10 Ways to Succeed as a Copywriter

This 2,800-word post was initially published as a series of individual posts on Bob Cargill’s blog, A New Marketing Commentator, between July 13-October 31, 2010.

10 Ways to Succeed as a Copywriter
By Bob Cargill
My first job out of graduate school many years ago was as a copywriter for RCA Direct Marketing in New York City. And the rest, as they say, has been history. Since that first exciting stint writing about the most popular records (yes, vinyl) and tapes (yes, cassettes and eight-tracks) of the day, I’ve written about an incalculable number of different products and services. As I wrote in the preceding post here on A New Marketing Commentator

I’ve written copy to help promote everything from business cards to books, healthcare to software, insurance coverage to investment advice, magazines to music, travel to tuxedos and much, much more.

I’ve also written direct response fundraising copy for dozens of charitable organizations (which, by the way, has been some of the most satisfying work I’ve done over the course of my career so far).

I may have worked for a number of different companies, developed new skills and taken on new responsibilities – such as creative direction, public speaking and social media – along the way, but I’ve also stayed true to my roots as a copywriter.

And after all of these years writing headlines and subject lines, direct mail packages and email blasts, blog posts and brochures, teasers and tweets, I’ve been able to draw a handful of conclusions about what it takes to succeed as a copywriter.

So with all of that said, here’s the first in a series of “10 ways to succeed as a copywriter”…

1. Dare to be different.

To earn a living as a copywriter, you have to be a good writer. That goes without saying. But what’s almost just as important to your success is your ability to think creatively.

Copywriting is not for the conformists and traditionalists among us. It’s a job for those who are willing to take chances and who understand what Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) meant when he said, “Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot; others transform a yellow spot into the sun.”

To stand out among the clutter and competition, your work has to reflect a high degree of originality and inventiveness. It can’t be the same old, same old. It has to be new or improved, first time, every time.

Copywriting is for the right-brained and open-minded, those who aren’t afraid of being judged for their idiosyncrasies and foibles. It’s for those who like to read such books as Seth Godin’s Purple Cow, Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? and Roger von Oech’s A Kick in the Seat of the Pants. It’s for people who like to listen to everything from Lady Antebellum to Lady Gaga. It’s for well-rounded people with diverse tastes and interests, people who have no problem whatsoever looking at something from someone else’s perspective.

2. Care deeply about results.

While being able to exhibit a high degree of creativity may be important to the success of a copywriter, achieving the highest possible ROI is usually imperative, certainly in direct marketing, the industry in which I earn my livelihood.

My brethren and I work with the understanding that the purpose of most campaigns is to promote sales of a product or service, not the copywriter’s ability to turn a clever phrase. It’s nice to win awards. But what really counts is winning over your audience, those who are hopefully hanging on your every single word.

Yes, what the most successful copywriters really care about is convincing those on the receiving end of their communications to take action in some way, shape or form such as picking up the phone, filling out a form, clicking on a link or passing the word along to a friend. What they want more than anything are leads, orders, referrals and repeat business.

But that’s not to say good creative and great results have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, many times they go hand in hand.

For instance, in the early ’90s, I wrote a direct mail package for Science News magazine that featured the following teaser on the outside envelope…

Electricity so powerful it shocks a heart-attack victim back to life…

Whales so hungry they take a bite out of the beach…

Grasshoppers so smart they change coats to beat the heat…

And other things that will make you go “hmmm”…

Including that last line – the name of a well-known hit song by C+C Music Factory as well as an expression that late-night talk show, Arsenio Hall, used in his monologues – on the envelope was a demonstration of creativity that more than paid off. After all, this package brought in literally thousands of subscription orders during the few years it reigned as a control for Science News and was eventually honored by the New England Direct Marketing Association with a first place award.

3. Walk in your readers’ shoes.

In Stephen R. Covey’s best-selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Habit #5 is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Well, that’s also one of the habits of highly effective copywriters. They seek first to understand everything they possibly can about their audience before they even begin to attempt to be understood themselves.

Yes, the more you know about your customers and constituents, the easier it is to make a potentially valuable connection with them.

Unfortunately, that’s much easier said than done.

Tight schedules and small budgets often supersede any opportunity to look closely at the demographics – and psychographics – of those whose attention you covet. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find out what makes them tick.

What you really want is the chance to hear directly from customers, prospects, donors or stakeholders, people who can provide you with credible, honest feedback about your client’s products or services. That’s where a focus group can be a big help (if it’s an option).

There are plenty of other ways to research your audience, though. Call them. Email them. Google them. Learn as much as possible about them – age, gender, income, location, likes, dislikes, idiosyncrasies, so on and so forth.

Are your readers on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn? What about the blogosphere? Wherever they hang out, use social media to find them, then walk in their shoes. The more you understand them, the easier it’ll be for you to speak their language and help them understand why they should be doing business with your client.

4. Develop strong presentation skills.

It’s one thing to be able to write well. It’s quite another to be able to present your work with the utmost confidence and conviction. But some of the most successful copywriters I’ve met over the years have had as much command of the spoken as the written word.

Those with strong presentation skills are more effective in selling their work to both their colleagues and clients. They’re also given more opportunities to attend important meetings, speak at conferences and assume positions of leadership.

If you’re uncomfortable speaking in front of an audience, consider  joining Toastmasters International, a nonprofit educational organization that helps people improve their public speaking, communication and leadership skills.

As I wrote here on this blog more than six years ago (May 17, 2004)…

Back in the day, one of my dreams was to hone my public speaking skills to the point where I could lead seminars and speak at conferences and industry events about direct marketing and creativity. At the time (in the late ‘80s), the extent of my public speaking opportunities was only a couple of wedding toasts — admittedly, fair to middling “best man” mumbo jumbo — so if I was ever going to make it to the big leagues, I knew I needed to take more swings of the bat. I knew I needed Toastmasters. That was then. Now, looking back, I can unequivocally say that more than five years of experience as a Toastmaster — including two stints as club president and more than several rounds of speech contests — went a long way toward changing my life, instilling in me the confidence and skills necessary for all the speaking I do nowadays part and parcel of my career.

There’s no question that I enjoy my role as a professional copywriter. But I also take pride in my abilities as a presenter. Developing my own skills as a public speaker was one of the best things I’ve done for my career so far. Being able to present has not only helped me sell my own work, it’s helped me enhance my personal brand and led to countless opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

5. Keep your head out of the sand.

It’s no coincidence that some of the best copywriters in the business have eclectic tastes and varied interests. When they’re not hunkered down on the job, sequestered under tight deadline pressure, they’re taking in all that life has to offer as both spectators and participants.

They’re bookworms, moviegoers, sightseers and pop culture junkies, people with insatiable appetites for news and information. They’re social butterflies, night owls and day-trippers, free-spirited individuals who are curious by nature.

They read everything from best-selling business books to celebrity gossip blogs.

They watch everything from game shows to talk shows, Mad Men to Desperate Housewives, sitcoms to soap operas, reality TV to Glee.

They do everything from hiking and biking to attending concerts, fundraisers, sporting events, museums and the theater.

They try almost anything from newly opened restaurants to ridiculously offbeat adventure vacations.

The bottom line is that to be successful as a copywriter over the course of a career, you can’t be reclusive and introverted. You need to have a breadth of knowledge and experience in order to write about a broad range of topics and issues. You need to keep your head out of the sand and your fingers on the pulse of what’s happening in the world today.

6. Exercise good judgment.

A copywriter has meetings to attend and research to conduct, but the majority of his or her work hours are spent, well, writing copy – and often under the pressure of exceedingly high expectations and incredibly tight deadlines.

Talent is important. But so is good judgment. Whatever you’re writing, you have to have both the experience and intuition to choose just the right words for the assignment time after time.

You also have to decide for yourself when to let go of your work and share it with your colleagues and clients.

As Roger von Oech writes on page 110 of his book, “A Kick In The Seat Of The Pants”…

“The judge performs the evaluation function of the creative process. When you adopt this role, you decide what to do with the idea: implement it, modify it, or discard it completely. In carrying out this task, you should recognize imperfections in the new idea without overstating them. You should also be open to interesting possibilities and use your imagination to develop these without losing your sense of reality and perspective.”

7. Meet your deadlines.

If you’ve been around the block once or twice as a copywriter, you know better than to think anyone’s going to just give you enough time to do your very best work. You have to make the time.

Yup. Over the course of my career, I’ve rarely seen a schedule that permits a copywriter the luxury of putting in the time he or she would really like to dedicate to a project.

Every assignment is a rush. Everything is due yesterday. That’s the nature of advertising and marketing, the bane of a copywriter’s existence. That’s the one thing you have to understand if you want to succeed in this business.

Incredibly tight deadlines come with the territory. And those deadlines had better be met.

That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for an extension if you don’t have enough time to finish an assignment. But if you want to establish a reputation as a reliable, low-maintenance copywriter, the wordsmith to go to for high-quality work that’s on time, every time, don’t make it a habit.

There’s a reason why so many copywriters are accustomed to burning the candle at both ends.


No, copywriting is not a nine to five job. It’s a matter of jumping through hoops and going the extra mile. It’s a demanding profession and stressful occupation, a serious commitment you make to your colleagues and clients.

8. Be a team player.

Most copywriters are accustomed to working alone, sequestered away from the rest of the team, doors closed, blinds drawn, working feverishly against time.

It’s what we do out of necessity, when there’s no room for distractions and we just need to put our heads down to get the job done as soon as possible.

Yet while it’s certainly not unusual for a copywriter to do his or her thing in isolation, battling loneliness as well as the clock, it really shouldn’t be the norm.

Sure, to succeed as a copywriter, you need to be a self-starter, capable of working independently for long stretches of time. But you also need to be a team player, someone who works well with others – especially designers, creative directors and account people – and can appreciate the importance of timely, seamless handoffs between everyone involved in a project.

You need to be disciplined enough to work in a vacuum (if necessary), but you don’t want to be an introvert. The more enthusiastically you collaborate and communicate with others, the better.

If you’re invited to a meeting, be punctual and prepared to participate.

If you’re taking changes to your work, respond promptly and positively.

If you’re given a deadline, beat it.

Brainstorm – or just plain socialize – with your colleagues and clients as much as possible. Get away from your desk and out of your office whenever the opportunity presents itself.

If you go out of your way to show your support for those who depend on you, they’ll be more likely to return the favor and do everything they can to ensure your success.

9. Sweat the small stuff.

It’s one thing to be a creative genius, to be that extra special someone in the room who can come up with surprisingly brilliant ideas practically on demand, time and time again.

That’s the glamour and glory of the business.

But the consummate copywriter is actually a stickler for details, someone who’s as strong on the left side of the brain as the right, who’s as analytical and obsessive as conceptual and extemporaneous, who’s as aware of the importance of being an accurate, fact-based  tactician as much as an original, award-winning craftsperson.

That part of the job is not as exciting as it is necessary.

Yes, it’s not good enough to be just a great wordsmith and marketer. If you want to earn a living as a copywriter, you also have to be a good researcher and project manager, an avid reader and a competent verbal communicator, someone who can appreciate the fact that a great deal of your success depends on your ability to wear a variety of other hats well when you’re not actually writing.

To sweat the small stuff means to be punctual and deadline-oriented, to ask the right questions and make the right points during meetings and presentations.

It also means to be a good proofreader and gatekeeper. So don’t count on someone else to catch your mistakes. Be your own worst critic. Use a spell-checking program. And keep a dictionary on your desk. Scrupulously review every single word you write before you turn it over to the powers that be. After all, nothing can undermine your credibility as a copywriter faster than a typo or misspelling.

10. Use social media.

A copywriter’s job is to use the written word to promote something or someone using a variety of media, anything from radio to TV, direct mail to email, websites to billboards, print ads to assorted signage, sky writing, you name it.

And today, included among all that tried-and-true, traditional media are blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other popular Internet-based, self-publishing vehicles.

The fact is, anyone working in the marketing, advertising, sales and PR fields who knows how to use social media tools and technologies will likely be much more successful amidst this new communications era.

And those who earn a living writing copy have an obvious competitive advantage. After all, the better you write, the better chance you have of stringing together the right messages for the right occasions and making yourself heard loud and clear above the social media din.

So use social media – but not just on behalf of your clients and customers, on behalf of yourself, too.

Social media is the ideal forum for a copywriter. It’s where you can network with other like-minded professionals, keep up on breaking news and learn from industry gurus. It’s also where you can share your own knowledge and expertise, where you can actually practice — and demonstrate — your craft in public.

Writing tweets, blog posts, status updates, notes and anything else in social media not only keeps your writing fresh, it keeps you up to speed on the latest communications platforms. It’s a great way to connect with the modern world and succeed as a copywriter in today’s day and age.

About the Author
Bob Cargill is a copywriter, creative director and social media consultant who helps brands to strategize, develop and implement successful new marketing programs.

Bob, who was named the New England Direct Marketing Association’s “Direct Marketer of the Year” for 2009, is known for his expertise as a direct marketing practitioner as well as his evangelism on behalf of blogs and other social media communications tools. Having labored in the marketing trenches since 1983, his work has been recognized with more than 40 awards (including Gold for his blog, A New Marketing Commentator, Silver for Best Copywriting and Gold for Best Tweets from the New England Direct Marketing Association).

Bob has presented many times at industry events and has been published or quoted on the subjects of copywriting, direct marketing, blogging and social media in numerous media outlets. Bob is a Past President of the New England Direct Marketing Association and a graduate of the MetroWest Leadership Academy. You are invited to read Bob’s blog at http://www.anewmarketingcommentator.com, see him on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/bobcargill, follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/cargillcreative and check out his updates on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/cargillcreative.

10 Ways to Succeed as a Copywriter, Part One
Dare to be different.
10 Ways to Succeed as a Copywriter, Part Two
Care deeply about results.
10 Ways to Succeed as a Copywriter, Part Three
Walk in your readers’ shoes.
10 Ways to Succeed as a Copywriter, Part Four
Develop strong presentation skills.
10 Ways to Succeed as a Copywriter, Part Five
Keep your head out of the sand.
10 Ways to Succeed as a Copywriter, Part Six
Exercise good judgment.
10 Ways to Succeed as a Copywriter, Part Seven
Meet your deadlines.
10 Ways to Succeed as a Copywriter, Part Eight
Be a team player.
10 Ways to Succeed as a Copywriter, Part Nine
Sweat the small stuff.
10 Ways to Succeed as a Copywriter, Part Ten
Use social media.

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