What Does it Take to Succeed as
by Marcia Yudkin
In looking back on the more than
five dozen aspiring copywriters I've trained and
mentored over the years and asking which personal
qualities posed challenges and roadblocks and which
enable beginners to carve out a lasting niche for
themselves, I have zeroed in on four key skill areas.
To build and sustain a copywriting or marketing
consulting business, you need to be or become good in
these four competencies:
To develop persuasive written
materials, you must learn to meld creativity, which
involves being able to put forth fresh ideas,
concepts, phrasings and images, with proven formats -
structures for sales letters, brochures, press
releases, home pages and so on that embody techniques
If you learn only the latter, your work comes across
sounding formulaic and hollow. It can attract clients
and produce results, but only to a limited extent.
Perceptive clients will notice that your projects tend
to come out much the same. They'll conclude that
you're either still in the apprenticeship phase of
mastery or that you lack the problem-solving skill
they need to get the kinds of results they crave.
And on the other hand, if you depend too heavily on
creativity, you fail to use the little devices, turns
of phrase, formatting tools and finishing touches that
help improve response. I see this weakness in a lot of
my beginning students - which is fine, because any
halfway decent copywriting training course, whether
live or canned, can remedy this shortcoming.
To achieve the ideal balance between creativity and
the tricks of the trade on your own, you'd need great
instincts and loads of practice.
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2. Pleasing clients
I've seen people who have no trouble
with #1 flounder or become miserable because of this
essential factor. Again it's necessary to strike a
balance, this time between doing great work and making
sure that the person or company paying your fee is
Without knowing how to please clients, you can turn
out terrific copy and have clients refuse to pay, or
pay up but never come back. It's crucial to be able to
listen to the client's goals, to keep those goals in
mind while shaping the work, to explain what you've
done and why, and to talk through differences in
perception so that the two sides eventually see eye to
This skill did not - does not - come naturally to me.
I have learned this painfully and repeatedly, by
overlooking or forgetting it, analyzing what went
wrong and resolving to do better in the future.
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Sometimes the error here is in
accepting projects where the client's expectations are
at odds with the way you think things should be done.
Sometimes there's not enough communication with the
client and education of the client away from what you
see as wrongheaded ideas.
While this factor still goes awry for me a few times
every year, most of my projects go well because I
attract plenty of clients who love the way I do things
and respect my opinion where it differs from theirs.
If you build a strong enough reputation, clients tend
to listen to you - though not always.
On the other hand, I've seen plenty of beginning
copywriters as well as colleagues with years of
experience struggle with the opposite side of this
balancing act. They know how to please clients but in
doing so, they make themselves unhappy.
For your own sanity, you need to be able to set firm
boundaries - ground rules, policies and things to say
when clients become unreasonable in their demands. If
they demand rewrite after rewrite, insist that their
ignorant ideas are superior to what you know, expect
you to chitchat endlessly whenever they feel like
calling or otherwise drive you nuts, you must be able
to head off these problems, negotiate solutions and
Having trusted colleagues to discuss problems with, an
online or in-person peer group or a coach help
immeasurably in finding your way with pleasing
3. Business skills
How much should you charge? How many
clients do you need, and how can you find them? What
if your sure-fire marketing tactics fail to bring in
clients, or bring in more than you can handle? What if
clients who say they loved what you did don't pay?
No one is born knowing any of this stuff. With
guidance from people who are running or have run a
successful business, you can learn key business
skills. If you've run any other kind of business
before turning to copywriting or have watched
successful entrepreneurs up close, you'll probably
find this skill area easy.
Years of membership in the New England Women Business
Owners organization and my prior experience as a
freelance writer for national magazines taught me how
to be tough with clients when needed, charge what I'm
worth, keep on trying when I felt I was on the right
track, regroup when necessary and avoid dumb business
decisions most of the time.
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One of the most common business
challenges I've seen for aspiring copywriters involves
money issues. Charge too little, and you may be
working very hard, have loyal clients and yet not be
earning enough to sustain yourself (or your family)
over time. A support group or mentor can help you
battle the inner demons that keep you from raising
your rates, whereupon almost always you discover that
the best clients don't mind paying more, and you feel
happier about the business.
The second most common business challenge involves
perseverance. If something doesn't work out the way
you'd hoped, do you retreat in hurt and
disappointment, or do you simply try something else?
I've watched a couple of people jump into the
copywriting business with supreme enthusiasm and then
brood obsessively over every minor reversal.
Unfortunately, this type of person isn't suited to
If you give up or feel overwhelmed easily, then you
may be better off working on salary for an employer.
To earn a living writing copy for
others, you must be able to manage deadlines and
details. By deadlines, I mean not only the obvious
point that if you've promised that a project would be
finished by June 30, it must be, but also the less
obvious point that you need to be able to complete
top-notch work in a reasonable amount of time.
If you can reach excellence only painstakingly or
through a slow process of repeated drafts, you may not
be able to make it in the business. Few clients are
willing to pay enough for a web site, or be patient
enough, to let you treat their project as if you were
Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel.
Another personality type that has trouble with
discipline is a Crisis Cathy - someone who masterfully
and continually creates emergencies, problems and
roadblocks so that things never get done, but with
seemingly legitimate excuses. Family members may put
up with this kind of behavior, but clients generally
won't, especially if it rears its head more than once.
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As for details, you must have the
discipline to proofread, check facts and get things
like names and numbers right. I've seen a couple of
writers who can't spell or use proper grammar become
fabulously successful nevertheless, but I do not
recommend this. Where clients are concerned, it's a
much bigger handicap than these blithe spirits will
admit. Most clients do not take well to carelessness
on your part. When you deliver work containing
mistakes, they consider it disrespectful and
So there you have it. These four competencies are
roughly equal in importance for success as an
independent copywriter or marketing consultant, I
believe. Do you measure up? Are you willing to work on
developing the qualities you don't have?
Copyright 2006 Marcia Yudkin.
All rights reserved.