Becoming a copywriter and getting real, paid work doesn’t have to be a slow and painful process.
You won’t hear this from old school copywriters who are desperately trying to protect their turf — they want it to seem complicated and difficult for you, the newbie.
But the truth is that, regardless of where you’re currently at, you can start making money writing copy much faster than most people realize.
I know because I did it, while breaking all the supposed “rules.” And it worked out better than I ever could have imagined.
By bucking the conventional wisdom on how to become a copywriter, I was able to quickly kick off a successful copywriting career that was fun, exciting, and profitable right from the start (even if it did drive some of the old pros completely nuts):
- Starting off with no college degree or any formal education, experience or training
- Landing my first paid gig in just two days
- Supporting my entire family off my copywriting since week-1
- Charging above average prices almost immediately
- And personally earning over $100,000 in just my second full year as a copywriter
To do this, I used an approach I call The Crystal Ball Technique.
The best thing about this strategy is that it can work for anyone, even if you have no experience whatsoever.
The Crystal Ball Technique is best suited to helping you become a freelance copywriter, but it’s also a great way to quickly (and profitably) build up your skills so that you can land a full-time job as a copywriter, if that’s what you want to do.
Either way, I’m going to show you the exact steps involved, right here in this post.
First, let’s take a quick look at what’s wrong with the traditional approach to becoming a copywriter.
Why most “How to become a copywriter” advice sucks:
The typical route most so-called experts recommend for becoming a copywriter looks something like this:
- Spend a bunch of time learning copywriting
- Spend a bunch of money getting some writing related degree
- Spend a bunch more time building up a portfolio by “writing what you know,” or just making stuff up out of thin air (please don’t do this)
- Beg random people to give you work, usually also offering a massive discount (or worse, doing work for free in hopes that one day they’ll pay)
- And finally, you’re given some vague advice on how to market yourself, usually through methods that are both painstakingly labor intensive, incredibly time consuming, and ineffective (more on this shortly)
THIS APPROACH IS ALL BACKWARDS BECAUSE…
- You end up studying and practicing copywriting for weeks or months without ever doing any real work, when you could have learned faster, better, and more profitably on the job instead
- You’ve wasted a ton of time and energy building up a portfolio that’s full of stuff clients don’t care about, and which you didn’t even need to begin with
- Worst of all, you end up with no clear cut path to finding and securing actual paying clients and real-world work
I can’t tell you how many emails I get from otherwise skilled would-be copywriters who’ve been down this road, only to end up frustrated, confused, and doing a lot of work in exchange for little or no money as they struggle to find good clients and command decent fees.
The Crystal Ball Technique solves all of the above problems, by flipping the traditional “break into copywriting” model on its head.
It’s designed to help you land your first paid gigs upfront, and learn the craft of copywriting quickly as you go…
While initially creating only a minimal number of short writing samples that are virtually guaranteed to impress potential clients.
The best part about the Crystal Ball Technique is that it gives you actionable, step-by-step instructions — the exact steps I used to get my first paying copywriting jobs, within two days of launching my freelance copywriting career.
In other words, you’re not about to learn theory of how to become a copywriter, you’re going to learn how to actually become one.
Let’s get to it.
Step 1: Go where the actual paying clients are
In addition to being laborious and glacier-slow, the typical advice most “experts” parrot about marketing yourself as a new copywriter is pretty hopeless.
I’ll break it down piece by piece so you can see exactly what I mean:
Cold calling/emailing. When strangers call or email you to try and sell you stuff you didn’t even ask for, do you ever end up buying anything (let alone becoming a loyal repeat customer)?
Networking. Look around your next networking meeting, and ask yourself how many of the attendees drove over to the event thinking, “Gosh, I hope I meet a copywriter for hire at today’s lunch!” Enough said?
Social media. Do you like it when you’re looking at your Facebook or Twitter feed and random people you’ve never heard of try to pitch you on hiring them them for stuff you aren’t interested in?
Start a blog. Do you ever come across a brand new blog started by a total unknown and think, “Gee, I’d really like to hire the person who wrote this?”
Hopefully you’re shaking your head to all of this.
When framed in this way, you can see how ridiculous it all sounds.
Yet this is still the actual stuff that people are told to do when they go looking for advice on how to become a copywriter.
I did none of this. Instead, I went to Upwork.
Unlike the half-cocked old school marketing methods we’ve been talking about, online freelance marketplaces like Upwork offer you a direct path to real paying clients, even if you happen to be brand new to professional copywriting, like I was.
Instead of being forced to aggressively pursue random people hoping to somehow turn them into clients, you can simply apply to any of the tens of thousands of copywriting jobs that are already being advertised on sites like Upwork everyday.
Here’s a screenshot I just grabbed to show you just how big the “pie” really is on Upwork. As you can see, not only are there an insane number of jobs to choose from — but there’s also something for everyone in terms of the type of writing you want to do, how much experience you have (or don’t have), etc.
As you’re about to see, the sheer volume of qualified jobs already being posted on sites like Upwork each day is going to act as an accelerator for breaking into copywriting and earning money while you develop your skills, rather than the other way around.
Going where the clients are is the first step in playing the game smart — plain and simple.
Not a whole lot different from cab drivers signing up for Uber.
Don’t be that one old school person who is hell bent on finding their own clients as a brand new copywriter, when there’s a cool little app that can connect you with them in droves, quickly and cheaply. Cool?
Step 2: Understand the one thing clients really care about
One reason that the traditional path I described earlier rarely leads to actual paying gigs is because typical clients don’t care about your portfolio, or how much time you’ve spent practicing copywriting.
All they really care about is feeling confident that you can get their job done in a way that makes them happy.
Let me explain.
If you talk to 100 different clients who all need a piece of copywriting done, they’re likely to all need something completely different.
To see what I mean, check out these 3 totally unrelated copywriting job descriptions I just pulled off Upwork…
See how different these all are?
This diversity is part of the reason why even the most reputable copywriters show off samples of their previous work.
It helps instill potential clients with the confidence that we can get their individual job done right.
So it should follow that, all else being equal, the copywriter who can show the client a writing sample that is most similar to what they need, will be the one to get hired for any given job.
But there’s a rub here…
Because individual clients’ needs are so unique, most copywriters (even experienced ones) usually won’t have a super relevant writing sample to show for a given job.
Case in point: After earning hundreds of thousands of dollars working on thousands of copywriting pieces, I still do not have any social media posts, orthopedic blogs, or sports-related press releases that I could throw at the above clients as proof that I could rock it for them.
This is where the opportunity comes in for you as a new copywriter.
If you and I were competing for one of the above gigs, and you could show the client even one single super relevant writing sample, chances are you could snag the job, despite my thousands of hours of copywriting experience.
It’s a David vs. Goliath thing.
I’ll show you how to execute on this idea shortly…
But for now it’s important to realize that showing clients the right sample is a sort of Trump Card when it comes to winning copywriting work.
Done properly, it’s like letting clients look into a crystal ball so they can see that you’re the perfect person to get their job done, exactly the way they want it.
Step 3: Do some rapid-fire market research
Remember earlier when we talked about the backwardness of building up your portfolio for weeks or months before going out and looking for clients?
It’s like a restaurant creating a menu and then asking customers what they enjoy eating. Not smart.
I didn’t do that.
Instead, before I created any writing samples at all, I first found out what real paying clients were actually looking for — and then tailored my writing samples around those needs.
In this regard, Upwork is an incredible market research tool, since you can get a wealth of information on thousands of real world clients in just a few minutes of browsing the job descriptions.
What you’re looking for in the beginning are copywriting jobs that:
- Don’t require any special or technical knowledge you don’t possess — e.g. no legal writing if you don’t have a legal background. (Notice that even the “Blogger for medical company” job post above says you do NOT need to be an expert, but just need to be able to research and write content that’s easy for patients to understand.)
- Are small enough that you can complete them within a few hours to a couple of days, so you don’t risk getting in over your head (e.g. no 80 page ebooks)
- Offer detailed descriptions of what the client actually wants; the more you know, the better and more relevant you can make your samples in Step 4
Real examples of beginner copywriting jobs I won and completed:
Let’s look at a couple of good examples…these are real jobs I personally won and completed successfully in my first few weeks on Upwork, despite having no copywriting background whatsoever.
First, there’s this one…
…and this one…
Notice that, even in these short snippets of each job’s description, you already get a pretty good picture of what the client is looking for. (There were files attached to the original postings that offered even more info.)
At this point, you might be thinking, “Hey, this is all fine and good, but what if I still don’t know how to write a job description or marketing email?”
Don’t worry about that — we’ll cover it in Step 4. For now, you’re just looking for jobs that you don’t have to go back to college to learn how to do, okay?
Alright, once you have a few of these jobs identified, go ahead and pick the one that sounds like the most fun, and let’s move on to the next step.
Step 4: Create a Minimum Viable Portfolio (MVP)
This is where things get exciting.
We’re going to take the information we found in Step 3, and use it to create a writing portfolio.
Except this isn’t going to be your grandfather’s writing portfolio.
Instead of pounding the keyboard for months on end to create a “complete” portfolio that likely won’t appeal to anyone anyway, we’re going to hack our way to one that’s both drastically smaller and more effective:
Your copywriting portfolio will…
- Consist of only one single sample (at least for now), just enough to win the job you chose in Step 3
- Be targeted toward what the client is looking for, giving you an excellent chance of grabbing their attention and outshining even more experienced competitors (who will likely be using cookie cutter samples that aren’t nearly as eye-catching)
- And you’re going to aim to complete it in just 20-30 minutes
Your MVP is a sniper rifle — it’s all about accuracy and efficiency. Getting the absolute most out of each sample you create.
Other freelancers will take a “shotgun” approach, aimlessly applying for tons of jobs with samples that just aren’t relevant to 99% of clients.
They’ll be the ones whining in online forums because, after months of writing proposals, they’ve yet to secure a single job.
Nor does creating your MVP require anything fancy. I’ll show you how I did mine in just a minute.
Two key guidelines for your copywriting MVP:
1. Go for similar, but not exact
As we’ve discussed, you want to write a sample that’s similar to what the client actually needs. At the same time, you don’t want to go so far with this idea that you end up inadvertently writing them a free sample.
Sites like Upwork prohibit free work, and in any case, there’s no need to tempt any unscrupulous clients to steal your stuff.
A good rule of thumb is to write something that proves you’re able to do the work, yet wouldn’t be usable to the client on its own.
For example: If a client is looking for a blog post on the 5 most romantic neighborhoods in New York City, you could write one about the 3 best places to propose in Paris.
2. Keep it short
Notice how, in the example I just gave you, I said “3 best places to propose in Paris”, rather than 5.
It’s called a Minimum Viable Portfolio for a reason.
You definitely want to focus on quality, but there’s no reason to make your sample even one word longer than it needs to be.
Remember, the goal is to show clients a glimpse of what you can do — you don’t need to bake the whole enchilada when just a taste will work fine.
A good rule of thumb is 200 – 400 words, depending on what type of piece you’re writing.
Clients will appreciate your brevity, since they tend to be busy people — every minute you can save them will win you brownie points.
As a bonus, the sooner you get through your initial sample, the quicker you can start banking cash for your efforts.
I had my first writing sample completed less than an hour after creating my Upwork account, and it won me my first job, too.
Let’s talk about how to do it.
How to write your first copywriting sample
Remember the two job descriptions I showed you earlier — one for writing marketing emails, and the other for writing job advertisements?
Well, here’s a secret: I didn’t know how to do either of these things before sitting down to write my MVP samples for them.
So I used google to help me figure them out, with searches like this…
While this isn’t necessarily the best way to master the art of copywriting, you’d be amazed at the quality of the information you can find when you’re just getting started and need to learn enough to get the job done.
This is especially true when you consider that you won’t generally be competing against rockstar copywriters — the best ones spend most of their time working, rather than bidding on jobs.
When I was going through this process over two years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that most of the freelancers I was competing with didn’t even know most of the techniques and tips that I was learning for free through simple google searches like the ones I just showed you.
They were mostly winging it, relying on instinct, or downright biffing it completely.
And you know what? Clients were really happy to see that I was the exception to this rule.
Almost immediately, I started to get responses like this:
Notice how these clients were already sold on working with me, just from looking at the MVP samples I sent them. (I was even the highest bidder on these jobs.)
They didn’t ask about my background, training, education, or anything else, because my writing samples were directly related to the jobs they were advertising…
While I can virtually guarantee you that my competitors sent in samples that did not address these clients’ specific needs. (Hell, some freelancers don’t send any samples at all.)
In other words, no one else gave them the “crystal ball experience.” I did, and it paid off predictably, time and time again.
Step 5: Rinse and repeat (as needed)
One great thing about the Crystal Ball Technique is that you don’t have to rely on it for very long.
I used it religiously for my first few weeks as a copywriter, and then gradually tapered it off as I started to rely more on the samples I’d already created from previous jobs, as well as the growing number of good client reviews that were stacking up on my Upwork profile.
But even then I continued to use the strategy from time to time:
- When I came across a job I really wanted (especially if it had the potential to become repeat business)
- When I found my workload slowing down and wanted to quickly boost it up again
- Or when I wanted to break into a new niche that I had no experience in
So even after you’ve gotten the ball rolling in your new career as a copywriter, the Crystal Ball Technique is a great “ace in the hole” that you can pull out and use any time you need it.
A built-in safety net for new copywriters
One of the biggest reasons aspiring copywriters practice and work on their portfolios for long periods of time is because they’re afraid.
They don’t want to accidentally jump into the water before they’re ready, because they might get in over their head and screw up a job when money — and their reputation — are on the line.
Fortunately, the Crystal Ball Technique comes with its own fail-safe that all but totally prevents you from falling flat on your face.
When you send clients your MVP sample, you’re showing them a preview of the type of work they can expect when they hire you.
If they respond favorably to that sample, then there’s no reason they won’t like the rest of the work you do for them, since it’s all along the same lines anyway.
This isn’t true for copywriters who send clients samples that aren’t relevant to their individual needs…
Just because a copywriter can write a solid press release for a new type of dog leash, doesn’t mean he can also write a good blog post about the health benefits of red wine.
But since you’re sending clients samples that are intentionally similar to what you’ll ultimately produce, there aren’t going to be any surprises once they hire you.
While using the Crystal Ball Technique to break into copywriting, I never received a single review from a client that wasn’t 100% positive, thanks to this built in fail-safe mechanism.
Here are a couple so you can see for yourself…
(Oh yeah and, as you can see, the email copywriting job turned into a repeat gig, even though it was my first one ever.)
When I talk to people about how quickly I became a copywriter, despite my total lack of experience, they often say things like, “Weren’t you afraid clients wouldn’t like your work?” or “That sounds scary!”
Little do they know that there was method in my madness, thanks to the Crystal Ball Technique.
Step 6: Go forth and write copy (and get paid)
I’ve just given you a blueprint for becoming a copywriter that’s fast, free, and way easier than the advice the gurus are peddling.
Time to get to it. There’s no need to wait.
You’ve been writing since grade school, so I think you can handle this one if you put your mind to it.
You aren’t risking anything and no one is going to bite you…except maybe one of the stuffy old copywriting pros you piss off with your speedy success.
Just don’t forget to grab my Top 5 Upwork Hacks to help you out along the way.
(Flickr Creative Commons Image via *m22)