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To the New Copywriter: Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Starting Out
Dear New Copywriter,
Welcome to the wonderful world of being paid to do something you love! As with any career endeavor, you’re going to learn a lot along the way. To kickstart your professional copywriting journey, here is some of the wisdom I’ve collected along the way that I wish someone had told me when I was in your shoes.
First, what you do has value. Even after holding several different writing positions that offered actual money in return, I often found myself mystified that someone would pay me to write for them. I didn’t think that what I was doing was anything special; I thought anyone could do it. Now I know that simply isn’t true. The ability to tailor messaging and tone to appeal to different audiences, perform research to write knowledgeably on obscure and/or complex topics, and create engaging content that readers will find valuable are all special skills that come with education, training, and practice. If you truly love writing and you find yourself doing it for fun, you may not even realize you’re putting in work and honing your skills. Not everyone can do what you do, New Copywriter. You have skills and abilities beyond those possessed by the general population. Those skills and abilities are useful, desirable, and valuable. So don’t let anyone try to devalue your work – which brings me to my next point.
There are ways to gain exposure for your work that don’t involve being taken advantage of. You’re probably receiving offers to write for people who aren’t willing to offer you cash money in exchange, and instead they’re offering E-words like “exposure” and “experience”, or “the opportunity to build your portfolio.” Those people fall into two camps: the ones who don’t see the value in your work (and hope that you don’t, either!) and the ones who do see the value, but can’t afford to pay you – like a small business or a start-up. Never work for nothing, no matter how green you are. When applying for copywriting positions, some companies will ask you for links to work you’ve published, but most will ask you for writing samples – and you can do those all by yourself. When I first started out, my writing samples were academic papers I wrote for class and articles I wrote specifically to use as writing samples, on topics I found interesting. If you do find yourself wanting to write for a company who can’t afford you, it’s okay to make a deal where you receive something else of value in exchange – stock in the startup, or free meals from the small local cafe, etc. Accept what you think is fair, and never be too shy to say, “I appreciate the offer, but I don’t perform this work without compensation.”
You already know that writing is subjective, but all the peer reviews and workshops in the world don’t really prepare you for that first professional rejection. I can even write here and now that some people won’t like what you write, but it won’t really remove the sting. Maybe it won’t even keep you from doubting yourself entirely, but I urge you to try not to question your entire skillset and career direction based on opinion of one person or company. You can be more flexible than an Olympic gymnast and write in more voices than the largest Guinness World Record-holding Gospel choir and still you won’t be able to modify your writing enough to appease some people. That doesn’t make you a bad writer, or a failure. You can’t be the perfect fit for every job. That doesn’t mean the perfect fit for you doesn’t exist, or you’ll never find it. It does, and you will. Just keep writing.
You’re about to become a repository of seemingly useless knowledge – seemingly. Many of the things you learn while researching your topics will come in handy later. Thanks to one job I had for a little over a year, I have become a wealth of obscure celebrity knowledge (Did you know Bob Barker learned martial arts from Chuck Norris? Or that Freddy Mercury once snuck Princess Di out of the palace dressed as a man for a night of shenanigans free from the public eye?). I’ve learned about how Scotch is aged, how Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy is used to treat inflammation, and the process for applying for a small business loan all from different copywriting assignments. I’ve used that knowledge as talking points at networking events, answers to questions on bar trivia nights, and responses to interview questions. You never know what’s going to stick with you, or when you might be able to use it. I hope you find that as exciting as I do, New Copywriter, because it’s one of the best perks of our job!
Depending on the exact nature of your position, there may be other perks as well – but be careful, because what looks like a perk at first may also be a pitfall. If you’re writing freelance, you probably don’t have set hours you’re required to work. That kind of freedom can be intoxicating, and there is a lot you can do with it: accompany your niece on a day-long field trip, stay out all night on a weeknight, etc. Other things you can do with it are misjudge how much research is involved in an assignment and miss a deadline, or have to miss a concert you’ve been looking forward to for months because you overcommitted yourself to a project. Even if you think you know your limits and capabilities now, you’ll learn that they fluctuate. You’ll also learn tricks that will help you focus. For example, I don’t focus well when I’m hungry, so I keep snacks like dried fruit and pretzels on hand to nibble while I work.
And finally, you will burn out, and you will recover. It doesn’t matter how much you love writing, eventually – whether it’s for an hour or a day or a month – you’re going to get sick of it. You may be surprised to find that even the type of writing that was once your outlet, so different and distant from the type of writing you get paid to do, feels like a slog. In those moments, New Copywriter, you may feel discouraged, and you may berate yourself for turning something you loved and that brought you joy into something boring or abhorrent. I beg you, don’t lose hope. It will come back around. You will rediscover your passion and excitement for writing. I have, and did, and continue to do so – and so will you.
New Copywriter, I’m so proud of you. You are going to put amazing work into the world! I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
</ XOXO >
[Photo credit: Debby Hudson via Unsplash]