In looking back on the nearly four dozen aspiring copywriters I’ve trained and mentored over the years and asking which personal qualities posed challenges and roadblocks and which enable beginners to carve out a lasting niche for themselves, I have zeroed in on four key skill areas. To build and sustain a copywriting or marketing consulting a business, you need to be or become good in these four competencies:
1. Writing. To develop persuasive written materials, you must learn to meld creativity, which involves being able to put forth fresh ideas, concepts, phrasings and images, with proven formats – structures for sales letters, brochures, press releases, home pages and so on that embody techniques that work.
If you learn only the latter, your work comes across sounding formulaic and hollow. It can attract clients and produce results, but only to a limited extent. Perceptive clients will notice that your projects tend to come out much the same. They’ll conclude that you’re either still in the apprenticeship phase of mastery or that you lack the problem-solving skill they need to get the kinds of results they crave.
And on the other hand, if you depend too heavily on creativity, you fail to use the little devices, turns of phrase, formatting tools and finishing touches that help improve response. I see this weakness in a lot of my beginning students – which is fine, because any halfway decent copywriting training course, whether live or canned, can remedy this shortcoming.
To achieve the ideal balance between creativity and the tricks of the trade on your own, you’d need great instincts and loads of practice. Top-notch mentoring, with frequent feedback from an experienced master, is a surer and faster route to finding your feet as a copywriter.
2. Pleasing clients. I’ve seen people who have no trouble with #1 flounder or become miserable because of this essential factor. Again it’s necessary to strike a balance, this time between doing great work and making sure that the person or company paying your fee is satisfied.
Without knowing how to please clients, you can turn out a terrific copy and have clients refuse to pay, or pay up but never come back. It’s crucial to be able to listen to the client’s goals, to keep those goals in mind while shaping the work, to explain what you’ve done and why, and to talk through differences in perception so that the two sides eventually see eye to eye.
This skill did not – does not – come naturally to me. I have learned this painfully and repeatedly, by overlooking or forgetting it, analyzing what went wrong and resolving to do better in the future. Sometimes the error here is in accepting projects where the client’s expectations are at odds with the way you think things should be done. Sometimes there’s not enough communication with the client and education of the client away from what you see as wrongheaded ideas.
While this factor still goes awry for me a few times every year, most of my projects go well because I attract plenty of clients who love the way I do things and respect my opinion where it differs from theirs. If you build a strong enough reputation, clients tend to listen to you – though not always.
On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of beginning copywriters as well as colleagues with years of experience struggle with the opposite side of this balancing act. They know how to please clients but in doing so, they make themselves unhappy.
For your own sanity, you need to be able to set firm boundaries – ground rules, policies and things to say when clients become unreasonable in their demands. If they demand to rewrite after rewrite, insist that their ignorant ideas are superior to what you know, expect you to chitchat endlessly whenever they feel like calling or otherwise drive you nuts, you must be able to head off these problems, negotiate solutions and disengage.
Having trusted colleagues to discuss problems with, an online or in-person peer group or a coach help immeasurably in finding your way with pleasing clients.
3. Business skills. How much should you charge? How many clients do you need, and how can you find them? What if your sure-fire marketing tactics fail to bring in clients, or bring in more than you can handle? What if clients who say they loved what you did don’t pay?
No one is born knowing any of this stuff. With guidance from people who are running or have run a successful business, you can learn key business skills. If you’ve run any other kind of business before turning to copywriter or have watched successful entrepreneurs up close, you’ll probably find this skill area easy.
Years of membership in the New England Women Business Owners organization and my prior experience as a freelance writer for national magazines taught me how to be tough with clients when needed, charge what I’m worth, keep on trying when I felt I was on the right track, regroup when necessary and avoid dumb business decisions most of the time.
One of the most common business challenges I’ve seen for aspiring copywriters involves money issues. Charge too little, and you may be working very hard, have loyal clients and yet not be earning enough to sustain yourself (or your family) over time. A support group or mentor can help you battle the inner demons that keep you from raising your rates, whereupon almost always you discover that the best clients don’t mind paying more, and you feel happier about the business.
The second most common business challenge involves perseverance. If something doesn’t work out the way you’d hoped, do you retreat in hurt and disappointment, or do you simply try something else? I’ve watched a couple of people jump into the copywriting business with supreme enthusiasm and then brood obsessively over every minor reversal. Unfortunately, this type of person isn’t suited to self-employment. If you give up or feel overwhelmed easily, then you may be better off working on salary for an employer.
4. Discipline. To earn a living writing copy for others, you must be able to manage deadlines and details. By deadlines, I mean not only the obvious point that if you’ve promised that a project would be finished by June 30, it must be, but also the less obvious point that you need to be able to complete top-notch work in a reasonable amount of time.
If you can reach excellence only painstakingly or through a slow process of repeated drafts, you may not be able to make it in the business. Few clients are willing to pay enough for a web site or be patient enough, to let you treat their project as if you were Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel.
Another personality type that has trouble with discipline is a Crisis Cathy – someone who masterfully and continually creates emergencies, problems and roadblocks so that things never get done, but with seemingly legitimate excuses. Family members may put up with this kind of behaviour, but clients generally won’t, especially if it rears its head more than once.
As for details, you must have the discipline to proofread, check facts and get things like names and numbers right. I’ve seen a couple of writers who can’t spell or use proper grammar become fabulously successful nevertheless, but I do not recommend this. Where clients are concerned, it’s a much bigger handicap than these blithe spirits will admit. Most clients do not take well to carelessness on your part. When you deliver work containing mistakes, they consider it disrespectful and unprofessional.
So there you have it. These four competencies are roughly equal in importance for success as an independent copywriter or marketing consultant, I believe. Do you measure up? Are you willing to work on developing the qualities you don’t have?