How to become a copywriter
So why should you become a copywriter?
When you become a copywriter you no longer have to work at a desk or confine yourself to an office. All you need is a laptop and the world can become your office – or at least the parts that have decent Wi-Fi.
This means you gain the freedom to choose when and where you want to write. You also have access to an almost unlimited supply of work thanks to all the websites, brochures, product descriptions, email campaigns and much more that require the skills of a copywriter like you.
Sounds good right?
Well, if you want to get into it yourself, here's how to get started:
- How do you get started as a copywriter?
- How to build your first copywriting portfolio
- How to develop your tone of voice
- How to write content that appeals to emotions
- How to use features and benefits to your advantage
- How to use words that people care about
- How to write conversational content
- How to keep it simple, stupid (KISS)
- How to write for the web
A common misconception about getting into copywriting is that you need to be formally trained or degree educated to get started, but that’s just not the case at all.
A degree in English would certainly help with grammar and potentially open some doors into graduate schemes, but it’s definitely not a prerequisite for the role.
In fact, I would even go as far as to say that you don’t need to be a naturally talented or have any interest in writing to become a copywriter. All you need is the willingness and determination to learn the trade just like any other skill.
Getting started as a copywriter begins with gaining access to a computer and an internet connection. The next step is building your own copywriting portfolio.
To get hired as a copywriter you’re going to need previous examples of work and your portfolio is where you will showcase that work. A great place to build an online portfolio is Journo Portfolio – which despite the name, can also be used by non-journalists to produce a high quality and professional looking portfolio.
At this point I can almost hear you shouting that you don’t have any previous examples of work and cursing the fact that you “need experience to get experience” etc. Don’t fret though, because if you haven’t got any previous examples, you can just create some for yourself.
Simply pick a website with some content that needs improving and then re-write that content along with annotations as to what you changed and why. You can then save this document as a PDF and then add it to your portfolio. Voila, you now have an example of your work.
No one needs to know whether you got paid to produce the content, all that matters is that you can produce the content – which will be clearly evident by your awesome rewrites and your reasoning behind them.
You could then take this a step further and show the website owner what you have produced. As long as you’re polite and transparent about why you created it, you may even land yourself the job of re-writing the rest of the website for them.
The beauty of doing things this way is that you’re also developing your own writing skills and style at the same time. Which leads us on to the next point.
Everyone has their own unique way of walking that separates them from everyone else. Your writing style is no different and will develop over time – hopefully into a style that is both recognisable as yours and desired by others.
For example, my writing style has developed through years of writing content for the web, which is why I keep my sentences quite short. This is because shorter sentences are far easier to read on mobile devices and better for the short attention spans of internet users.
A key part of growing as a copywriter is to pay attention to the work of other successful writers and learn from their successes and failures. For example why did Apple go with "Think Different" rather than "Think Differently"?
Once you figure out the reasons for decisions like this, and master the difference between prescriptive writing and descriptive writing, your own unique style will begin to take shape. As the saying goes, "You gotta know the rules before you can break them".
Just don't expect to develop your tone of voice overnight. In fact, some writers believe that you need to write 100,000 words before you can officially claim to have nailed it. FYI, 100,000 words is the going word count for a pretty chunky novel!
If you’re not planning to write a novel just yet, you can look at 100,000 words as 200 x 500 word articles or 33 x 10 page websites – each with 300 words of content per page. Don't panic if you haven't written that much yet, just be mindful that your tone of voice is probably still developing and may change over time.
Once you’ve mastered your tone, your growth as a writer doesn't stop there. Your next challenge is to learn how to successfully emulate the tone of others so that you can produce content in a style that a client is already happy with. But that's a conversation for another day.
If you want people to read your content then you need to give them a reason to care about what you have to say. The obstacle you face though is that what matters to one person may not necessarily matter to the next.
Your job as a copywriter is to figure out the right combination of words that will break your readers out of their own personal daydream and force them to pay attention to what you have to say. One of the easiest ways to do this is by appealing to their emotions, such as using the the fear of loss:
“Buy now before it’s too late!”.
Or taking it a step further by adding in a little ‘do as others do’ psychology:
“Join the many other people that are already benefiting from this product – But be quick! Strictly limited availability so don’t miss out!”.
The above statement creates a fear of loss, but also appeals to the sheep mentality of people who naturally want to follow others – something most of us are susceptible to, without even realising it.
Other powerful emotions include love, envy and empathy. How you choose to use these emotions in your content is up to you.
You’ll often see the words ‘features and benefits’ thrown together without any real care or consideration to their correct usage, especially in product descriptions. However features and benefits are very different from each other and understanding this difference will improve the way that you write.
So let's nail this one on the head right here:
Features describe what something does. Benefits describe what can be gained from having/using that something.
For example, a feature of a laptop is that it has a HDMI port. A benefit of the laptop would be that you can enjoy a personal home cinema experience by connecting the laptop to a bigger screen or projector using the HDMI port.
It sounds like a minor difference but a person is far more likely to buy something that they desire and benefits appeal to those desires.
So why bother listing features when you can just list benefits?
Features still have their place and appeal to people’s intelligence rather than their desires. They are useful for quickly identifying if a product has something they need, such as whether a fan has multiple speed settings or if a wardrobe has sliding doors.
It’s best to list a few benefits of a product first, then follow up with a list of features. This is because people will decide to buy with their emotions first and then justify those emotional decisions with their intelligence.
Once you get this concept right you can really start harnessing the power of words to sell a product, especially if you can put yourself into the shoes of the person who might want to buy the product.
So in context, if you are trying to sell a home spa kit, your first instinct won’t be to write about how many scented candles are included in the box – because that’s just a feature. You want to think about why someone would actually choose a home spa kit over a professional spa visit.
Maybe they are too busy to take a day off? If so, why not try something like the following:
“When was the last time you had a moment to relax?”
“Aren’t you overdue for a pampering?”
“Isn’t it time that someone took care of you for a change?”
These examples appeal to the emotions of someone who is potentially overworked and tired. By understanding the emotions of this person you are effectively learning how to speak their language.
- People care about what benefits them.
- Benefits appeal to people’s emotions.
- People then buy with their emotions.
- People then justify their emotional decisions with their intelligence.
Now that we have covered benefits, features and writing for emotions we can better address the specific words that resonate with people more so than others.
A great example of this is the word ‘own’ versus the word ‘buy’.
The word ‘buy’ makes you think about the concept of money, such as whether you have enough and whether you are willing to part with it.
“The new 60 inch Smart TV from Samsung is available to buy now”
However the word ‘own’ makes you think about something already being yours and no one else’s.
“The new 60 inch Smart TV from Samsung, yours to own today”
Again, this is all about appealing to emotions and if you can make someone think about actually owning something before they have considered the cost, they are far more likely to give in to their desires and make the purchase
Another great example is the word ‘because’ and how useful it is for justifying a reason for people to take action. This concept was studied in the 1970’s with someone asking to cut into the queue at a photocopying machine.
Basically the phrase “Excuse me, may I cut in line as I’m running late for a meeting?” was nowhere near as effective as “Excuse me, may I cut in line because I am in a rush”.
They even pushed this concept to its limits by making the excuse as trivial as possible:
“Excuse me, may I cut in line because I need to make copies?”
The result was the same. People responded far more favourably when the word ‘because’ was used. The conclusion was that our brains must be tuned to auto-comply when a reason is clearly being provided – as implied by the word 'because', even if that reason is absolutely trivial.
Other powerful words include: Discover, Free, Easy, Yours and You. Essentially words that appeal to egos and imply some kind of benefit to be gained.
Conversational content is content that speaks directly to the reader and keeps them engaged, almost as if they were having a real conversation with another person rather than a bunch of words on a page.
As a writer this gives you the freedom to break grammatical rules, such as starting sentences with ‘and’, ‘but’ and ‘yet’. Your sentences can also be shorter and more fragmented, just as they would be in a verbal conversation or in your head as you think.
Conversational content falls perfectly in line with other topics we have discussed in this article, such as writing for people’s emotions, and helps you to create content that appeals to people’s egos and desires.
Stephen King once talked about “killing his darlings” and “leaving out the boring bits” when he writes. Basically what he means is that you should try to trim away the fat from your writing and leave behind only what is absolutely needed.
In the copywriting world this advice is better known as 'keeping it simple stupid' – or the less aggressive and catchier version, KISS.
Essentially it’s quality over quantity and is the reason why companies such as Apple end up with slogans like “Think different“ rather than “Buy Apple products because they are really pretty and super awesome at doing stuff”.
You just have to learn how to be brutal with your edits and not get too attached to your writing – hence the phrase “learning how to kill your darlings”.
Unless you plan to specialise in an offline writing niche like printed brochures then the majority of your content is going to be web based. This means you need to learn how to adapt your writing style for an online audience and pick up some search engine optimisation (SEO) skills along the way.
Writing for the web
Writing for the web is fairly straightforward, you just need to bear in mind that the majority of web users are aware of the wealth of choice available to them online. This breeds a culture of impatience and brutally short attentions spans.
For example, there is a pub / eatery in London that is built using reclaimed wood from an old shipwreck. I’m sure the full story behind how that pub came to be is a fascinating read, but do I need to read that story as soon as I arrive on the pubs website after searching for a good place to eat?
The vast majority of web users will arrive on that website with the primary intention of looking for a food menu, directions or contact details. This is why it makes good sense for websites to have about pages, contact pages and blog sections to address different topics / purposes.
It’s your job as a copywriter to figure out what the needs of a web user are at a given moment and write appropriate content for them on the most appropriate page.
For example, an ‘about us’ page would be a good place to write about that story of the shipwreck and the home page would be a good place to briefly allude to the pubs history before guiding people in the direction of a food menu or contact page.
This gives web users the freedom of choice that they hold so dear and makes a gesture to them that you have considered their needs – just as a magazine does when it offers a reader a contents page before bombarding them with articles and features.
SEO Copywriting for the web
If you are unfamiliar or new to SEO then you can learn a great deal from this Beginners Guide to SEO from Moz. We also have a few articles on our own blog such as What is SEO? and Are You Making These 5 Mistakes With Your Website Content?
The basic concept of SEO copywriting is to make sure that you have performed keyword research for the topic you are writing about. This is to ensure that people are actually searching for the topic you are covering / you are using the keywords and phrases that people are most likely to type into the search engines.
Keyword research is easier than it sounds and can be learned using this Beginners Guide to Keyword Reasearch from Moz. There are also many easy to use free keyword research tools out there such as KW Finder and Google’s Keyword Planner.
For this article my focus keyword is of course, “How to become a copywriter” but I have also made allowances for linked phrases too, such as “How to write for the web”.
The trick is not to overdo it though, otherwise your content will begin to look over-optimised and unnatural, as if you have written it purely for the search engines rather than a human reader.
You should also make good use of heading tags in your content, such as a H1 tag for the title and H2 tags for your subheadings. Here is an explanation of how to use heading tags in your content.
Ignore any advice about repeating your keywords X number of times or making sure keywords are bolded and italicised. This is out of date SEO and doesn’t count for much in 2017 – as covered by Moz’s article: Stop Doing on-page SEO Like it’s 2012.
Instead, simply focus on writing high quality and useful content geared around a trending topic or a searched for question related to that topic. If you get this right then you’ve done your job as a copywriter.
I left this part till the end for anyone interested in my background and how I got into writing.
My copywriting career actually began by accident, correcting translation errors in restaurant menus in exchange for free food and drink whilst travelling around the Greek islands.
I didn’t have a degree or any previous experience of writing. All I had was a laptop, a laminator and a selfish desire to extend my travels for as long as humanly possible.
Like many people that travel, I wrote about my experiences and tried to get every funny story and detail down on paper. I wouldn’t say it was a work of literary genius, but it did allow me to develop my own writing style.
During the winter months I would come home to the UK and work in a supermarket stacking shelves to earn enough money to go away again in the summer. I hated it, but I’d been doing it for so long I’d given up on ever actually managing to escape for good.
Then one day after a particularly hideous night shift I sat down and started writing about my experiences of working in retail. I must have written for most of the weekend and by the end of it I had a 15,000 word e-book titled: Retail Stole My Life.
Eventually I released the book on Amazon.co.uk under the pseudo name of Rob Gonzo to avoid getting sacked by my bosses at the supermarket. Initial sales were surprisingly good, despite the book being riddled with spelling mistakes, and earned me enough money to go part time and focus on learning more about writing.
After digesting every article I could find online and re-teaching myself GCSE English I eventually started applying for writing based roles, using this outrageously arrogant cover letter and Retail Stole My Life as my portfolio. Eventually someone gave me a chance and the rest is history.
Now I’m not saying that my methodology is the best way to do it, but if I can start a copywriting career with zero qualifications and experience, then so can you.
All you’ve got to do is take the first step and start writing.
- How to guides
- Tone of voice
- Writing for the web
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