Copywriting could be one of the best careers ever. Here’s how to become a copywriter in 2020—with all the tips, tools, and actionable steps you need.
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Trying to figure out how to become a copywriter?
Well, you’ve just stepped into the right corner of the internet.
In this article, I’m going to introduce you to all things copy. I’ll tell you what copywriting is, why it’s the best career ever, and even give you the tools and resources you need to get started writing high-performing business copy today.
- Overview: What is Copywriting?
- Who Can Be a Copywriter?
- Copywriter Roles and Salaries
- Top Skills Every Copywriter Must Master
- How to Become a Copywriter in 5 Steps
- Bonus: Shortcuts to Becoming a Great Copywriter
- Have Fun as a Copywriter
Let’s start with the basics.
Overview: What is Copywriting?
In its simplest form, copywriting is the language a business uses to move a consumer closer to a purchase. (And it’s got nothing to do with copyright law.)
This includes writing the copy (AKA words) on a website. Copy can appear on the back of a carton of orange juice or on business flyers passed out at events. You’ll find copy across business cards, emails, sales pages, newsletters, ads, video scripts, Instagram posts, LinkedIn profiles, landing pages, billboards, and much much more.
Almost everywhere you come into contact with a business, copy shows up in one form or another. Without copy, businesses can hardly communicate anything to customers at all.
In the beginning, copywriting can feel like a small subset of marketing. But the deeper you go, the more expansive it becomes. Once you’ve been copywriting a few years, you realize just how much there is to this role.
Copywriting isn’t just finding cute words to throw on your next marketing promotion. This isn’t a grown-up version of your high school creative writing class. Copywriting is equal parts creativity and science. We are salespeople and marketers first, writers second. There are business objectives to hit, particular constraints to work within, and customers to connect with.
But as you’ll learn as we go on, the most creative copy really just comes down to scientific writing methods that have been tested and improved upon for decades. Scientific copywriting is a skill you can learn, too.
Who Can Be a Copywriter?
Copywriting doesn’t require any formal training. It helps—though it isn’t necessary—to begin with a background in writing, even if it’s just a lifelong enjoyment for storytelling. Often, copywriters come from a background in English, Journalism, Rhetoric, or Communications (but they certainly don’t have to).
Copywriting is about simplicity. If you’re used to writing A+ academic essays, you’ll have to change your mindset regarding copywriting. Though you might have been told to “omit needless words” from Shrunk and White’s The Elements of Style in college, no professor encourages writing short. The style of academic writing is to wax eloquent, trying to sound as smart as possible.
Not so in copywriting. In this job, you can’t be flowery or verbose. It won’t work. You’ll quickly find yourself being a fierce editor—and minimalist—cutting every sentence down to its clearest form. Why? Because crisp writing sells.
Think about how many online recipes where you’ve scrolled past that rambly intro about fall leaves and childhood memories baking with grandma (it’s like, let’s get to the pumpkin pie already).
Not all good writers are good copywriters. The distinction comes down to recognition over recall: good copy is easily readable, clearly communicates an essential idea, and plants the desire for a certain action in the mind of the reader. You can’t leave any of those elements out.
Copywriter Roles and Salaries
To understand how to become a copywriter, it helps to start with an understanding of how companies hire copywriters. Here are the three most common copywriting roles:
An in-house copywriter works your stereotypical 9-5 office job. They write copy for just one organization day in and day out.
An in-house copywriter works within a company’s marketing department, drafting everything from website copy to the company’s newsletter. As an in-house copywriter, you work with the same team, on the same brand, toward the same goal, for as long as you work for that company.
According to figures from Glassdoor, starting salaries for copywriters with 0-1 years of experience average about $46,000, with $28,000 on the low end.
Agency copywriters may write for several companies within a single week. Businesses hire marketing and advertising agencies to promote their brand. If your agency gets a contract with a new company, you’ll start writing for them. If you want a fast-paced environment working for a variety of businesses, agency work can be a great place to begin your career.
The starting salary for agency copywriters is comparable to that of in-house copywriters.
Copywriters can also choose to work for companies on a freelance basis. Like agency copywriters, a freelancer may easily write for dozens of companies over the course of a year.
It’s hard to find reliable data about freelance copywriter earnings. To pull from the same source as above, Glassdoor says freelance copywriters with 1-3 years of experience earn over $67,000 on average.
While there are amazing examples of people who rake in $60K+ in their first year flying solo, it’s safe to say that freelancing is anything but a get-rich-quick scheme. It takes time to build your expertise—and your client base.
That said, the long-term potential upside of freelancing is certainly much higher than working in-house or for an agency. Only the market can cap a freelancer’s earnings. If you drum up enough demand for your freelance copywriting services, it’s not uncommon to earn into the multiple six figures after several years of writing within the right industry.
Top Skills Every Copywriter Must Master
You don’t have to learn all these skills at once. But as you learn how to become a copywriter, you’ll see the demand for these skills come up again and again.
1. How to Write Eye-Catching Headlines
It doesn’t matter how powerful your article or landing page is. If the reader doesn’t connect with the headline/subject line, they won’t open the article, let alone read it. For example, here’s an email that the Sumo team sent to promote SendFox:
With the strong, attention-grabbing email subject line, the email got over 40% open rate.
Great copywriters know how to catch a reader’s attention with a headline and hold that attention all the way to the call to action. Speaking of which…
2. How to Craft Effective Calls-to-Action (CTAs)
Copywriters are hired to improve a business’ bottom line. And a copywriter’s impact on that bottom line ultimately comes down to just one thing: Your ability to drive consumers to want something enough to do something about it.
The culmination of this occurs at the call to action.
A call-to-action is the precise response a business hopes to elicit from a consumer. This could be subscribing to a newsletter, opening a landing page, purchasing a product—and so much more.
Source: Single Grain
Writing a clear, powerful call to action is one of the most important skills a copywriter can learn.
Let’s try a real-life example:
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3. How to Write to Help Readers Achieve Their Goals
Long-form writing is not dead. People still read long articles, threads, landing pages, online resources, and books every day. In fact, these readers are likely some of your best potential buyers because they care enough about the content to consider every sentence.
With that said, the majority of people who come across a company’s website, landing page, or blog post aren’t going to read the whole thing. People want to know what’s in it for them while exerting the least effort. When people read online, they skim. They bounce around. It’s a fact of life.
This means you need to make your copy skimmable, especially if you’re writing for the web. Instead of writing a wall of text, break it up into subsections that are easy to skim. That’s where headlines come in. According to Nielsen,
“When headings and subheadings visually stand out on the page and are descriptive, users engage in an efficient scanning pattern that allows them to quickly find the information that they need.”
For reference, consider how I’ve written this article. Most people who open this article won’t read all the way through. Pineapple on pizza isn’t that bad. …see? Nothing. Instead, most readers skim headlines and occasionally dive into sections that interest them.
As a copywriter, it’s wise to plan for this. Learn to make your content skimmable to get the most important points across to even your least-invested reader—and help them find what they’re looking for.
4. How to Make Customers the Center of Every Message
Readers are selfish. When a potential customer or subscriber reads your copy, they want to see themselves in the words. It’s just like when a friend tells you about that crazy dream they had – if you weren’t in it, you’re probably going to zone out.
One of the biggest lessons to learn as a copywriter is how to put the reader first.
Many businesses focus the copy on themselves rather than their readers. Notice how different these sentences come across:
Notice the difference? The first example doesn’t sound bad when you first read it. In fact, it sounds very normal—that’s what you might expect to see when you visit a website.
But the second example centers around the customer. The customer doesn’t care about how long you’ve been in business—they just want to know that your business can solve their problem. The second company will win more clients, more often, simply because they made their customers the center of the action.
When you write copy, always put the reader first. How? By writing with the implied (you) and starting with an active verb:
- (You) Get started today!
- (You) Meet the love of your life!
- (You) Unclog your toilet once and for all!
5. Know the Difference between Features and Benefits
Part of putting your customers first is understanding what they want.
As a copywriter, one of the first things to learn is how to differentiate between features and benefits. You’ll need to know how to write both so that readers understand what your product does, as well as why they should care.
Features describe what something is or does. The specs. When Apple tells you that an iPhone has 256GB of storage, they’re naming a feature. It’s a precise description of something the consumer can expect from the product.
Benefits describe the emotions or experience a product will give the consumer. If the feature is that an iPhone has 256GB, then the benefit is that the consumer can store all their favorite games, songs, and photos in their pocket.
Features tell you what, while benefits resonate with why. Translating features into benefits is where true creativity—and an understanding of your customer’s interests—is unboxed.
9 times out of 10, people don’t buy based on features. They buy on benefits.
How to Become a Copywriter in 5 Steps
Phase 1: Learn the Fundamentals
Cue the montage: *furiously typing, erasing, reading, jogging in place…*
You don’t need a college degree to become a copywriter. But it certainly helps to show a client or employer that you’ve studied—and perhaps even mastered—the fundamentals.
When it comes to learning, there are many places to start. You can get a degree in English, Communications, Journalism, or Marketing at almost every university across the country. There are also online courses you can take that range from free to thousands of dollars to complete. You can also read books, learn for free online, or find a mentor who’s been in the business.
In many cases, your copywriting career will be an amalgamation of many of these learning routes. For example, since I began as a freelance copywriter 4+ years ago, I’ve taken university courses, read blogs, devoured books, taken online courses, and listened to hundreds of podcasts.
Free Resources for Learning about Copywriting:
- AWAI (American Writers and Artists Institute)
- Kopywriting Kourse (shoutout to Neville, AppSumo’s O.G. copywriter!)
- High-Income Business Writing Podcast
- The Copywriter Club Podcast (and helpful Facebook group)
- Remote Work Academy (by AppSumo!)
- Very Good Copy Newsletter
- Lewis Commercial Writing Newsletter (Hey, that’s me!)
Classic Copywriting Books:
- Secrets of a Freelance Writer by Robert W. Bly
- The Copywriter’s Handbook by Robert W. Bly
- Hey Whipple, Squeeze This by Luke Sullivan
- Everybody Writes by Ann Handley
- The Boron Letters by Gary C. Halbert
Phase 2: Practice
You didn’t learn to ride a bike by just reading books. Eventually, you had to put your feet on some pedals and start riding on your own.
While it’s good to start with some articles or books to familiarize yourself with the profession of copywriting, at some point you just have to put your fingers on the keyboard and try it for yourself.
My first two years of copywriting experience were completely on a volunteer basis. I wrote website copy, blog posts, fundraising campaigns, and more for an organization I cared about–free of charge. When I eventually became a freelance copywriter, I had two years of samples to show my first paying clients.
You certainly don’t have to volunteer as long as I did. In fact, you might get away with getting paid for everything you produce from day one. But no matter how much time you spend learning, nothing improves your ability to draft great copy like sitting down and putting in the hours.
Here are a few ways to practice:
- Write for free for a nonprofit or small business that means a lot to you
- Rewrite lackluster copy you find online, just for the practice
- Tell people in your network that you’re learning copywriting and that you’re offering a limited-time discount to small businesses in need of new copy
Phase 3: Get Paid to Write
Once you’ve learned the basics and gotten a few samples under your belt, it’s time to start looking for a job or clients.
You can find agency and in-house copywriting jobs on all the normal job boards: Indeed, Monster, and LinkedIn are great places to start.
Freelancing, on the other hand, is its own beast. There are dozens of great places to find freelance copywriting work. Instead of listing them all here, I’ll just point you to another article we wrote on the subject.
Phase 4: Prove Your Value or Multiply Your Expertise
Most top-paid copywriters have one thing in common: they can show a direct line between their copy and increased business profit.
What I’m saying is, once you’ve learned how to become a copywriter, the next goal is to climb the copywriting ladder to riches. The first rung on that ladder: learn to measure the impact of your words. This occurs through testing and validating your copy against existing copy. This is a common advertising practice known as split testing.
Alternatively, you can learn to manage or train other writers. In this case, you’re multiplying the impact of your knowledge and experience. You pass your expertise down to others on your team, graduating from junior copywriter to (the great and mighty) Senior Copywriter.
Phase 5: Never Stop Learning
No matter your field, I believe the key to achieving and maintaining success is the commitment to lifelong learning.
That’s right, I’m reverting back to point one. Because it’s important (and because 5 points sounds better than 4). Never stop learning.
Bonus: Shortcuts to Becoming a Great Copywriter
Okay, now for some fun stuff. It’s one thing to be a copywriter. It’s another thing to learn how to become best-in-class. Let’s look at some skills you should hone if you want to climb that long way to the top.
I’m borrowing this secret from a brilliant copywriter named Joanna Wiebe.
Copywriting is all about the customer. The person you’re trying to reach with your copy should be able to see themselves reflected in the words in your marketing collateral.
One of the best ways to write copy is to let customers write it for you.
Review mining is the process of finding real reviews of your product (or products from your competitors) to mine real customer language to borrow for marketing purposes.
In this case, customers have already done most of the work for you. All you have to do is comb review sites for the language you like best.
Here are a few examples:
Consider this review from the Publer Deal Page.
Copywriters: This user just told you what’s important to him about this tool. He did the work of narrowing down his favorite features—now all you need to do is copy-paste this into a Google Doc to expound upon some of the points.
In this case, you could look at each of Mike’s points as individual headings: “Upload photos and videos in bulk,” “Social integrations,” “Add Location in Post.” All you might choose to do is fill in a sentence under each heading to expound upon the point.
Here are a couple more that I borrowed from the Boost deal page.
Notice what I highlighted:
- “to get started collecting leads without creating an app/credentials for each service” — Any copywriter could clean this up real fast to say: “Collect leads, without the hassle of creating credentials for each service.”
- “Win-win for you and your leads” — I probably wouldn’t change this at all. Just copy-paste that line of copy into your website. Boom.
Study Human Behavior
At the end of the day, copywriters exist to improve the bottom line of the business(es) they’re writing for. When your subject line increases email open rates by 5%, that can lead to dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of additional sales for that company.
You’re writing to get a response: Open the email, click the buy button, subscribe to the newsletter—all actions a copywriter helps the reader make. To succeed, it helps to understand what drives human behavior.
Picking up some books—or even taking some courses—in Psychology can be immensely helpful. Might we recommend Marketing to Mindstates by Will Leach, free in the AppSumo store?
When you’re trying to get someone to take an action, it helps to first understand the shared subconscious traits that make humans respond to certain prompts or situations.
For example, how many times have you purchased something because a special offer was ending? (#fomo) That countdown timer is a marketing tactic. The copywriter behind that ad included the deadline because they knew your tendency to want to take advantage of a fleeting opportunity. The phrase “ for a limited time” creates a sense of urgency that will get people to take immediate action.
Or another example: “the wisdom of the crowds.” People look for social cues to validate their actions. If someone we respect (or someone who reminds us of our ideal self) expresses delight in a certain experience, we’re more likely to follow in their footsteps. That’s why businesses use customer reviews on their websites. Reviews tell site visitors that other people trust you and your product.
Have Fun as a Copywriter
As you continue to learn how to become a copywriter, consider bookmarking this article for easy future reference.
Copywriting is fun, creatively fulfilling, and challenging in all the right ways. If you’re interested in a career that blends creativity with business prowess, copywriting is one of the best jobs you can have.
Here are additional articles you might enjoy about copywriting and freelancing: