Everything I Know About Copywriting After Making $500K

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$500K? Lucky, the disbeliever will say. You just got lucky with your words.

Maybe. But most copywriters aren’t counting on luck or magic to put food in front of their kids.

Not me anyway. I prefer to approach things methodically, especially creative work.

And it’s been good. I have been able to buy a house, start a life, save for the future. All that–just by writing words and sending them over the internet to people who paid me.

1. Copywriting Is A Business Skill

Many people (myself included) mistake copywriting for something else early on.

It’s not an art. 

You don’t have to identify as a “writer” to be useful as a copywriter to a business. Unlike art, copywriting does not allow for subjective interpretation–it achieves the desired business results or not.

The final product will not appear in a gallery with a long-winded explanation to help people understand–it could be seen on the subway or scrolling on Facebook. 

Copywriting is also not a science. 

The same copywriting process carried out under the same conditions will not yield the same results. No two copywriters will approach the same task the same way.

There are theory, methods, and more than a little art to copywriting, but it is a business skill: 

Fill this website with words that capture our brand and get people to sign up for a newsletter. 

Come up with a slogan for this year’s sports championship. 

Change the words on this label so more people buy it.

People hired to produce copywriting should get as good as they possibly can at it through practice, feedback, and reading up on successful strategies. 

It’s like any other business skill. Sure, it requires creative labor, but so does driving a forklift. If you think the comparison is inapt, talk to me once you have your license and worked a few weeks of a peak season.

2. Copywriting Is Objectively Good or Bad

Does copywriting achieve the business objective or not?

If yes, it’s good. If not, it’s bad. 

Questions of art or craft are always secondary to this objective data, if they matter at all.

Companies that pay for copywriting know exactly how well it performs. This has been true since radio and television, and it’s only more true now with the internet.

With email, for example, you can see exactly how many people opened the message, how much they read, how long it was open for, and much more. PPC ad metrics are tracked at an astonishingly precise rate.

These results are a copywriter’s best friend, regardless of how painful they might be.

Good, bad, or neutral–you can learn a lot in this field quickly compared to other forms of writing with longer feedback loops.

3. Copywriting Is Safe From AI (Compared to Content Writing)

The intellectual labor and sensibility that goes into successful copywriting is not easily mimicked by AI yet.

Content writing, on the other hand, is much easier for AI to replicate.  

Take this post for example. It’s a blog post about copywriting.

When I plugged only that information into ChatGPT 4o, and asked it to write me an entire post, it spit out basically the same stuff that I found in highly-ranking search results for this topic.

Response from ChatGPT 4o to the prompt "write a blog post about the topic copywriting"

For the record, the output from just the prompt “write a blog post about copywriting” was only 641 words, and more of an outline in some sections than a full post.

That said, a little bit more prompting, a dash of editing, and I could have had a passable post within 8 minutes.

Passable is the key word. Right now, truly great content is safe from AI, as is truly great copywriting. 

My hot take is only that passable copywriting will be much harder for AI to mimic, even if passable AI content writing is already here.

4. Nobody Knows What Will Work Next

With all the data, you might think it would be possible to predict what would work next.

It’s impossible.

The biggest most successful agencies have total flops. 

Think about a high profile advertising flop from a big-budget ad firm: there are probably 80 smart people signing off who truly believed that the idea would work. 

For example, AirBnB immediately walked back this snarky sentiment and promised to remove the ads shortly after a pretty unified public outcry.

AirBnB ad that says "Dear Public Library System, We hope you use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to keep the library open later. Love, AirBnB"

A lot of people said yes before that ad went up across San Francisco. Smart people thought it would be received well. Oops. That’s life.

If you ship copywriting work, you are going to have some good old fails. They may not be as awful as the AirBnB example, but they’ll still cost the company money and lose opportunities.

Fine. Don’t sweat it. No one actually knows what’s going to work.

You just have to work according to a tenable strategy. Have a solid point of view about your creative decisions and where they come from. 

The best you can do personally is learn as much as possible from bad results and try to make the most of your wins.

5. Good, Fast, Cheap: With Copywriting, Employers Can Pick Two

I worked for a general contractor who told me something that was true in carpentry, that I think is true about hiring any professional.

He said, with carpenters, you can have 2 of 3: good, fast, or cheap.

His point was that if you want good quality with a quick turnaround, it’s going to be really expensive.

In my experience, this is true for copywriting. 

On the hiring side, you can keep costs down by hiring more freelance writers and giving them longer time-windows to complete assignments. If that’s not possible, or you want to increase the quality, expect to pay more.

For freelancers just starting out, a quick turnaround time will get you jobs over better copywriters.

6. Copywriting Uses Ideas People Already Have

Copywriters (and really all marketers) only have what’s already in a persons’ mind to work with.

Product packaging, 30-second spot, website popup, a shoppable TikTok ad: these are not the venue for creating totally new ideas.

The goal is to reframe, redirect, amplify, and otherwise steer people using things they already know. Here’s two quick examples.

Many of the greats have pointed out that Henry Ford called his first car a “horseless carriage”. Back in the 1890’s, there was no “car” in anyone’s mind. But a carriage that runs without a horse makes sense.

A more recent example is “farm-to-table” restaurants. The marketing concept explains itself in three words, and enables the existence of an entire new category of dining.

When it comes to writing individual ads (rather than defining a new product category), it’s still just as important to tether the claims you make to concepts that already matter to people. 

If you know something is on the mind of the market, play into it, like this clever billboard from a construction employment agency.

Billboard from Impact construction agency that says "Hey ChatGPT, finish this building..."

7. Copywriting Formulas Are Always Worth a Try

If you are just starting out with copywriting, formulas are really helpful for structuring ads and playing around with how you get from headline to action. 

The AIDA copywriting formula–attention, interest, desire, action–is a good example of a defining structure that could work for virtually any product or service. 

But once you get a grip on the fundamentals, you’ll probably find yourself getting away from formulas, or thinking about the task of writing an ad in those terms.

Unless an ad isn’t working, and you don’t know why.

Then copywriting formulas become an important tool for diagnosing the problem. You can break the ad back down into its component parts. 

This is especially important when you are working with design, management, and other stakeholders who just want you to be finished writing already. Articulating your decision process with the help of a simple copywriting formula will make it easier for non-copywriters to offer useful feedback. 

8. Headlines for Copywriting Should Be Hard

Everybody says this and it is true.

The core responsibility of the headline is to get people interested enough to continue reading. 

That’s really hard to do.

For help, I would consult trusted books on advertising, like Breakthrough Advertising and Tested Advertising Methods. These are wonderful introductions to the fundamental mechanics of copywriting headlines, which still hold water for creating spots on TikTok and paid search.

I am not going to pretend to tell you specific tactics, because I don’t know where your headline is going to appear. Every market has different rules and norms that bound what’s too-dull and too-edgy to work.

What I can tell you is that headline writing is supposed to be hard. If you are exhausted and a little behind schedule–great–had you not spent the extra time getting the headline right, the whole ad would have been meaningless.

9. Less Writing Is Better Copywriting

This is straightforward and means what it means–don’t write like an academic, lawyer, journalist, or any other type of writer that is allowed to say exactly what they mean.

There’s no time for that in an ad. And worse, by meticulously laying out your argument, case, or story for the audience, you have left no room for their imagination.

This is not wishy-washy creative talk. People have to imagine themselves using your product before they will buy it. Complexity of thought, cleverness, depth–all things to be used sparingly in copywriting. 

The less you say, the more complex the connection a person can make on their own, the more cleverness they can feel themselves, the deeper the impression left in their mind.

10. It’s Not Illegal to Mess With CTAs

The final call to action was, for years, something copywriters labored over. Then the internet happened, CTA’s were formalized as buttons, and removed from the writers purview.

So we got “Join”, “Sign Up”, and “Contact Sales” and other atrocious calls to action that became the thoughtless standard.

Even today, when changing the text of a button is within reach for a complete web design rookie, you will still see terrible CTAs wherever you look.

It’s sad. There is a wonderful headline, copy, design work, and then a button that says “Learn More”.

Wherever you are writing, whoever you are writing for, I would appreciate it if you made it a small mission to replace your clients’ generic CTAs with a few words that speak to your brand. 

Here’s a few fresh CTA examples that I found. There really are not that many original ones out there, so it’s an easy way to stand out.

11. Someone Is Always Waiting On Copywriting

A copywriter’s output is usually part of a larger project. Someone is always waiting for it in order to move the ball up the field.

If you can get copywriting done on time or ahead of schedule, the people who you work with will love you. They will hire you again. They will give you great reviews.

They will depend on you even if your writing isn’t, say, blowing the doors of sales numbers like no other copywriter before you (the typical outcome). 

If you are behind schedule, your copywriting better be incredible. It better need no tweaks or polish, as you have already used the time for that in perfecting something nobody has seen yet.

Perfectionism has ended the careers of more copywriters than AI can ever aspire to.

12. Start writing before you finish researching

If you feel really out of your depth covering a particular topic, I would start trying to draft the ad copy right away.

It sounds a little weird. Isn’t learning more about the topic a good idea when you don’t feel like you understand it?

Sure. 

But becoming an expert is going to take time you don’t have. 

There is a fixed budget for research, and if you overspend there, it cuts into your composition time. That is sure to make the writing suffer, which is tragic, because the copy is what you are actually being paid to produce.

So start working on that ad as fast as possible. You will learn what you need for your copy along the way.

Yes, you will wind up going down some blind alleys and discarding some writing–that’s just normal stuff, and more research at the outset doesn’t prevent these things anyway.



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