I spend very little time writing copy myself these days because I’m too busy running an agency. I had to learn all that marketing and branding stuff because it was necessary to grow Tailored Ink and serve my clients better, too.
But before I started this agency with the inestimable Dan Foley, I was a full-time freelance copywriter. So, hearing readers thank me for inspiring them to become professional writers always makes my day.
That’s why I’m going to take a break from what I normally write about (small business tips) and answer a question I know a lot of readers have: How do you become a professional copywriter? How do you become any kind of professional writer, for that matter?
Here’s how I personally went about becoming a professional copywriter when I had no portfolio and no work experience to my name. These are tips that apply to going after any new job or career path.
1. Know the market inside and out.
People often have very romantic notions about what being a writer is like until they look at the numbers. Sure, you should pursue your passion. You should also know how to feed yourself.
Learn how much writers can make in any given industry, what the asking price is for your skill set and how many rows of teeth the competition has. Also accept that you’re basically entering a red ocean (shark-infested, lots of competitors). There is no blue ocean (calm, few competitors) for any kind of professional writing anymore.
For example, did you know that, for reporters, correspondents and broadcast news analysts, the median salary is $38,870 per year in the United States? Technical writers, on the other hand, make $111,260 per year. But they’re also the writing sector most likely to be automated by machines in the not-so-distant future.
The reason I chose to be a copywriter? It was the most lucrative writing segment ($68,345 on average) that I qualified for. And, I figured I’d like writing copy because I'd always enjoyed good jingles, commercials and ads. I’m a fan of conversational language. It all added up.
2. Believe in yourself.
Some people might laugh at me for including this, but belief is 100 percent necessary for success. For example, many kids are taught from a young age that creative careers are basically financial suicide and that liberal arts majors get no love.
As a result, even if they have talent and motivation, these kids can't escape the subconscious notion that a career as a professional writer is kind of a boogeyman. These kids embrace the belief that they're destined to fail. They give up before they even try.
Don't do that, yourself: Take stock of your own skill set, passions, interests, time frame and situation. Only you know if you’re in the right place to give this writing thing a shot. And only you know if you have a reasonable chance of success. Remember that you’re entering a red ocean.
For me, going to med school was the safe choice. But I knew I had a few things going for me which helped with my decision. I was basically a straight A English student. So, it wasn’t like I had no shot at being a decent copywriter.
Ultimately, I made an educated guess based on what I knew at the time. Then I took the plunge.
3. Try it out for fun first.
Once you’ve decided, “Yes, I can do this thing,” you actually need to find work. If you already have a portfolio, great. If not, the easiest way to get your feet wet is to assign yourself a mock project as if it were from a client.
For example, if you want to be a copywriter, go to the nearest corner store, grab of bag of chips and read the copy on the back. Then make it better.
Or find an easy assignment you can do for free. If you have a friend or family member who needs help with a slogan, email or website, help him out. Look for unpaid internship opportunities. Take work for pennies on the dollar. The point isn’t to make money yet -- it’s to see if you like the work.
Did I have to learn, follow and internalize copywriting rules I knew nothing about? Absolutely. But I enjoyed the journey, and that was a huge leading indicator of my potential longevity in the business.
4. Prepare to fail and get rejected a lot.
There are a few important milestones in the life of a professional copywriter. One of the biggest is when you earn your first sale. Your confidence shoots through the roof. You feel like Hemingway.
Then you quickly realize that even if you like writing and think you’re good at it, others may not agree. It’s one thing to write for free, another to write for money and another thing entirely to do it so often and so well that you can turn it into a full-time job.
This is the make-or-break point for all professional dreams. How well do you respond to failure and your biggest fears? Can you live with scars? Or do you expect the world to hand you trophies?
When I decided to become a professional writer, I was terrified. I felt that I was throwing away a perfectly secure, lucrative and respectable future as a doctor to be poor on my own terms. In my desperation, I applied to hundreds of jobs and wrote for friends and family for free. I offered my services to college buddies who'd started their own small businesses.
Here’s what I learned: Humans can become accustomed to anything, including failure. Those first few rejection emails hit me like a sucker punch every single time. But the 50th rejection? I barely noticed. I was too busy applying to new jobs and sending out that week’s proposals.
5. Don’t specialize to start -- play the field.
Scaling a specialist strategy is easier than scaling a generalist strategy. That’s why some copywriters write only for dentists, some only for SaaS companies. But you don’t need to decide on your niche at the start; in fact, you shouldn’t.
Instead, write for as many different clients and industries as possible. Write different types of content. Make sure you understand copy in every part of the digital marketing funnel and buyer journey. Play around with charging different rates and putting together custom packages.
Then pay attention to what clients want most, what they ask for that you don’t offer and what gives you the best ROI in terms of your input (i.e., time and effort) and the client’s output (i.e., fantastic testimonial and recurring revenue).
My agency works mainly for tech, finance and healthcare clients. Things just happened that way and we enjoy those verticals. But we would never have known that if we hadn't opened ourselves up to the market.
6. Learn how to brand and sell yourself.
As you get more clients, you’ll notice that most people don’t care about your writing pedigree or actual writing chops. They base their decision to work with you on: a) whether they like you; and b) if you have good testimonials -- both in-person and online.
That’s why you need to learn to sell yourself. Most writers are awful at this (I certainly was). We think our writing should speak for itself, but that’s not the way the world works. You have to make an argument for why you’re the right long-term partner.
This doesn’t mean you need to become a digital marketer or a master of marketing funnels. But you need to be able to go to networking events or mixers and comfortably mingle with prospective clients. I had no sales experience at all, so I learned how to do sales at a Manhattan BNI chapter.
7. Do you love it enough to do it full time?
Even if your name isn’t on the first piece of writing you sell, you’re still "published" the moment your client puts it out there for all to see. So, go treat yourself! This is what so many aspiring writers around the world work toward for many years. Give yourself a big pat on the back.
Many writers stop here, and that’s totally fine. They keep their full-time jobs and write on the side. But maybe you’re hungrier. Maybe you see yourself living “the writer’s life” and doing this full-time. Maybe you could begin a blog, write a business book or start an agency like I did.
Do you want to become a full-time professional writer? Can you hit the six-figure mark in X years? These are personal questions that only you can answer.
You have to be more afraid of not trying.
I freelanced sporadically and part time in between unemployment stints for years before I found any traction. My self-confidence was like a seesaw. I felt like giving up.
But I didn't quit, because being a professional writer was my childhood dream. It wasn’t a fantasy -- it was my dream. So, when I had to choose between pursuing what I really wanted or assuring myself of a “secure” future, I saw giving up my dream as far worse for me, personally.
Of course, being a professional writer is just one type of dream and journey. Maybe you want to be a professional organizer, startup billionaire or life coach. Whatever your dream, and no matter how different it is from your day job, don’t be ashamed of it.
Dreams give you life. The secret to a truly satisfying career is to not be afraid to own them.