I get an email at least once a week from aspiring copywriters seeking advice on how to get a foothold in the industry. It's obviously a popular topic, so I thought I'd put some of the more common questions and answers on paper in the hopes that it might provide a bit of an insight.
Q: What does a copywriter do in a typical day?
A: This question is very comprehensively answered in http://www.divinewrite.com/adayinthelifeof.htm, to summaries, copywriters do some or all of the following:
meet with prospective clients ("prospects") or talk with them on the phone to sell your services to them (freelancers only)
liaise with clients to take a brief (learn what the client needs from the copy, who the audience is, what benefits the client offers their customers, etc.)
research the subject matter
plan the structure and approach of the writing
write the piece
liaise with the client through the review process (the client reviews the work and the copywriter fixes whatever needs fixing - so long as it's not out of scope, e.g. a new requirement)
get the client to sign off (approve) the job
invoice the client (freelancers only)
chase payment of invoice (freelancers only)
process the payment using an accounts package (freelancers only)
keep detailed records of all correspondence and activities throughout the process
manage the business (freelancers only - including manage your IT systems, accounting, create and maintain a website, create advertising materials, writing proposals, generate a search engine ranking, maintain a database of contacts, etc.)
Q: What are the working conditions like?
A: Most copywriters work either for themselves ("freelancing") or for advertising or web design agencies ("employees"). Freelancers tend to work from home, but may sometimes work at the client's workplace. Employees almost always work at the client's workplace. Conditions for freelancers tend to be pretty relaxed (they're at home, after all!!!). I haven't worked at an agency, but I suspect things are a little different there.
Q: What is the pay like?
A: I've heard of freelance copywriters being paid by the article at a rate of USD $12 per 600 word article (seems ridiculous to me!). I believe these people were college students looking for a way into the copywriting industry. At the other end of the spectrum, talented freelancers who treat writing as a serious business can earn in excess of USD $100,000 per year. I think that agency copywriters tend to earn somewhere in between these figures, maybe averaging between USD $35,000 - $70,000.
Q: What skills do I need?
A: A copywriter needs to be able to write very well in many different styles (from short 1-2 line ads through to long 3000 word articles). They also need to be able to adapt to heaps of different subjects (from IT to kitchen surfaces to accounting to nutritional supplements to cars). They need to be organized and hard-working, with an eye for detail and an understanding of writing for different media (website, brochures, radio, TV, etc.). Freelancers need good business sense, an understanding of search engines, some ability with IT systems, and patience. They also need to accept that they're gonna be poor for the first 2 years!
Q: What education do I need?
A: Formal education never hurts, and often helps. But it's no guarantee of success. If a copywriter has all of the above skills, they won't need formal training in writing. Also, in my humble opinion, you can't train to become a writer; you're either a writer or you're not. Training can sharpen certain skills, and teach new styles, etc., but if you don't have 'the flow' when you start the course, it's unlikely you'll have it when you finish.
Q: Do I need a website?
A: Yes! The best place for any freelance advertising copywriter or website copywriter to start is to fork out for a website. A website is invaluable because when you cold call and email prospects, you’ll need to direct them somewhere that gives them more information.
Q: What should I include on my website?
A: Keep it simple, include a portfolio page, add any samples of any sort of copywriting you've done, talk about the places you've worked, the clients you’ve written for, and include any testimonials you’ve received. Make sure you include your address and contact details as well, so people don't think you're a fly-by-night operation. Of course, it doesn't hurt to include a photo either. If you can't say much about your experience, don't say much. It doesn't even really matter if you don't say anything. Remember, just like any other form of advertising copywriting, writing about yourself requires the art of subtlety. If you lack experience, but you’re confident you can do the job, you can be very clever in what you don't say, and most people will read it the way you intended.
Q: Should I target agencies?
A: If you’ve never worked as an advertising copywriter or website copywriter before, don’t target advertising agencies and web design agencies. They know exactly what they’re after, so if you don’t have a portfolio, you won’t stand a chance. Target end-clients directly.
Q: Should I cold call?
A: Yes. One of the best ways of generating business in the early days is to cold call potential end-clients. It’s hard work and very time consuming, but you can generate some very qualified leads. For more information on cold calling, take a look at http://www.divinewrite.com/coldcallingcopywriter.htm.
Q: Should I write samples?
A: Yes. If you’re targeting specific clients or industries, don’t be afraid to write a few samples and send them through. You can offer the pieces free of charge (everyone likes something for nothing) or at a discount, or you can use it as an incentive to sign them up for future work. It all depends on the type of work and the type of client. The important thing to remember is that samples are virtually as good as a portfolio to most prospective clients.
Q: Do I need an accounts package?
A: Yes! Don’t be fooled into thinking you can handle your accounts manually (or with Microsoft Excel). Even if you only have a few clients, you NEED a proper accounts package like MYOB or Quicken (they both offer small business versions). You’ll understand why the first time you do your GST reports or annual taxes. In fact, you’ll understand why whenever you need to chase down outstanding invoices.