The most challenging part about being a copywriter is breaking into the profession. In this article, I show you what it takes to get a well paying copywriting job as a staff copywriter and as a freelancer.
To get a job as a copywriter, first learn the basics of copywriting and write assignments you give yourself. Use these assignments to build a copywriting portfolio and then write for freelance websites to get experience.
While freelance sites will not pay well, they will give you the confidence you need to take on any assignment. You’ll also have real-world projects to add to your copywriting portfolio.
When you have the confidence and a polished portfolio, approach clients directly, or apply for jobs with marketing agencies.
Your portfolio is your ticket to better-paying assignments and employment at an agency.
A Note about Copywriting for Beginners
This article assumes you know the basics of copywriting. If you’re brand new to copywriting and don’t have the basics down yet, read the article Copywriting Basics.
Getting a Job as a Copywriter
In every profession, there are obstacles and gatekeepers. Copywriting is no different.
Focus and patience can overcome any obstacle and make you a better writer in the process.
There are plenty of freelance sites that pay. Some people earn a stable income on these sites; unfortunately, most people don’t.
A professional copywriter usually will not be paid what they’re worth at a freelance site such as Upwork, Guru, and Freelancer, unless they build a client base that’s willing to pay higher rates.
Most aspiring copywriters who attempt to make it on a freelance site must begin with low-paying projects.
The prospect of working hard for chump change can be so discouraging that they abandon the effort before they make their first buck.
If you try the freelancing platforms, you simply must put your head down, do the work, and keep striving for better-paying assignments. Of course, you won’t get rich there.
Still, freelance websites are excellent places to learn.
You can get experience there and build confidence as a copywriter before moving on to assignments that pay you what you’re worth.
The respectable income usually comes as an employed staff writer or as a freelancer working directly with clients.
Before you can hope for a better paying copywriting job, you need a portfolio of your work, also known as “Your Book.”
Your Copywriting Portfolio Is the Ticket.
Few clients or employers care about your educational achievements or what workshops you have attended. What they want to know is if you can get the job done and if your copy is persuasive.
Imagine you were hiring an architect to design your dream home. Two guys applied for the job.
One guy claims he’s the best but doesn’t have any images of his work. You have no idea what he’s designed in the past.
The second guy presents a portfolio of his work.
Which one would you trust with your money and reputation?
It’s the same with prospective employers and clients. They want to first see what you’re capable of as a copywriter.
A portfolio of your past assignments is the best way to show them you can do the work.
Before the internet, copywriters kept copies of their work in a black portfolio case. Opened, it typically spread across half of a conference table.
Fortunately, copywriting portfolios can now live online. A website is preferred because samples can be enhanced to look their best.
However, there are cheaper options that work well too.
When starting, if you can’t build a website and don’t have the budget to get one, a DropBox account will work fine.
Google Docs is another place to keep your portfolio, and it doesn’t cost anything.
When your portfolio is online, you can share the link to it in your job proposals and employment applications.
What to Put in Your Copywriting Portfolio.
If you’re starting from scratch, you probably don’t have any writing samples to show prospective clients or employers.
That’s the Catch-22 of copywriting. You can’t get an assignment if you don’t have published samples, and you can’t get published examples if you don’t have an assignment.
It’s not as dismal as it might seem. You’re a writer; you have options. Like a spider weaving a web, you can pull it out of your tail.
If you have written any business communications in the past, it might be suitable for your portfolio. A straight-up word document is perfectly fine.
Have you written any of the following? They could work.
- Blog posts
- Emails to customers
- Interoffice communications
- Business handouts or flyers
- Web pages
- Training materials
- Anything that shows you can write clearly
While these may not be ideal samples, they will show you have writing experience.
Such a light portfolio probably may not be enough to get a high-paying copywriting gig or a salary position with an agency. But, it is enough to get assignments at the freelance websites.
You can also write spec samples to fill your portfolio. Spec samples are assignments you write simply to showcase your abilities.
For example, you can write a spec direct sales letter about a fictitious product. Writing spec pieces is a time-honored practice.
Many highly successful copywriter’s first copywriting portfolio was little more than a collection of spec pieces.
More Ways to Build a Portfolio.
Writing on spec isn’t the only way to build a copywriting portfolio. If you have friends who have businesses, ask if you can write for them. Write for free if you have to.
I rarely advise that you write for nothing, but it’s a place to start. When you write for free, make it crystal clear that the free job is a one-time thing.
As a copywriter, you create value for your client. They should pay you. However, in the beginning, as you build your portfolio and confidence, a few free projects can help get you started.
Also, when you write for free, ask for copies of the published work and a testimonial from your client. Testimonials will help you get more jobs.
If you can’t find a friend with a business, consider the following places to get assignments.
- Write sales material promoting yourself as a copywriter
- Write copy for a local charity
- Help a small business with a sales letter or ad.
- Intern at an ad agency for a stiped
- Contact freelance graphic designers and offer to rewrite the copy they get from clients. This copy is often poorly written.
- Write for church bulletins, small print papers, and blogs
Brainstorm ways to demonstrate your writing skills. It might take only one impressive writing sample to get your foot in the door.
For more ideas, read How to Build a Copywriting Portfolio When You Have No Experience.
More About Your Copywriting Portfolio.
If you only have a few writing samples, put them all in your portfolio. When you have a lot, pick only the best.
A dozen writing sample is usually what most prospective clients and employers expect to see. When you have an abundance of samples, organize them into niches.
By organizing your work into niches, it will be easier for a client to see your range as a writer. Also, you can customize a sub-category to match the needs of the client.
If they need someone to write a full-page ad, you can show them all the full-page ads you’ve written.
Keep in mind that different agencies may specialize in specific writing niches.
When an ad agency specializes in online advertisements, they won’t care about the print real estate brochure you created for a local realtor.
Instead, they want to see samples of web content you wrote, banner ads you created, and email campaigns you authored.
There are approximately four job categories for copywriters. These categories include the following:
- Agency Jobs
- Corporate Jobs
- Non-profit Jobs
- Freelance Jobs
I discuss each of these categories in more detail below
Like most things, working at an agency has its pluses and minuses.
Movies often portray ad agencies as an exciting place to work, even glamorous. And it can be.
However, it can also be stressful, with many late nights cranking out copy ahead of near-impossible deadlines.
If you love a high-energy work environment, an agency might just be the place for you. It can be a great place to learn all phases of advertising and marketing.
Agencies are also excellent places to make contacts in the industry.
My first assignments came from two small agencies who tossed me work when their limited pool of staff writers couldn’t keep up.
I wrote for them for over 20 years, even while I moved around the country.
As I write this, it’s April 2020; the economy is in a deep recession. In the past decade, a growing number of agencies outsourced their writing assignments.
This trend will probably continue.
If you think you’d enjoy working for an agency, go for it, you can learn a lot in just a few months.
However, in the present economic environment, the tide can turn against you at any moment. Keep your portfolio up to date and always be prepared to freelance.
And make contacts. The more people you know in the industry, the more bomb-proof your copywriting career will be.
Compared to the work intensity of an ad agency, the corporate environment for a writer is a bit routine.
It can get boring and repetitive for someone with a strong creative drive.
Staff writers in corporations are typically considered an entry-level position. The company expects everyone in an entry-level position to climb the ladder to management positions in areas of corporate communications.
The “up or out” corporate mentality also breeds a particularly virulent form of office politics.
Most writers I’ve known are born without the required genetics to survive a political-backstabbing work environment.
It isn’t unusual for managers to take credit for the creative work of their underlings.
Stealing creative credit is the status quo in the corporate workplace. If you would lose sleep when your boss takes credit for your work, a corporate writing job is not for you, at least not for the long term.
Usually, by the time a job opened is published, the company has already selected a shortlist of candidates.
Networking is probably the best way to get a corporate job. I know of more than a few people who went to industry conventions to mix and mingle and were later hired.
Alternatively, you could get hired in any capacity in the industry and begin networking and offering to write projects.
One of the largest US business sectors is non-profits. However, only a few non-profits hire full-time staff writers.
In non-profits, staff writers create fundraising letters, grant proposals, and web content.
If your beliefs are aligned with the non-profit, writing for the cause can be very fulfilling.
Unlike most copywriting positions, writing for a non-profit pays you to write for something consistent with your beliefs.
As with a corporate position, networking is your most powerful tool for finding a non-profit writing job.
Corporations rarely advertise writing jobs. Instead, they fill positions from referrals.
If the non-profit you want to write for is looking for volunteers, that’s your invitation. Volunteer and get to know people in the organization and let them get to know you.
In non-profits, most hiring is done or at least approved by the director.
Freelance copywriters can earn considerably more than staff writers, but it’s not for everyone.
If you’re self-motivated with an entrepreneurial spirit and want more control over your life and finances, freelancing may be the answer.
Freelancing is just a fanciful word for “self-employed.”
As a freelancer, you’re working directly for clients. A local golf cart dealer may hire you to write ads or web content for his business. The client pays you when you complete the job.
Once you complete an assignment, you start another one or begin looking for your next gig.
The Advantages of Freelance Copywriting.
- Work from home, or most anywhere
- Six-figure income potential
- Cheap to get started
- Abundant work
- Interesting and ever-changing projects
The Disadvantages of Freelance Copywriting.
- Possible distractions if you work at home
- Irregular pay (feast and famine)
- You’re responsible for everything in your business
The Services of a Freelance Copywriter.
A freelance copywriter can offer a wide range of services. Naturally, what you offer will depend on market demand, your skills, confidence, and preferences.
One point to consider is why you got into freelance copywriting in the first place. Maybe you should write that down someplace to remind you of your decision.
If you aren’t careful, working for yourself can morph out of control. Disaster usually happens when you try to be all things to all people.
In the beginning, keep your focus narrow and don’t be afraid to refuse projects that might be more hassle than they’re worth. You want projects from clients who understand your worth.
Avoid clients who are trying to get something for nothing.
Here are the typical services offered by a freelance copywriter.
- Copywriting Only – They keep it simple and only write, preferring not to broaden their business into consulting or marketing strategy.
- Rewriting Copy – Known as copy review, critique or makeover; With this service, the writer takes copy written by the client and revises it or recommends edits. Typically, clients don’t understand that a rewrite can take as long as writing an original piece and will expect to pay less.
- Teaching Copywriting – If you like to teach, presenting an online course in copywriting can be very rewarding.
- Consulting – Some freelance copywriters also offer various consulting services such as a sales funnel or lead gen strategy.
Finding clients is where most freelancers fail.
In the first year of your freelance business, expect to spend most of your time promoting yourself.
If you’re introverted or if you have never promoted yourself, the process of finding clients can be a bit intimidating.
To efficiently search for clients, narrow your focus to the businesses and organizations most likely to hire a freelance copywriter.
- Creative Service Firms
- Midsized Companies
- Small Businesses
- Direct and Digital Marketers.
Telling the World You’re in Business.
Continually watch for ways to promote your business. It may be a social function or a school gathering.
People often start a conversation with some variation of “What kind of work do you do?” Be prepared to answer concisely and offer them your business card.
Below are several additional ways you can promote your freelance copywriting business.
- Write articles about copywriting and marketing for local publications and professional journals.
- Speak at professional business groups or volunteer as a guest speaker for an online webinar.
- Network among business professionals.
- Send pitch letters (via snail mail) to potential clients, find their address online
- Phone prospective clients.