Here Are Some Copywriting Tips That Don’t Include ‘Learn SEO’ Or ‘Find Your Niche’

Man in cafe with a Macbook holding a book titled Expert Secrets

If you google ‘how to be a copywriter’, you’ll find 33.6 million articles that supposedly cover the ins and outs of the vocation.

But upon further inspection of the search results, you’ll quickly learn that some of these posts have typos in the first paragraphs (automatic disqualification), while others read like fresh-grad material instead of actual copywriting. There are a few posts that offer solid advice, though most of them end up trying to sell you a course.

But I digress. We’re not here to judge content. Instead, for this week, we’re going to discuss things beyond ‘build a portfolio’ and ‘learn SEO’.

This article isn’t about getting your foot in the door, nor is it a handy piece that’ll equip you with the skills to double your pay. It’s just a bit of reference for current copywriters to relate, or for aspiring wordsmiths to perhaps discover things they may not have know about the industry.

And so without further ado, let’s start with the most important point of all.

You can’t change your boss

You know the saying ‘people don’t quit companies, they quit their boss’?

Well, in copywriting, your chemistry with your direct superior is going to mean everything, because unlike more objective jobs with measurable goals, there’s no way to quantify ‘good’ writing.

So if your boss hates your work (or your guts), you’re not going to have a good time.

I’ve had my work thrown back to me with nothing more than “Fix it. It’s clunky.” I’ve also been told that I was wrong—not different, not odd, but straight up wrong—for choosing the word ‘grass’ instead of ‘turf’.

And if you’re thinking you could change your boss like a lover could change their bad partner, you’ll only end up disappointed when three years pass and you still get your byline removed because your article wasn’t ‘up to standards’.

So please. Withstand what you can, but know that you can’t change bad chemistry.

Woman in jacket and jeans sitting with hands

Unless you’re starring in a soap opera, there’s very little chance that your boss is going to change. Photo: Mateus Campos Felipe

Size matters

I’ve had the privilege to work for startups and MNCs, and they each have their pros and cons. Generally, the smaller a company is, the quicker they’re able to pivot, which means that you can quickly rectify any problems that need fixing.

This also means that you’ll be on your toes most of the time, because you might need to create a full ad campaign the same day the CEO gets an outlandish idea.

In larger companies though, you’ll often have to go through the many layers of bureaucracy, and sometimes, and that can be a headache when your head of department says yes but another party says no.

Because of this, even the tiniest of campaigns may require triple approvals before your two-worded motto is posted on Facebook. Even other departments can have a say in your work, particularly the Comms or PR teams.

So keep that in mind if you have that choice to make.

Learning is the priority

You’d think that copywriting is all about climbing the ladder and earning big bucks. Maybe to you it’s drinking whiskey and smoking cigars and cashing a million-dollar cheque for that slogan you thought up.

Unfortunately, most of copywriting ain’t that glamourous. Which is why you have to prioritise learning.

I can safely say that the only thing that has helped me secure gig after gig was the willingness to learn. My journey involved education, business, lifestyle, travel, internal communications, press releases, advertisements, sales e-mails and web content.

The journey is far from over because I’m still exploring the likes of fiction and video-game writing.

Sure, that may mean I’m the jack of all trades when it comes to niches, but instead of becoming a master of none, I’m actually working my way to becoming my best in writing.

That’s how you should look at it too, because one discipline helps the others. And while writing Facebook updates may seem like the most boring part of your job, it could come in handy one day when it’s time to promote your book on social media.

A woman teaching a man in front of a laptop and monitor

Always take the opportunity to learn new things, even if they’re not directly related to your work. Photo: Mars

Forget your voice

Look, I know how much you want to express yourself, to show people what you can do with words. But when it comes to work, you’ll have to put on a mask and adhere to the brand image, or at the very least, what the boss’s wants.

There’s no ‘i’ in ‘team’, but if your boss wants to promote ‘timwork’, then that’s exactly what you’re going to write. Hopefully, you won’t work under someone that’s that dense, but you get the point.

Sure, you could suggest cutting a couple of words here, or using a pun there, but if your boss wants things to be done a certain way, then it’s not up to you to play Don Draper and supersede their preferences.

This doesn’t mean you can’t sell your work a certain way though. For instance, if your boss is looking for a tagline that sounds more ‘aggressive’, you could make a few changes (that are not necessarily aggressive at all), and tell your boss you’ve done exactly that.

Sometimes, all a boss wants is assurance, and you’ll be surprised how much they’re willing to accept, provided your pitch is good enough.

Agency life is best life

I kid. I know that the agency babies are probably smirking right now at their recollection of fresh hires joining their companies.

If you ever find yourself with an opportunity at an agency, just know that you’ll be learning a ton of copywriting wisdom in a short amount of time. The downside is that it comes with the price of greying hair, lack of sleep, and crying in the bathroom.

But let’s rewind a little. As an aspiring copywriter, you’ll probably work for a business’s marketing team, or in an agency.

The difference is that in the former, you’ll be focused on creating assets for your company alone. In an agency, however, you can expect to juggle multiple clients at once, and not only do you have to deal with your own company’s corporate hierarchy, but you’ll also have to deal with feedback from the clients.

And having sat in various weekly meetings between clients and agencies, I can tell you that it’s no fun to hear what various management levels have to say about your writing, or ideas, or you.

Some people can take the heat. Others enjoy the slower pace (relatively) of being in a marketing team. Me? I’d prefer neither, to be honest.

A group of young creatives in a meeting room

Agency life. You’ll either love it or hate it. Photo: Campaign Creators

It’s not just sticks and stones that break your bones

Words are powerful, and if you’ve always been a fan of writing, you should definitely give it a go. In fact, copywriting is one of the best paths you can go down. The pay’s pretty decent too—at least when compared to the other branches like content writing or social media management.

You’ll need a good amount of soft skills to complement your writing, for sure, but you won’t need as good a command in English as you think. Just knowing the differences between ‘peak’ and ‘peek’, or ‘everyday’ and ‘every day’ is enough to get you an entry-level gig.

How do I know this? Because I knew nothing when I first started, and I sure as hell had my share of writing faux pas too (using the word ‘aircrafts’, for example).

So there you go. A bit about the copywriting life, from a practitioner, who also isn’t trying to sell you a course. Of course, if you have any questions about being a copywriter, just ask away and I’ll try to help. Just know that the industry might differ in Malaysia than it does in your part of the world.

Till then, remember not to give up on your writing dreams!


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77 thoughts on “Here Are Some Copywriting Tips That Don’t Include ‘Learn SEO’ Or ‘Find Your Niche’

  1. Brilliant and insightful post! I actually work as a copywriter for a SEO agency, although have sadly been off sick for a number of weeks. Being a professional copywriter is all about finding a balance between satisfying the client’s requirements, and keeping some of your own personality and flair in your writing. Plus, expect client edit requirements, and don’t take it to heart. L xx

    https://dispeller.co/

    • It’s so true that amendment requests will arrive, and that for the clients with less tact, it’s imperative we don’t take things too personally. I myself have been fortunate enough to have had a particularly harsh editor beat out all the attachment to my work, though at the time, it definitely didn’t seem that way. Thanks so much for stopping by, and you have such a wonderful website!

    • Oh yeah. Once you’re on someone’s payroll, it becomes less of an art and more of a collaboration. And that level of collaboration will be heavily influenced by who your boss is. Anyway, thanks so much for stopping by, Jenny!

  2. I find the post very relatable. And am just starting out. It’s amazing how lucidly you have explained the industry and process of copywriting. Can you elaborate on why content writing is not as lucrative?

    • Heya Sachin! At least here in Malaysia, content mills pay maybe USD20 per article, and you can get higher-paying gigs but you’ll have to have the experience to back it up.

      Even the full-time jobs pay less on average compared to advertising work (at least for me).

      In contrast, you tend to charge by project when it comes to copywriting, and some companies are willing to pay a lot just for tiny (but hard to produce) assets like slogans and mottos. Also, money flows more freely in the advertising field.

      It all depends on the company you’re working with too, but I’ve found that marketing teams and companies usually have a bigger budget than their content-creation counterparts.

      Thanks for your lovely question, and I hope this helps!

      • It gave me a good glimpse and deep insight into how the industry works. It’s always good to have professionals from the industry, helping and guiding the freshers. Appreciate your response. These are important takeaways I will keep in mind. Thank you. With regards.

    • Aww, I really appreciate the kind words, Katherine! I hope more people read both yours and my blogs, and here’s to constant growth in our writing pursuits! Also, thanks for stopping by :)

  3. Not that into copywriting but it was a fun article.

    Surprised by most of the points that you mentioned, especially ‘having good relation with boss’ one.

    Amazing content as always, thanx for sharing!

    • Lol your mileage may vary, but I’ve never once been successful in getting bosses to turn around after it’s established they don’t like my work. On the flip side, if a boss does like your work, there’s very little you can do wrong.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Julie!

  4. Good article on some important and often overlooked aspects of copywriting. One constructive critique (based on one of my personal pet peeves)? Please re-work your sentence structure and remove the word ‘thing/things’. My Constitutional Law professor hated that word and wouldn’t allow it in any of our written arguments. He believed it was a word for lazy or unintelligent writers (you’re neither, by the way), for people who didn’t want to think about sentence structure to write an intelligent argument. I get it; sometimes ‘thing/things’ has a place in a sentence but more often than not it doesn’t. Next time you use it in a sentence (you used it twice in this article), think about how you can re-write the sentence with proper noun-verb structure. Other than that, amazing information that I never considered.

    • Lol wow what a cordial piece of feedback. Am always looking for ways to improve, so that’s something I can look at. In fact, when I checked the article for ‘thing’, I also spotted another typo to fix, lol, so that’s cool too.

      Thanks for taking the time to type this, and that’s a great thing (heh) to keep in mind for my future work. I appreciate you!

      • Here it is:
        I felt bad after I wrote it; I hope it didn’tt sound preachy. Your writing is good, often witty. My faux pas are too many commas and starting a sentence with a crutch word. As long as we’re aware of our writing, we can endeavor to improve it.

  5. It’s really interesting to get a peek into the world of another career. I’ve spent minutes here and there thinking I should get into copywriting, but it seems like it’s not really for me (plus I’m a decade or so from retirement and don’t have the energy for a wholesale career change). It seems like there’s a lot of selling, no? And I’ve never been a good salesperson. Too bad, too, because I know the difference between peek and peak . . . AND pique!

    • I’m glad I’ve peaked your performance, as you get a pique into the world of copywriting and peek performance!

      (did that hurt to read?)

      It’s not so much sales than it is justifying your words. You need to be ready with explanations for why you chose ‘grass’ instead of ‘turf’. And if you can do that good enough, you’ll have half the battle won.

      Maybe you don’t need to do it now. Maybe you can explore it after retirement. Now that’s an idea!

  6. Stuart, you’ve convinced me that copywriting is most definitely not for me. One of the things I love about being a content creator is that I am effectively my own boss. I work for me and me alone. I work with others, I don’t work for them (unless it’s a sponsored post). My Mum suggested a career in copywriting (as opposed to blogging) to me a few weeks ago and I was repulsed at the idea – something that stunts my creativity and has me working for somebody else? No way!

    I also love that I get to choose who I work with. If I get a collaboration that sounds really interesting and uplifting, I’m all for it. When I got offered an opportunity last week that was crucially aimed at replacing one of the biggest social sites in the adult industry, based seemingly on little more than a personal grudge, I shut it down. I always knew that I was supposed be my own boss and now that I am? I love what I do and I am extremely proud of it. Another great post!

    • I totally relate with finding a writing gig that doesn’t stifle who you are as a creative. I’ve gone through an entire process of shedding typical writing jobs, and trying to find a way to ‘make a living through my writing’ instead of ‘write for a living’.

      Downside is that opportunities are much harder to come by when I’m not going down the typical path of working for money though.

      But if I ever have to pick one, copywriting is the way to go, because agencies and marketing teams appreciate writing more than the average content mill.

      I love that you’re paving your own path. Always the best way, if it works for you. Keep on forging ahead!

      • You’re definitely right, Stuart. Unfortunately, a lot of niches have so many bloggers in them that, unless you can find something pretty unique that few people aren’t already covering, it can be tough to get successful in the blogosphere. I’ve had a few collaboration opportunities lately, but these things are definitely not a way to a fixed income by any means.

        Thank you, and I hope you managed to find something that enables you to use your creativity too!

    • You should! I don’t know what the market is like where you live, but I imagine it’s definitely better than Malaysia. You should try it on a lark, if anything. Maybe you’d end up loving it, maybe not, but either way, nothing beats sneaking puns into marketing copy!

  7. So many lines to reflect back that were so good Stuart.
    Great pointers and always sound advice with a chuckle.

    “There’s no ‘i’ in ‘team’, but if your boss wants to promote ‘timwork’, then that’s exactly what you’re going to write. Hopefully, you won’t work under someone that’s that dense, but you get the point.”

    As for me if you see an opening in a soap opera … can you send it my way. 😂😂

    And this line:

    “A bit about the copywriting life, from a practitioner, who also isn’t trying to sell you a course. Of course, if you have any questions about being a copywriter, just ask away and I’ll try to help”. ‘
    I was waiting for for a mere … xyz… I’ll take your money.. haha!
    👏👏.

    • I should really create a course where I do nothing but hand out homework, hahaha. I think that’s what most writing courses are these days. Super appreciate your support, Cindy, and you’ve really made my day with your comments!

      • It would be fun to see the response and they might just like hanging out with you since you’re so darn fun! hahaaha. Supporting you is easy. Getting notified is another. You’re in my fav’s but didn’t see you so I’m in slow mo at the moment. Well deserved my friend! 💖👏

  8. I’m so thankful that I get to write for fun right now 😅🤣 your post made me feel both amazed over your mad skills and thick skin and also… completely terrified!! 🤣 gorgeous educational work as always

    • Writing for fun is the best! But that also means we need to discipline ourselves, because anything we do for fun tends to be taken less seriously. I’m constantly in between being too lax and stressed out with my writing due to the different priorities I have with one pursuit, lol. Thanks so much for stopping by, LaShelle!

  9. An excellent one this time, Stu! I really smiled at the headline — it’s all that we ask nowadays for advice that isn’t soooo generic. And yet your headline skills are getting so good that BuzzFeed will one day be outshone by their non-clickbait partners. Thank you for this post! I love how you morph the simple subheads into in-depth and yet bite-sized.

    Thank you!
    xox
    Olivia

    • Lol, hopefully I get to BuzzFeed’s level soon, because I could use some viral traffic from the headlines. And I really feel there’s a zeitgeist when it comes to posting and titles. For example, power words used to be cool until everybody started using them, and now their usage seems that much more obvious, which hurts their usefulness a little. Anyway, always appreciate you stopping by! Keep seeing you around, all right?

  10. This was such an interesting post… To be honest with you, I had no idea what a copywriter did (exactly)… I loved hearing about your experience and tips on how to survive the industry, Stuart! I seem to be very fascinated with your stories of past lives (jobs mostly) lol… ;) Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks so much for the lovely comment, Jen! You’re in good company, because my friend once said he thought copywriters handled things related to copyrights, and that’s when I realised it wasn’t as straightforward a vocation (to the public) as it seemed. Love your thoughts on it, and thank YOU for stopping by!

  11. Lovely article as always, Stuart! Brings back memories from when I was still a copywriter. 😂 Your observations were on point – coming up with a whole campaign the same day your boss gets a crazy idea (“This is it guys, this is it!”), the importance of knowing how to sell your work and get things approved (although I’ve always found it a bit strange that they would believe anything we say at all… I mean we sell things with our words for a living 😂), and having to change your copy based on feedback that may or may not make sense.

    I remember being told by a client once to change ‘have had’ to ‘has had’ because the former is grammatically wrong (she said she’d never heard of anyone saying ‘have had’ ever, which must mean it is wrong). Not quite the same level as ‘timwork’, but baffling nonetheless, especially for a newbie. 😂 One client in particular liked playing this game where she would insist there were grammatical errors in the copy, scold us for it, and then refuse to tell us what those errors were. We later realised that was just her way of getting us to fix parts of the copy she simply didn’t like (without having to tell us what those parts were), so we always ended up coming up with different revisions where we changed different parts of the copy to try and figure out what it was that she didn’t like by elimination (“No. Try again.”)… It was basically Mastermind: the Copywriting Edition. I laugh about it now, but it was quite frustrating back then, for everyone involved. 😂

    • Wow, the client from hell bit triggered a bit of PTSD. Those who don’t tell you what they want are the worst! They share a rung on the Ladder Of Crappiness with the clients who are never satisfied unless there’s at least one change, no matter how banal.

      I remember getting torn a new one when I used the term ‘snagged a new award’. “Who uses the word ‘snag’?” a client had said. “Terrible!” Thankfully, my editor at the time had my back, but that took away a lot of my confidence.

      Anyway, thanks so much for sharing your perspective, especially as someone from inside the industry, because it’s invaluable not just for me, but for other readers as well!

  12. Sighhh…reading this reminds me of a time in my life when I thought copywriting was like the coolest job. I read up as much as I could, and I still have one or two books on how to copywrite lying on my shelf. Thanks for the brief walk down memory lane! Maybe I should go dust off those books and have another look. They might just inspire me afresh! Thanks Stu!!

    • It definitely can be a cool job if you end up in the right company with the right job scope. For me, it just gets stale when I end up writing Facebook ads or social media captions.

      One of the more interesting jobs I had was to write audio scripts, and things like that make it all worthwhile.

      I do hope you continue to pursue that dream, because it’s not all doom and gloom. Always glad to see you, Kelvin!

  13. Hey Stuart! Brilliant article. You have a beautifully witty style.

    My name’s Martin Pavey, I hope you are doing well!

    I loved your remark – “I can safely say that the only thing that has helped me secure gig after gig was the willingness to learn.”

    Flexibility is key. We all have visions but the strategy expands and contracts dependent on the scenario we’re in. It’s so true that the reality of most creative ain’t glamorous! It’s a daily grind getting our work out there.

    Personally, I am not approaching this from a organisational view point – I’m learning to see my future audience as the “boss” as it were – satisfying their needs and providing information – you’ve provided a lot of tidbits of incredibly useful advice.

    Wonderful! Thank you again, Ryan!

    • Heya Martin! Glad to have you here. It was such a pleasure to read your comment, and I totally agree that flexibility is key. In my case, I didn’t have the luxury to say “I don’t do sales consultation” when I was a copywriter in a tech startup. And I’m glad I didn’t, because I learned so much there.

      I love your ‘audience is boss’ viewpoint, because at the end of the day, the market decides whether or not our work gets traction—which should be the case, instead of leaving that responsibility to a couple gatekeepers.

      Thanks so much for your support once more, Martin. I appreciate it!

  14. Ah yes, “Find your niche.” I really hate giving that advice to the people who are just starting out.

    I mean finding your niche for most people, is experimenting, throwing things to the wall and then seeing what sticks. Not everyone is lucky enough to know their niche before they start out.

    By the way, I’ve been told that my wordpress theme looks bland, and I need to use more images. Given you’ve been to my blog, what do you think? I can’t include images, but I can try to change the theme.

    • True that. I started out writing rant posts and accounts of my failed loves, lol, so there’s really no need to lock yourself into a niche early unless you know what you want.

      You know what? I think you SHOULD use images, despite the potential for error. Sites like Unsplash.com rarely have offensive images, so you’re not at danger of surprising anyone, and even if you do, you could always include a caption of sorts, that you’d selected those pics based on alt keywords.

      Pull quotes are also a great way to break up your text. In your latest interview, it does look like a huge wall of text, despite the paragraphs, but you do manage good page breaks in your normal posts through your headings.

      Those alone will help loads, without you needing to fiddle with themes.

      Speaking of which, all of this is to make the website look better to people with sight. Can you share how I can make my posts more attractive to those without? Always looking forward to learn.

      Thanks for stopping by, Tanish!

      • Simple things like headings and lists work wonders while navigating a site with screen readers. I don’t think you need to change anything in your site to make it work for blind people.

        I’ll admit that I have not used pullquotes before, but I will try that from now on.

        For now, I think I will start by using images for the featured image for my post, and then slowly use them in my articles.

        Thanks for the help Stuart.

  15. Fascinating stuff, Stuart. I’m curious if copywriters always have their work edited by others, or do your qualifications give you more latitude? Are you more sensitive to criticism about copywriting or styling hair?

    • Regarding being edited, it really depends, to be honest. In MNCs, the Comms team also had a say in my work. When I was in the startup, I was the sole person responsible for anything writing. For freelancing? The clients would be the ones ‘editing’ (more like weighing their thoughts for amendments, for better or for worse).

      There’s certainly less structure compared to an actual writing gig, like for a newspaper or magazine. There, you’ll definitely have a line of sub- and group-editors to answer to.

      I’m pretty fine with criticism. I have thin skin, but a couple of years with a particularly harsh editor had knocked out all the diva-ness out of me. If it’s for work, I’ll just see things through according to the vision of whoever’s in charge.

      Thanks so much for your comment, and for your wonderful question, Pete!

      • Sorry, I didn’t see your reply until now. Thanks for such a comprehensive answer.

  16. As someone who is not even slightly a copywriter, this was still really interesting. You’re such engaging writer.

    (PS, thank you for mentioning me as a long-running blog you like in that interview you did last month)

  17. Wow this has nothing to do with anything I’m interested in, and yet I THOROUGHLY enjoyed reading this. Not gonna lie, you def took me to a Mad Men place which always makes me happy. But this was really fascinating and even makes me want to try it ha! I mean, I def won’t bc my skin is thinner than paper. But this was a fun thing to fantasize about for a moment! Thank you for sharing 🌺😊

    • Weirdly enough, I think it’s hard to grow thicker skin, as I’ve been a hairdresser and copywriter, and they both subject you to gruelling criticism sometimes. And you’d think that’d help me get over negative feedback, but my skin is still paper thin too, lol. So high-five, my fellow thin-skinned person (well, goddess in your case), and thanks for visiting!

      • You’d be a millionaire! You could then buy yourself a wonderful jungle beach villa on the perhentians and host SEO retreats where you learn nothing, but at least have superb views and good food!.

  18. Thanks for sharing your tips. I have to admit I don’t know a lot about copywriting. I’ve tried that route only a bit as a summer gig between teaching seasons, but none of the jobs I could find were sustainable; I wrote a few articles through a site that paid about a penny per word on really dry topics, so that was thrilling. :D I’m sure I was looking in the wrong places. I also tried medical transcription one summer and earned even less while putting in more time, haha.

    • Don’t feel bad. Low rates are part of the journey. At least now you know you can earn one penny per word, so you have a benchmark for all future gigs, and it just goes upwards from there!

      Medical transcription does sound like hell though, lol.

      Who knows? Perhaps this is something you could revisit once more. And I hope you do!

  19. I find these pieces of advice super helpful and informative. Thanks for sharing Stuart! Also as someone who works in higher education currently, I would love to see any education related works you’ve done 🙂.

  20. I can so relate! Having worked in both corporate and agency, what you mentioned is so true.

    And yes, if the Boss/ client wants it in that certain way (even after explaining why), so be it.

    I truly enjoy your posts. Thank you for sharing, Stuart.

    • Am so grateful for your lovely comment, especially as someone who’s been in the industry.

      With your boss, there’s still some leeway. But when it comes to clients, oh boy, they really can’t be convinced of anything other than the idea they originally wanted, lol. Glad to hear your perspectives!

  21. Excellent tips. Really. The one about not having a voice stuck out to me because I realized you’re right. When I did some content writing I was too concerned about voice and quality; the companies just want it to check the boxes -and quickly!

    • Gah, how could I forget the unrealistic deadlines. You really brought up an awesome point. Sometimes they even call you outside of office hours to make amendments way into the night—and these are full-time jobs too, so it’s not as if we’re not going to see each other the next day.

      I love your comment, and thanks so much for sharing your own experience here. It’ll be invaluable to other readers too!

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