Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Dawn Copeman
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So if this is an area you've never considered before, let me introduce you to the wonderful world of commercial writing.
I decided to study copywriting almost from the moment I decided to become a writer. And I'm glad I did. There is always a need for copywriters. Commercial writing pays well and is a varied and interesting line of work, particularly if you enjoy learning about new things and working with language, which most writers do.
So far, in my short copywriting career, ( I do it part-time on an occasional basis), I've been paid to find out about amongst other things: sardines, the health benefits of red grapes and cocoa and the top selling toys at Christmas and then write about them in press releases, company newsletters and sales letters. Once the job is over I've then put my new-found knowledge to use in articles. The fact I can get paid to find out facts I can then use in my own future articles is just one of the attractions of commercial writing. Another attraction is the sheer variety of work on offer.
What is Commercial Writing?
Commercial writing is writing for businesses. It is also known as copywriting. A copywriter or freelance commercial writer, writes 'copy' or text to help businesses communicate with their customers and more importantly, with potential customers. Every advertisement, every brochure, every catalogue and every sales letter you've ever read was written by a copywriter. As were the words to all the radio and TV ads you hear, and those fundraising letters from charities. And all those catalogue descriptions you read.
Copywriting is a huge field. The typical jobs a copywriter can be called upon to do involve the following:
But in addition to these external jobs, a copywriter can also be asked to perform services inside the company, services such as knowledge capture for example. This is where a commercial writer goes into a company, learns about the company's procedures and writes them all down as operating manuals. I've done this kind of work. It's fun and if you think you like the sound of it, then rest assured that we already have an expert knowledge capture writer lined up to share some of his knowledge with you.
As well as the specialist field of knowledge-capture, copywriters can also be called upon to write:
What can I earn as a commercial writer?
That varies according to the job you are doing and your experience level, but you can make a real living from doing this type of work. If you want to do this full-time as a career, you can earn enough to do so. If you want to do it part-time, then it's a great way of supplementing other income streams.
Let me give you some examples from my own experiences. One of the jobs I've done involved writing short 300 - 350 word articles for a newsletter that went out to a company's customers. These articles would take about an hour to write, the company gave me the topics in advance. All the work was conducted by email and for each article I earned $25. Not a lot you might say, but this works out at $25 an hour, because the job was quick and easy to do and it was a regular contract.
I also write press releases. I'm quite a novice at these; I've only written five, so I can only charge novice fees. I earn £60 ($120) for each press release I write. I generally get about ten days in which to write each press release and I spend most of this time just thinking about what I'm going to write. The actual writing takes no more than two hours, giving me an hourly rate of $60.
Both these hourly rates compare very nicely to what I earn per hour writing articles and they both use the same skills. For both these jobs I had to research the topic, pick my slant and then write my piece. So you see, commercial writing is not really that different to normal nonfiction freelancing. In fact, it's often easier as companies will provide you with lots of information on which you can base your piece.
How do I become a commercial writer?
The good news is that anyone can become a commercial writer. Just as with all other areas of writing there are lots of books and courses about how to get started in this area. Peter Bowerman and Bob Bly are the definite experts at how to do this for a living, but others like Beth Ann Erickson, have also made a good income from this area.
The even better news is that most of this work is freelance. You will not be competing against staff writers or contributing editors as you often are with magazines. Most companies now use freelance commercial writers rather in employ someone in-house because freelance commercial writers are flexible, are only paid when they're working on a specific job and it's easy for a company to change writers if they're not happy with the service they've received. This last point could work both ways for you; you could pick up a new job because the last writer didn't meet their needs; alternatively, if you don't give them the best service you can, you will be the writer being dropped.
To become a copywriter, you don't need to invest in any extra materials. You need the same supplies as for any other form of freelance writing: A computer, an Internet connection, a printer, a workspace, and a telephone. You will, however, find it easier to start work in this field if you invest in the following resources:
A Swipe File. Most copywriters advise you to build up a "swipe" file. This is a file of all the direct mail that you, your friends and family receive, including sales letters, brochures, postcards, and flyers. Some copywriters even advise signing up to receive different catalogs just to receive more (and more varied) types of direct mail.
You will never look at "junk mail" the same way again. Soon, you will get into the habit of analyzing each piece you receive to see if it works or if it doesn't. Does it catch your attention? Does it make you consider using the firm that produced it? If so, it works; if not, it doesn't.
Go over each piece of copy you have in your swipe file and look at how it has been put together and if it's good, note down why it works. If it's bad, try and write it so that it works. This is a great way to learn how to write postcards, flyers and brochures, and especially sales letters.
A Website. Most copywriters have a website of some sort to advertise their services and showcase their writing skills. Your web site should include:
Business Cards. It is also a good idea to have some business cards printed with your name and the title "Freelance Copywriter" or "Freelance Commercial Writer." You can obtain business cards very reasonably online (or even, occasionally, free at such sites as VistaPrint, where all you pay for 250 cards is postage). Most online sites have templates that enable you to design your own card quickly and easily.
Don't fall into the trap of putting too much information on your card. Some people get double-sided cards that include their name and contact details on one side and all the services they offer on the other. This can make you appear to be a jack-of-all-trades (and master of none). I prefer single-sided cards that refer companies to my web site for further information.
Useful Books. At the very least, you'll need a good thesaurus and dictionary to help you find powerful, selling words. If you're serious about becoming a copywriter, you should also check out The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman. This is the industry standard on how to become a successful commercial freelancer.
Getting The Work
This is the part that often fills writers with fear. You know how to write a query letter, but how do you find commercial assignments? In fact, getting copywriting work can be much easier than finding a home for an article. Here are some of the best methods:
Finally, remember that not all copywriting jobs are created equal. Not every corporate client is easy to work with. A bad customer can waste your time -- and in the business of corporate freelancing, time is money. Don't spend time dealing with clients who don't know what they want and are never satisfied with what you give them. Don't let such clients deter you; just finish the job and move on. There are lots of other prospects available; use your newly gained clips and go after them!
Portions of this article are excerpted from Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, by Moira Allen
Dawn Copeman is a UK-based freelance writer and educator who has published over 300 articles on the topics of travel, cookery, history, health and writing. An experienced commercial freelancer, Dawn contributed several chapters on commercial writing to Moira Allen's Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer (2nd Edition).