What advice would you give to a young graduate starting out in copywriting?
I’d start by making friends with project managers in design companies, as they all seem to know each other, and will pass your name on if you do a good job for them. They’ll also take you with them when they move on to new companies. Think about how you’re going to market yourself. For example: – Word-of-mouth publicity is always best, so you could offer a reward to any friends or contacts who get you more work. – Write some intriguing copy on a postcard that establishes your style and will attract potential clients. Tom Rigby of 26 did this very effectively with a postcard that featured the Douglas Adams quote about loving the sound of deadlines whooshing by, and invited clients in a similar predicament to contact him. – Set up a website. Keep it up to date. Send out a regular newsletter to clients and potential clients (get their permission before you add them to the list) and fill it with interesting stuff related to copywriting, your recent work and new articles they can read on your site. Trust your instincts. Do the networking thing, but ask yourself ‘How can I help this person?’ rather than ‘What can they do for me?’. Work with people you like and who appreciate what you do.
The world is chronically short of good writers who think creatively and help organisations to communicate more adventurously. Get as broad a grounding as you can. Work in different industries, different countries, different cultures. Decide who you want to work with, how much you want to get paid, and what kind of life you want to live. Find a sympathetic mentor. There are many experienced writers around who would be only too happy to look over your shoulder, help steer your career, and introduce you to clients. And finally, practise, practise, practise…
Don’t talk about writing. Just do it.
I’m always chary of giving any form of careers advice, as I only lucked into ‘writing’ full time a year or so ago. That said, I think doing these things help: 1. Read more. Reading is your fuel; it provides you with the tools you need to be a good and successful writer. It doesn’t really particularly matter what you read. But considering that you’ll most likely need to turn your hand to writing about almost any subject under the sun, it helps to be reasonably well informed about the world and its wonders. 2. Write more. Runners get better by running more. Writers get better by writing more. Really, they do. So take any opportunity you can. And if you can’t find any, make your own. A blog isn’t just a space to pontificate – it’s a chance to hone your skills, your craft, your voice(s). 3. Be persistent. Very, very few people fall into writing what they want first off. If you do, great. If not, don’t stop trying. 4. Join 26. And no, I’m not just saying that because I have to. It a) shows a degree of commitment to your chosen career; b) gives you the chance to meet and pick the brains of some of the best copywriters in the country; and c) is jolly handy to mention in interviews.
Alexei Sayle once said that, whenever young comedians asked him for advice, he would size them up first and work out if they were any good. If so, he’d tell them they were useless and to pack it in immediately – he didn’t want the competition. In that same spirit, I’d advise asking yourself three questions: 1. Do you have a natural, easy way with language? (Which is usually nothing to do with having an English degree and more to do with whether you can write a good email or tell a good joke.) 2. Do you have the nuts-and-bolts grammatical knowledge to back it up? (Knowing your apostrophes won’t make you a good copywriter, but not knowing them will make you a bad one.) 3. Are you happy turning your talents to any number of exciting and not-so-exciting uses? (No matter how successful you get, you’ll still find yourself writing instructions for vacuum cleaners at some point.) If you can say yes to all the above, then on no account become a copywriter. You’ll be useless.
I wouldn’t wish to put off any graduate who was hell bent on becoming a copywriter, but to anyone that was unsure, my first piece of advice would be “go and do something else for a decade, and then see how you feel.” My second piece of advice would be to feel free to ignore all my advice.
Write as much as you can. Read as much as you can. Meet as many people as you can.
Great business writing requires insight and intelligence as well as the ability to craft words. It starts with thinking, it calls upon personal experience, and it demands you can write in all sorts of ways for all sorts of people. So go out and experience life and business before concentrating on copywriting. Don’t go freelance too early and never stay in a permanent in-house writer job for more than a few years, until you’re 30 anyway (ancient, I know, but one day even you you might be that old). Work for very big and very small businesses. Spend some time working on the other side, in the media. Learn about editorial processes from great editors, learn about business from great business people, learn about marketing and PR from great marketing and PR people. Understand how TV gets made – it will have an enormous effect on business communications over the next 10 years. Make friends with designers, learn how they work and understand how writing and design can lock together to create meaning. Ask (stupid) questions all the time. Travel. Hang around organisations like the Institute of Directors and listen to what makes business people tick. Sharpen your understanding of economics, politics and society by going to events like the https://www.battleofideas.org.uk or reading beyond the mainstream press – http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk, http://www.standpointmag.co.uk, http://www.spiked-online.com. Most of all, write write write. And when you’re exhausted by that, read read read.
There are plenty of sh*tty jobs out there; copywriting isn’t one of them. So read everything you can, work like hell and don’t be afraid to take a less than perfect job as a stepping stone to greater things. Persistence pays.