One of the privileges of being a (hopefully) well-regarded copywriter is that young and would-be writers often ask my advice about the best way into the industry, and what it’s like to be your own boss.
I don’t know how most people do it, or even if a “usual” way exists. But I’m always very happy to talk about my own experiences.
With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to share some extracts from a recent email exchange with a delightful PR person (who shall remain anonymous), about the possibility of taking the plunge, and becoming a copywriter full time…
Would you say that it is best to start out working for an agency? If so, are there any particular ones that you would recommend?
That really depends on you, and what your priorities are (to but it bluntly, how much you need to earn, and how quickly – plus whether you’re keen to get into a particular specialism etc). If you’re relying on your writing to eat, it’s good to have a regular bank of work coming in from SOMEWHERE.
I have no experience of working for the big, network-type agencies like [NAME] and [NAME], so I don’t know what their briefing is like. I’ve seen some really good writers with those names on their CVs, and some not so good ones, too. So I imagine they’re fairly easy to work for, and I guess their rates aren’t always high. But that’s a guess.
The other alternative is to work for agencies that aren’t copy agencies, but do other things, and bring you in to do the copy bit (which is how my agency, Lungfish, gets most of its work). It’s tricky, though, because they don’t all get what copy’s about (which is why I only keep the good clients).
It also depends how much you want to deal with clients, and how much you just want to do the writing.
Are there particular skills that copywriting businesses are looking for that I should highlight?
Hmm… I’d suggest that’s maybe the wrong way around: to me (as someone who works with associate writers) it’s most useful if you can analyse, accurately, where your actual strengths are. Be honest. Different writers fit in different places.
(I suggest looking up Radix Communications’ blog post on the 7 Types of Copywriter, and seeing which sort feels most like you.)
For me, when I’m considering someone as a potential associate, it’s more about ability and track record first, then fitting the skills and strengths to the job as they arise. Lots of people SAY they can write. Very few have an intuitive feel for a sentence.
Because I’m known for quality of writing, I only work with people whose writing I know pretty well (and I oversee everything myself). I can’t risk that reputation.
Once that’s established, other things I look for?
- Ability to write in the tone, and for the audience, for that particular job.
- Accuracy is good, obviously.
- Being able to tell what’s interesting about something is useful.
- Commercial awareness (being able to tell features from benefits, and what’s keeping the reader awake at night) is handy.
- Knowing what makes someone open an email, or click a blog heading.
- An awareness of meta data.
…all useful things, but not all essential in any one writer at the same time, by any means. Again, it depends on the job.
Speed helps, and availability. And don’t underestimate good, old-fashioned getting-it-done-when-you-said-you-would.
If your journalism / PR work means you’re good at talking to people and getting them to say interesting things, that’s good too. I get asked to do a lot of case studies, because clients know they can trust me to talk to THEIR client, and be funny(ish) and affable and (usually) appropriate. Some writers HATE talking to people (and there are very few I would trust to talk to my clients).
(Oh, and price. Someone can be the best writer in the world, but if I’m losing money by working with them, I’ll go out of business.)
What do you enjoy the most and least about being a copywriter?
Personally, I’m an ideas-and-people kind of guy. So I love talking to companies and finding out what their plans are (either clients who want advice, or their clients, where I’m just asking questions to find out what’s interesting about them). Last week I had conversations about illegal sales of used forklift trucks, employees using their own smartphones for work, and devices that prevent seals from stealing salmon stocks. To the right audience, each of those subjects could and should be utterly gripping – and I love that.
I also love the moment when I think of exactly the right way to say something. When I come up with an idea, or a turn of phrase, that literally makes me punch the air. Something that’s appropriate, and entirely from me, where I know I’ve really delivered my client’s money’s worth.
There’s not much I don’t like. Occasionally, I find myself at the bottom of a very long food chain of clients and agencies, and I can’t really have much influence on the final piece… that’s OK, but every now and then I get a brief for a job that I know in my heart of hearts won’t work. And there’s a tension between not wanting to be this awkward copywriter who’s getting above his station when there are deadlines looming, and the professionalism that makes me want to at least ask the question “Er, have you thought about doing it THIS way…?”. That’s not a nice position to be in (again, it comes down to having good clients).
How did you go about setting up as a freelance writer?
Mostly, it was fortunate timing – my employer needed to restructure, just at the moment I was offered enough freelance work to (just about) pay my bills from the outset. It was one of those “now or never” moments, where I had relatively little risk (at least initially). Lately, I’d been wondering what it would be like to run my own agency, and now I know.
That’s it for now. At some point I’ll probably share the story of how I became an agency copywriter in the first place. Thanks to the person who asked the questions, then said I could share the conversation – I’m sure you’ll do well, whatever you decide.
Meanwhile, if you, the reader, have other questions, I’d be happy to answer them. Feel free to email me at Lungfish, or there’s a comment box down here somewhere…