Note that I didn’t say “How to break into copywriting.” There are tons out of articles about that out there, and some of them may have good advice. But I often asked how I, personally, landed in the field, and so I thought I’d share my little story.
First off. I did not go to ad school. Or art school. Or any kind of creative school. (And honestly, most of the copywriters I work with didn’t either, so we should really all disabuse ourselves of the idea that that’s the only way in.) I was a lit nerd in high school and had vague dreams of writing a novel one day but wanted to study something practical that would also allow me to write. I chose journalism, and it was one of the greatest decisions I ever made, but I didn’t learn anything about advertising. I was actually one of those people who said–“I’ll do anything but sell something.” All that came later.
When I decided that I didn’t want to be a newspaper journalist, I headed to New York City, which was, at that time, pretty much the only place with a wealth of non-newspaper journo jobs. I wanted to be a magazine editor, and I spent the next few years being one. (Side note: I still consider myself a journalist and do write magazine, Web, and newspaper articles, but I’ll tackle how I became a freelance journalist in another post.)
My first magazine folded. My next gig, and my longest, ended when the entire company was acquired in a buyout. After four or so years, I was a little burnt out with magazines. I still had vague “I don’t want to sell!” notions (I was a journalist, after all), but I was also very impressed by the kind of creative copy I was frequently seeing in brands I respected. I decided to give copywriting a try. I’d been working in mainly design magazines, and I had become extremely adept at writing about products. On a whim, I applied (without any connections) to a product copywriting gig at a major retailer, and even though I was offered the position, I decided that I didn’t want to spend all day every day writing SKUs–at least not in such a corporate environment. The Copy Manager completely understood and offered to have me come in a couple days a week to support her staff with overflow. That’s how I landed my first freelance gig.
After that, things started to come my way. One of my magazine friends who’d also made the leap heard of a marketing copywriting opening and recommended me. I showed up to the interview without so much as a portfolio of my work, and for some reason, my future boss still gave me a second interview (when I sent him clips via email, of course.)
I learned a lot at that first position writing marketing copy. Prior to that, my experience had been writing design articles for magazines and online product descriptions for the aforementioned retailer. Now I was writing marketing emails, subject lines, editorial slideshows, in-store signs, Facebook posts, catalogue inserts, landing pages, app copy, and a whole lot more. There was a lot I didn’t know, but then again, there was a lot I did. My journalism know-how made me the go-to proofer and editor in the office, while my magazine background fueled my creativity, especially when it came to headlines and more conceptual projects. The marketing speak, the jargon and terminology, the kinds of terms I imagine you learn in a Copywriting 101 course, was all picked up on the job. “Fake it ’til you make it” is actually pretty great advice.
It wasn’t hard to get work after that. Clients and hiring managers appreciated my unique blend of journalism, editorial, marketing, and direct response. They don’t ever say, “Why didn’t you ever work as a junior copywriter?” They say: “Was working at a magazine really like The Devil Wears Prada?” (Short answer: In a lot of ways, yes.) Or: “You published a novel? How cool!” (Copywriting clients are actually very impressed by fiction writers. Even though it’s not directly related, it shows creativity, which is what most people are looking for.)
The point is, in a creative field like this one, people are seeking a wide range of skills. They’re looking for what the next candidate can bring to the table. They’re looking for a fresh perspective. Ask 100 copywriters how they got into the business, and you’ll get 100 different answers. So if it’s something you want, go for it. Bring your most creative work to your interviews, get a few clips under your belt, and don’t worry if your background doesn’t align exactly with what they’re requesting. Believe me, you’ll pick it all up on your first gig.
If you’re looking to hire a copywriter for your brand or service, please contact me here.