Free Advice for Would-Be Copywriters and Other Miscreants, Part 1

I’ve decided to write this blog post for two reasons: 1) People email us all the time asking for advice on how to start a career in the fabulous world of copywriting, and 2) August is almost over, and we haven’t posted anything new this month (gulp).

With these points in mind, here are five tips for those of you thinking about becoming a copywriter.

1) Get your portfolio in order.

One of the best ways to establish your credibility is to have a respectable portfolio. If you have any clips from a previous job or even your college newspaper, collect them in one place and pick out the best ones. These days, I don’t even bother with physical samples. Pointing people to online samples is perfectly fine (and it’s easier to keep your portfolio up to date that way).

What? Your portfolio is thinner than a Russian supermodel? Then …

2) Fatten up your portfolio.

Soon after starting The Hired Pens in 2001, we approached several nonprofits we liked and said we’d work for free. A couple took us up on the offer. This allowed us to diversify our portfolio with website copy, a brochure, press releases, etc. Speaking of which, as you build your portfolio, aim to introduce variety in terms of both deliverables and industries. It will boost your chances of having just the right sample to impress that prospective client.

3) Establish a professional online presence.

You can start by building a website for yourself. It’s such a benefit to have a URL where you can send people for writing samples and background on your experience. Not tech-savvy? Do some bartering with a Web designer who can take care of it for you. Or check out WordPress, which is an easy way for the technology-challenged to create a basic website.

Something else to consider: optimizing your LinkedIn page. Anna wrote about this in May.

4) Get organized.

Don’t be scattershot when you start going after business. Find a way to track your target clients and record your progress. The solution may be something as simple as an Excel spreadsheet. On the high end, you can look at customer relationship management (CRM) tools, but that’s probably over the top.

Also be sure to track the invoices you send out and the payments you receive. Excel might cover your needs for this too, but you can always step it up and invest in QuickBooks or similar products.

5) Create a contract.

Believe it or not, some business people are unscrupulous (!). Or they have a weakness for unwittingly committing to work they can’t afford. Either way, be sure to cover your butt by having a lawyer draw up a contract for your engagements. (There are probably good contract templates available online, though I haven’t checked in awhile.)

In the contract, be clear about the scope of work (How many Web pages are you writing? How many rounds of revisions are you responsible for?). Also be clear about payment schedule. Particularly if you’re working with a client for the first time, don’t hesitate to require 1/4 to 1/3 payment upfront.

OK, that’s all my advice for now. I’m sure I’ll post Part 2 someday (once I’ve thought of five more tips).

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