Any experience is better than no experience…

So many copywriters at the beginning of their careers just freaking spin their wheels!

It’s so frustrating, to see from the perspective of someone who has been in the business for a while.  You get these people who get excited about becoming a copywriter.  But they don’t take that first fundamental step of getting ONE project with ONE client that turns this from a dream into a reality.

And so they remain a dreamer.  All the while, their friends and family they shared their excitement with sit there wondering if this is even real, or if every single person talking about making a living as a copywriter is a scammer.

(Seriously, there are people who think this.  They’re ignorant enough about business and marketing, unwilling to find out, and seem to operate from the assumption that most people who make money are crooked or downright evil.  And so they’d rather believe that we’re all scammers, than consider the possibility that all these people who are saying the same thing might actually be talking about something real.)

At the risk of this turning into another rant, let’s get to the subject at hand…

The best ways to go from no experience to some experience as a copywriter…

Today is Monday.  Which means this is the weekly issue of Breakthrough Marketing Secrets dedicated to answering YOUR questions.

If you’d like to have your question — about copywriting, marketing, selling, business-building, careers and freelancing, or any related topic — answered in an upcoming issue, click here.

Today’s question is about that early experience you can get to get started as a copywriter…

Hi Roy,

You talked in your program The Copywriter’s Roadmap to Building a Core Offer [NOTE: You get even better deal when you get this as part of The Freelance Copywriter’s Independence Package] about short form direct-response projects like lead generation, catalog copy, and online product descriptions. I was looking to see if you could elaborate on this further.

— What was your strategy for getting started when you began doing this type of work?

— Did you target a certain group of clients (local service providers, businesses outside your community)?

— How did you approach them (email, cold call, direct mail)?

— When you did approach them, did you sell them on a Big Idea that showed the value you can provide?

— Lastly, do you feel that doing these small projects had an impact on you securing work with your Dream 100 clients?

Thank you as always for your time and insights.


Here’s a brief recap of my relevant experience…

When I discovered copywriting, I was LIVING IN A VAN, DOWN BY THE RIVER!

Ok, not really.

But I had just gotten my undergrad degree in Psychology.  With no plans of going to grad school.  So my chance of work in that field was slim-to-none.

I had a bunch of telemarketing experience — yipee!

And I had managed to land a full-time job, fresh out of college, answering customer service calls for the local gas utility.  Which means that if you didn’t pay your bill all winter and we came out to shut off your service on the first warm day of spring…  I was the guy you YELLED AT!

It was miserable.  But I managed to find time between calls to read.

I’d self-published a book of poetry in college.  My grandma bought 11 copies for herself and all her kids.  Otherwise that would’ve been a money-losing venture.

So I thought I was a writer, but never thought I’d make a living.  Until I discovered a book called The Well-Fed Writer, which I read between getting screamed at by irate gas company customers.

Peter Bowerman, the author, said he’d rather write annual reports than sales letters — and, in fact, he kinda talked smack about direct response copywriters.  But something about the world of entrepreneurial direct response intrigued me, and I fell down that rabbit hole.

This was in early 2005.  I was getting married in the summer, and moving across the country afterward — and my new wife was going to grad school so I had to earn a decent living…

I knew I couldn’t get started as a freelancer…

And that is critical to this question, because MY experience may vary from your best path.

Long story short, I found a job in Oregon (where we were moving to).  I wrote a cover letter (with the help of The Well-Fed Writer, shh…) that helped me land a job doing marketing for a small IT training publisher.

I knew it wasn’t where I wanted to be in the long run.

I knew I wanted to do direct response sales letters, and this company wasn’t doing direct response sales letters.

But, it was a start.  And a salary, with benefits.

And for the next few years, I wrote a TON of short copy.  Product descriptions.  Emails.  Landing pages.  Brochures.  Ads.  Newsletters.  And on, and on, and on.

I got a ton of well-rounded experience, plus learned how a marketing department AND a small-business AND an online publisher worked, from the inside out.

Plus, it gave me a ton of experience writing copy, that went into the market.

Granted, it wasn’t exactly the kind of copy I wanted to write, but…

“What was your strategy for getting started when you began doing this type of work??

Get experience.  Check!

“Did you target a certain group of clients (local service providers, businesses outside your community)?”

Well, yeah.  Clients with marketing job openings, who responded to a cover letter that talked about copywriting.

“How did you approach them (email, cold call, direct mail)?”

With a PERSONALIZED cover letter written (actually, edited) specifically for their job, citing unique elements of their business and job description.  (SERIOUSLY: Nobody does this but it’s how you get good jobs.)

“When you did approach them, did you sell them on a Big Idea that showed the value you can provide?”

Yeah, the Big Idea was that I would work harder than anybody else (even those with far more experience).  To get them the RESULTS and SUCCESS THEY WANTED.

Then, I listened, and worked hard to fulfill on that promise.

“Lastly, do you feel that doing these small projects had an impact on you securing work with your Dream 100 clients?”

Absolutely.  Experience snowballs.  It doesn’t have to be a perfect match.  And in the beginning, it often won’t be.  People are often afraid to take the first step on their journey, because it doesn’t get them to their destination in that one step.  But you have to take that first step, and the second, and so on, to get to that destination you’ll only get to on the 1,000th step.

Meanwhile, I did some freelancing…

I was at that job from mid-2005 to very early 2010.

Off-hours, I was free to freelance (and my employer knew I was).

I approached all kinds of clients.

Some looked like fun projects — my first freelance client, that I talk about in The Copywriter’s Guide to Getting Paid, falls into this category.

Others I took on because they came through referral — such as my flaccid attempt at a sales letter for the penis pill market.  (Sorry, bad joke.)

Others were more intentional, to get experience where I wanted it…

For example, I got gigs with AWAI.  Early on, before I could write a sales letter for them, I wrote a LOT of articles.  They paid well for early-career copywriters (hint, hint!).  And it gave me the chance to write semi-promotional copy that would get reviewed by really good marketers.

I also got a gig with a developer of investment software, that was frequently promoted by one of the big publishers (and that would eventually get bought by them).  They had a sales letter from a copywriter who worked for that publisher.  And I just had to write some emails to drive traffic.

Some of this wasn’t directly great experience for the work I do today.  But all of it added up.  And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

And by the time I was ready to go full-time freelance in early 2010, I could look back at all this experience with complete confidence that I’d be able to figure it out.

Then it was just a matter of doing one next right thing after another, that’s led to where I stand today.

Now, an even faster way…

Let’s say you’re looking to work in one of the big direct response markets, such as health, financial, or something similar.  Where they hire top-notch copywriters to write long-form sales messages (sales letters, VSLs, webinars, etc.).

Do what my friend Jake Hoffberg recommends and taught, and what he did to quickly accelerate into recognition as a financial copywriter (and land a leadership spot in a top financial copywriting team).

Come up with your short list of these companies you’d like to work with.  Your “Dream 100,” as you reference in the question.

Look at what they’re doing.  They probably have the big sales letters, plus a metric ton of additional copy they are putting out.

The big sales letters aren’t where you start.  That’s what you’re working towards.  You can study and practice for that, but we’re going to get you experience and money quickly.

Instead, look at all the other stuff.  Emails, ads, landing pages, and so on.

Get at least a good idea of what all they do.

Then find out who runs their marketing department.  And approach that person with an offer to handle all the “overflow” copy their top copywriters are too busy to write.

Because their top copywriters are FAR MORE VALUABLE writing another sales letter, instead of writing a 10-part email sequence.  But somebody’s gotta do it.

So you volunteer to take that on.  And because they value copy, and your copy will 1) make their proven copy more useful and thus more valuable, plus 2) prevent them from having to pay the top copywriter to write that mundane-but-necessary stuff…  It’s automatically pretty valuable to them!

Again, this works best with companies who are really reliant on direct response copy.  And you have to be ready to write a bunch of response-driven copy, to push views to their sales messages.

But if you do this, it’s probably the fastest way to get your start as a direct response copywriter.

And, in fact, it’s probably one of the most fertile learning grounds for copy that converts.  Because if you are constantly writing and testing copy that is designed to get response — and getting pretty quick feedback about what does and doesn’t get response — you’ll quickly gain a strong sense of what works and what doesn’t.

Which translates into what you’re going to write as you develop your skills and break into writing longer-form copy.

Which, oh yeah, will be an opportunity you’re given if you start doing a good job at all this shorter copy and tell the client you’re interested in learning long-form copy.

Don’t over-analyze it, just do it…

You can ask a million questions, but ultimately it’s taking action that will lead to breakthroughs.

Yours for bigger breakthroughs,

Roy Furr