Copywriting is, by far, the most consistently-valuable writing skill…
You can become a content machine. You can try (and fail, if statistics hold) to write a best-selling novel. You can hope to high heavens.
But if you wanna get paid for writing, there’s no more reliable way than this:
Be able to write about products or services in such a way that people are happy to buy them.
I realized this in very early 2005, when I read the book The Well-Fed Writer. (Which is NOT about direct response copywriting, but introduced me to it nonetheless.)
But as soon as I discovered copywriting, I discovered something else…
About 95% of writing instruction I’d ever received did NOT prepare me to become a copywriter…
For example, in college I LOVED running a Flesch-Kincaid test on my writing. I’d always go for a high score — something like 20th grade level. I thought complexity was a virtue of my writing. I’ve since learned that in sales copy or content, your revenue improves by writing at a 7th grade level or below.
And, in fact, if I was going to be successful in this field, this was the first of many writing lessons I’d have to UN-learn.
I think many writers who discover any form of paid commercial writing feel this way.
Practically the entire broader writing field is full of people who loathe commerce and capitalism. (See “polarized thinking” and “mental filter” in last week’s post 16 Ways Your Brain Makes Bad Decisions for what drives this belief.)
And so the field feels foreign to many writers. Who instead choose content writing because it’s the closest to what they’ve done before.
Unfortunately though, if you do not differentiate yourself as a copywriter able to generate commercial results, you’ll end up competing against content mills and having your very livelihood commoditized.
And so many writers find themselves in a similar place to today’s Mailbox Monday correspondent.
You’re a writer. You know how to get paid to write content. But you’d rather earn more from the same level of time and energy. So you want to learn the fundamentals of copywriting fast, to start selling that service.
That’s in today’s question.
Remember: you can get YOUR question answered in a future Mailbox Monday. Simply click here and ask away.
Here’s today’s question…
I’m new to the world of freelance writing.
As a strong writer and organized/hard worker (engineer) I’d like to minimize time spent on low paying SEO/blog/article etc. writing and wiggle my way into copywriting.
Currently I’m reading everything I can get my hands on. Do you have suggestions for how to learn the basics of copywriting? Thank you!
With the caveat that some of my advice may feel redundant or repetitive if you’re already on the right track, I’ll dive in..
Study what works…
I have, recently, said that there will come a time when you need to Burn your copywriting books…
And yet, I’ve also published my own list of My Top 10 Best Copywriting Books.
Contradictory? Yes! Although when you look at the subtleties of my advice, no.
Because when you are looking to get up to speed, fast, there’s no better way than following in the footsteps of those who’ve come before.
You should become a student of direct response. Both classic works, as well as some of the latest learnings from working copywriters. (My High-Velocity Copywriting and the companion templates programs would be a great starting point. They break down the three big ideas behind nearly every successful ad and show how to build your message around these ideas.)
Devour all you can get your hands on. Internalize lessons from as many sources as possible.
And, importantly, look for overlaps. Look for consistencies through time and space and across industries and markets, and you’ll find universal principles of what makes human beings respond.
That’s what you’re really looking for any time you study from others. And the more diverse and numerous your sources, the better.
Practice through client work…
I cannot understate the power of Nike’s slogan, “Just do it.”
No amount of preparation or isolated study will fully prepare you. The only way to truly learn is through application.
And so the best thing you can do, in my estimation, is to find a client who understands what good copy is, who values copywriters, and come to them with a beginner’s mind and flexible attitude.
Put everything you can into getting it right. Then leave your ego at the door when your copy is reviewed, willing to take feedback as to what you can do to make it better.
My most consistent progress has been in working with other good copywriters and direct marketers, and taking all their advice to heart.
Even today, I’m abundantly open to client feedback and willing to rewrite a ton of copy if what I’ve written missed the mark.
Not every copy review is helpful. However, if you’re consistently getting your copy looked at by people with at least as much experience as you (and preferably a lot more), you’ll frequently find ideas in the reviews that will improve not just that copy but your skill as well.
Plus, clients are often good at getting a lot of copy into the market, so you’ll get actual test results from the market, which is a 100% accurate and honest (sometimes painfully-so) review of the strength of your copy.
Practice with a sandbox side income project…
This is a completely different path, but I’m always appreciative of the copywriters who’ve taken this route, and am confident they’ll find success in the long run.
Create or source your own product or service, and sell it with your copy. I call this a sandbox side income project, because having total control over the project lets you play like it’s your sandbox.
There are so many benefits to this, but the biggest one is that you get very direct and visceral feedback about the quality of your copy, when it’s your money on the line.
Which is especially valuable for your learning.
When you make a change to your copy, or run a split test, or try something new, and you suddenly see what copy is leading directly to more money in your bank account, you very quickly develop that deeper understanding of what works.
Likewise, when you actually are investing your own money in running ads, knowing they HAVE TO work for you to get your money back, you develop a ruthless filter for applying those principles you believe will be most likely to work.
(Side note: is it any wonder that the vast majority of businesses that get private capital investment FAIL? They put someone else’s money on the line, so they don’t have that same visceral connection to success. Alternately, when you put your own money down in a big way, you’re going to figure out how to make it work.)
Most importantly, don’t over-complicate it…
The book is a book of case studies. And what I like best about it is that it juxtaposes two decidedly different kinds of copywriters.
The first is the career copywriter. The well-schooled direct marketer who has followed the path above, studied the greats that came before them, and gone on to create incredible copy that moved the markets. These copywriters are a testament to the power of learning from those who came before.
And yet, the second example that appears in many case studies is the passionate rookie. This is someone who wouldn’t call themselves a copywriter, but sat down to write an appeal to their prospect, to get them to take a desired action. And their results are sometimes even more astounding.
In either case, it came down to a fundamental lesson…
— Figure out the story that would stir the prospect to want to take a specific action,
— Tell that story in a concise and compelling way,
— And then directly ask the reader to take that specific action.
A rookie can do that. Someone who cares, but is not a copywriter, can do that.
As can a career copywriter, who has made a livelihood out of learning what stories move markets, and telling them through the art and science of direct response.
The fastest path to getting good at copy is learning what makes people want to buy, what motivates them to action and purchase intent, and speaking to that with an appropriate call-to-action.
Do that in language a 7th grader can read, and you’re off to the races.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,
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