4. Or do write for free!

Isn’t this oxymoronic with what we’ve just covered?

Well, yes and no. You really should avoid the free work “trap”, even if you’re a fresh face in the copywriting field. But sometimes, you might get an opportunity to work with someone you desperately want to. And if it takes working for free to get your foot in the door, then sometimes it’s an exception worth making.

One caveat: if you decide to “go free”, make sure it’s only for a short time. If your client is happy enough to keep you around, they should be paying you – even if it’s not much.

5. Prepare for the “suck”

WARNING: You aren’t going to blaze an instant trail of glory as a copywriter.

In fact, it’s probably going to be the opposite: a trail of disappointment and frustration. Copywriting is much more than “just writing”, and it takes time to wrap your head around it.

Ideas, psychology, and marketing all play their part in solid copy, so be prepared to not be churning out stellar copy from Day 1.

(How fast you develop is entirely up to you: if you learn from the right places and practice the right things, you can improve quickly.)

6. Build a portfolio (or at least some samples)

One of the big objections clients have – regardless of whether you’re starting out or not – is “can you write?”.

Answering “I sure can!” doesn’t do much to allay their fears. That’s where a portfolio comes in.

You’re not going to have samples for every industry and type of copy, especially when you’re new to the game. But getting a handful of examples can make all the difference when you’re asked the “can you write?” question.

(Quick tip: always try to ask for permission to use your client’s copy in your portfolio. Sure, they may never know… but it’s the right thing to do and you’ll make sure you don’t get off-side with them.)

7. Get proof wherever you can

ME: “I write great copy and am confident I can help you.”

CLIENT: “Really? Prove it.”

ME: “How about these SHINY samples!?!?”

CLIENT: “Ummmm… not really relevant for us.”*

Samples are an easy proof point to build when starting out, but it’s not the only proof you should rely on…

  • Testimonials are a fantastic way of showing what other clients think of your work.
  • Ratings on a freelancing platform can also show how you perform, at least as far as that platform goes
  • Case studies are a great way to get in-depth with what your work was and what the results were
  • Referrals are incredible as they combine new work with a glowing endorsement from a past client

Whatever you use, don’t neglect this. Take the time to gather whatever proof you can and you’ll find it far easier to convince clients you’re the copywriter for them.

* May or may not have been a fictional conversation.

8. Don’t ignore the business side of copywriting

ME (in 2016): “If I just practice my skills and get good, clients will magically find me and want to hire me!”

You don’t need me to say that I was a little off in thinking this. Neglecting the business side of copywriting was a huge mistake, and one I made for the first few years.

So what is the “business side”? Well, that’s a long list, but take these for starters…

  • Project management
  • Client communication
  • Invoicing and payment
  • Lead generation

Oh, two other quick things: 1. Remember to systematize as many of your processes as you can to save time. 2. Browsing social media does NOT count as a business activity (though posting and contributing to groups could both be worthwhile).

Bonus: don’t rush to build a website unless you have a plan for it. It’s a big effort that can take up a lot of work for not very much short-term reward. I spent waaaaaaaay too much time on mine and it’s only started to pay off in the last couple of years, mainly thanks to a big SEO push back in 2019.

* * *

Now that you’ve read these tips, there’s only one more thing to do: put them into action.

Maybe your road to success is a long, hard one… or maybe opportunities will spring up in just a few weeks or months. Either way, persevere and keep in mind a famous Aussie TV ad: “it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen!”

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Author: Dean Mackenzie

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