[ Copywriting #2 ] How To Start a Copywriting Career
How I quit the day job, how I started, and how I got clients.
I was working an excellent part time job, and was miserable. I needed to quit — but I’d just got a degree in a subject I was less and less passionate for, and I’d sink in its volatile job market.
Writing was my only other skill.
If you have a feeling writing may be a career for you, or you’re wondering whether you chose the right path, here’s the exact steps I went through.
STEP 1: Validation
This took a ton of thought. Writers quit their jobs to write every day — then crawl back to Starbucks with their poetic quill between their legs. Writing is a great skill, but the job market is terrible and I didn’t have a Bachelors of Science to back me up in it.
Here are the qualifiers for a validated business idea:
A. ‘Do I enjoy it?’ Yes. I’d been writing fiction for 14 years, so I enjoyed stories and narrative structure, at least. In uni I’d much rather write essays than do the practical work — unless it involved labs or skeletal remains — so I could construct persuasive arguments and blather my way through 2000+ words of something I wasn’t necessarily interested in.
B. ‘Will people pay for it?’ Also yes. I self-published a novel in uni, which sold to a couple more people than the family and friends who bought it. I’d also found a content mill site a couple of years back from which I’d earned a bit of pocket money.
Writing — validated.
STEP 2: Plan.
It was always quiet at work, and sometimes I was the only person on the floor. I’d spool out receipt paper and make notes (I owe them like three whole rolls, haha).
I did math.
I wrote down two wages: one was the minimum hourly wage I was currently earning, the other was what I waned to earn from writing. (This was not a millionaire goal — this was the first milestone. I chose to match my average retail wage.)
I multiplied and subtracted to discover what I needed to earn:
- Per day
- Per week
- Per month
- Per year
I already knew I could make a couple bucks from that content mill, so I scaled it. I worked out how many articles I’d need to write, and what each one would need to sell for to reach my goal.
I added a couple more for safety.
I also spitballed new ideas to write for money that I’d develop later: once I was well on my way to the first milestone.
PRO TIP: Planning should take at most a week, or a few afternoons scribbling on receipt paper. Your plan will be chewed up, spit out and shat on by life — make sure you don’t care too much about it. Executing is more important.
STEP 3: Find Networks.
Validating your idea means in 99.9% of cases, someone’s done it already. Those people will probably talk to each other. Find those people.
I Googled how to start your own business and how to earn money writing. Once I learned more, I realised I could actually become an entrepreneur — a title I thought was reserved only for Richard Branson and that vacuum cleaner guy.
So I started Googling ‘entrepreneur’.
I signed up to email newsletters, including Daniel DiPiazza’s, and read books (listed at the end of this post). I didn’t sweat over who found them useful and why: I just picked out the ones that ‘called’ to me, added to basket, skim read, discarded the duds and reread the ones I found most valuable.
So I started Googling ‘myelin’, ‘assets and liabilities’ and ‘freelance’.
I joined Daniel’s Facebook group, Rich20Something, and that blew my mind: I suddenly had contact with thousands of other people in my situation, and direct contact with Daniel. I had no idea Facebook could put me in touch with influencers.
I began posting questions, and answering others’.
I began giving away free value, posting about writing and earning money. I received encouragement: I gave out more than I got.
That’s where I discovered copywriting: an entirely new way of making money writing.
STEP 4: Convince Significant Others You Aren’t Batshit Insane.
This is hard. And it never ends: family and friends always have days their faith in you wavers, even if their love doesn’t.
Gather as much proof, validation and conviction as you can, and don’t back down. Accept the fact some people just won’t see things from your perspective — some of those will go out on a limb for you. Others will leave.
You have to decide between those guys, and writing.
STEP 5: Quit Day Job
(It’s as easy as that.)
[But don’t if your part time job is your single source of income. I was lucky enough to have an INCREDIBLY supportive partner, who still puts a roof over my head. Don’t get penisy: don’t think you can live off savings until this takes off. You have no idea WHEN it’ll take off. Protect yourself.
If you can’t physically quit: mentally quit. Stop taking work home with you. Do just above bare minimum. Stay calm, polite, do your job competently and don’t pack your bags yet. Save going the extra mile for your writing hustle.]
STEP 6a: Execute.
That plan you made? Do it. I began trading on 1st August 2015.
I was now writing two or three articles a day: enough to theoretically reach my goal and match my retail wage. I got into a routine. I left enough room in that routine to learn about copywriting…
STEP 6b: Learn While You Execute.
My main resource for copywriting and business was (and continues to be) Facebook groups.
My copywriting ‘studies’ were nothing more than saved links on Facebook, looking and picking apart other copy, and reading what others had written about it. I adapted my past skills analysing fiction and writing essays.
To this day, I’ve only used one training product and have another waiting for my attention. Both are about influence, not copy.
I’ve never made it all the way through an actual book on copywriting or advertising.
For me, reading real copy is 100% more valuable.
(Don’t even fucking ask me about copying sales letters out by hand — I mean, what is that, really? Am I gonna be the next Brett Easton Ellis by hand copying the entirety of American Psycho over and over? No.)
STEP 7: The First Gig.
It was the product of all the aforementioned groundwork.
I was posting about writing, and calling myself a writer, and earning money writing content articles. I was messaged by someone in a Facebook group who had seen my posts: could I write a few ‘horror scenarios’ for his lead magnet?
Here’s the thing: other people in other businesses don’t separate ‘content writers’ and ‘copywriters’ and ‘authors’.
They see ‘writer’. And when they see any kind of writer post and learn and write about the business of writing, they’ll think of you to write for them. If it’s your first gig — if it’s not your preferred niche — if you’ve never tried that kind of copy before — WRITE FOR THEM ANYWAY, AND DO A GOOD JOB.
The line into ‘copywriting’ was blurred. He paid me what I would have got for three articles, and gave me an awesome testimonial — because we were friends on the group before anything else. He’d helped me before, and now I’d helped him out.
What do you think was the first thing I did? (After using some of that sweet sweet profit to buy a cold beer.)
STEP 8: Social Media.
I went on LinkedIn, and wrote ‘copywriter’ as my occupation.
(I updated it on Facebook too, I think.)
I was specific. I used terms I’d learned which weren’t greatly related to the actual work I’d done, but were what I wanted more experience in.
PRO TIP: This is the single most important thing you can do if you need a mental shift. If you’re experiencing impostor syndrome, put writing as your job. Fake it while you make it.
I changed my profile pictures to a more professional selfie, untagged myself from embarrassing photos, ensured my contact details were up to date, and highlighted my writing work on LinkedIn. (I didn’t have enough experience to remove my whole work history, so I kept it up and made it relate by emphasising those skills which fed back into writing. Make it look like one big plan — even if you’re just lurching from one gig to the next.)
Meanwhile, the content articles were solid, but not enough were selling as I’d hoped. Copywriting was now essential to compensate.
STEP 9: Luck.
What else can you call it, really? I mean, all luck is is the natural consequence of groundwork, which I’d put down. It was only a matter of time.
The only thing that made it ‘lucky’ I guess was the fact it was my first gig from a stranger, who had his own company. He found me through LinkedIn — a consequence of me putting ‘copywriter’ in my description, along with my location (he was twenty miles away).
That gig led to regular articles. At the high point I was doing 4000 words a week. He respected my work, understood I didn’t know much about digital marketing and let me research along the way.
He wanted a cheap, reliable writer. I did my best. My favourite job was a rush: 1000-word web copy on machine shrink wrap. Researched, written and submitted in two hours, payment five minutes after that at 11.30pm on a Tuesday night.
I put the position on LinkedIn immediately.
PRO TIP: As much as it’s good to never work for free, and don’t accept low pay, if it’s better than not progressing AT ALL you need to take it.
I was paid £10 per 500 word article. Occasionally he’d go up to £30 if it was pretty technical (yay shrink wrap). That was less than I got from the content mill: but it was guaranteed regular work, which at that point I was willing to pay for.
Flexibility is important.
STEP 10: Persist. Grow.
Meanwhile I was getting more work through the Facebook groups as my reputation spread — I’d set up a website and popped my horror story testimonial on there.
I was learning what ‘real’ copywriters were earning — and making sure I was developing the right skills to increase what I could ask for.
New clients were finding me through Facebook groups exclusively, either because I was still posting about what I was learning and doing or because they’re friends recommended me. It was a steady trickle.
I charged every new client who contacted me a different rate. Still less than the pros. But I systematically began upping it.
I wish I collected more testimonials and metrics. Get all those you can — start nagging. You can see in my notes that an advertorial I wrote converted at 1.53%: this got me a couple more gigs. Even though it wasn’t impressive, it was real proof.
That month I broke my earnings milestone.
THE KEY TO IT ALL: Start as a cheap, competent little writer. Offer every client a new price, and deliver so well that they think ‘that was a bargain’. They’ll never complain that you charged the other guy a different amount.
STEP 11: Let Go.
Outgrowing old clients and old ways is part of the process, and it’s why I told you not to cling to your plan because it’ll be shat on.
I began posting on job boards and prospecting rather than waiting for clients to find me. (The steady trickle still continued.)
I re-evaluated my rates with every new project, and again every month or so.
I kept doing articles for the digital marketing guy, simply because he was such a good client: regular work, instant payment. He asked me to do a 4000 word article: I gave him a rate that was less than half of what anyone in my copywriting Facebook group would accept. He said thank you very much but I think we’ll skip it this time.
I never heard from him again.
I wish him well.
Two months after I let him go, I earned 572% of my original earnings goal.
That month, I stopped writing articles for the content mill. They’re still selling to this day: it’s awesome getting a little $30 or so each month.
STEP 12: The Unexpected.
The day I got Justin’s review, everything blew up.
He’s well known in my circles, and he rated my project number one out of a list of briefs completed by other copywriters. He posted my conversion rate: 12%–15%. I had 24 friend requests in an hour.
This kind of profession never goes smoothly — you’ll have dry periods, and you’ll have whackadoodle busy periods. Just cope. Scrabble it together, do your best, and make notes on how you can work on your business during the next dry period.
I’m still getting work off that review.
PRO TIP: One excellent review can propel you through the next few months. Work for it, and be prepared.
(That was also the day my internet was cut off and I was wifiless for a month. The rise in blood pressure nearly made my ears fall off.)
STEP 12: Where I Am Now.
I still have to automate lead generation. I’ve made and smashed a couple more earnings goals. I’m still trying to specialise. I don’t consider myself a pro but many people have said my copy is solid, and I want to improve.
In March, I earned more than my full-time spouse. Heh heh.
But, that’s gone up and down since: my next goal is to even out and achieve predictable income.
I’m concentrating on personal brand and building an audience (started my own Facebook group). Today I learned that working in your business is different than working on your business, so that’s a new direction for this week.
I’m still learning. Always.
THE CONTENT MILL: Constant-Content.com
BOOKS: I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi, So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, Millionaire Fastlane by M. J. DeMarco, Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, the War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Q. How to get your first client?
A. Post valuable advice for others, post about your own progress. Change your social media occupation to ‘writer’. Get experience writing in subjects you want to be paid for: content mills, guest blog posts and free work count here. Advertise on a job board that you have experience writing in those subjects.
And for God’s sake write well, otherwise it’ll be worthless.
Q. How to keep getting clients?
A. Keep doing all of the above. Get testimonials from your first clients, put them on a website. Ask for feedback every time.
Compile a copy n’ paste of samples, testimonials and metrics for all new prospects and customise the samples to suit their market.
Clients will find you through your network if you regularly demonstrate your value: never be afraid to ask for referrals either.
Q. What courses/training should I get?
A. I can’t recommend any, because I never buy any. Get a couple that come endorsed by pros in your network who aren’t selling them. Bear in mind info products might not be the right format for you. Books are good resources.
But nothing beats reading and picking apart real copy.
Q. Should I specialise, or be a generalist?
A. Start as a generalist. Pig out at the buffet of jobs and have fun.
If you get a job you hate, hooray! Stop doing it.
Whittle the jobs down to stuff you properly enjoy and are good at (and which pay more). It’s better to be a big fish in a small pond, but later.
Q. Should I build a personal brand?
A. Yes. Personal brand encompasses what jobs you do/don’t do, your writing voice and how you present yourself online. It can be as involved as what colours you use and what kind of images and structure you use for your posts.
A personal brand, even if you vomit at the phrase, communicates you in the shortest possible way — and it lets the right people know what to expect so they come back for more. A personal brand evolves from experimentation, and the evolution of your own self and work.
Q. Should I copy a personal brand?
A. No. What? It’s not personal then.
Personal brands change, and you’ll adopt elements of others’, but it’s never good to copy even from the start. GaryVee just posted a killer video? By all means — post a video or write about what he wrote about. But don’t try and BE GaryVee. GaryVee is GaryVee, you ain’t.
If you like doing videos but struggled to talk about the subject: keep doing videos. Struggle with videos? Write out your thoughts instead. Collect what you like, discard what you don’t, and don’t cling to stuff just because it becomes expected of you if you don’t actually like it.
Q. I have no clips, no experience, nothing! Help!
A. Calm the fuck down. Write for free — yeah, for free. Facebook posts are free: offer value, ask and answer questions. Don’t hint at your rates or any payment, but calmly state what you want to be paid when someone asks.
You can write for free on blogs or articles, but immediately after you complete the job ask for a testimonial and feedback. Use that to back up your experience when you close your next client.
You are under absolutely no obligation to say you did it for free.
If they complain, and say ‘oh X told me you did it for nothing’, move on. You don’t want that kind of client. Believe me.
There’s plenty more work out there.