Don’t think of yourself as a writer. You are the CEO of your business — A conversation with Louise Shanahan.
From working for the Scottish Government, to starting her own business, Louise isn’t your typical “copywriter”. She has the expert knowledge of a specialist health copywriter, the energy and enthusiasm of a fitness nerd, and the deadline-lovin’ efficiency of a former civil servant. In this conversation, we talk about copywriting, her journey and how freelancers are the CEOs of their own business.
Q. From working as a civil servant to copywriting. Tell us about your journey.
I didn’t go down any of the traditional routes to becoming a copywriter. I didn’t study marketing or writing, and I’ve never worked in an agency, so I’m completely self-taught.
I actually started my career in the Scottish Government, working in a whole range of policy areas over the ten years I was there.
As you can imagine, working in government involves a LOT of writing — speeches for Ministers, endless reports and briefings, public awareness campaigns, press releases and so on. All of that involved communicating with different audiences, to persuade them of a particular viewpoint or policy. It wasn’t a million miles away from copywriting!
I worked in public health for a big chunk of that time, and I ended up doing a Masters in Health Policy at Imperial College London. Having had some health issues myself, I’d become really interested in the way we communicate about health and the messages that are put out by government, brands and the media, about what it means to be healthy. I started thinking hmm… maybe I’d like to work on this side of things a bit more.
I was drawn to the idea of starting my own business, so combining my interest in health, my experience in the sector, and my love of writing — I decided to become a health writer, which gradually evolved into health copywriting.
Now I write for health brands that want stand-out copy and killer content, and also government bodies and charities that want to communicate something important, minus the policy speak! I love it!
Q. What are the most important traits that a copywriter must have?
First of all, it’s the obvious one — you have to be able to write. Talent comes into it of course, but you need to have a willingness to learn and to practice your skills. I devour books about copywriting, sales, advertising, and business, so I can absorb new ways to structure and develop copy for the greatest impact. But reading outside your industry is important too. Reading on a wide range of topics lights up your creativity, as well as exposing you to all sorts of different ways of phrasing and communicating.
Secondly, you need to love getting into the nitty gritty details of a project. To write great copy, you need to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the reader, and that means a lot of research! I probably spend around 90% of my time researching before I start writing. It’s about getting to know the client, their business, their customers and their competitors in crazy detail, before the writing even begins.
And thirdly, I’d say probably the most important trait for a copywriter is around your ability to work with clients. You can’t be precious about your work — it’s for them, not you, after all. You also need to be reliable and professional, so they’ll trust your decisions. You can be the best writer in the world, but if you fail to meet deadlines, your skills are useless. I also think that as a copywriter, you’re an integral part of the client’s marketing strategy, and their business strategy as a whole. Understanding that whole process and offering advice and insight based on your experience is a great way to help the client get more out of their copy. In that respect, I like to think of myself as a consultant.
Q. How do you differentiate yourself from other copywriters in the market?
If you want to stand out, you’ve got to be known for something, so you become the go-to for that thing. I want to be known as the go-to health copywriter, so that when someone asks you if you know someone who can help with their health marketing project, you’ll immediately think of me.
The advantage to the client is that I know their industry inside out. I don’t need to start from scratch — I know the trends, regulatory issues, common customer pain points and so on. And the advantage for me is that I can position myself as an expert so I stand out amongst generalist writers.
I think my experience in public health, my personal experience of health issues, my education in health policy and my expertise in copywriting gives me a unique insight into what needs to happen to communicate a health message in a way that resonates with the reader, whether that’s about selling a product or attracting funders to a charity.
Q. What are the challenges you face as a freelance writer?
That’s a great question. Working alone can be challenging sometimes, especially if you’re someone who thrives on being able to throw around ideas with other people. I’m a huge fan of using coworking spaces and participating in online communities.
Another challenge as a freelancer can be an inconsistent workload — I have times when I have lots of projects back to back, then quieter times. I actually enjoy the variety, but I probably need to get better at planning ahead!
And of course, when you’re running your own business, you’re often doing everything. From the client work to marketing yourself to admin to accounts — it’s all on you. Even though I absolutely love what I’m doing, it’s a 24/7 job sometimes!
Q. What’s the one company that you wish to write for?
As a health writer, I’d love to write for Thrive Global, so I can help spread the word about the need for no-BS, ethical health marketing! I love their commitment to changing the culture so that being healthy is defined in terms of our ability to thrive, not just survive.
Q. What would be your ideal writing platform?
In terms of software platforms, I think there’s a huge need for something that allows writers to collaborate and communicate directly with their clients. As a writer, it’s also helpful to have a clean, simple interface, and a way to collate all your research in one place, rather than having hundreds of tabs open! And finally, if payment is managed via the platform, there’s got to be room for flexibility, so you can agree together how you want to proceed.
Q. What advice would you give to writers who want to move into copywriting?
Such a good question! Here are three things that helped me out when I first started:
- Find a great community of copywriters to learn from — it could be online, or in person (or ideally, both). Having people to give you a bit of moral support when things are tough is so important.
- Don’t think of yourself as a writer. You’re a business owner. You’re RUNNING A BUSINESS. Don’t wait for leads to come to you, or treat your clients as the boss. Put yourself out there, speak and behave as the CEO of your business, and value your work appropriately.
- Take action. It’s easy to spend weeks and months planning what you’re going to do, but actually just doing something is the best way to start seeing results and building confidence.
- Have a finance plan. One thing you do need to plan is how you will pay your bills if there’s a dip in income, particularly when you’re starting out. When I decided I was going to make the jump from a secure, salaried job to self-employment, I spent a year saving half my salary. I know that might not be realistic for everyone, but honestly, doing whatever you can to give yourself a buffer for those lean times really takes the pressure off. If you can’t save much, then you’ll need to go all out marketing yourself, pitching your ideal clients, and networking with other copywriters and web designers who can pass leads your way.
Connect with Louise on LinkedIn by clicking here. Go to her website and sign up for regular-ish emails full of marketing insights and copywriting tidbits! By clicking here. You can also follow her on Instagram by clicking here or simply search for @thecopyprescription
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