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An Introduction to Commercial Writing
by Dawn Copeman

Return to Business & Technical Writing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Commercial writing, or corporate writing as it is also known, doesn't sound as interesting as writing articles or stories, nor as impressive writing a novel. But it is an exciting field, a growing field and more importantly, a very lucrative field that you ignore at your own cost.

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:

  • Press releases
  • Advertisement copy
  • Brochures
  • Sales letters
  • Catalogue descriptions
  • Company newsletters
  • Website content
  • Website advertisements
  • Scripts for television/radio advertisements
  • Scripts for promotional films
  • Direct mail campaigns
  • Articles for publication in trade/specialist magazines
  • Speeches
  • White Papers

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:

  • internal corporate newsletters
  • training manuals
  • office procedures
  • job advertisements
  • corporate vision statements
  • company reports
  • motivational posters

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:

  • A brief description of your experience and the services you offer. Ensure that this is grammatically accurate and has no spelling mistakes. Simply state who you are and what you offer, and your experience if relevant. Do not, however, list your rates. This marks you as an amateur, as seasoned copywriters know that there's no such thing as a typical project with a typical fee.

  • Samples of Your Work. These can be real samples or ones you've made up to showcase your skills. This demonstrates to prospective clients that you can actually do the job. You could also volunteer to do some copywriting for a local church, charity or non-profit and use this as a sample. This is a good idea for two reasons: It gives you practice in listening to and meeting a client's needs, and it shows a prospective client that you have done work for others.

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:

  • Word of Mouth. Simply tell people that you are a copywriter. Tell your friends, bank manager, family, people you meet socially, people you meet in elevators and in restaurants, people you meet on vacation. You never know when someone you meet will meet someone else who is looking for a copywriter. Hand out your business cards whenever you can. I've picked up many jobs through this method; try it and work is bound to come your way.

  • Web site. Your web site's job is to sell your services 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Ensure that you have the words "copywriting, copywriter, commercial writer, business writer" and your home town entered as tag words. This will help search engines locate you when someone searches for a copywriter in your area.

  • Memberships. Join local or national freelance groups. One of the first inquiries I received came about because I was listed on the Freelancers in the UK site as a copywriter and editor. Most of these organizations are free or have a nominal fee. Also consider joining organizations that relate to types of subject matter in which you have expertise. If, for example, you love to write about gardening, join a regional gardening society -- and you may start picking up jobs from local nurseries and other businesses related to gardening.

  • Cold Calling. This involves telephoning local businesses to ask if they need a copywriter. I have never done this, but many freelancers believe it is a good way to contact clients. To cold-call, you need to work out your script: What, exactly, you are going to say when someone answers the phone. Then you need to work out who to call. You could look through your local phone book, or get a list of local companies from your chamber of commerce. Don't overlook any potential client. Don't always think big; many smaller companies also need copywriting. Don't forget to contact local marketing companies and PR firms. Finally, keep a record of whom you have called and when, and whether you have been asked to call back. Be sure that your web site is set up so that you can refer potential clients to it. You must also be prepared to mail out a portfolio -- a physical copy of your samples, along with a brief introductory letter and two business cards, within a pocket folder. To succeed in cold-calling, you must be persistent and prepared for rejection -- but hey, you're a writer, you're used to that!

  • Social Networking. Many freelancers now get work via social-networking sites such as LinkedIn, Plaxo, MySpace and Facebook. Some freelancers who responded to a recent survey in the Writing World newsletter reported getting two or three assignments a week from such sites. Just like your web site, your profile on a social networking site can be working for you 24/7. Just make sure you update it regularly and check your profile daily to ensure you're not missing out on any work.

  • Freelance Work Sites. Many sites and newsletters that list freelance writing jobs also list calls for copywriters. You can also pay to join job-bidding sites such as Elance.com, where you can maintain a profile that potential clients can view, and bid for a variety of copywriting jobs. The pay for these jobs, however, can be significantly lower than those found through other means.

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!

Find Out More...

Blogging for Business - Dawn Copeman

Everybody's Business: Writing for the Corporate World - Barbara Neal Varma

Writing Corporate Newsletters - Moira Allen

Copyright © 2007 Dawn Copeman
Portions of this article are excerpted from Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, by Moira Allen

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

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).


Copyright © 2018 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
All materials on this site are the property of their authors and may not be reprinted
without the author's written permission, unless otherwise indicated.
For more information please contact Moira Allen, Editor

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