So you want to be a writer? That’s awesome news. The world needs more brilliant minds to communicate ideas and close gaps! Whether you’re writing for a non-profit or scrawling cute taglines in a Victoria’s Secret catalog, there is immense value in learning how to trigger inspired moments of commerce and connection. That’s what writing is all about.
I’ve worked both freelance and full time as a copywriter and content developer for over six years, so when a friend-of-a-friend sent me an email last week asking for advice on launching her own career, I did some thinking. I’ve always told myself I fell into copywriting accidentally, but there were a series of intentional actions that moved my career along. I developed a game plan that I would use if I had to go back and do it all over again.
Start a blog.
The best way to become a writer? Start writing—in public. What industry do you want to work in? Are you interested in technical copy, legal copy, eCommerce product copy, or social media and blog content copy? How about a little bit of each? Each industry presents a range of options, so narrow down and start writing. Start social accounts that you want to develop a skill set around. Write about current events in the industry you’re targeting. Grab a free blog on WordPress.com or go pro from the start and self-host a WordPress.org platform.
For a crash course on writing copy, building a blog, and growing traffic, dive right into the Copy Blogger blog.
Start a newsletter.
The immediate follow-up to your blog should be a newsletter—and you’ll be a step ahead of establishing your online presence as a writer if you start capturing emails and sending out a newsletter right away. Sign up for Mailchimp and start one for free. Focus on your subject line, your headlines, and the language you use to tell your story. What happens when you use a different tone of voice or buzz words? Your open and click-through rate can immediately give you some valuable feedback that you can use to tweak your writing.
As a general rule, brush up on newsletter etiquette before you begin parachuting into people’s inboxes. Communicating via email is extremely valuable, and you should always have permission to land.
Study your favorite brands, authors, and media outlets.
What’s your favorite brand? How do you feel when you get their newsletter? How about your favorite fiction series or self-help author? When you begin your writing career, you’ll inevitably begin to notice the way certain words inspire a degree of emotions and ideas. You may become inspired to take action because you’re afraid of missing out on something, or because it triggers some deep-rooted need in your life.
Take note of those things, because there are no coincidences in curated language. You’ll find that the most successful brands and authors have discovered the language that their target audience relates to on a personal level. They make their readers and customers feel like they’re part of something bigger—a tribe, if you will.
Good writing makes people feel connected, relevant, and inspired to take action… without it being blatantly obvious that this is the end goal. J.Crew is a brilliant example of this.
Update your Linkedin.
While your career history so far may not reflect much in the realm of writing, you can modify your profile to let potential employers and agencies know what your goals are. Posting articles and joining discussions about relevant topics in your target industry will help people associate you with writing. Explain in your “Summary” how you’re going to use previous work experience and skills to develop your writing career. Post your original writing as well, and ask peers for feedback.
Don’t make the mistake of not updating your profile to “copywriter” because you feel like a phony. There are plenty of ways to authentically represent yourself as well as your future career, without misinforming anyone. Check these tips for representing a career change on Linkedin.
Keep it simple.
This is a pretty specific writing tip, but forget about the fancy words! One thing I love about J.Crew is how simply they talk to their customer. It’s like chatting up a friend. As soon as you get too crazy with the thesaurus, you lose your message and the attention of your audience. Speak the language of your target audience—not that of your imaginary British butler… unless you’re writing a story from the POV of a British butler, natch.
Learn basic SEO.
Learning some basic SEO (Search Engine Optimization) will give you an edge as a digital writer. The internet is a vast and endless space full of people rattling out content on their keyboards all day. It can be difficult to get your message out there when there’s so much noise. That’s where SEO comes in.
With optimized language and some behind-the-scenes tweaking, your blog can get better traffic from relevant people in your industry. Getting found is a huge piece of the puzzle.
The other piece is huge too: knowing SEO puts you ahead of other candidates for freelance gigs. Companies want to know their copywriters know how to produce language that will get found in search (and avoid spam filters in inboxes). Don’t get left behind on this! Start learning about SEO here—and don’t be surprised if you become addicted. It’s fascinating stuff.
Acquire confidence via online courses.
I’m personally waiting on the next round-up of Marie Forleo’s The Copy Cure—but there are many less expensive options if you’re just starting out. While you’re waiting, you can sign up for her free writing tips. Do consider investing in some expert information if you’re seriously thinking about making a career out of writing. In the meantime, you can check out Copy Blogger blog, affordable courses on Udemy and Lynda.com—which you can access for free with some public library cards.
Contact an agency or headhunter.
Once you have a blog up and running with a few posts, reach out to an agency or headhunter in the industry you’re targeting. Let them know you’re seeking freelance or full time work, and ask for feedback on your resume and website. You’ll find that many are generous with tips for tightening up your portfolio, because they benefit from presenting great candidates to employers.
Some of my best gigs in copy and content writing came via agencies like 24Seven and Fourth Floor in NYC—but there are many of them out there. If you sign up for a few major career websites like Career Builder, Indeed, and Style Careers, you’ll probably be contacted by some agencies directly. Don’t feel pressured to join any agencies that don’t feel aligned with your goals. Ask a ton of questions and make sure you’re in the right place before wasting any valuable time in the wrong pool of candidates.
Find a mentor.
As you begin reaching out to peers and potential clients with your work, try to align yourself with someone at a higher skill level who can mentor you. Mentors don’t grow on trees, so you’ll have to work at this and seek out the right people—but don’t underestimate the brilliance and 24/7 access of mentors in book, blog and podcast form. As always, I recommend people get on the Seth Godin bandwagon. Just read everything he has ever written.
In fact, one of my favorite blog posts by Seth concerning copywriting sums up the goal of every writer’s career in a few sentences. Bam.
Look for paid (and unpaid) work.
Get off your high horse now, babes. If you’re just starting out as a writer, you may need to do a bit of pro bono work in order to acquire testimonials, useful feedback, and samples for your portfolio. Start humbly and offer to rewrite a few product descriptions for someone’s online shop. Edit someone’s resume and see if it lands them a job. Rewrite your best friend’s About page. Offer quick (but thorough) editing services on Fiverr. Haul ass and produce exciting content on your own blog!
Get creative. There’s no wrong way to gain writing experience, and if you’re 100% against doing anything for free, that’s your call too. Do what feels right for you.
Don’t stop writing.
Finally, just keep writing. Keep a journal, write blog posts, write letters to friends. Make time to hone your communication skills every day. While you might have written a lot in the past, now is the time to rethink your approach to everyday writing—especially the way you write emails. The key is to get obsessed with language and experiment with the ways language can inspire specific actions. Take notes. Try new voices. Try new punctuation!
Keep that pen moving and the keys typing, and you’ll slowly but surely get to know yourself as a writer. From there, you can infiltrate media companies, brands, and small businesses and illuminate their language ten fold. Whatever your goals are as a writer, you can come back here to Day Job Optional for more advice on launching and maintaining a sustainable career.
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Opening image via George Yanakiev