Every couple of weeks (participant willingness permitting) I will be posting an interview with a seasoned copywriter, asking their opinions on the creative industry and how their journey to copywriterville has been so far. I hope this will help both up-and-coming copywriters as well as those already active in the profession.
To kick off this series, I am putting questions to freelance copywriter Jamie Thomson, who runs online outfit Brand New Copy. He has worked with scores of companies, from fashion brands like Police, to education institutes such as the University of Aberdeen, and has kindly taken some time to give everyone a glimpse into his experiences with copywriting.
This is (hopefully) the first of many interviews with pillars of the copywriting community, and I hope that all of the advice offered and stories told will help you become a better copywriter and/or learn about this crazy little industry. If you have any suggestions for questions you think I could ask other copywriters in the future, please get in touch or leave a comment below. Right, back to the matter at hand. Please check out the full interview with Jamie:
McParland Copywriting: Do you remember when you became aware that freelance copywriting was a thing?
Jamie Thomson: Hmmm…I think it must have been about 10 years ago when I was doing journalism work placements. I’d heard the term ‘copywriter’ thrown about a few times at different papers but I didn’t really know what the job involved exactly. It wasn’t until I started my own website in the education sector in 2011 that I came across the term ‘freelance copywriter’. Seeing as I was already writing everything for my own site, I thought to myself ‘I wonder if people would pay me to do this for them?’
MC: After starting out, how long did it take before you started to get work?
JT: It actually didn’t take me that long. The first thing I did was set up my freelance copywriting website and because I already knew quite a bit about SEO, I optimized my site as much I could for the services that I was offering. However, it was through Twitter that I landed my first paying client – a few days after my website went live. I got chatting to a copywriter called Alice West and she offered to send me some small projects that she needed help with. From there I managed to build up a small portfolio that helped me land bigger clients.
MC: What was your very first big project?
JT: My first big project was writing for Police watches. In fact, I can still remember the wording on the email that they sent me…it was a glorious day. They needed someone who could write press releases for their new watch and jewellery collections with a focus on brand storytelling. They’re still a client today and earlier this year they flew me out to Basel in Switzerland to meet them at the world’s largest watch convention. It’s a tough gig sometimes.
MC: Did it take you a while to find the right amount to charge?
JT: Oooh yes. When I first started out, I was still copywriting part time so I was more focused on gaining experience than getting paid. One of my first clients was a marketing agency in the US who were paying me £15 to write 800+ word articles on various marketing topics. Each article took at least 3 hours to write and the client was very particular about the content. A few months in, I realised I’d forgotten what daylight looked like and only had a couple of hundred quid to show for it. Although the situation was far from ideal, the client’s high standards made me a better writer and set the bar for all my future copywriting work.
(Side note: here is a helpful article by Alastaire Allday about what to charge).
MC: Name three things you have been shocked by during your time as a copywriter.
JT: The first thing that springs to mind is how undervalued copywriting is in marketing in general. Far too often it’s treated as an after-thought, which is frustrating considering the impact it can have on a campaign.
Secondly, I’d say that the results of the DMA’s copywriting survey shocked me a little. The general consensus was that copywriters are frustrated about a lot of things like the quality of work being produced nowadays and the struggle to gain respect. I’m paraphrasing here, but the fact that the report was titled ‘Why Your Copywriter Looks Sad’ gives you the gist. Although I can empathise with a lot of the findings, I would have thought that the general feeling about copywriting was more positive.
Lastly, I’m always shocked when people don’t know what copywriting is. It’s easy to live inside your own little bubble when you spend your entire working day (and night) writing copy. I find that people tend to confuse the term ‘copywriting’ with proofreading or copyright. I actually had someone ask me once ‘is that legal?’ to which I replied ‘of course it’s legal’. It only occurred to me a few days later that they were referring to legal copywriting…oops.
MC: Name three things that have come as a pleasant surprise during your time as a copywriter.
JT: I’m pleasantly surprised by how supportive copywriters are of one another. When I first started out, I got lots of great advice from people who were already doing what I wanted to do and so I always try to return the favour to other wannabes whenever I get the chance.
I’ve also been surprised at just how much work there is out there for copywriters if you get your marketing strategy right.
Thirdly, I’m constantly surprised at how much of an impact copywriting can have on a client’s business. Whether the copy is for product descriptions, billboard adverts, or landing pages, when it’s done well, it can turn a company around.
MC: If you could give three pieces of advice to those wanting to get into copywriting what would they be?
JT: My first piece of advice would be to start practicing. A fancy website and a Twitter profile won’t help you sustain a career if you don’t know the craft. Even if you have to work for free to begin with, or to briefs that you’ve created for yourself, there’s no substitute for putting the hours in. The more copywriting you do, the better you get at it.
Okay, number two – I’d say choose your niches but keep your options open. Most of the work I get comes through the enquiry form on my website. And most of those enquiries are from specific industries that I tend to specialise in. However, I’m open to writing most types of copy for most clients if I think I can make a good job of it.
Number three – aim for the top end of the market. I learned this the hard way. By positioning yourself as a copywriter with substance, you’ll find better clients and get more satisfying work. There will always be people out there willing to write for pennies but if you focus on adding value, then you’ll be seen as a good investment for the long-term.
MC: If you could give three pieces of advice to those already in the copywriting profession what would they be?
JT: I think it’s important to insist on a thorough brief. It’s amazing how easy it is to misinterpret a client’s needs but a detailed brief helps guide you towards what your client really wants – even if they don’t know really know themselves. Don’t be afraid to ask obvious questions and when you start to feel that you’re asking too many then you’re about half-way there.
Secondly, I’d say create skeleton drafts. This is a great piece of advice I picked up from Kate Toon and Belinda Weaver’s Hot Copy Podcast and it’s really helped me produce better work. I always felt that there was a gap in the process between confirming the brief and producing the first draft. A skeleton draft that provides a general outline of the copy first bridges that gap nicely and helps ensure that the first draft is on track with the client’s expectations. It also helps cut down on the number of redrafts.
(Side note: check out this article to learn more about skeleton drafts (it’s aimed at novelists but is still very relevant)).
MC: Any final thoughts?
JT: My last pearl of wisdom (for what it’s worth) is to always do your best work. Even if you’re writing about a dull or a dry subject, by striving to make your copy as good as it possibly can be, you’ll be a better writer for it and increase your chances of getting recurring work and word of mouth referrals in the future.
Thanks again to Jamie for taking the time out to answer these questions. I hope they were helpful and watch this space; there will be more copywriter interviews to follow.