So you want to be a copywriter, eh? Join the club.
Copywriting means different things to different people. Some people write cheap, useless, badly-written blog posts for their clients and call that copywriting.
(Luckily their clients don’t pay them very well for their trouble, because they know what they’re buying.)
You don’t want to be that kind of copywriter, do you?
Of course not. And there’s no reason you should be! There’s no reason a clever, forward-thinking writer should have to work for peanuts. There’s no reason a clever, forward-thinking writer should have to work on projects that aren’t challenging or interesting. There’s no reason a clever, forward-thinking writer can’t make a very good living from freelance writing.
I hope you’re detecting a theme here. It’s clear as day: if you want to make a good living as a copywriter you’ve got to be clever and forward-thinking.
And what does that mean? Well, I’m glad you asked.
First off, it means becoming a copywriting master. It’s not enough to have run-of-the-mill skills and a run-of-the-mill plan. You need excellent skills and an excellent plan.
Would you go into battle without a plan and expect good results? Of course not. Then why would you go into your copywriting without a plan and expect good results?
I want you to imagine something: imagine you’re the most brilliant copywriter to ever live. Your words weave a magic spell that makes your reader helpless to resist you. Every line you put down is so perfect that your readers can hardly wait to throw their hard-earned greenbacks at you. You have such brilliant powers of persuasion that you can get anyone to do anything.
That’s a nice image, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to write copy that’s that persuasive. You can’t write anything that’s going to convince people to buy something they never wanted in the first place. That would be wrong and unethical, first of all. And second of all it would take more persuasive power than any human being could possibly have.
No, friends, I’m not going to claim that good copywriting can spin straw into gold. You won’t be retiring to a beach house in Tahiti next week.
It won’t be easy. It won’t be overnight. It won’t even be automatic. But if you follow the principles I’m about to set out for you, you will be able to improve your copywriting.
And that’s the first step.
The Golden Rule of All Copywriting: Know Your Mark
Imagine you’re on vacation at the beach in Saint Augustine, Florida. You’re looking out at the iron-gray waters of the Atlantic, lying with your head up and a tasty drink at your side. You feel the sunlight on your skin, all shiny and warm in the afternoon.
You’re daydreaming about dolphins. You don’t have a care in the world. You wonder if you can find a service to let you ride a dolphin…
“Excuse me,” says a salesman who appears out of nowhere, “Would you be interested in buying a full-length winter parka?”
What do you say? Would you be interested?
Of course not! This guy doesn’t have a clue who you are or where he is. What’s he doing, interrupting a perfectly good day by asking you if you want to wear a winter parka? What an idiot!
You don’t sell winter parkas to vacationers on the beach in the middle of the summer.
It’s not that it’s a bad parka. It’s not that these people will never need a parka. It’s not even that they’re constitutionally opposed to buying a parka. It’s just that the salesman was clueless about context.
If you want your mark to buy from you, you’ve got to make contact with them when and where they’re receptive to your message.
People want to buy things. People like to buy things. But they don’t like to be sold to.
That’s why it’s your job to know who you’re dealing with, what they want, and how it’s going to help them. But most importantly, it’s your job to know these three things about your mark:
- What are their pain points? The mark who is on the point of buying from you has one big problem you can solve for them. They want to buy the reassurance that you know their pain and know how to resolve it. So you must understand their pain.
- What are their dreams? Maybe they want to retire to a nice place on Key West. Maybe they want to write pretty love poems every day. Maybe they want to be rich enough to buy the Earth itself. Whatever it is, you want to know what your mark wants and how buying from you will move them closer to their ultimate desire.
- What are their fears? Are they afraid of getting kicked out and having to live on the streets? Are they afraid of failing to live up to their potential? Are they afraid of missing out on the biggest chance of their lives? Sometimes people need their fears to encourage them to take action. Know their fears so you can deploy them when the time is right.
Action Step: Imagine your ideal client. With that client in mind, answer all three of the questions I just laid out. The more in-depth the better. (You can never have too much knowledge!) Write at least a paragraph in answer to each question. You’ll be surprised what you can already discover!
The Second (But Equally Important) Rule of Copywriting: Know Your Product
Let’s go back to your salesman on the beach. Just for the moment, let’s pretend you’re not entirely uninterested in what he has to say.
“What’s so great about that parka?” you ask.
“Well, uh…” the salesman says. He looks down at the parka in his hands. He scratches his nose. He says, “Well, it’s got really nice pockets!”
You’re not having any of this. “So does every parka I’ve ever seen. What’s so great about this one?”
Our salesman doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know his product. He only knows he wants this scenario to end with you holding the parka and him holding your cash.
A clever, forward-thinking copywriter always knows the product.
That means all the “dry, boring details.”
That means all the exciting benefits the product has.
That even means anticipating all the objections a prospect might have before purchasing.
You want to know your product so well that when you close your eyes you see the design specs on the back of your eyelids.
Okay, I’ll admit it: you don’t have to know it that well. Don’t tattoo any design specs to the inside of your eyelids. But you get the point.
In order to be an effective copywriter, you need to know the product you’re selling in detail. You need to know what it does. You need to know all the problems with it. You need to know.
A professional copywriter takes time to get to know the product. If it’s something you can try out for yourself, go ahead and do that. If it’s something (such as a staffing agency) that’s way beyond your needs as a freelance writer, take the time to get to know the process and the people.
Maybe you won’t use all this knowledge, directly. But it’s important to know this stuff, because it’s going to color your copy in ways you can’t anticipate.
I know that sounds vague, but you’re a writer. You know exactly what I mean. Sometimes when you’re writing, the spirit takes you and you end up producing a phrase you never thought you could have found before. And what’s true of writing a poem or a story is still true of copywriting: it’s when you fondle the details that you get your best results.
So get to know the details. Even if you don’t use them directly, the knowledge will come through in the authority of your tone.
Action Step: Imagine your ideal client again. Why are your copywriting services absolutely what your ideal client needs? Why might your ideal client object to buying from you? How do you plan on meeting those objections? Answer these questions, and you’ll be on the right track.
The Third (and Honestly the Most Important) Rule of Copywriting: Write the Best Words
Much as I’d like to return to our salesman on the beach, that analogy isn’t going to work here. I want to talk to you straight out, writer to writer.
Copywriting isn’t a form of expressive writing. You’re not here to express your personality or to develop your own unique style.
Copywriting is about writing the words that cause your reader to take action.
Every expressive writer’s heart sinks a little at those words. Believe me, I know that pain: when I put on my “copywriting hat” I have to take off my “novelist’s hat.” And I won’t lie to you. It stings a little.
It stings because I’m using words as tools instead of as a free play of expression. It’s worth it because it pushes my writing skills to the limits, so I learn things I never would have learned any other way. (Not to mention the fact that it pays the bills!)
The reason I’m telling you all this is because I want you to understand that copywriting is a different type of writing from any other. It’s as different from poetry or fiction as poetry or fiction are different from each other.
It’s got a different texture. It’s got a different structure. It’s got a different set of conventions and a different method of preparation.
You’ve got to learn how to make words cause action. When you put on your “copywriting hat,” you not only have to make your readers feel, but you’ve got to convince them to do something. It’s quite a challenge, and it gets harder every day.
You’ll have to seize your reader’s attention.
You’ll have to arouse your reader’s desire.
You’ll have to make your reader afraid of not acting.
And you’ll have to become the best at it. You’ll have to become so good at it that it becomes second nature. You’ll have to become so sure of yourself and your writing that it all comes off as if you’ve never felt a twinge of self-doubt in your life.
It’s quite a challenge. But if you can learn how to connect with your reader, you’ll be able to do things you’d never have thought you could.
You’ll be able to help people find solutions they’d never have been confident to seize otherwise.
You’ll be able to amaze your clients with your clever words.
And most importantly, you’ll be able to make that dream of making a good living from writing into a reality.
Let me know if you have any questions or concerns about copywriting. I’m always trying to tailor this blog to your needs, so I’d appreciate the help.
And I know some of you don’t like to post publicly, so feel free to contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d rather do it that way.
Good luck, and good copywriting!