Wednesday, June 16, 2010

So You Wanna Be a Copywriter?

I've had a couple of inquiries recently about my job, how I got it, and how to go about finding writing work. Here's my story and my advice. 

I began copywriting in fall 2006. I found my job via I listed my resumé with them and then was notified of an opening at Mrs. Fields Gifts. I had been working full time in an unrelated field and had been looking/hoping for writing work for about 6 months before the job opening popped up. I got an interview, which I thought went really well, although I knew they were worried about my lack of copywriting experience. (In lieu of a copywriting portfolio, I took in several pieces of my creative writing.) But, since we had good chemistry, I was asked to write some sample copy for them.

I took the assignment and gave it my best shot. I turned it into them and then heard nothing. I figured I had lost the chance at that job to someone with more experience. In the mean time, I kept working at my other job, watched for job postings, and tried not to give up hope. Then, out of the blue, and days before I was expecting an offer from another non-writing job that I didn't really want but was prepared to take, I got a phone call from my contact at Mrs. Fields. "Are you ready to start writing for us?" he asked. And then I peed my pants.

All along the way, I asked for advice from my brother John, who started out his career as a copywriter. At his suggestion, I constantly checked craigslist and other local job listings and kept my ears open for opportunities. I also made up business cards and sent them to small businesses that I frequented, knew well as a customer, and was confident that I could represent their brand in copy. I wrote them each a personal letter, telling them that I was a loyal customer and also a copywriter, and would be happy to have their business if they ever had need. Now, to be honest, none of those letters turned into a job, but the exercise was good, I think. It made me put myself "out there" in a confident way (even though I was completely intimidated). Writing lesson #234: Pretending to be confident is almost the same thing as being confident.

All the other jobs I've picked up have come from craigslist or from contacts I've made with other people in the industry. So, get connected; make friends with other writers and people in the creative fields. Bookmark craigslist and check it every day. It allows you to do a very narrow search of your area and posts a wide range of jobs. And finally, make sure all your friends and family know that you're looking for copywriting work. Let them be your eyes and ears as well. 

Now, for my advice. When it comes to beginning a career as a copywriter, I think there are a few questions you should ask yourself to see if it's a good fit:

Do you write every day? Like all jobs, writing is work. Before you choose it as a career, I recommend practicing at it. A lot. If it's something you already choose to do every day and enjoy (even writing an email gives you satisfaction), you're a great candidate in my opinion. If writing is something you only do when the creative mood strikes, you may run into some frustration. There isn't a lot of room for writer's block when you're on the clock. You should be well practiced at your trade. By the way, blogging is a great way to practice your writing. 

Are you going to work freelance? I was completely reluctant to become a freelancer. I was very used to my steady, same-dollar-amount-every-time paycheck that arrived regularly and was accompanied by health benefits and a retirement program. However, after consulting with other copywriters I knew and trusted, I realized that, for me, freelance was the smarter way to go. Here's why: I could work from home, potentially earn more money (hourly vs. salary), and also pick up other work that came around. The downside of freelance is that it sometimes feels like feast or famine in workload (and therefore paycheck). And, speaking of paychecks, they can be hard to track down at times. Paydays become an exercise in the art of guestimation. But, overall, freelancing has worked out great for me and my family.

Do you need to earn a steady income with writing? When you're starting out, the more flexibility you have in this area, the better. When I started writing professionally, I was the primary breadwinner for our family. I had a mortgage, two kids, and a husband who still had a couple more years of grad school. In other words, I had no flexibility in this area. I needed a steady income. I realize that I completely lucked out at getting such a major, steady client. I don't think this happens very often. But I do believe in the adage that necessity is the mother of invention. If you have to earn a certain amount of money (and you don't have a rich uncle to rely on), you'll probably find a way to do so!

Do you need to have employer benefits (health care, dental, etc.)? Thankfully, we get our benefits through my husband's job. They are expensive to purchase on your own as a self-employed freelancer. You'll need to calculate that cost into your budget and freelancing rate. And remember, if you're a freelancer, that means you are responsible to save part of your check for taxes. Meet with an accountant earlier rather than later to calculate your withholdings. 

Do you work well with deadlines? Like I said, there's not a lot of room for writer's block. The copywriter is one of many important cogs in the creative wheel, so you've got to keep up and do your part. You have to become indispensable, as trusty as the family labrador. Especially if you work from home. You have to turn your work in on time; you just have to. 

Are you good at taking direction? Copywriting is about translating a message, idea, or campaign into a specific voice and style that represents a brand. You have to listen and comprehend well. If you're lucky like me, you'll get to work long-term with some of your clients, and you'll get better and better at understanding exactly what they want. If you're unclear, always ask questions and, if it's a shorter piece of copy, give them a few options to work with.

Is your ego a removable part? I don't like this. This is too weak. This is too strong. This isn't the message we're going after. This isn't directive enough. This is confusing. I don't know what this means. I hate this. Not funny. Change this. Delete that. These are the kind of comments you're going to get about your work. You cannot be defensive about your writing. It's not about you. It's about getting it right. Don't let your ego stand in the way of getting it right. Even if you disagree with the direction you're being asked to go, remember the golden rule of business: the customer is always right. Your client is the customer. Make them happy. 

Are you extremely flexible with your time? My job offers me incredible flexibility, and in return, I offer my job incredible flexibility. I'm willing to work early mornings, late nights, late-late nights, weekends and even holidays if that's what it takes to get the job done. I rarely take a vacation without taking some work with me. But honestly, I'm happy to do so. Because in return, I am able to do a lot of things I couldn't do if I were at a 9-5 job. I see it very much as a two-way street.

If you have kids, are they good kids? Working from home is wonderful in most ways, but definitely presents some challenges, especially if you have kids. I've always tried to get most of my work done when the kids are gone to school or asleep, but there are times when I have to work while they are home. Thankfully, my kids are very good at keeping themselves occupied or entertained if I'm working. They only interrupt if there's something urgent I need to see on iCarly. I try to reward them with fun time if I have to require a lot of their patience. For example, "I'm going to work until 2:30, then we'll go to the pool." It gives us all an incentive to work together to git 'er done. My kids are amazing. I could not do this job if they weren't.

Did I miss anything? If you have any more questions, feel free to email me. tiffany(at)wouldbewritersguild(dot)com


Leslie said...

YOU are amazing!

Kelly S. said...

iCarly! He he. My kids watch it religiously. I walk by and get sucked into it. Then I start asking questions and they get frustrated and say just sit down and watch! I usually do. All that posting about writing and I comment about iCarly!

Lindy-Lou said...

Leslie's right.

Soul-Fusion said...

While I never thought about it before, you have now kind of convinced me that I want to be a copywriter.

Annie said...

i will leave all the writing to you. oh, and the cooking of the burritos. you are amazing.

ern said...

thanks so much! that was so informative. and helpful!

Christy said...

Don't take it personal. Boy did I need to hear that after my day at work today. So true! Thanks for the reminder.

tiburon said...

I am also going to leave the writing to you.

You can leave the not being funny to me.

April said...

Love this post. You are amazing. What a perfect fit you and your career are. Not many people can say that.

Stefanie said...

Love reading and visiting your blog!

Jesse C said...

You are cool

Veeda said...

great tips. The freelancing world can be a scary one, having confidence is really so important!

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