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How to Become a Freelance Copywriter – The WHOLE Truth

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How to Become a Freelance Copywriter – The WHOLE Truth

Every day, I fall down on my one good knee and thank my lucky stars that I stumbled into this copywriting thing.

It truly is a spectacular way to make a living. It turned me – a penniless high school dropout — into a millionaire, and it’s doing the same for many other writers I could name.

Nevertheless, not everything every online guru tells you is necessarily the gospel truth. (“DUH!” – right?)

See, these guys are mostly selling a product. They’re also copywriters. And well … let’s just say that sometimes, they can get just a l-i-t-t-l-e carried away when selling their books, courses and conferences.

So let’s take a few minutes to set the record straight by examining the three biggest, fattest lies being told online about this freelance copywriting thing …

Big Fat Lie #1: “If you can write a simple letter, you can become a great copywriter.” Nonsense. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: What we do isn’t about writing. In fact, many of the worst copy cubs I’ve ever had were English majors. The absolute worst was an English professor.

Copywriting is, first and foremost, about persuasion: About persuading prospects to give us their attention and to read our sales messages … persuading them to accept our point of view and to believe that our products really do deliver the benefits we promise … and finally, persuading them to order NOW.

Just do that in your copy – and confine yourself to promoting products that people already want – and you can make a darned good living as a copywriter.

To make a great living – more than $1 million a year — you’ll need to go one step farther: You’ll have to master the art of creating desire for a product or benefit that your prospects have NOT already decided they want.

How do you acquire these skills? Well for starters, you could change your focus: Instead of studying writing, study sales. Better yet, take a night job as a salesperson. Maybe at a used car dealership. Maybe selling insurance or vacuum cleaners door to door.

Learn to anticipate objections and to defuse them. Learn to dimensionalize the value – both practical and emotional — your product brings to people’s lives. Practice minimizing the price and master asking for the sale.

How do I know it’ll help you become a better copywriter? I’ve done it, that’s why! In grade school, I sold greeting cards door to door. In my teens, I sold buying club memberships door to door. In my early 20s, I sold cars for a Chrysler dealership in Tulsa and video production services in Los Angeles.

Believe me: That experience will help you become a better copywriter than any guru’s book, course or conference ever will.

So get your sales chops. The best copy cubs I ever had were mediocre writers. A couple of them were downright lousy at grammar, spelling and punctuation. But they had a knack for persuasion and for creating desire in their readers.

Once you’ve mastered those two all-important skills, you’re 99% of the way home. The rest can be handled by a proofreader.

Lie #2: “Copywriting is ‘the lazy man’s way to riches.'” Uh … come again???

In my not-so-humble opinion, too many folks these days try to sell copywriting courses and conferences by painting vivid mental images of the copywriter as a gentleman or gentle lady of leisure.

No bosses … no office hours … no rules. Get rich writing at home in your underwear or on the beach sipping a mai tai in your Speedos. Start when you want, call it a day when you want, take a day, a week or a month off when you want.

Reality check, PUH-LEEZE!

First off, it takes years of hard work to become a great copywriter – first, learning the ropes … second, selling yourself to a client … and third, applying what you’ve learned in the real world.

Second, the “be your own boss” thing is just nuts. If you’re going to be a freelance copywriter, you’re going to have more bosses than you can shake a stick at – and every one of them is going to want a piece of you.

For one thing, every chairman, president, group publisher, marketing director, marketing manager, compliance officer, secretary and janitor at every company you’ll ever write for is just dying to get his or her itchy little fingers on your copy.

Memorize this – I don’t know who said it first:

The most intense human desire is NOT for air, or water, or food or sex.

It’s one human being’s yearning to change another’s copy.

… But WHY?

My theory: It’s simple office politics. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose by fiddling with your copy.

If a hireling at a client’s company makes a change and your copy does well, they can take the credit. They could suddenly find themselves on the fast track for the big promotion and raise, the corner office, the company car and the uber-hot personal assistant.

… And of course, if they make a change and your copy bombs, they’re covered. After all; you’re the copywriter, so it’s YOUR fault. See? They have nothing to lose!

Meanwhile, as a copywriter, your job is to humor every one of your bosses without allowing them to mangle your sales copy or diffuse its clarity of vision.

And to do that, you’ll have to exercise the patience of a Job, the diplomacy of a Kissinger, and you’re gonna have to smooch mondo buttage.

And when all else fails, you need to have the stones to be as stubborn as a mule and as ferocious as a pit bull on steroids in the defense of your vision.

Now, about that “work when you want, take off when you want” thing, there are a couple of things you should be aware of …

First: Every month, a disgruntled postal employee stuffs a bunch of envelopes – called “bills” into your mailbox. Each one of them has a due date printed on it. Your job is to get the money to pay each of them before that due date.

That means you’re probably going to have to go to work for it; whether you “feel like it” or not.

Second: Every one of your clients is in love with irritating little things called “deadlines.” A deadline is a date they give you on or before which you are to have your copy done. If you don’t deliver, it bollocks up their promotional schedule – not just this month, but for the entire year.

Blowing deadlines and then explaining that you were enjoying your “copywriter’s prerogative” to work whenever or wherever you damn well feel like it will NOT earn you many repeat assignments.

Bottom line is, producing great copy takes the energy and work ethic of a floor trader and attention to detail and intense concentration of an air traffic controller.

Now, maybe YOU can do all that a few hours a day or while ogling babes on the beach – not me.

A few months ago, my cherished friend Gary Bencivenga dropped an e-mail into my inbox at 4:30 AM – and I responded immediately.

“Isn’t it interesting,” replied The Great Gary, “that two of the world’s most accomplished copywriters are already at their desks at this hour?”

Interesting, yes. Surprising? I’ll leave that up to you.

Lie #3: “You’ll begin making the big bucks right away.” Maybe … but probably not.

Think about it for a moment: As a copywriter, you only make money when you make other people money – right?

But when you’re starting out, you’re most likely going to be COSTING everyone who hires or copy chiefs you a not-so-small fortune.

Sorry – but let’s be honest here: There are only three reasons why anyone would hire a newbie:

1) He’s clueless about what makes for great copy …

2) He’s too cheap to pay what a copywriter with a real track record would charge him …

3) In very rare cases, if the client is a copywriting expert himself, he may see some promise in you and hope that the hundreds of excruciatingly painful hours he or she will have to spend reading, critiquing and editing your copy will eventually make him money.

In any case, your contribution to this process is not worth six figures a year – and it’s sure as
heck not worth seven!

To the contrary: If the world were a fair place, you’d be paying for the education you’re getting.

Think about this for a moment …

>> Before becoming a freelance copywriter, Gary Bencivenga worked for years as a junior copywriter – first for David Ogilvy, then for Dan Rosenthal.

>> Arthur Johnson started out as a newbie copywriter at The Franklin Mint – making, I’m sure, a tiny fraction of what he makes today.

>> Jim Rutz, Kent Komae, Brad Petersen and David Deutsch all worked at marketing or advertising agencies as in-house copywriters for years before hanging out their freelance shingles.

>> Carline Anglade-Cole, a marketing director at Phillips Publishing, began by writing sales copy on staff before she set out on her own.

>> Heck – I spent years working as an in-house copywriter at a Los Angeles agency before starting my freelance business!

My advice: If you can’t find a senior freelance writer to copy chief you … get a flippin’ job!

I’m serious. Thousands of direct response agencies and companies are hungry for promising staff writers. You may have to relocate. You may even have to take a temporary cut in pay.

But …

>> You’ll be immersed in copywriting and marketing every working day…

>> You’ll have your copy critiqued by folks who know what they’re doing and who have a lot to teach you…

>> You’ll add tons of real-life promotions to your portfolio that will help you find freelance clients later on and…

>> You’ll make a living wage learning a skill that can be worth millions to you for the rest of your life.

If you’re willing to do all of the above – and if you have either spec assignments or live samples that prove you have promise, I’d start applying for a job at every direct response company and agency I could think of..

Do whatever it takes. It’s worth it!

Well now … ain’t I just a ray of sunshine today …

If I rained on your parade, please forgive me. But the simple truth is, pursuing a copywriting career is NOT a get-rich-quick scheme.

However, the choice to become a copywriter can be the single best idea you ever had.

In 1974, I was a dead broke, out-of-work high school dropout with a wife and two kids. I got a job at an agency and for five years, made a living wage.

My first month on my own, I made more money than I’d earned in a year at the agency.

A couple of years later, I was doing a quarter million a year plus royalties.

Fifteen years later, I was doing a million a year.

Others have done it faster. As I’ve mentioned before, Carline Anglade-Cole made six figures her very first year as a freelance copywriter, and does about $800,000 a year today.

So whatever you do, do NOT be discouraged. If you need encouragement, just look at how far you’ve come; all the stuff you know now that you didn’t know a year ago.

Resolve to do whatever it takes in the short term to reap the long-term rewards. Stick with it. Redouble your efforts. Refuse to accept anything but success.

Take my word for it:

The first time a client wires six figures into your bank account to pay you for two weeks’ work, you’ll be glad you hung in there.

Clayton Makepeace is a working direct response marketing consultant and copywriter who has helped his clients attract more than 3 million new customers quadruple their profits and rake in more than $1 billion in direct mail and internet sales. His daily e-letter, The Total Package, shares his proven response-boosting techniques with younger writers, business owners, and marketing pros. Find out more at

Author: Clayton G. Makepeace
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