5 Tips for Aspiring Digital Copywriters
So you’ve come to the conclusion that digital copywriting is the career for you, but where do you go from there?
Write a sparkling resume, pull together a stunning portfolio and craft some superlative cover letters — these should all be obvious entries on your find-a-job to-do list. We can offer some further assistance.
We’ve quizzed a select handful of top copywriters, creative directors and content executives from both the U.K. and U.S. for some behind-the-scenes career tips that could well give you the edge on your competition.
Have a read of the been-there-done-that professional advice below and good luck with the job hunting!
So you want to be a digital copywriter? Great! No doubt you’ve written your resume, organized your portfolio and are actively applying for positions. Don’t stop there.
“Being is a matter of doing. Runners run. Fighters fight. If you want to be a copywriter, do what a copywriter does,” advises Dylan Klymenko, junior copywriter at Mullen. “Concept ideas for this space you’re interested in. Write up scripts for video content and then shoot it, edit it and put it on YouTube (who knows? Maybe you can make being a viral celebrity your back-up career).”
“Or grab a buddy who knows code — concept and create a website that could win an FWA [Favourite Website Awards] award. The point is: don’t wait. No one is going to ask you to do it, and you don’t need anyone’s approval. Just jump right into the digital fray, get messy every single day and you’ll become through doing.”
These sentiments are echoed by Sara Williams, head of content at Made by Many, who implores those looking to get into the industry — “For God’s sake, write!”
“When you go for jobs, people are going to want to see your work and you’d better have work to show. No one hires a junior or even a mid-level writer on the basis of ideas, chat and banter. You’ve got to show you know how to write, and ideally show that you can do this across different tones and purposes. Write your own briefs if you have to, but for God’s sake, write,” says Williams.
“Once you’ve started writing, share your work, says Williams, “The web makes it ridiculously easy to showcase all your work — portfolio, long copy blog, short copy and image blog, micro blog –- in a pretty package. Don’t be shy about putting your work in front of people.”
Not sure how to improve your digital presence? Williams advises, “Comment on blogs, join conversations on Twitter, submit your work wherever you can. The web democratizes communication like nothing else. Want to be heard? Speak. Comment. Tweet. Be funny, be wise, be out there, be heard, be hired.”
It’s a cliche, but knowledge is power. Or in the case of a digital copywriter — fuel. In order to be successful, you need to know the product, your audience and the space which you’re writing for, intimately.
The only way you can do that as far as audience goes, says Trisha Brandon, a content strategist at iCrossing UK is to “get in there and be social to be relevant,” after all as she puts it “you’ll need more than the basics (age, gender, demographic) to really get it right.”
As far as knowing the product goes, George Tannenbaum, executive creative director at R/GA advises digital copywriters to “cultivate their curiosity.”
“Good writers know things. They find out interesting things out about products or services. Things that may be hidden on page 32 of a long brochure. Be curious about everything. Learn all you can about the product you’re working on. Go to the supermarket and talk to people who buy the product. Read the buff books. Use the product. Learn the language of the product,” says Tannenbaum.
Keeping up with what’s new online can be a challenge (may we suggest regularly reading Mashable as a potential solution?), but it’s essential that you understand the current zeitgeist if you’re going to mastermind the next big meme.
“There’s always something new happening online: be it the next big social idea or a funny cat video. It’s your responsibility to be up-to-date on memes and internet pop-culture as much as business developments and technological advancements,” states Klymenko.
“Why do people love FarmVille so much? How do they use it? Stop asking questions and learn. Play it for a little bit. How about Chatroulette? Same deal. Let’s talk technology that could be a relevant channel for your brand. Geolocation is all the buzz lately. First you had Foursquare and Gowalla tapping into it, then Twitter jumped on, now Facebook is doing it through ‘Places.’ But you wouldn’t know about any of that if you weren’t paying attention. Read up. Do it up. Know where you live.”
And even though you may be writing for the web, don’t forget the offline world. Many lessons can be learned from looking back to a time before online social media.
“Today, if you want to get employed and stay employed, you have to be aware of, into and willing to explore every type of media — digital or analog — and maybe even make up a few types of media along the way,” says Tannenbaum.
DEAL WITH REJECTION
If you’re just starting out in your copywriting career and trying to find your first position, then you’re going to have to deal with a certain amount of rejection letters. The simple answer is to grit your teeth and persevere.
“Writing is an awesome job that will take you a million brilliant places,” says Williams. “Sure, lots of people want to be writers, but if you’re talented and dedicated to crafting your skills and developing your online brand, there’s no reason you can’t be one of them.”
Be prepared for the rejection theme to continue. Once you find your feet on the first rung of the copywriting career ladder, then the next round of rejection starts when your ideas, or copy — or both — will be rejected, either by colleagues, or clients, or both.
Knowing when to ditch an idea and when to push it further is something that will come with experience, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take on board advice on the topic.
“Don’t fall in love with your own copy,” suggests Tannenbaum. “It’s better to throw your work out and start over than to do what many writers do, which is ‘fix things to death.’ If the client is being difficult about approving your copy, keep coming back with better, fresher work. The best revenge is always a better ad.”
However, particularly in the digital space, remember that some more traditional clients may need encouragement to take a risk, try something new and be bold online.
“While some clients may be less open than others, you, as copywriters, should continually try to challenge them,” says Brandon. “Increasingly, it’s what digital audiences expect.”
And finally, when you find yourself in a junior position, be humble, take your lumps and listen to feedback, but know the difference between being a lowly staffer with a lot to learn and finding yourself the whipping boy at the mercy of other people’s egos.
“Harsh but fair feedback is part of the game, and so, unfortunately, are sadistic creative directors,” says Williams. “Spot the difference and do everything you can to learn from the former and limit exposure to the latter. A harridan partner once told me that copywriters were hired to be clever and creative, but I was ‘neither clever nor creative.’ I got the hell out of there. Even as a lowly junior, these people are not worth your time or your talent.”
LESS IS MORE
Crucial advice as far as your copy goes is the old adage “less is more,” especially in the online world where attention spans are ever-decreasing.
“‘Less is always more’ is good advice for pretty much any writing, but I think it’s particularly apposite when talking about digital copy,” says Lewis Raven, associate creative director at glue Isobar, an advertising agency specialising in digital creative work.
“It’s so, so easy for readers to get distracted online. If you make your point with precision and originality your reader will appreciate it. They might even follow your instruction to ‘click here’, ‘roll over’, or ‘buy now!’ Go on too long and they will be straight off to to watch skateboarding dogs on YouTube. I know I would be.”
“Remember, if people want to, there are lots of places they can go to read really good, long copy. It might be a newspaper or a favorite blog,” continues Raven. “It almost definitely won’t be a brand website.”
Eloise Smith, creative director at Euro RSCG London takes the less-is-more-online wisdom a step further by suggesting that people read copy differently online than they do offline, so advises “writing visually” as something to take into consideration when writing for the web.
“Online users view text rather than read it,” says Smith. “They scan, skim and scroll. Normally at high speed. Online text behaves differently from print – it’s clickable, scrollable, copyable and searchable. So part of a digital copywriter’s job is to visually guide the user through text.”
While Smith suggests tactics such as indents, sub-headings, super-short paragraphs, bold captions, bullet points and numbered lists, “write less and communicate more” is her main advice:
“A digital copywriter’s portfolio doesn’t need to contain reams of copy, enigmatic headlines, complex sub-clauses and atmospheric intros. The digital copywriter writes for a notoriously distracted, impatient
audience. So the skill is to be able to write succinctly and informatively without losing charm.”
“Limit your word count,” Tannenbaum suggests. “Copywriters who grew up writing in TV and print grew up with strictures around copy length. So they became parsimonious with words. They learned to make every one count. Writing in digital media doesn’t impose those important limitations on writers. So, frankly, they tend to ramble, rather than say things quickly and succinctly.”
“The principles of good writing remain the same, whatever sort of copywriter you are. Cliched metaphors, misplaced apostrophes and unnecessary jargon are just as depressing online as offline. Writing in a way your audience relates to is key to any good writing. If that means writing in a familiar, conversational manner and using the word ‘awesome’ a lot, so be it. Ultimately, to be a successful digital copywriter, you need to be a good copywriter in the first place,” concludes Smith.
“And finally — always proofread. Especially your C.V. A C.V. with typos is embarrassing for everyone.”