How to Become a Highly Paid Copywriter From Scratch

Businesswoman WritingAre you looking to ditch the low-paid writing gigs and move up to lucrative freelance writing work? About five years ago, I was that writer.

I’d spent 12 years as a staff journalist, was freelancing for regional and national magazines and trade publications. I was doing OK, but I was looking to grow my income.

I had the dim sense that businesses paid well for copywriting, but I didn’t know squat about how that worked.

One major negative: As a reporter, I’d come to view marketing writing as nothing less than the Dark Side of the Force. Eeew! Didn’t those writers have to take a shower after they wrote that crap? I couldn’t imagine myself as a business writer.

Then, I got a chance to do a little business writing and made a discovery: It was fun! And paid great.

How business writing changed my life

That was the beginning of a whole new phase of my career. The first year I had a big business client, I earned so much more, I was able to take my family of five on an Alaska cruise. My eyes were opened to how the well-heeled freelance writers lived.

In the past few years, I’ve written for several Fortune 500 companies, loved every minute of it, and never felt dirty once. I quickly raised my rates from around $65 an hour and was soon billing at $95 an hour.

Here are some tips out of my break-in experience on how to get going as a business writer:

Start easy.

My first client was a bootstrapping local startup that I’d covered once as a reporter. I knew how their call-center software business worked, and they wanted me to write blog posts and articles for their website.

These assignments were similar to the articles I’d been writing for local magazines and trade publications. They handed me all the sources, and paid $700 per article. I felt like a prospector hitting a gold vein.

Think big.

That startup was client one. My second client was a global insurance consultancy, where I billed $2,000 a month or more every month for more than two years.

My in? My dad sold insurance, so I had a general idea what it was. They were so excited to get someone who knew the difference between term and whole life!

Takeaway: Don’t think you have to toil in the mines for decades to move up — once you’ve got a few samples, pitch companies where you have some knowledge, and go for it.

Listen.

Rather than worrying about all the stuff I didn’t know about copywriting, I adopted this approach: A client would ask me to write something I’d never done before. I’d nod my head, say, “Sure,” and then start asking questions.

Why did they want this piece? Who was the audience? I took lots of notes. Then, I told their story in their voice. Listen closely, and the company will tell you everything you need to know to deliver a piece they’ll love.

Research.

Many new writers imagine they’re supposed to spin straw into gold with whatever initial scraps of information the company tosses them. That doesn’t work. Instead, I asked to interview more people on their team. I asked to interview their customers.

I found out what they liked and didn’t like in their marketing, and checked out the competitors’ sites they envied. I read research papers about trends in their industry to understand the context of my piece. It might be an extra hour or two you spend, but it’s worth it. That background really pays off in more sophisticated copy.

Write concisely and conversationally.

One of the big reasons companies hire pro writers is that they have trouble summing things up — they know too much about their business. They also tend to write like stiff robots.

Use contractions, shorten up your sentences, and cut to the chase. Clients will be blown away.

Learn new formats.

Once you’ve got in the door writing informational Web content or advertorial articles, look for opportunities to write higher-value projects. Once a company knows you, they’re often happy to take a flier and give you your first clip in a new area.

That’s how I wrote my first special report, white paper, press release, and case study — clients who were impressed with my blogging or Web content needed more sophisticated marketing pieces, and let me write them.

Get referrals and testimonials.

Once you’ve got a business client, make sure the whole world knows about it. Get a nice testimonial on your writer website and on LinkedIn, and ask if they’d refer you if they hear of any colleagues who need a writer.

Make your clients more money.

It’s worth noting that I built my business-writing business without breaking into the area that’s the most reliable high payer — writing persuasive copy. Everything I wrote was informational content!

If you can write sales copy, your earning potential is truly unlimited. Businesses may tighten their belts, but they never cut the writing that leads directly to more sales.

Have you broken into business writing? Leave a comment and tell us how you did it.

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29 comments on “How to Become a Highly Paid Copywriter From Scratch
  1. Emily says:

    Like other commenters, I’m glad I found this blog post. I’m a freelance journalist and I’m getting tired of how difficult it is to make a decent living doing the work that I love. Like you, I’ve often had a negative view of copywriters. Reading this inspires me to change my attitude and start looking for clients!

  2. Ben Lloyd says:

    I think you highlight an important point in this article, one that helped me really establish a foothold as a freelance copywriter – don’t say no. I’ve taken on dozens of jobs built around subjects I don’t know and established myself as a semi-expert in them since.

    New freelancers just need to get in the habit of budgeting themselves enough time to read around a new subject as well as doing the actual writing.

    Thanks Carol ๐Ÿ˜‰
    Ben Lloyd recently posted…1 proofreading tip that will change the way you write foreverMy Profile

  3. Starr says:

    I’m a writer, but fiction is my forte. I’ve never really thought of copy writing as, writing. It was marketing. I have sold some things for a friend on eBay, did the descriptions and such, no biggie.

    I’ve done my about page, designed my site and added content. Nothing monumental about that. I go on articles and make comments. Go to forums and do the same sometimes when I get the time.

    Some like my writing, others don’t. I write what I know, what I feel and my views. Take it or leave it.

    I recently in the last few months have been diagnosed with cancer. I’ve had two surgeries and likely there will be a third coming up soon.

    You can imagine the costs of all this, let alone the stress and general upheaval in my life it has had.

    I’m having issues with my writing, since it’s what comes from me. It’s my worlds, characters and fictional reality that I’m feeling distanced from. I’ve two series that I’m in the middle of and worried that I won’t have completed in time for my publishing deadline.

    Then there’s the constant dark cloud of cancer that looms over me every day. The prognosis is yet to be complete – there’s a positive outlook, but nothing is definite yet. Since my diagnosis I’ve felt like I’ve got an expiration date. The finality of that thought is very chilling, believe me.

    I stumbled in here trying to figure out another option. I’ve heard of copy writing, but never considered it. I tried web design in the past since I was good at it and enjoyed it. But it never was as lucrative for me, as others claimed it was. Some were pulling in thousands while I was making hundreds doing more work and spending more time.

    I’ve got to find a more profitable income. The kicker is that I’m also legally blind, no peripheral vision, little depth perception & low vision. Cortical vision impairment doesn’t sound as bad as blindness. But the specialist I spoke to claimed that “eventually the lights are going to go out.”

    What a life saver technology is to me. With voice to text software, text to audio readers & the ability to zoom into images, listen to audio and video to give me vital information – it opens the world to me in many ways. It’s frightening to think of what the world would be like for me without these benefits to assist my daily life and improve my quality of living.

    Because of these circumstances, needing a way to make a better level of income is something I need to pursue. Despite the pain, fear and restrictions of my physical; I need to find a way to use the mental abilities and skills I have to escape the current financial shipwreck I’m facing.

    If there is any advice that you have to offer, suggestions of how to start or where to go to begin, please let me know.

    My wonderful kids, they’ve lots of hope & believe in me. So they set up a page for me on the gofundme.com site. If you wish, contact me and I’ll give you the link. I’m not the sort to just post it without permission on someone’s site.

    Thanks for listening, I wish you all the best life can offer. If anything, please, do yourselves a favor and take care of your health. Stay on top of your regular check ups and tests. They could save your life, literally. Till the end… Carpe Diem!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Starr — I’m glad you found my blog — and I used to cover Lighthouse for the Blind here in Seattle as a reporter on the nonprofits beat, so I can agree this is definitely an amazing time for the visually impaired, with all the technology available now.

      I think if you have adapative technology, I don’t know why you would be any less able to take copywriting gigs than any other home-based writer — we all do about 90% of our work from home. If you have Skype and can chat online with clients to interview them, I’d think you could write copy as much as anyone else.

      If you also have Web design skills, that can be a plus, that you can do both.

      We have some copywriting resources in my Freelance Writers Den community, but for a more focused place for copywriting exclusively, you might look at Chris Marlow’s stuff — she’s at http://chrismarlow.com.

  4. Erin Sanchez says:

    I could not agree more: “One of the big reasons companies hire pro writers is that they have trouble summing things up โ€” they know too much about their business.” I’m currently growing my copywriting business while working at an M&A firm. As an analyst on the sell-side, I write offering documents for the companies we advise, and let me tell you–if the companies’ founders/executives wrote these documents themselves, they would be hundreds of pages! Sometimes it takes an “outside” perspective to identify key information and separate it from the nonessential stuff (and write it in an attractive way!).

    Great post. I love your “just go for it” attitude that reverberates throughout your blog.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Right on, Erin — you should have seen the drafts I was given for starters. Just painful! And sooo full of jargonspeak. I literally spent over 2 hours on the phone with one of the CEOs just getting their jargon translated into English so I could write the thing and ordinary mortals could understand it.

  5. I worked on website copy for an Italian client who hired me as a web designer. It was a good experience, it helped me see how different the Italian market and the approach to B2B clients is in comparison with the US market, and my client seems to want me again in the role of web designer plus marketing specialist now.

    Writing for the US and UK markets seems to be harder, though, and the main issue seems to be a requirement I see in every copywriting job ad I run into — on-site presence. I’ve been looking for remote opportunities for a while now, but no luck so far. I’m not sure what the next step should be and I’m not sure if that step should be volunteer work/making my own samples.

    The other feeling I have is that my age might be a problem — as in “too young to be trusted as a copywriter”. But this one might just be my own fear.

    – Luana S.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I don’t know how they would know how old you are, Luana! So I wouldn’t worry about that.

      I think there is a ton of remote-based work out there…just keep looking for the ‘writer from anywhere’ type opportunities that have expertise you have.

  6. paul says:

    thanks again for the blog – u r v cool. are we expected to know anything about html, etc, to pitch copywriting jobs?

  7. This a great post in that it eliminates excuses. You don’t get wet from the word water, jump already … I’m especially emboldened by your how you got started stories.

    I find many newbie writers-marketeres make the mistake of wanting to create something in the readers’ mind – curiosity, interest, credibility, trust, whatever – but you cannot CREATE peoples’ minds, yet the things you’re trying to create are real only when they already exist in the readers’ mind. How to get them there? After a while you realize it’s not about creating emotions in people, which you can”t, but to find where they already exist (your target market), which you can, and when you do, everything changes – including your writing.

  8. Katharine says:

    Really interesting post, and great inspiration!

    Out of curiosity, where do you on the question of specializing? Everyone has such strong opinions on whether or not to do it, and I’m interested to hear your take!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Katherine, my joke is that when I meet a generalist who makes as much as a specialist, I’ll start telling people to be generalists…except in 20+ years of writing, I never have.

      Being a generalist means you spend too much time learning new topics — figuring out who the good sources are, getting yourself an education in the issues of their industry, and so on. It also means your rates don’t rise, as you’re not acquiring expertise in a particular area.

      That said, please don’t take that to mean you need only one niche and that’s it — at this point, I have more than a half-dozen. But you want to develop expertise you can pitch to clients to get more and better-paying gigs.

  9. Soumen says:

    That was so inspiring! Thanks a lot. I believe that for clients, it is easier to follow conversational writing tone than formal writing tone. Conversational tone can quickly connect with an audience. I am a technical writer and my job is to clearly explain complex products and technology. I know that the technology field is lucrative. So, your experience will provide a lot of inspiration.

  10. Willi Morris says:

    Slowly but surely, I’m overcoming my fears of not knowing what to do to be a good copywriter. I did my first “about” page earlier this year and really liked it. I’m hoping to approach businesses to spruce up that page and do better profiles of their team members. So far, I’ve only done some ghostblogging for a company, so I have a ways to go.

    Thanks again, Carol!
    Willi Morris recently posted…2 Easy-Peasy Ways to Beef Up Facebook Fan ReachMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      That’s really been my journey, too, Willi. I started at “Eeew, write stuff that’s salesy???”

      And then gradually, I needed to write some persuasive copy for my own business — for my Home page of my writer site, and then my ebooks, and my courses. I became fascinated with learning how you convince people to do things and began studying madly about it! I still haven’t done it for clients, but learning this area of writing has really transformed my writing business, for sure. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      I’m sure I’ll learn more when we have Amy on for the upcoming Den bootcamp, How to Write a Sales Page! Can’t wait.

  11. Jade says:

    Carol,

    Great piece. I am definitely convinced that I will charge $40 to $50 an hour as a new, freelance copywriter. My next challenge, however, is that I need to translate that hourly rate into a project by project estimate. This is a challenge because I am new to the copywriting world and I don’t have a gauge of how fast I can complete a project, let say a 500 word creative essay that will be published on a retail website. I know (from reading way to many blogs today) that there is no magic advice for what to charge because every situation is different. I think I am a moderate fast writer, but I am really having trouble figuring out what is an acceptable time to spend on an article of 500 words. Any advice?

    • Carol Tice says:

      Sure, Jade — guesstimate how long it will take you and bid your rate based on that.

      Track your hours as you do the project. Figure out how long it *really* takes you.

      Charge more next time. Also, figure out how to get faster. Have an ebook called 13 Ways to Get the Writing Done Faster you can check out.

      Lather, rinse, repeat.

  12. Naomi says:

    Great tips to land a copywriting gig. I agree that as a writer you need to have a versatile writing style- copywriting is all about being clear and concise. Thanks for sharing.
    Naomi recently posted…No Excuses. Just Write.My Profile

  13. Tom Bentley says:

    Good stuff, Carol. I went from being a writer and editor of software user manuals (back in the Cosmos dawn of time) to writing all kinds of marketing collateral, often for tech clients, and that moved into web content, case studies, ebooks and other writing types. Right now I’m doing substantive editing on a big ebook for a fairly big tech client.

    Though I’ve dropped in and out of writing for the tech industry over the years, I usually return, because the pay is good and work can be intriguing. Writing my own stuff for magazines gives me more of a mental kick, but it rarely bulks up the billfold.
    Tom Bentley recently posted…Breathing New Life Into Your WritingMy Profile

  14. Jane says:

    Research and dedication are highly important to become a highly reputed copywriter. Getting gigs that pay you high is not an easy task. And people who pay you a heavy sum won’t be happy if you deliver mediocre content.

    Thanks for sharing your story and your tips with us Carol!
    Jane recently posted…How to promote your blog? Things to do BEFORE you promote your blogMy Profile

  15. jamie says:

    Hi Carol,

    Great research tips and link for questions to ask clients on your copyblogger post.

    Can I ask where it would be good to find startups you could pitch pro bono just to get some samples and testimonials? Writers Market/job boards, or would you try cold calling local business’s?

    Copywriting does have a sleazy underbelly but I think a lot of it can be interesting and rewarding work if you are interested in digging the psychology of customers. Learning basic copywriting is also very valuable if you have a blog and for when you are pitching your own ideas to clients.

    Thanks

    • Carol Tice says:

      Jamie, I have a whole 4-week bootcamp on how to find good pro bono clients and how to pitch them without seeming desperate — The Step by Step Guide to Freelance Writing Success. It’s also soon to be released in an ebook version! But you can join Freelance Writers Den to take the full version with homework…check out the bootcamp banner for a way to join the Den right now.

    • Hi Jamie,
      I have tried every kind of direct marketing. I didnโ€™t have any clips to start and have never done any free work. (I did do some cheap work on Elance, but I donโ€™t suggest it for many reasons.) I have Google Analytics and I know most of my clients have never glanced at my portfolio. I suggest emailing. The problem with cold calling is you may get some gigs, but if you go for paying jobs, it is hard to get a better rate. And I suspect if you offer free work, the clips may not be worth it. You want your clients to put some effort into the work.

      Although, if you’re new to this, you will still want to join the Den. I have to back Carol up. No matter what you do, you will run into more questions. Once you join, you will be shocked at how much good info is in there.

  16. Victoria says:

    I have been breaking into copywriting for the past month or so. I have started with low rates, no where near the rates listed in this article, since I am a newbie to the field. I do find I enjoy copywriting more and there are a lot of opportunities in this niche.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Victoria, I recommend $40-$50 an hour as a starting rate for copywriters. Most start way too low. If you have three samples, start looking for clients who’d pay you pro rates, and then raise them quickly from there. Otherwise, you won’t end up earning enough and will end up going broke at this.

  17. Hello Carol,

    Lovely post! I’m currently breaking into the field myself. I’m practicing mimicking and writing copies on mornings and on evenings. People who are breaking into the commercial writing field especially ones who’ve only been writing for magazine and web articles (such as myself) should really check out books by Robert Bly, C.J. Hayden, Peter Bowerman and every important resource you can get from Carol.

    Links to those who are curious:

    http://www.makealivingwriting.com/writers-bookshelf/

    You’ve been an inspiration for me to start freelance writing more than 2 years ago and I hope that I can come back to this site one day as a fully established Copywriter.

    Thank you for the awesome post Carol,

    Cheers,

    Christopher Cuna recently posted…Reasons Why Businesses Hire Freelance WritersMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Christopher — great recommendations there.

      I’d recommend to you that you stop waiting to feel like a “fully established” copywriter. Sounds like you’re doing it. Consider yourself a pro…and others will, too.