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How copywriting can make you a better freelance writer

By February 28, 2023 2 Comments

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For the longest time, the label ‘copywriter’ gave me hives. I avoided it because in my mind, copywriting had little to do with ‘real writing’

A ‘real’ writer meant op-eds in newspapers, essays in literary journals, features in the Sunday magazine, and if absolutely necessary, maybe only then, some content (aka blogs) for carefully vetted companies. 

But not copy. Never copy.

Like many writers, I was susceptible to certain myths about copywriting.

Two in particular were very persistent:

1. Copywriting is about churning repetitive, insistent, FOMO-inducing copy like: Only available today. Buy Now, or…

2. Copywriting is all about the smoke and mirrors (and alcohol?!) of MadMen.

I was determined to stay away from copywriting. 

But I found out very quickly that writing content (articles and blogs as opposed to sales page pages, emails, website copy, etc, aka copy) drained my writing batteries. 

I needed ample breaks, and ample breaks meant plenty of non-billable hours. And I had little energy left for ideating and outlining pitches after working on a blog post.  

That’s how I begrudgingly accepted a couple of copywriting commissions from old work connections. I did so with the understanding that I would NOT let copy infestate my writing brain with its sleazy ways, and I would never call myself a copywriter.

Except I did. I do.

Copywriters ARE writers

It was not love at first sight. After all, I had a lifelong of preconceived ideas about copywriting to overcome.

I had to kiss a fair few copy frogs by writing:

  • website copy
  • real estate copy
  • product descriptions
  • ads
  • bios
  • labels

I didn’t feel truly at home writing copy until I stumbled on email copywriting and launch copy. 

One thing I did love instantly? The copywriting community. These kids were cool, smart, multi-passionate and multi-talented. And they were good writers. Not just good copywriters.

My transition into sustainable copywriting love happened when I came across copywriters whose writing was so good, so clever, so engaging, that I knew I wanted to be just like them. 

Lucky for me, they were also excellent teachers.

So I went and bought from them: Ry Schwartz’s explaining conversion copywriting blew my mind. Joanna Wiebe’s…well, everything in CopySchool also did that. Everything from Laura Belgray just sparked copy joy.

Then Kirsty Fanton really settled the deal, with her psychologist-come-copywriter perspective, perfect-pitch humour, and very smart copywriting ways.

I was now a copywriter.

These copy mentors had completely overturned my perception of copywriting. 

Now, let me try to overturn yours.

Try this: Find your people by listening to podcasts, joining communities and meeting fellow freelance copywriters. 

My mentors were right for me, but you should look for teachers and mentors whose voice really speaks to you, and whose methods make sense to your brain. Then learn from them. 

Podcasts are a great place to find these folks.

Try The Copywriter Club Podcast, and Emma McMillan’s Not Just About Copy Podcast

Good places to join a community of copywriters are Belinda Weaver’s Confident Copywriting, Kate Toon’s The Clever Copywriting School, and 10XFreelancer from CopyHackers. They’re all excellent and very different, so get on their lists and see which feels like it would work for you.

Copywriting can change your relationship with pitching

In her book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes that her writing flourished because it had been freed from the pressure to bring in an income. Other jobs paid for her living expenses. 

I found that as my copywriting income disconnected pitching ideas to editors, from paying the bills, it meant ideas were free to surface in their own time. 

You don’t need to write all the pitches. You just need to write good, thoughtful ones.

Like magic, while I work on copy, my brain seems to also be working on pitches in the background, finessing angles, testing arguments, until they feel more baked and ready to meet an editor. 

I believe you can make good money from writing, whether journalism or other kinds. But my brain really thrives on a no-pressure environment, particularly when it comes to pitches. 

Try this: If you’re putting pressure on yourself to earn great money from feature writing, consider taking on copy jobs and see if your feature writing becomes easier or more joyful. 

Copywriting will make you a better listener

I went to journalism school, where I learned about ethics and research, and countless multimedia skills that I never got to use, but I didn’t learn about how to write stuff that makes people feel things. 

As a reader, impartial reporting wasn’t the kind of writing that I responded to and it wasn’t the kind I wanted to write either. 

Copy is all about stirring the reader’s emotions, making them feel seen, stirred, heard. Before you can do that though, you need to understand said reader. 

And to understand, you need to listen. A lot. 

But guess what? All that listening, all that paying attention to details and nuances…is great for all kinds of writing, not just copy. 

Practicing listening as a copywriter is an excellent skill to nurture, and to transition into other kinds of writing you might like to do: features, op-eds or personal essays. 

Hot tip: I didn’t know what Voice of Customer (VoC) was until a year or so into my copywriting career. It’s the collection of ‘voice’ through interviews, surveys, reviews which then informs what the copy will say.

Copyhackers have a ton of free articles about it. But, if you’re just starting out, it can easily get a bit overwhelming. Ami Williamson has an excellent short course –  the VoC Lab – to help you get your head around it. Her accompanying DIY Messaging Playbook is also gold. 

Jen Havice’s book, Find the message: How to turn voice of customer research into irresistible website copy is another excellent resource that explains exactly how listening to customers turns into good copy.

Copywriting is creative. It also replenishes your creativity 

Joanna Wiebe, the queen of conversion copywriting says copywriting is not creative. It’s science. 

And for some copywriting across some industries, that can be true (Like SAAS – Software as a Service – for example).

But in many other industries, copy may start with data, with research, with science, but it never ends there. 

The science helps you bypass the blank page, and take the pressure off. It also provides the seed you need to grow the copy from. Which is great, because creativity doesn’t like a blank page.

Shifting the focus from ‘ok, time to get creative’ to ‘ok, time to turn this research into some copy’ really removes the pressure from creativity.

After the science part is done, copywriting is all about finding the right words, putting them in the right order.

Plus, letting your brain hang out in places other than writing and journalism circles is a great way to spark your creativity and get ideas for your features or personal narratives.

Try this: Forcing creativity is like trying to suck up a golf ball with a straw – it doesn’t work. Look for the science and research behind your words and you may find your creativity is restored.   

Copywriting tools to use in journalism

Copywriting borrows powerful techniques from psychology like self-disclosure, empathy or self-determination. All of these help establish trust and progress the relationship with the reader. 

But those techniques are not just great for copy. 

When we share a vulnerability that others are likely to secretly experience (self-disclosure), when we show that we understand how someone might feel (empathy), when we remind them they have the power to make their own decisions (self-determination), we make the reader feel seen and heard , and our writing connects with them on a deeper level.

Try this: Think about weaving in your own personal experiences into the next feature article you write. 

Where and how to start offering copywriting services

If copywriting has you intrigued and you want to take it for a spin, start small and test the waters. 

Maybe you’ve noticed your favourite cafe could do with some new copy, a friend is launching a business and needs a hand, or your local community is organising an event that needs to sell tickets. Offer your services – it’s an excellent way to start. 

If you already know copy is a direction you want to go in, pick one or two services you’d like to offer, and start spreading the word via friends, colleagues, on LinkedIn and social media. 

Try this: Start small with copy. Reach out to those around you to see if they have a need for a copywriter. 

You might think of copywriting as the lowly sibling of actual writing. But give it a chance and it might surprise you. From learning how to be a better listener, how to pay attention to detail, how to write so you make people feel seen and heard, these are all skills that you develop as a copywriter. But they would come in very handy in your journalism toolbox too. 

About the writer

Antoanela Safca is a stubbornly niche-less copywriter, journalist and travel writer. She’s been calling Dublin home for the past year and a half, but she still yearns for Melbourne’s food, alleyways and fashion sense. You can find her on Instagram at @antoanelasafcawriter and online at antoanelasafca.com

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  • Excellent piece Antoanela – for a long time I also had a ‘hierarchy’ of writing and copy came way down. But there can be such joy in making sure that the combination of words is there to do just what the audience needs it to do.
    Thanks for the tips re places and people to learn from – I’m a huge Belgray fan but will now go seek out the others too!

    • Exactly Sherene! You really do get to practice the minute detail of phrasing when you write copy, isn’t it? And look, the hierarchy is probably a part of the writing culture (not just in our individual minds) – here to bring it down 😉 I’m so glad you enjoyed it! And I can’t wait to hear how you find the other copywriter/geniuses I mention.

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