Headlines…they’re everywhere: subject lines, envelope messages, banner ads, landing pages, book titles, training course titles.
Although most copywriters will tell you they find writing headlines the hardest part of any job, sometimes they just seem to arrive out of the ether.
One of my favourites in this category is from a subscriptions renewal letter in Top Gear magazine. The headline reads:
People who think dolphins are cleverer than McLaren engineers want to ruin your fun
The letter was signed by Jeremy Clarkson, the lead presenter for the Top Gear TV programme, who also has a monthly column in the magazine. It captures his trademark tone of voice and style and does, I think, contain a clear appeal to the reader’s self-interest.
Namely, not having their enjoyment of cars spoiled by do-gooders.
So, what do you think is the purpose of the headline? Here are a few possible answers:
to demonstrate to the reader how clever I am
to indulge my taste for wordplay and ‘humour’
to stop the reader from turning the page
to make the reader want to read the body copy
to encapsulate my sales pitch in 10-16 words or fewer
to fit in with the picture I have chosen
to allow me to use the same tired old cliché as our competitors
to raise brand awareness
Though they would never admit it, many copywriters – both in-house and agency/freelance – are clearly motivated by a combination of a), b), f), g) and h).
This type of writer frequently, though not always, works in an above-the-line role, where measuring results from specific executions or campaigns is difficult if not impossible.
(But grinning broadly as they drive by a 96-sheet poster with their headline on it is effortless if not mandatory.)
Writers working below-the-line, where everything is measurable (and testable) tend to opt for a combination of c), d) and e).
(Though not always.)
Winning the battle for eyeballs
If you need to make money from your marketing campaigns, your headline is your first and biggest weapon in the battle for eyeballs. Get it right and you have a (temporarily) captive audience and the possibility of winning orders. Get it wrong and you have a funny picture for your office wall.
So where do we start? You can roughly divide headlines into three categories:
Those promising news.
Those arousing curiosity.
Those offering a benefit.
When Ogilvy & Mather tested headlines, they found that benefits out-pulled news, which out-pulled curiosity. A combination of all three was the most responsive of all. This is bad news for writers who favour headlines like this:
Have you discovered Acme toner cartridges yet?
Your headline is your first and biggest weapon in the battle for eyeballs.
(Reader: ‘No.’ Turns page.)
But excellent news for writers who like lines like this:
Fighter pilots: how this everyday vegetable can help you see better at night
(Unfortunately, I’ll never use that one, but you get the idea!)
This should be simple then. After all, you know your product inside out, don’t you? You know what it does for your customers. You know what makes it special and different. All you have to do is get all that across in a dozen or so words. Oh yes. That. That’s what makes writing good headlines so infernally hard.
In case of emergency, break glass
If you find yourself staring into space for more than ten minutes, it’s time for emergency action. You’re busy. You have too many other things to do to be just sitting there. Here’s a way to get something down on paper. It might not be your final line but it will free the wheels and let you get on with the rest of your copy.
Step one: Complete this sentence: My product helps my customers because it…
E.g. My product helps my customers because it saves them money when they buy their next new car.
Step two: Cut everything up to and including ‘it’.
E.g. Saves them money when they buy their next new car. Step three: change ‘them’ and ‘they’ to ‘you’ (and tweak the rest as necessary)
E.g. Save money when you buy your next new car.
Step four: Add ‘NOW: an easy way to’ at the beginning.
E.g. NOW: an easy way to save money when you buy your next new car.
Not bad. Could be better of course. But this only takes a few minutes. And it will be better, much better, than 90% of the headlines you see around you every day.
There are no fixed rules on the best format for headlines. But I’ve always found that ‘How to’ headlines work well a lot of the time. Openings like these:
How to save £35 a week on your family’s food bill
How to impress even the most sceptical ballroom dancing judge
How to win friends and influence people (oops – sorry, not one of mine!)
If you want to add a sense of newsiness, the simplest trick is to add NOW: at the beginning of any headline.
And remember, FREE almost always works well in a headline. Don’t be shy in business-to-business (b2b) contexts either. Everyone likes getting free stuff.
Try to keep your headlines as short as you can. Under 16 words is good. Ten is better. (But there are also plenty of examples of control-pulverising headlines longer than either of those numbers.) Remember, you’re not trying to write the whole pitch, just enough to get your reader interested. And if you feel drawn to words like ‘communication’, ‘effective’ or ‘significantly’, try ‘talking’, ‘better’ or ‘much’ instead.
As a general rule, headlines should be on a single line, two at a pinch. If you really feel the need to keep going, use a subhead instead. Like this:
How to make the perfect sponge cake every time
Order a trial pack of Wonder Mix today and save 99p
You could even add a lead-in that refers to your target, like this:
Attention all homemakers…
How to make the perfect sponge cake every time
Order a trial pack of Wonder Mix today and save 99p
Design and layout
Headlines look better set in a larger point size than your body copy. But don’t go mad.
As a general rule for most print and online communications, your headline will tend to shout if it’s more than twice the point size of your body copy.
(Of course, you may want it to shout.) And don’t use ALL CAPS: it makes it harder to read quickly and forces your reader to decode it letter by letter.
I think simple sentence case looks best; initial caps force the reader’s eye to jump up and down as each new word starts (though there’s evidence that initial caps also work well).
Finally, never use full stops at the end of your headlines. They say ‘stop’ and you don’t want your reader to stop, you want them to keep reading.
The absence of a full stop implies that the sentence hasn’t finished yet and they will keep reading till they find one. Look at a newspaper and see if you can find a headline with a full stop.
A few ideas to keep you going
For new products (or things you want to appear new), start with…
After 10 years…
Use a journalistic headline
The secrets of fine wine collecting revealed
237 ways to cut your tax bill this year
Looks good, smells better: is this the ultimate aftershave?
Use storytelling or editorial techniques
They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play (a classic)
He started life on the wrong side of the tracks, now he’s running the company
Why Susie had to turn down an offer of marriage
Compare value with price
Want a CEO lifestyle on a part-time salary?
Break the price down into manageable chunks
The car you’ve always dreamt of, for just £129 a month
Feature the discount
Save £100 when you subscribe to Copywriter Magazine by
Provide practical information
The seven steps to a perfect lawn
Do you want to improve your copywriting?
Do you make these mistakes in English? (Another classic)
A simple but delicious chocolate cake recipe
How to drop a dress size in two weeks (without giving up chips)
Style your headline as a quotation or testimonial
‘I’d never won anything. Then I joined QuizFriends. Now I drive a new BMW’
‘You can make money on the stock market without StockPix. I just wouldn’t want to try’
‘If you’re looking for a reliable food mixer, it has to be the
Ask your reader a question
Have you ever wished you could retire early?
Are you ready for a snap customs inspection that could cost your company its life?
What would you do with a million pounds?
Can health and safety be improved in your business?
How much do you know about gardening? Take this simple test
Come in half-way through a sentence
Because there’s more to driving than miles per gallon.
Most of these I have adapted from other copywriters, including the excellent John Caples’ book, Tested Advertising Methods. If you don’t already own a copy, buy one. You won’t be disappointed.
Headlines are too important to waste on lame puns or bogus ‘Ooh! That’s intriguing’ teasers. This goes double online, when people are even more impatient.
If you do nothing else with your next headline, spell out your main benefit.
And remember, if your reader can say ‘so what?’, it’s not a benefit.
Every literary journal writer might relate to this…
When you first submitted to literary journals, you probably spent fifteen minutes or more on their websites tracking down any scrap or clue that might help your work be accepted. You read their guidelines multiple times. Every time you received a rejection, you read a lot into it.
But ask any experienced literary journal writer and they will tell you how things are a little different on the surface and after years of writing for the literary journals, they are finally starting to see patterns that they could not when they started out.
The following are things that you as a beginner literary journal writer might wish to know.
The difference between what journals say and what they mean
Most journals have a statement on their submission page about what they are looking for and what you should submit. Some of these things are clear and true. If they say they are looking for poetry and flash fiction under 1,000 words in length, they most certainly mean it. Do not submit a 2,000-word story.
Also, if they say they are looking only for works of science fiction or some other genre, only submit works from that genre to them.
However, many submission guidelines list things that are not helpful. They could even be misleading and waste your time if you focus on them too much.
For example, a lot of journals indicate they are looking for experimental work, but few define what they mean by that.
By reading these same journals, you might conclude that experimental work appears to cover everything from a traditional haiku to a list of unrelated words. (It might turn out to be a big mistake!)
Don’t spend lot of time, when you are first submitting, trying to match a journal’s style with my submission.
This is a waste of time, as what they said they wanted and at times, they can be vague and what they actually wanted were two different things.
Another example is that many journals ask for you to only submit your best work. I have no clue what they mean by that. After all, what you think is your best work and what others think is your best work might be completely different things.
The poems I often think of as my best are the ones I struggle the most to get published. The poems I think of as OK are often the ones that get snapped up right away by literary journals.
I am not alone in this. Many of my friends have had similar experiences.
Focus on what the journal is looking for in terms of concrete statements about length and genre, and ignore the other information for the most part.
Buying before submitting
Many literary journals need to sell copies to survive.
Almost every single print journal I know and a lot of electronic journals try to encourage submitters to buy a copy of their journal before submitting. This is time-consuming.
It is also an expensive proposition for a writer, who might be submitting a single piece or a few pieces of work to ten or twenty journals.
If you like the look of a journal and it is really up your alley, you should subscribe because you want to. Because you are interested in the work they are publishing, and want to support them.
If you want to get a better idea of the work they have published, many do have a few poems and short stories published online. It is worth spending a few minutes to read one or two of these.
On taking rejections seriously
Don’t. When I receive a rejection email, I am not upset. I just update my submission tracker to reflect the rejection. Your work can be rejected for any number of arbitrary or legitimate reasons. If you take each rejection seriously, that will consume a lot of mental energy.
Imagine an average editor gets over 1,000 poem submissions for the next literary journal issue. He or she accepted seven poems out of the over 1,000 submitted.
It is not uncommon for the editor to get simply overwhelmed and not be able to give the poem the amount of time and more importantly, the mental energy, it deserved. That is not even taking his or her personal preferences as a reader into consideration. Do you see?
Instead of thinking about the rejections you have received, focus on submitting as much as possible.
There are so many good literary journals. Take the opportunity the numbers offer. Also, it is good to keep in mind that just because a journal rejects a piece of yours once, that does not mean they are not open to later submissions.
Often, your pieces might be accepted by a journal that previously rejected an earlier piece.
(I know a writer who once submitted to the same journal seven times before they accepted a piece of hers.)
Below are six steps that will help you submitting your work to literary journals in the best way possible.
If you have never sent your creative writing out to a literary journal before, the experience can be intimidating. Many productive writers avoid submitting. However, there is no real way around it if you want to get your work out into the world.
Even if you have sent out work before, you may find them helpful. For experienced literary journal writers, these tips are still a touchstone they can rely upon…keeping them on their track.
Set a submission goal for yourself
Set it at a number that seems reasonable to you—perhaps five submissions to different magazines per month.
A classic human psychology is, you will often exceed your per-month goal, because once you reach that point, you will want the feeling of accomplishment to linger. Soon those submissions will really start to add up.
The more experience you have submitting, the faster you will get; as you progress, it becomes easier to submit your work.
Three of the most respected authors I know suggested that this was one of the ways that they became successful.
Create submission packets
If you are a short story writer you don’t need to do this, since most journals only consider one short story at a time.
Some publishers of flash fiction (fiction under 1,000 words in length) allow authors to submit up to three stories at a time.
However, if you are a poet, journals generally want three to five of your poems to consider at a time. I have five packets that each contain between four and five poems.
Reserve one packet to submit to a journal that does not accept simultaneous submissions (work that is submitted to other journals at the same time). It is becoming more common for journals to accept simultaneous submissions, though (almost 95 percent!).
Keep track of what you submit and where
Many keep a Word document that tracks which journals they have submitted to, what poems or stories they have submitted to them, and when.
Write down which poems or stories have been accepted and where…which journals have rejected certain poems or stories. Update this “submission tracker” every time you submit; otherwise, you might send the same poems to the same journal twice, or submit poems that have been accepted elsewhere, or any similar minor disaster.
Make sure you regularly update this document, or it will get out of control. I have included a sample of a very small submission tracker.
Sample literary journal submission tracker:
The New Yorker, Submitted September 28th, The Living (short story).
The Adroit Review, Submitted September 28th, My Teeth, Superman, Pumpkin Bread (poems).
Neon, Submitted January 14th, Ham, Companion, Uma Thurman (poems).
Conium Review, Submitted January 25th, Ready (short story).
Threepenny Review, Submitted January 7, 2012. Timer (short story).
The Book Review, submitted January 7, Pancakes for Dinner (short story).
You can also use an Excel spread sheet to track submissions and if you have a Duotrope subscription, there is a built-in submission tracker that is fairly intuitive to use. Electronic trackers are not for everyone, though.
Submittable also has a built-in tracking system, but it only tracks submissions you make using Submittable.
There is no way to manually update it to include submissions you made via email or other submission managers. Because of that, it does not work as a personal submission tracker.
Just make sure you are consistent. At first, tracking doesn’t seem that essential, but over time it becomes more and more important.
If you don’t track submissions, you could end up accidentally sending the same piece to the same publication repeatedly, which will get you remembered by the editors for the wrong reasons.
More importantly, when you are simultaneously submitting, if a piece gets accepted one place, you have to withdraw it from all the other places it is out at.
If you don’t do that, it can reflect poorly on you and even lead to a journal not considering your work in the future.
Create a couple of biographical statements
When you read submission guidelines—which vary from site to site—almost all of them will require that you include a brief biographical statement and a cover letter. Most submission guidelines are quite similar, so as long as you have a biographical statement and a cover letter on standby, it should take you very little time to submit.
One of your biographical statements should be under fifty words and the other should be under one hundred words in length.
Biographical statements should always be in third person.
Once your work has been published in various literary journals, you should include some of the most recent or prestigious journals in your biographical statement.
However, you should not include all of them; that would just be overwhelming and would come off as unprofessional. Below are examples of biographical statements of less than fifty words.
One contains journal names, one does not.
Sample bio 1:
Maria Smith resides in the rural Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous places, including: Tin House, The Liner, Echolocation, and the anthology Tidelines. Her second chapbook, Pancakes for Dinner, is forthcoming in 2017 from Hawthorne Press.
Sample bio 2:
Joshua Thomas is a poet, editor, and recovering New Yorker who now lives in Idaho. Joshua once wrote a sonnet every hour for twenty-four hours straight. He loves to hike, cook, and read.
Create a standard cover letter for all the journals you are submitting to
A cover letter should be as simple as possible; an editor does not have a lot of time and does not want to be bogged down by the details.
If you are submitting to a journal you particularly like, you might include a note about why you like their journal. Sometimes journals will request that you include additional information such as titles and word count in my cover letter and I will cut and paste that information in. Otherwise, my cover letter is almost identical to the sample letter.
Sample cover letter for literary journal submission:
The following poems are for your consideration. Thank you for your time,
Always read the submission guidelines
Now this might seem like common sense, but many writers figure if they have read one submission guideline, they have read them all. This is not the case.
For many literary journals, up to fifteen percent of the work they receive is rejected because it is not what they publish, and not due to stylistic preferences.
For example, a literary journal that explicitly states they do not accept genre work will receive a fair amount of science fiction short stories. Or a journal that publishes poetry may receive hundreds of short story submissions a month.
Krishan Coupland, the editor of Neon, phrased it well when he said:
“Neon publishes dark slipstream and magical realist fiction and poetry. A 600-page hard-boiled noir detective novel isn’t likely to find a place in its pages. Neither is a feature-length documentary film, or any number of hobby articles or fashion pieces. And yet these are all things that I’ve been offered in the past year.”
You can read Krishan Coupland’s full article, “6 Cover Letter Mistakes That Can Ruin the Chance of Publication,” here.
Also, many people who don’t read the submission guidelines will end up being automatically rejected, either by a filter on the email the editor has set up, or by the editor themselves because the submitter has not followed one guideline or another.
For example, if the journal’s guidelines say they only accept submissions where the work is cut and pasted into the body of the email, and you send that work as an attachment, they will likely reject your work without ever reading it.
That might sound callous, but many editors read hundreds of submissions every month, and they set up their submission guidelines in a certain way for a reason.
For emailed submissions, the subject line guidelines (if there are any) are particularly important to follow because many email accounts are set up so that they automatically filter out your email if the subject heading is incorrect.
‘In the book business all success is really just back pay.’
When the potential of the Internet dawned on the general public, there was talk about how traditional publishing would soon be a thing of the past.
Pundits also predicted that television would kill film, that film would kill live theatre and that radio would be killed by all of them.
None of these predictions has come true, and the Web does not look set to destroy traditional publishing, but it does offer the most enormous potential market for the professional writer.
The Pluses of Writing for the Web
In the business writing field there are all those websites that need professionals to design and write them.
In the magazine field there are the specialist e-zines, catering for just as diverse a marketplace as the traditional printed journals.
For fiction writers there is the possibility of downloading your work direct to your readers with minimal interference from publishers and other middlemen by using publishing sites like Lulu.com and Authorhouse.co.uk.
By actually creating finished books out of your work they are giving you something that you can show to other potential customers. Even if you don’t manage to make any money with that particular publication, you will still have demonstrated your seriousness and your determination and taken a first small step forward.
These websites all operate slightly differently from each other, and doubtless there will be many other new business models appearing over the next few years.
Most will not have time to make any serious editorial input into your work. They may not even have the time to read it before agreeing to publish. So the quality of the product is going to be down to you, with none of the safety nets traditionally supplied by publishers, editors and proofreaders.
The golden rule would seem to be that you should only link in with companies who don’t make any money until they sell your book for you (the traditional publishing business model), which means you should not pay anyone any fees for the privilege of being published by them.
Stephen King led the way for online publishing with a novel that he posted on the Net a chapter at a time. He managed to hook over half a million readers, which would have made most of us very happy, though it made him decide it wasn’t worth persevering.
The Minuses of Writing for the Web
The reason why people logged on to King’s work was because of his branding; he was already famous. He has a huge tribe of loyal followers and everything he does is extensively written about in the media. Everyone knew the book was there.
That is the essence of the problem for everyone else. You can certainly put your work on the Net, but how do you steer people towards finding it, when there is so much other stuff already there?
No one has yet come up with a convincing answer to this.
The Web is still pioneer territory for writers. Many are managing to find niches into which to sell their material, but most are using it as a way to promote their existing work to a new and bigger audience.
Be a Pioneer: Start Web Writing Today
If you have access to the Internet and time to explore, then do just that.
There are a lot of other people doing the same, but this doesn’t mean that you won’t come up with a market for your work that no one has ever thought of before.
It might well be worth joining websites like myspace.com in order to show your work to like minded-people who just might become fans and start to spread the word.
These sites are better known for providing exposure for musicians, singers and songwriters, but there is no reason why the same recipe shouldn’t work for other types of writing.
Hunt out the marketplaces of the future.
Is the Web an Infinite Resource for Writing?
No, it probably isn’t infinite, but we certainly aren’t using it to anything like its full capacity yet.
The use of e-mails and websites is bound to become more sophisticated and commonplace in the next few years as we all grow more accustomed to the technology.
But it may be the niche-marketing potential of the medium which will be most useful to freelance writers in helping you identify individuals who would be interested in hearing whatever it is you have to say.
Say you’ve written a learned book on the future of Britain’s education system.
Traditionally it would be marketed by copies being sent out for review and possibly some public relations activity to create controversy. Copies would be stacked up in bookshops (if you’re lucky) on the off chance that people will either come in and ask for it or will spot it as they browse around the shop. This is all very haphazard and deeply reliant on luck.
Supposing, however, you went on to the Internet and found a way of reaching everyone who’d ever registered an interest in education, or who listed their profession as teacher.
Let’s imagine you were then able to get a précis of your book on their screens, with a button to press that would take them directly to Amazon or some other on-line bookshop, or which would download the book directly to their printer.
That already happens, of course, but we’re still in the early stages of the system’s evolution. Few of us fully understand what’s happening out there or how to exploit it most effectively.
I’m certain, however, that our basic instincts for rationalisation and organisation will eventually make the Internet as accessible as any library, bookshop or supermarket.
We’ll establish marketing methods of such precision that every book will be brought quickly and cheaply to the attention of every person who has ever shown or expressed an interest in the subject or the author.
If you’ve managed to build up a following with one book, and you have a website that your fans pop into from time to time, it will not be hard to sell them another book through the same medium.
Stephen King was selling his book just as a television series producer sells future episodes, using cliffhangers, and in much the same way as Charles Dickens sold his stories through popular magazines over a century ago. It’s bound to be one way forward for any successful author.
E-Books: To Write or Not To Write?
There are already publishers like Lulu.com creating books online that can be printed on demand. This is definitely a trend that will grow, but will probably only benefit authors in certain sectors.
Printing on demand is, exactly as it sounds, a system that does not print up a finished book until the customer puts in an order.
The big problem for traditional publishers has always been the expense of committing to a large print run of a book before they know whether or not it will sell in large quantities.
With e-books, if only ten people want to buy your book only ten copies are printed. Consequently there will be no unsold copies that have to be transported, warehoused and eventually pulped.
Advances in technology mean that printing a book from a computer can be done in a matter of hours, rather than the days or weeks that publishers traditionally had to wait if sudden demand made a reprint necessary.
It’s a relatively cheap way to publish, so the barriers to entry are low.
Anyone can set themselves up as an e-publisher with virtually no capital. It’s likely, therefore, that the industry will be flooded very quickly, if it isn’t already.
Projects like novels will have a very hard time getting noticed among the competition, particularly if most of the famous names are still publishing their wares through the more traditional methods.
If you have a work of fiction that has failed to find a conventional publisher, then an e-publisher could be the next step. But that in itself suggests that all the slush piles in all the publishing houses and agents’ offices are eventually going to find their way on to the Net.
There aren’t going to be enough readers in the world with enough time to make them all successful.
But at least they’re out there and sooner or later some of them are going to hit it lucky and build a word-of-mouth following which will result in them coming to the reading public’s notice.
With non-fiction, particularly reference and schoolbooks, e-publishing may prove more fruitful.
If a school can download copies of a set text from the Net rather than ordering copies from book wholesalers, they may well do so.
If someone is looking for a definitive book on engineering by a professor from Cambridge, they may prefer to spend half an hour on-line finding it and printing it, rather than going out to bookshops to order it and then waiting anything up to a few weeks for delivery (assuming it’s still in print).
E-publishing is a great method of production and delivery, but it still requires the same marketing techniques to bring the books to the attention of potential buyers and to alert them as to how they can get hold of them.
It is about what makes great copy. Without the skills outlined below, no matter how much business acumen you have, the chances are you will not make a great success of copywriting.
If you are expecting me to outline
some secret winning formula, however, prepare to be disappointed. There is a
winning formula, but it is far from secret. The rules you need to follow can be
found all around you, in conversations in the pub, jokes on the internet and
even Hollywood movies.
What all these have in common is that
they are capable of engaging you and commanding your full attention, at least
for a while. This is exactly what you, as a copywriter, need to be able to do –
with any audience.
But how? What follows are a few simple
rules of thumb that apply to all forms of effective communication. In a
nutshell, all you need to do to write great copy is to keep it:
2. Keep It Short
It is quite common to have a lot to say, but most people do not have much time to listen – or read. So the first rule of copywriting is: keep it short.
Remember that you are not a novelist; your audience is not asking you to give them something to read on the beach. Instead, think of your copy as a journey that the reader has to undertake to arrive at the message you are trying to pass on.
No matter how interesting (and it should be interesting), your readers will want to get to the end in the quickest possible time, so help them by providing the most direct route.
Get rid of any detours and use short cuts where possible.
‘keep it short’ rule applies to words, sentences and entire texts. In your
copy, every word should count. There should be no padding, no dross. With
everything you write, look to see if you can cut the number of words you use
and still retain meaning. Do this once, twice, as many times as you can. What
you will find is that every time you cut words, your message becomes more
direct and more powerful, because you are stripping away excess to reveal the
core of what you want to say.
Let’s take an example. Here is a fairly
straightforward commercial message:
‘The reason why you should buy my book, which is called Fasttrack your copywriting skills, is that it will help you to become a better writer and make more money.’
At 34 words, you might think this is pretty succinct. But
‘The reason you should buy my book, Fasttrack your copywriting skills, is it will help you to become a better writer and make more money.’
We have taken out five words without changing the meaning of the sentence at all. What were those words doing?
Just taking up space and time – and preventing the reader from progressing quickly onto the next important point. If you look carefully at any text, you will usually find there are words that simply sit around without contributing to the meaning of sentences.
The word ‘that’ is a good example; it can usually be replaced by ‘which’, or taken out altogether.
Now let’s see if we can cut away even more. How about:
‘Buy my book, Fasttrack your copywriting skills – it will help you to become a better writer and make more money.’ (24 words) Or even:
‘Buy my book, become a better writer and make more money.’
Notice how each time words are taken
away, the message becomes more direct and thus more powerful. How far can we go
with this process? The core message in this example might simply be: ‘Buy my book’ – just three words, or
less than nine per cent of the original sentence.
Don’t just keep sentences short. Try to break up long paragraphs and words, too. Your aim should always be to minimise the number of syllables, or even letters, in your text.
If in doubt, it is preferable to have a string of short words than a single long word. Better still, break up your long words and then rearrange each sentence so you get rid of some of the shorter words you have just created.
Watch out for unnecessary punctuation,
too. In essence, if punctuation marks can be taken out of a sentence without
changing its meaning or making it more difficult to understand, then get rid of
them. Consider the following:
‘Chief executive, Alan X, says: . . .’ And:
‘Chief executive Alan X says: . . .’
Notice how the commas in the first
line are not adding any information or clarification to the sentence. So they
have to go. Notice also, however, that the commas would be justified if Alan
X’s name were being mentioned in a subordinate clause, as in:
‘Company Y’s chief executive, Alan X, says: . . .’
In a similar vein, leave full stops out
of common abbreviations like ‘Mr’ or ‘mph’.
How long should sentences be in copywriting?
As a general rule, unless you are writing for a particularly highbrow audience, no sentence of commercial copy has any right to be much longer than about 50 words.
For an intro, the first line of your text, you need to hook the reader with a short, sharp statement, so try to stick to 25 words or fewer.
Keeping to these word counts will make your text easier to read. It will help you in other ways, too, for example in forcing you to clarify what you are trying to say and making you break your message down into small, bite-sized chunks of information.
Note that these word counts are for guidance only and will depend on the exact project you are working on. Be particularly wary of long sentences (and paragraphs) if you are writing for electronic media (because it is difficult to scan long lines of text on a screen) or direct mail.
For advertising, where your intro is usually a headline, 25 words of copy is far too much. Aim for a dozen words maximum in your headline but remember the name of the game is to write as little, rather than as much, as possible.
If you can summarize your ad in one word of copy, then do it.
3. Keep It Simple
Notice how the paring-down process we used in the example above helped simplify what we were trying to say. Towards the end, it becomes clear that the text contains a number of distinct messages:
‘Buy my book.’
‘Become a better writer.’
‘And make more money.’
Breaking down a text into simple messages like this is another way of improving the readability and power of your copy.
Once again, remember that you are not out to wow readers with your literary prowess, but to give them an unequivocal motive to take some form of action. Highlight each point clearly and concisely, so the reader is left in no doubt about what you are saying.
Presenting your argument one point at a time can be important in helping you work out the structure of your text. If you are writing a feature, for example, it is worth setting out all the points in the argument you want to make and then writing a paragraph on each; as you go along you will be able to see where it would make sense to include quotes, statistics and so on.
The ‘keep it simple’ rule applies to different types of project in the same way as sentence length. Keep things very simple in texts for electronic, broadcast and tabloid media, advertising and direct mail.
If you are in any doubt as to how you should simplify a complicated argument, a good tip is to pick up a tabloid newspaper and see how they have treated similar subjects.
Finally, presenting your argument in
simple terms is useful in helping you work out the order of your messages –
and, crucially, what should be the first thing you can say that will capture the
The Fog Index in Copywriting
If you are worried about the readability of your copy,
you can use a measure called the Fog Index to assess whether you need to
simplify it. The Fog Index quantifies how complicated a text is in terms of the
number of years of schooling required to understand it. This is how you use it:
Work out the average number of words per sentence in your text. You can
do this by dividing the number of words by the number of sentences in a couple
of paragraphs. Independent clauses (such as ‘The time for words is over; now,
action is needed’) count as separate sentences.
Count up the number of words in the same section of text that have three
syllables or more, ignoring proper names.
◆ Add the two figures and then multiply the sum by 0.4 to get your Fog Index.
The Fog Index of the bullet points above works out at about ten, which is more or less the same as text in Time, Newsweek or the Wall Street Journal. Such a score is alright for educated audiences (like the anticipated readership of this book), but far too high for mass-market copy.
Tabloid newspapers (and, interestingly, great works like the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays) tend to have Fog Indexes of almost half that level. And if your copy has a Fog Index of more than about 12, it is probably too complicated for most people to read easily.
If you use a word processor to produce
copy, it will probably have other statistics that can help you gauge
readability. Microsoft Word, for example, has two readability indices (which
can be switched on via the ‘Options’ panel under ‘Tools’):
Flesch Reading Ease, which
ranges from zero to 100, with higher numbers indicating greater readability.
Average texts should score between 60 and 70.
◆ Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, which indicates readability in terms of US grade-school levels; anything above eighth grade would be considered of below-average readability.
4. Keep It Interesting
Although we have worked out that the key message (or, if you like, the desired outcome) in our earlier example is ‘Buy my book’, this does not mean it is the message that is most likely to get the reader to act in the way we want them to.
When faced with commercial communications, people are often much more likely to act if you talk to them about an idea (wealth, for example, or expertise) rather than a physical object (like a book). This is a technique which has been used by sales people for decades.
In How to Win Customers, first published in 1957, ace salesman Heinz M. Goldmann writes: ‘What you sell is never a product as such, but the idea behind the product – that is, the role played by that product in satisfying a customer’s needs. The product is a means, not an end.’
Nowadays, the theory still holds true. In marketing it tends to be embodied in the phrase ‘talk benefits, not features’; in other words, what will grab the reader is an explanation of what a product or service can do rather than how it works.
(Nevertheless it is still amazing how often companies insist on talking about the features of their products in their commercial communications.)
People are not interested in what a product or service can do. They are interested in what it can do for them. Whenever you have to write about something, don’t think about what it is or does; think about what it means.
Take a new computer, for example.
You could talk about how it has a screen layout that makes it user-friendly; how even non-technical people could find it easy to work with. These things might be very important as far as your client is concerned, because, after all, they have spent a good deal of time, effort and money coming up with these features. But such messages are likely to be trivial to the average buyer.
What interests the consumer is what these features might mean to their lives.
In the 80s, Apple Computer adopted this approach to launch its Macintosh machine.
The advertising campaign it used, directed by Ridley Scott, did not feature a single shot of the product – or even a mention of what it could do.
Instead it showed a character rebelling against an Orwellian society. In the consumer’s mind, the Macintosh was thus powerfully linked to the concept of freedom.
This positioning ultimately may have helped Apple become the preferred computer for creative professionals the world over.
In the same way today, Volkswagen’s award-winning advertising rarely makes a big deal about the cars it promotes, but instead focuses on ideas like security, enjoyment or roominess.
What this illustrates about the ‘benefits, not features’ approach is that it is ultimately designed to elicit an emotional, rather than rational, response from the audience. And this is largely what drives purchase behaviour.
This response can be as subtle as presenting a product or service in terms that make it ‘feel right’ to the customer; hence why large organisations spend millions of pounds on brand advertising campaigns that are solely about making particular consumer groups feel an affinity with their name.
As a copywriter, your job is to convince your audience; but you will do that only if you can make it feel something.
5. Keep It Relevant
Making your copy interesting is all well and good, but you also have to remember that different things appeal to different people. So the first question you have to ask yourself with any copywriting project is: who am I writing for?
In virtually all assignments, you will find there are usually two or more distinct audiences.
First there is the ultimate audience, the one your client is trying to reach. This may be consumers, business people or some sector of society; youth, for example, or professional women, or members of the press.
If the ultimate audience is not clear from your client’s brief, then make sure you establish what it is before you get to work. And if you are not personally acquainted with the ultimate audience, find out as much as possible about them, both from your client and from other sources.
You need to find out what drives these people and what messages they will respond to, so that your copy will grab their attention.
As well as being relevant to your ultimate audience in content, your copy needs to be relevant in tone.
Youth audiences are unlikely to respond to corporate speak, for example. But beware of overdoing it if you are not familiar with the language of a particular group or you could end up alienating the audience you are trying to get through to.
If in doubt, stick to simple, straightforward words and phrases as these make sense in any dialect.
Besides your ultimate audience (and there may be more than one of these), you also have to satisfy an immediate audience: your client. This means that your copy has to be consonant with your client’s organisation and take account of its style and approach to communications.
Again, if these are not outlined in your brief, it is worth querying your client on what they would and would not like to see in your text. Remember, also, that the ultimate audience is likely to have certain expectations about how they will be spoken to by your client’s business.
It is probably obvious at this point that your immediate and ultimate audiences may have widely different expectations and requirements.
In general, your job as a copywriter is to try as far as possible to steer your client towards using the language of the ultimate audience, as this is the approach that should achieve the best results.
However, you also need to be sensitive to
your client’s idiosyncrasies, particularly if these are imposed by some higher
authority. It is usually possible to come to some form of compromise, but if
you cannot reconcile the two types of content and tone then you really have
only two options: resign the work or accept the client’s point of view (with
reservations, if necessary) and do it their way.
Which you choose is up to you but
personally I favour the latter. You still get paid and many clients appreciate
the effort that you put in on their behalf plus the fact that you understand
the constraints they operate under.
A final point on how to keep your copywriting relevant to your readers: talk about them.
When writing marketing copy, it is easy to say ‘we do this’, ‘we do that’. Your client’s readers, however, are in the main not interested in hearing about your client.
So write text that says: ‘we’ll help you do this’, ‘you’ll do that’. As a basic rule of thumb, if your copy says ‘you’ more often than it says ‘we’, then you are talking in language that is likely to appeal to readers. Get into the habit of checking that this is always the case.
Keeping things short, simple, accurate and relevant is important in all types of copy and you should ensure that you apply these rules as second nature throughout your writing.
The next two rules are also crucial, but their importance can vary according to the type of project you are working on.
6. Keep It Active
Consider the following two sentences:
‘Savings of £2 million a year
have been generated by the new procedure.’
‘The new procedure has
generated savings of £2 million a year.’
Both say the same thing, but the second sentence uses an active rather than a passive voice.
In the first instance, X is done by Y. In the second, Y does X.
Notice the latter is shorter, simpler, more direct and more powerful.
It is easy to write in the passive voice because it sounds more long-winded and ‘authoritative’; as a result, it is commonly used in management documents and the like.
This is not the way your copy should read. As I have already mentioned, when writing copy you are not trying to impress people with your wordiness, but attempting to grab their attention and get an emotional response from them that will drive them to act.
Using the active voice will ensure your copy is unambiguous, direct and personal. There may be exceptions to this rule.
If you are writing a report or a management document, you might feel justified in adopting a passive voice because it will result in language your audience will feel more at home with.
Even so, I would probably argue that use of the active voice would still make your text more effective; try switching some of your sentences around to see how they read.
In a similar vein, Crawford Kilian, author of the excellent Writing for the Web, advocates using Anglo-Saxon root words rather than Latin root words where possible.
His rationale is that the latter were introduced into the English language by the Roman administration and in many cases replaced shorter, ‘vulgar’ Anglo-Saxon terms which are quicker and easier to read and carry a much higher emotional charge.
To demonstrate how effective this technique is, consider the following Latin root words that I used on purpose in this paragraph – and their Anglo-Saxon counterparts:
• bring in
• look at
7. Keep It Honest
If you look carefully you might notice that all the points I have made so far are in fact variations on a theme. They all refer to putting across a message as directly and succinctly as possible.
Such messages will be easier to understand and therefore more transparent to the audience reading them.
Which brings us on to the final basic rule for great copy: honesty. Honesty is crucial in copywriting because, quite simply, customers are unlikely to buy from an organisation they do not trust.
This lack of trust may be explicit in the company’s communications, for example through blatant over-claiming in advertising.
But it can also, very often, be implicit in the use of long-winded language and technical jargon which appears to have little substance.
If customers cannot understand what a piece of copy is saying, why should they trust the organisation it comes from?
There is another good reason to stick to honest, accurate text. In many areas of writing, such as journalism or advertising, if you mislead your readers you can get into serious legal trouble.
Accuracy of information
As a copywriter, it is your job to cram as much information as possible into as few words as you can. That means you deal with a lot of information: names, dates, quotations, figures, theories, concepts, assumptions and so on. It is ultimately up to you to make sure they are all right.
Someone else, whether it is the legal department of a client company or the sub-editor of a magazine, may take some responsibility in checking what you have written, but no customer of yours is going to thank you for handing in material that is riddled with mistakes.
So get used to questioning and checking every fact that goes into your copy. Also, do not assume that everything you read has been checked with the same diligence you should apply to your own copy.
Much published information in newspapers, magazines and websites is notoriously inaccurate because the content is often generated at speed and with access to a limited number of sources.
(It is sometimes said that information on the web is less trustworthy than that in the print media but my personal opinion is that the level of misreporting in both types is about the same. Online misinformation, however, can spread much more quickly and widely.)
Particular areas to watch out for (often
because you may think you know what you are talking about when you do not) are:
◆ Place names
(check against a good atlas).
Name spellings (always check when you speak to someone and if in doubt
then cross-reference your notes with published material, if available).
◆ Job titles
(if in doubt, a phone call to a company switchboard can help).
Company names (the phone book or the company’s corporate website are
good ways to cross-check these; and beware of style points, such as names that
are written with a lower-case initial).
◆ Figures (if
they are sums of money, always check the currency).
Sources (always provide a reference to the original source of
information if you can, even if it is simply ‘research company X says’. On the
web, you may be able to link directly to the source instead).
Accuracy extends to spelling and grammar, of course. While some people do not believe you should rely on automated spell checkers, they are at least useful for picking up the kind of obvious mistakes that can creep in when you are rushing to meet a deadline.
Just make sure you have your spell checker switched to the version of English that your audience will be reading in.
As for grammar, there is a case for doing away with as much spurious punctuation as possible (see above) but make sure your text does not become ambiguous in the process.
The best option, as always, is to stick to short, simple sentences.
Accuracy versus interest
Since your copy is intended to grab a reader’s interest, it
is not unusual (particularly with dull subject matter) to come across a
conflict between the truth and what you would like to say.
Much advertising seems to over-claim routinely (‘Our herbal remedy will change your life forever!’) to the point where most audiences now recognise a level of poetic licence as an inherent feature of the medium.
(In fact, around 70 per cent of people do not believe what adverts say at all.)
Nevertheless, claims which are factually incorrect (for example, ‘Our product is 20 per cent cheaper than our nearest competitor’s’ – when it is not) can still land you in trouble.
The smart copywriter will ignore the temptation to jazz up a product or service offering with fancy claims and, instead, look for something that will act as a unique selling point for the target audience.
Preferably, too, this will be linked to an emotional response rather than a feature of the product or service, which again lessens the potential for misrepresentation.
Sometimes it can be practically impossible to think of anything interesting to say about your client’s product or service.
If you are stuck in this situation, look again at what appeals to the target audience. After all, someone must be interested in buying what you have to sell. Think also about modifying your creative approach; could the message be jazzed up if it were delivered through a different medium, for example?
However, if after much thought you cannot come up with anything truthful about a product or service that you believe will interest an audience, you might just be justified in advising your client to re-think how they want to go about promoting it.
Proofreading Your Copy
The smallest mistakes are the easiest ones to make: writing ‘an’ instead of ‘and’, missing out a word, misspelling a name.
These also tend to be the mistakes that are least likely to be picked up by a spell checker.
Because most of your copy will be proofread by a client at some point or other, it can be tempting, particularly if you are working against the clock, to not worry too much about these tiny mistakes and to leave them for others to pick up. Do not be tempted.
Handing your client copy that is riddled with basic mistakes makes your work look sloppy and unprofessional.
And your client will not necessarily pick up on all your small mistakes. Some of them may make it through to the final version, with embarrassing and potentially costly consequences.
Proofread everything you do before you send it off. Some people believe it helps to print a hard copy, since mistakes can be easier to spot on paper, but even a quick scan of your copy on screen is better than nothing – and could well help you spot a howler in the nick of time.
Do not just limit your proofreading to your copy, either. Make sure you check everything from proposals to emails.
Since your writing is your trade, you can be judged on every word you put down, and you should admit no errors.
8. Finding Inspiration
Having stripped away your message to the bare bones of what you want to say, you may wonder whether there will be any room left for that wonderful creativity copywriters are supposed to possess.
How are you going to impress your client (and their audience) if you are barred from finding space for that great turn of phrase or simile you had in mind?
How are you going to apply your written powers of persuasion in an intro just 25 words long?
And surely it is a waste to confine all the research you have done into a topic to just 200 words of copy?
If that is your thinking, then forget it. I bet your ‘wonderfully creative’ copy would have ended up sounding pompous and long-winded.
Directness and simplicity are paths to creativity, not obstacles to it.
Distilling your message to its essence will give you a clear insight into what you are really trying to say. Working out what is interesting and relevant to your audience will help you discover new ways of saying it. The process can be summarised as follows:
◆ What am I
really trying to say? (‘Buy my book.’)
Why is this relevant to my audience? (It isn’t, unless they want to
improve their writing skills and earn more money.)
What can I say that will get them interested in the first place? (‘Earn
more through writing.’)
If you know what you want to say but are really stuck for an
original way to put it, here are some tips that might help throw up the
headline or intro you are looking for.
Narrow down your message to one or two key words and think about whether
they have any connection or double meaning that might work in another context
relevant to your audience.
Ask yourself ‘What if . . . ?’ questions about your subject matter (for
example: ‘What if everyone was given a free product X?’).
Take a train of thought regarding your subject matter to its logical
conclusion (for example: detergent X washes whiter than ever; so white your
clothes might blind you; so you write: ‘Optician’s warning – buy sunglasses
◆ Turn your argument on its head and think about the consequences of not using the products and services you are promoting.
This technique has been used in marketing for generations, to create demand for goods that would probably be hard to justify otherwise.
Think about why you buy toilet cleaner. Sure, it kills those nasty bugs which are supposed to live in your loo bowl. But how often do you touch your loo bowl anyway?
In many areas of writing, such as journalism, web copywriting or case study production, you should be able to pull out an interesting intro from your source material.
While you are researching the subject, look out for unusual statistics, quotes or trends that you can use.
9. Presenting Your Copywriting
There are no golden rules on how you should present your copy
to your client. After all, what is important is what is said rather than what
it looks like. Some obvious points to bear in mind, however, are:
It is useful to include a header with information like the document
title, draft number, date, approval stage and, if necessary, your contact
Headlines, sub-headings and so on should be clearly identified as such
with labels that will not be mistaken for part of the main text.
Indicate where the text ends, in case part of it gets lost in faxing or
◆ Include a
word count if this is relevant to the job.
◆ Include page
numbers on documents that are several pages long.
On very large documents, such as proposals or website drafts, it is
useful to have a contents page with links to headlines throughout the text.
Give an idea of what any images or graphics being used with the text
should look like, for example by including sketches or short descriptions.
So, what’s a “real living” anyway, and can a freelance writer really earn one?
Let’s be realistic. I’m not stinking rich, and I know
precisely one freelance magazine writer who I would say is rich.
But when I was 24 years old, I bought my first real apartment. No, it’s not a hut by the forest. And I own a car (a boat is in the list though!), pay for my own gut-wrenchingly expensive health insurance, and manage to have enough left over to start investing in the stock market (I know it’s risky), plan for my retirement, eat out occasionally and pamper myself with gifts from time to time (I am looking at my $350 watch right now). All of that comes from the money I earn as a freelance writer and editor. If I can do it, you can, too.
Freelance writing is not a get-rich-quick scheme, so you must be prepared to put in the hours and hard work freelancing requires before you can command big paychecks. For most people, it’s important to keep some kind of a day job while building a freelancing career.
When I refer to freelance writing throughout this article, I’m talking about writing for magazines, e-zines, and newspapers. It’s easier to earn money writing copy for businesses—brochures, sales letters, press releases, and so on—but let’s face it, would you rather tell your friends that your byline is in this month’s People magazine, or that you’re responsible for the latest junk mail they just tore up?
I chose the former and have never looked back. When other
people have complained about recession and lay-offs, I have felt gleefully
immune. When they whine about their nasty bosses and gossiping co-workers,
complain about waking up at the crack of dawn in winter to find the car battery
needs a jumpstart, fret about being cooped up in an office on a beach day,
being bored by their work, not getting recognized for their efforts, or hitting
the glass ceiling, I furrow my brow and nod sympathetically, but I secretly pat
myself on the back for the career choice I made.
I’m writing this article with a few assumptions in mind.
I will assume that you already have an excellent command of
language, including grammar. If you do not, run out and get yourself a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk
and E.B. White. Most editors will toss your query if you keep confusing
“you’re” and “your.” Likewise, I presume you know well enough to spell check
everything you send out, including “informal” emails. Everything you write
contributes to the impression an editor has of you.
I will assume you have the discipline and the desire to
motivate yourself to work on your writing as a career, not just as a hobby.
Full-time writers do not, as some would have you believe, lie back in our
lounge chairs sipping margaritas while waiting for the muse to pay a visit.
Like all other workers, we must show up and we must produce, even when we don’t
I will assume that the idea of research doesn’t make
you twitch. In my experience, more than half of being a successful magazine
writer is being an excellent researcher.
I will assume that you have a strong enough ego that you
won’t fall into a bone-crushing depression every time an editor rejects your
work. Like death and taxes, rejections are a certainty of the freelance
writer’s life. Decide honestly whether or not you can hack it.
And finally, I will assume that you’re
actually a good writer.
You’re wasting editors’ time, as well as your own, if you
start pitching ideas before you’re confident that you can deliver a
If you know you’re good, you can’t fathom not writing, you
read magazines voraciously, and have a strong curiosity about the world around
you, you might have what it takes to be a freelance writer. But your potential
and your classroom studies are not enough, by themselves, to earn you a career.
“Most people won’t realize that writing is a craft,” said Katherine Anne Porter, an acclaimed journalist and fiction writer whose work was published from 1922 to 1977. “You have to take your apprenticeship in it like anything else.” Her words are as relevant today as they were when she spoke them; perhaps even more so because of how competitive the field of magazine writing has become.
Back to SchoolHow do you know if you’re a good writer? Take a writing class. Many colleges offer “continuing education” classes that are not as expensive as mainstream classes. If this is impossible, take an online class or workshop. Make sure you take classes that offer feedback. Find the toughest professor and take his or her class. Ask for brutal honesty. Prepare to do battle with every piece of your brain that isn’t ready to become a professional writer yet. Read the magazines you want to target, and decide honestly if your work competes with what’s being published. If not, and you want more one-on-one help, hire an editor or writing coach with good credentials and references.Find writing courses at: www.absoluteclasses.com www.writersdigest.com/wds www.writing-world.com/classes
Believe it or not, editors want to hire you. They do not
relish boomeranging your work back to you with a form rejection letter; most
editors are searching for reliable and talented freelance writers, and will
gladly hand you an assignment if you can prove yourself. But editors complain
over and over that writers haven’t done their homework before approaching their
magazines. Part of that homework is to learn things like proper format and what
belongs on a source sheet, but most important is to read and analyze the work
of writers who are doing exactly what you want to do; that is, you must study
Although some writers have ridiculous beginner’s luck and
land a national glossy magazine assignment on their first shot, that’s not
necessarily a good thing. Most writers should get wet in the kiddie pool before
they try to swim in the ocean. It can be brutal out there, especially if your
swimming skills aren’t yet honed. You don’t want to land a killer assignment
and then have to ask yourself, “Uh-oh . . . what do I do now?”
“The truth is that a lot of people are not ready for prime
time, although they may think they are,” says Stephanie Abarbanel, senior
articles editor at Woman’s Day.
“People send me queries for years and they’re just not ready, and then one day
they send me something that’s just great because they’ve been writing for
smaller markets and they’ve honed their skills.”
Editors at major magazines don’t have time to hold a
beginning writer’s hand, and in most cases, it’s presumptuous to expect to
start at the top. Don’t jump in planning to cut the line. Just jump in and plan
to advance quickly.
First, go over your reasons for becoming a freelance writer. What are your writing goals?
To help yourself figure that out, ask yourself these questions:
What are the reasons I want to become a full-time freelance writer? What are the reasons I haven’t done it already? What are the ways I’m going to get rid of those barriers?
Becoming clear about your goals, what’s
holding you back, and how you plan to overcome your obstacles can speed up your
path to success. For many, the “fear factor” is financial insecurity. Kristen
Kemp desperately wanted to write fulltime, but wasn’t ready to let go of the
steady paycheck she earned as an associate editor at Cosmopolitan. So her goal
was to earn as much money from her writing as she did from her day job; for her
to feel comfortable leaving a staff position, she had to earn $30,000 a year as
a freelance writer. She accomplished that in 1999 and has been freelancing for
top women’s and teen magazines ever since.
For some, the major fear is that they won’t have enough ideas to sustain them over a long period of time, or that their current clients won’t last, or that they’ll break under the pressure of constant deadlines, tough rounds of editing, and too-frequent rejections.
Stocking UpLuckily, a freelance writer doesn’t have many start-up expenses, but don’t try to skimp on the necessary tools. Your freelancing toolbox should contain the following items: A computer with a word-processing program that includes spell checking (or access to one) A good printer that won’t streak Copies of several magazines that you’d like to approach in the future Stamps and envelopes A subscription to www.WritersMarket.com An index card file or a computerized manuscript tracking program Computer disks or CDs (to back up all your articles and queries) A daily planner Internet access: If you have Internet access at home, you don’t even need to buy a dictionary or thesaurus; you can find them online at www.onelook.com and www.rhymezone.com, respectively
Whatever it is that stands in your way, make it your goal to
move it out of the way. As Kristen advises, most people shouldn’t quit their
jobs “cold turkey” and expect to freelance full-time without any experience
behind them. Take your time to build up your credits, your confidence, your
bank account, and your skills—but keep that ultimate goal in mind: You are
working toward supporting yourself through your writing.
Minding Your Business
Writers who think themselves “artists”
should probably stick to poetry and diary entries. If you intend to sell what
you write, and to make a living from it, you need to convey an image that does not jell with the eccentric, tortured,
starving artist cliché. You need to become a businessperson.
What does this entail? Well, if you’re thinking about cash,
then everything associated with your name must be nothing less than 100 percent
clean, clear, crisp, and company-minded.
Your letters should be neatly typed, neatly
signed, neatly folded, and neatly sealed into a neat envelope. Double-check to
be sure names are spelled properly, spacing has held up in printing, nothing
has smudged, and you’ve signed the letter. Using bright, floral stationery and
envelopes with fun seals will make you look like an artist. Using white or
cream-colored matching envelopes and stationary with noticeable, frill-free
letterhead will make you look like a businessperson. Believe me; when you
receive your neat check, you’ll be very thankful if you’ve come across as the
Your ideas must be expressed in an organized
and easily understandable manner. Whenever you send a letter or make a phone
call, you should have all potential questions already answered in your mind. Do
not propose a dozen half-baked article ideas. Stick to one or two at a time,
and do enough research and thinking ahead of time to be able to explain all the
basics without stammering.
You never know when an editor is going to call and ask questions before assigning you a piece. Before Writer’s Digest assigned me an article about book packaging, then-editor Melanie Rigney wanted answers to several questions: Which publishers use book packagers? How long has this practice been going on? What kinds of books are packaged? What kind of experience does a writer need to break in with a book packager? Because I had done some research ahead of time and was clear about my subject matter, I was able to answer all of these questions with ease, and that resulted in a feature assignment.
The Phone Tone
speaking to an editor on the phone, always hang up first. You know the feeling
when someone is chewing your ear off on the phone and you really need to get
back to your life. Don’t be one of those callers. Editors are busy people;
respect that. Get to your point quickly, say “thank you,” and get out of there.
this doesn’t mean you can’t get personal with an editor. In fact, I
wholeheartedly advise that you do . . . but gradually. Do not aim to keep the
editor on the phone for fifteen minutes before she’s even given you an
Part of an editor’s job is to make sure you
tell your stories in as few words as possible. Let this editor see that her job
won’t be an uphill battle. Be concise in your correspondence. It doesn’t help
your cause to throw in everything but the kitchen sink in your query, so if you
can possibly pitch your article in one page, do so. If you need more space to
truly get your point across, that’s fine. Just don’t try to write the whole
darn article in your query letter.
When the editor calls you, are there kids
crying in the background? Do you have an answering machine message featuring
your five-year old singing the “Star Spangled Banner?” When the editor offers
to fax you a contract, do you ask her to send it through Kinko’s? When she asks
you to send an email attachment, do you go to the library and send it through
your “Yahoo” account?
These are all signs that you’re a person, rather than a
business. When you call your car mechanic, you expect to hear machines working
in the background, and a person answering, “Dave’s Auto Repair. Can I help
you?” When an editor calls you, she should expect to hear a business
environment, too. If you can’t afford (or if it doesn’t make financial sense
now) to have a dedicated business line, at least be sure that when you answer
the phone during business hours, you’re in a quiet room. Alert your family that
when you’re on the phone, they are not to pick up, nag you, or turn on loud
music. If you have call waiting, be sure that everyone knows that if the line
beeps, the call must be answered professionally and turned over to you right
Freelancer Jeffrey Zbar says, “I have caller ID, voice mail,
a second line for fax. There’s no excuse for anything less than professionalism
in this line of work. I have no tolerance for home-based workers who tell me,
‘I have to go—my husband needs to use the phone.’ If you want to get paid as a
professional, you have to act like one. It behooves no one if you do this
‘little thing on the side.’
If you don’t take yourself and your work
seriously, you’re destined to fail.”
It’s not necessary for you to have a separate fax line, but
it is wise for you to have a fax machine that you can turn on when a caller
requests it. There are two reasons. First, once an assignment has been made,
both you and the editor should want to complete the contract as soon as
possible. Why not email? That’s the second reason: As of now, the legalities of
contracts via email are not clear. Since you can’t effectively “sign” anything
via email, it’s a much better idea to use a fax.
If you decide to freelance full-time, you may wish to
incorporate or register your business as an LLC (limited liability company) at
some point. This protects your assets by separating your business from your
personal properties. If you choose to do this, be aware that it’s not always
necessary to incorporate in your home state—and it’s usually cheaper to
incorporate in Nevada or Delaware. You may wish simply to register a business
license using an “official sounding” name. For example, I use the name “Absolute
Write” for some of my writing work. This serves me a few different ways. First,
I establish a corporate identity, which commands more respect and higher pay.
When an editor or potential copywriting client receives a proposal from me, it
doesn’t look like it comes from Suzy Homemaker moonlighting as a freelance
writer. It looks like it comes from a company like theirs. Heck, I might even
have personal assistants, designers, and secretaries. I don’t, mind you, but I
might—after all, I do have a company name.
Another benefit of using a company name is that clients can write checks to your business, rather than writing a check to your personal name. It’s a simple rule: Businesses prefer dealing with other businesses. It makes psychological sense—if you were buying wedding favors, for example, would you more readily trust that they would be ready on time and in good condition if they came from West Coast Wedding Planners, or from Jane Myers? Which one invites an image of a professional team of workers with quality control, and which conjures thoughts of a woman sitting in her living room, accidentally spilling juice on a favor, wiping it off and throwing it in your box, letting the dog lick a few, and showing up an hour before your wedding 10 favors short?
Free Fax Service
have Internet service, you can receive faxes online through a free service
called eFax at www.efax.com. It receives faxes for you on your own personal fax
number and then sends them to you as email attachments. Very handy! I use mine
all the time, which means I don’t need a separate fax line.
Sites to See
out more about incorporating, visit these web sites:
To get a business license in most of the United States, all
you have to do is visit your county’s or state’s government offices (call your
local town hall if you’re unsure), head over to the desk marked “business
licenses,” and fill out an application. Bring photo ID. They will check to make
sure your business name is unique (that no one else in the state has registered
it), then your application must be signed in front of a notary public. The
whole enchilada cost me about $33 and took about 15 minutes. Then I went to my
bank with a copy of the certificate, and opened up a business account.
When choosing a business name, avoid “cute.” “When people
try too hard to be cute or clever with their names, like ‘Writin’ Time!’ or
‘Words R Us,’ it sounds unprofessional,” says Nomad Press editor Lauri
Berkenkamp. Freelancer Mike Sedge, who’s published nearly 3,000 articles, uses
the business name
“Strawberry Media Agency.” It’s memorable,
yet not cloying. Just about any of the words you can think of that relate to
writing (scribe, creative, author, writer, words, pen) have been played on to
death. You might try a name that has some kind of personal meaning; it might
even keep the editor guessing enough to stick in her mind. It could be the name
of the street you grew up on, your first word as a child (provided it’s
something more intriguing than “mama,” “dada,” or “baba”), your pet’s name, or
the name of your favorite flower.
The day you decided to be a freelance writer was the day you
became a small business owner. Your words are your products, and you’re putting
a dollar value on your flair for putting these words together. There is no
limit to your earnings potential.
Your talent, persistence, reliability, professionalism, work
ethic, personality, and research skills will all factor into your income, but a
key to financial success is your ability to see yourself as an entrepreneur
with valuable products to sell.
Here’s a list of ten blogs and websites that pay $50 or more for for guest posts and articles.
If you’re interested in getting paid to write for one of these publications, be sure to study the website carefully, then send a short pitch to the editor. Our researcher, Fatima Saif has found payment rates and contact information for all of these publications, to make it easier for you to connect with them.
Blogger Hangout is a blog that helps people comprehend blogging and become successful at it. They are looking for blog posts of at least 1,000 words. Their target audience is bloggers who want to make a full-time income from their blogs. They “prefer case studies with screenshots on how you did it rather than a third person view of how other people are doing it.” They pay $50 for a blog post. For details, visit this page.
Tales from the Banana Trail is a blog that features inspiring stories of real world explorers, and also provides tools that help people achieve their full potential as explorers. They accept guest posts (of at least 1,000 words). They want writers to send them a pitch first. If they accept the pitch, they pay $100 upon completion. For details, visit this page.
Doggypedia is a website that helps families raise happy and healthy dogs. They are accepting guest posts for their website. They pay $50 to $1,000 for long form, well sourced pieces written by professionals. To learn more, visit thispage.
Backpacking Light offers information and education on ultralight backpacking. They pay an honoraria of $25-$75+ for first looks reviews (600+ words with 3+ photos) and $50-$150+ for standard gear reviews (1,200+ words with 7+ photos). For details, visit this page.
SimpliFaster is a blog dedicated to athletic speed development. They are looking for original articles for their blog. Topics for articles may include “training, skills (e.g. hurdles, long jump), coaching, recovery, sleep, athlete testing, team management, bio-mechanics, mental preparation, injury prevention and rehabilitation, weight training, physiotherapy, planning, periodization, equipment, and technology.” Their articles are generally 1,500 to 2,500 words long. They pay 5 cents per word. To learn more, visit this page.
xoNecole.com is an online platform where Millennial women of color can share their personal stories with others, speak their minds on culture and politics, and indulge in wellness, beauty, relationships and career tips. They are always seeking new writers with a story to share. According to one payment report, they paid $0.05 per word. To learn more, visit this page.
MisinfoCon is a global movement focused on the challenge of misinformation. They want “pitches for original reporting or opinion pieces focused on solutions to the problem of misinformation, rumours, propaganda, and f-news.” They pay an honorarium of $100 per piece. They want the stories to be at least 700 words long. To learn more, refer to this page.
Kidspot is an Australian parenting website that covers pregnancy, birth, parenting, lifestyle, health, food, and more. According to payment reports, they pay up to $0.18 per word. To contact them, refer to this page.
HomeHoldz is a “tools and home improvement blog where you will get information about home gate hardware and tools.” They are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. They are looking for informative and review type articles of over 1,000 words. They pay $50 per article. For details, refer to this page.