5 Absolute Essentials for Making It as a Copywriter

By John Forde

I’ve been writing copy for about 20 years.

I started as an intern. I wrote and researched articles and made $15 a day. Needless to say, I brown-bagged my lunch.

Today, I live in Paris. Our Left-Bank apartment has floor-to-ceiling windows that swing open to a balcony. And my wife and I go out to fine restaurants for dinner.

It’s a nice life, for sure. But how did I get here? A little luck, maybe.

But these five simple career-advancing tricks didn’t hurt:

5 Things You Can Do Now To Succeed as a Copywriter

In a nutshell – and aside from actually getting your first client – there are at least five things you can start doing right now if you want a better chance of becoming a well-paid copywriter…

1. Read one piece of direct mail daily.

There are, of course, all kinds of copywriting. But even Ogilvy says that it’s in direct mail that all the greatest copywriters cut their teeth. It’s no wonder that Michael Masterson, copywriting guru and “father” to dozens of incredibly successful businesses, recommends you read at least one full direct-mail promo package a day.

2. Become a marketing sponge.

You would think that, this far into my own career, I don’t need to listen to tapes or read books on marketing and copywriting secrets. Yet, I’ve got all the names you know in my archives… from Bly and Caples to Gnam and Halbert, Hopkins, and Ogilvy right on down to Zig Ziglar. And I still read them, too. Or rather, I listen on the iPod.

Why? Because the fact is, if you want to get good – and stay good – you need to stay fresh on all the techniques, even after some of them become second nature. Become a sponge for marketing insights. Get copies of Claude Hopkins’ “Scientific Advertising,” David Ogilvy’s “On Advertising,” and any of Bob Bly’s books (especially “The Copywriter’s Handbook”). Go to marketing conferences. Read the trade journals. Look at your ongoing education like oxygen. Without it, your skill set can get stale pretty quickly.

3. Feed your brain morning to night.

David Ogilvy used to say that curiosity is the single most important quality in a new copywriter. It’s not hard to see why. No matter what you’re selling, good facts are the food that will feed your creativity. That is, the more you know about your product and your target market before you start writing, the stronger your sales pitch will be.

Read every book you can that is related to the product you’re selling. Clip articles, ask questions, and take notes. Then fill your down-time with lots of reading on non-related subjects. Make sure it’s quality material. The idea is to pack your cerebellum with deep ideas and fascinating details. That way, you’ll have a ready resource of information when you need it most.

4. Write even when you can’t.

“A writer,” says an over-quoted quote, “writes.” You can’t get good if you don’t get practice. Often. But what if you can’t get started? Well then, this is a perfect time to try typing out – word for word – a full promotional piece that someone else has written.

You’ll be surprised how valuable a training technique this is.

Pick a piece you admire, then copy verbatim. Your creative juices will start flowing fast enough. What’s more, you’ll learn style points and techniques you couldn’t possibly pick up any other way. You won’t believe how quickly your writing improves. Which brings me to this last point …

5. Do everything you can to get a mentor. Yesterday.

Quick: What do Mozart, Aristotle, and General Electric’s chief Jack Welch all have in common? They all had mentors. And you should get one too. If you can.

I was lucky. I had TWO mentors. I still work closely with both. And they’re still teaching me new things. I can’t imagine how I would have gotten this far without their expertise showing me the way. And I’m not alone.

In one 1980s study, an incredible 80% of top business people polled cited a mentor relationship as key to their success. And guess what? Those same people proved happier at work, made more money, and got promoted an average of two years faster than their non-mentored co-workers.

Mentors can teach you the inside secrets … prevent you from making common mistakes … and keep you from wasting time while you re-invent the wheel. Can you succeed without one? Sure. Many people do.

But the bottom line is this: One good mentor can slash years off your development time as a top-notch copywriter. What’s more, a mentor can dramatically accelerate the growth of your income.

Finding your mentor can be tough, obviously. One way is to find another writer that you admire and offer to work as an assistant. (Not me, though. I’m booked.) Another is to contact a local direct response association and scan their member lists for medium-sized companies. If they produce advertising in-house, you can offer to work awhile as a low-paid assistant or as a copywriter “on spec” (getting no money until they get something they like).

But another way I highly recommend is to contact my friends over at American Writers & Artists, Inc. (AWAI). They offer a course on writing copy that I’m convinced is the best in the business — because it was created by one of the same mentors who helped me get my start. I have high faith in it and I recommend it to both new and seasoned copywriters all the time. It’s called AWAI’s Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting and anybody can take it. (Carol checked it out and thought it looked very comprehensive, so that’s her affiliate link.)

This article appears courtesy of American Writers & Artists Inc.’s free newsletter, The Writer’s Life.

  1. FBlogger says:

    As a quite new blogger I can pick up here many good tips. Especially 3 and 4 were good for me. I have to write (4). But I have nothing to write if I lost my curiosity and creativity (3). By the way this was my first visit on your site. But not last. Thanks!
    FBlogger recently posted..7 vinkkiä blogin markkinointiin

  2. I know these types of comments are marked spam but I dont know what else to say but
    “It truely is an awesome post” :-)
    NextGen Writer recently posted..Why Google’s Latest Freshness Algorithm Is A Blessing For Writers & Bloggers?

  3. Good list! Carol’s been a great mentor to me by putting out such useful information each and every week. Her Freelance Writers’ Den is also a great resource for any aspiring freelance writer.

    I need to do more of #2 – any good online marketing webinars or courses that you can recommend?
    Ruth – Freelance Writing Blog recently posted..13 Foolproof Ways to Land Your First High Paying Freelance Writing Job

    • Carol Tice says:

      So many people I’m following! I try to go to anything put on by Derek Halpern at Social Triggers, Danny Iny from Firepole Marketing, and of course the new A-List Blog Marketing. Clay Collins. Sean Malarkey. So many more. And recently I got all the Teaching Sells promo emails from Copyblogger. Ed Gandia’s recent 3- part video series on how he does prospecting emails was great. A lot of good marketers are giving out a ton of free, very useful content ahead of their paid thing — you can learn a lot even without paying for their product.

  4. Joshua Monen says:

    I was not planning on reading any blogs this morning (had too much writing to do!) but your headline and the body copy engaged me and got me to read this post all the way to the end.

    So good job! You practice what you preach. As a freelance copywriter I appreciate what you shared, especially the part about having mentors. I’m so grateful for the copywriters in my life who freely shared their wealth of knowledge with me! Good post.
    Joshua Monen recently posted..Do You Want to Be a Cheap Copywriter or One of the Best?

  5. I think 4 & 5 are my favorite of the list. As a professional writer, you don’t always have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. When the deadline is looming, writing, even when you feel stuck, is how the work gets done. Sometimes you just have to push past that block and pull the words together. I know that’s not quite what that tip was saying, but that’s my take on it. ;)
    Kimberlee Morrison recently posted..The Battle is On

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Carol,
    I loved this post. I often print out little tip sheets and post them above my workstation. That would be a great link to offer off of many of your excellent blog posts – a short printable checklist of the main headers. Or maybe offer an e-doc (free for Den members, small fee otherwise?) of your “Blog’s Best Bets for Making a Living Writing.” I’m thinking of the way Real Simple magazine takes the highlights of their feature articles and puts them on small perforated tear-out cards at the back of the magazine. Distills the essential information that the reader needs…
    Anyway, this one’s hanging up above my station for when I need a reminder!
    Elizabeth

  7. CherylB says:

    Awesome and inspiring post..Keep up the good work!
    CherylB recently posted..Disabled Cars, Disabled cars article

  8. I’m not sure what this accelerated program is. Is it like a presentation, a one-on-one mentoring, or a book? I’d be interested.
    Miguel Leiva-Gomez recently posted..Google’s Auto-Complete: A Tool for Laughs

  9. Jay Morren says:

    Carol, Bob Bly is one of my favorite copywriters of all time and “The Copywriters Handbook” although old is indispensable. This was an excellent article! Thank you for posting!

    ~Jay
    Jay Morren recently posted..What Does a Copywriter Do?…

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