There’s a wild journey most people undertake to become full time writers. For most of us, it wasn’t a point A to Z.
Although, I will mention that we did a little creative writing autobiography exercise a few weeks ago and every single person had an origin story for writing that typically started in elementary school.
So it would appear there’s something of a proclivity here that probably predates any formal training. Some people are just good with words.
But being good with words, and even being a good writer academically, is light years away from excelling as a professional writer. Maybe less than 1% of freelancers with 0 formal training become very successful. The learning curve is too steep and there is a heckuva lot to learn if you want to tackle all of the skills needed to do this for a living.
Let’s start with what those skills are, then I can tell you the degree paths or lines of study I think are most helpful to professional copywriters.
If you want to be a great copywriter, you need to know a lot of things, including the following:
Everyone’s like, “but it’s an art,” but the copywriters everyone hates to work with are the people who take the art too seriously and think every scratch of their pen is precious. Copywriting is a lightning-paced world of quick turnovers and fading visibility. You have to learn what the ROI is on various types of copy, then manage your time accordingly.
If it takes you 10 hours to write an SEO blog (unless you’re at a highly specialized enterprise organization), you don’t understand the business. Understanding the big picture of how your work supports marketing which supports sales which supports business development which ultimately carves revenue streams… that’s what will upgrade you from a hired pen to a major player at any organization.
We write about the business side of copywriting here.
I’m not going to bother talking about basic grammar and syntax and flow. That should go without saying. The writing skills you really need to hone to perfection are highly complex things like brand voice, persona architecture, driving demand, and lead nurture.
To do any of this effectively, you’re going to have to dive deep into the human psyche.
Do you observe how people behave? Great, that’s the baby step.
Do you understand WHY people behave how they behave? Great, that’s toddlerhood.
Can you trace someone’s deepest desires based on the way they twitch their mouth when asked a personal question? Now you’re getting somewhere.
To me, this is the MOST interesting part of being a professional copywriter. You get to study and memorize and scrutinize and dissect the patterns of human behavior, both at the individual level and as groups. It’s fascinating stuff. If you don’t make a study of this, you’ll be a copycat your whole career and your work will be painfully forgettable. Not even painfully, actually. Just forgotten.
It would appear (so I’m told) that most writers are introverts. It does make sense. We sit in front of screens and type for 8, 10, 12 hours a day. Lots of alone time. And if you can’t make peace in a quiet room alone with your thoughts I’m telling you now: do not become a writer.
But even if you tend toward this side of things, I’m going to tell you a secret: the primary accelerant for my copywriting career is the fact that I’m a people person. I’m good with people. And the majority of what I study to improve myself and my business include things like communication, negotiation, rapport-building, reading body language, you get the idea.
These are the masterclasses I devour, not only because they support my craft as I replicate and improve upon human behavior and dialogue, but because they help me forge relationships.
Relationships are the backbone of business and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you can’t build and sustain community, you’ll be a moderately successful lone wolf who one day wakes up and can’t stand their life. You won’t climb the ladder. You won’t make a difference. It all comes back to people.
I’m actually not talking about technical writing here, although yes, learn that. I’m talking about using technology. As someone who didn’t have a computer until… later in life… I know that some of us face a learning curve when it comes to tech. And while I miss a corded phone as the rest of my generation, you have to get VERY comfortable with technology if you hope to make it in marketing. End of. No choice. Get over it. Google away. YouTube it up.
Most importantly, learn how to learn technology. Because the rate of change is what is changing the most. And you have to keep up if you’re going to not be endlessly frustrated.
Most people who end up copywriting for a living start on one of three paths:
Creative writers are the best at the craft, almost always. That’s what they spent their time learning how to do: shape a story, tell a story, develop characters, write narratives. Their ability to get forensic on the human condition, then relay it in a beautiful way, makes them exceptionally valuable in an increasingly AI-driven world of copy development. They’ll survive it.
Journalism majors are second best. The key skill they bring into marketing copywriting is the ability to interrogate an idea, researching it to find original sources then aggregating the important provable points into a big idea. They also know how to interview subject matter experts, although usually not in the way needed for marketing.
Marketing majors fall in last place in my book. Didn’t want to say it that way, but that’s the reality. Marketers spend too much time on too many things to get really good at writing. So unless they just naturally are prolific and profound, it takes a ton of effort to get them competent and fast.
When I go to hire writers, I always want to start with creative writers. If I can’t find any, I’ll settle for journalists. I very rarely hire marketers. That’s just my own experience but I’ve been through and tested hundreds of writers soooo while it’s my own experience, it’s a valid oen.
As with any craft, there is no substitute for repetition. For the put-your-head-down-and-do-it (then wake up and do it again) discipline. You can teach yourself how to get in flow. You can teach yourself to love hard work (it’s called operant conditioning).
I will mention as I wrap up — most people don’t know if they want to be a full time copywriter until they become one. Some people think they want this. Then they sit in front of a computer for eight hours (and have to do it… again? And again?) and go bonkersville.
They lack the discipline to dig in and make these deep grooves. That’s ok. It’s not a character flaw. But this profession is the right fit for very few people.
If you still want it after you’ve tried it, that’s probably a good sign.
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