5 copywriting tips

Before I ran the Offbeat Empire, I spent a decade as a marketing copywriter. This was boring and sometimes depressing work, but it paid well and allowed me to work on my writing skills. Here are a few of my copywriting tips.

1. Don't bother studying English, Communications, or Technical Communications. Realistically, you'll only be frustrated, because most business writing focuses on terms like "planful" and "go-forward strategy." If you study English, these faux words invented by MBAs will make you feel dead inside. If, like me, you see them as another form of slangy patois to be played with and noodled over, you will be less likely to commit suicide on your pen. As far as where such degrees will get you in the market … potential clients want to see clips of your writing — not your report card. Which leads me to the next point…

2. Give it away for a little while. When you're new, you need to build up some clips to show what you can do. You don't want to give it away for TOO long, but think about it: would YOU pay someone who had no proof of their work to do something? You need to have a few examples to share with prospective clients, and the best way to get those samples is to do some work for free. Make a website for a family member's bookkeeping biz. Whip up a brochure for a friend's pet-walking service. Whatever. Build up a little collection of clips that show the kind of work you'd like to eventually get paid for.

3. Make full use of agencies. In Seattle, there are several temp/placement agencies that specialize in technical communications and marketing creatives. These people want to get you a gig because they make money off of you making money. It's awesome to have an agent working on your behalf, trying to sell your skills and how awesome you are. Granted, they pocket half your paycheck, but when you're starting out, it's a great way to have someone else knock on all the doors to help you get your foot in the door.

4. Initially, write anything you can get paid for. I have written/edited some weird shit. Urine testing kits. A user manual for a version of Windows NT used for medical devices. Something called the Flowtron Insect Killer. Obituary services ads. Wind surfing advertorials. Muscular Dystrophy Association newsletters. If someone would pay me, I would write whatever they wanted. It was a great way to get a breadth of experience and ensure that the next time a client came along, I could say "Yup, I've written that kind of thing!"

5. Eventually, develop a niche. In 2002, I refused to write for X10.com, inventor of the pop-under and spying webcams. In 2003, I refused to write for Herbalife, masters of pyramid schemes and ephedrine pills. And in 2006 I unequivocally refused to do technical writing. The odd thing is that once you've got the experience, people actually respect you for having boundaries about what you will and won't do. It's a way of establishing yourself as an authority and specialist. Now I focus on writing about social media/tech stuff, job stuff, women's stuff, and entertainment stuff. Sometimes there's other stuff, but I don't do technical writing. Manuals? Usability text? Not my gig.

  1. I know you didn't ask, but I've been reading your advice (and your blog for a good long time) and I wanted to both say "yay! fantastic advice! absolutely right-on." and add something, too, just because I've also been in that lovely "you want to be a writer,huh? and make a living at that?" spot.

    My thought was: if you're not going to pursue the communications/english/yadd yadda degree (which I agree with, as mine got me basically nowhere), I'd suggest instead reading every single piece of literature, nonfiction, marketing, branding, journalism, cereal box text, etc…you can get your hands on…forever. Start now. The one thing I did get from my undergrad degrees was a pretty decent base in the understanding of various written forms, (invaluable when someone comes to you with either a weird request or a fun project ), and a speed-reader-like ability. I know it's probably an age-old argument (do writers also need to be "readers"?) but, I feel it in myself. If I'm reading, I'm writing more, and better.

    Thanks! And I can't wait for the next round of advice!

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  2. Thank you, Thank you Ariel! :) I look forward to the next installment.

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  3. most business writing focuses on terms like "planful" and "go-forward strategy." If you study English, these faux words invented by MBAs will make you feel dead inside. If, like me, you see them as another form of slangy patois to be played with and noodled over, you will be less likely to commit suicide on your pen.

    OMFG – Hilarious. And so dead-on true.

    My English has no doubt suffered as a result of nearly ten years of almost-daily exposure to this type of mindless drivel.

    Thanks for the advice on how to cope. Good stuff…

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