5 Mistakes I Made Starting Out As A Copywriter And What I’d Do Differently Today

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Years ago I worked part-time as a copywriter.

At the end I was pulling in $7,500 for an 8-page sales letter.

Not mind blowing, but a good part time gig.

So why quit?

Part of it was just being burned out.

I had a full time job, two little kids, a marriage, home renovations and what felt like a hundred other things.

The other part was making some mistakes that soured me on copywriting.

Below are some of those mistakes.

I’ll also explain how I would start differently today.

1. Focus Less On Learning The Craft – More On Marketing My Craft

I literally spent a couple of years trying to ‘learn’ copywriting.

I didn’t have the self confidence at the time to understand that this wasn’t college. You don’t ‘have’ to study for years just to earn the right to do something.

I was also scared to go out and talk to clients. So I justified it by studying instead of doing.

It’s like the guy who spends four hours a day on the ‘pick up artist’ forums giving advice he learned in books – but doesn’t actually have a date for Friday night.

I also justified my fear in other ways:

  • Ordered ‘courses’. This was a waste of time and money.
  • Got mentoring. I paid $2,500 to one of the nations top financial copywriters for a few months of mentoring. This helped but, in hindsight, wasn’t really needed.
  • Attended a conference. This was in Washington, D.C. and cost a lot of money ($5,000 just for my conference ticket). Looking back it was actually an OK investment because I landed a client from the conference. But, again, not needed.

The bottom line is that you don’t have to be great at your craft to be a successful copywriter. Great copywriters become great by going out, getting clients and improving their craft over years of work based off feedback they are getting from the market.

Speaking of the market …

2. Work In Markets With Money

This seems like a terribly obvious thing to say but if you are going to be a successful copywriter you need clients who not only want – but can afford – your services.

Early on I was given the advice that you should approach businesses who have bad copy. Hands down the market with the worst copy is small businesses: plumbers, florists and other main street businesses.

So that’s who I went after.

Did they need better marketing? Absolutely. But as soon as the topic of money came up the conversation came to a quick close.

If I were starting today I’d focus only on real companies that are grossing over $2 million per year at the very least.

At that level they’ll have a building, employees and other overhead. They not only understand business but have a basic understanding of marketing and how important it is to their success.

3. Work In Non-Royalty Markets

When you get into copywriting the holy grail is to write promotions where you can collect royalties.

In case you aren’t familiar royalties are popular in the health and financial newsletter markets. If you write a great letter that beats the companies other promotions it now becomes the ‘control’. And each time they use that control letter you get paid a small amount.

Over time that small amount can add up to thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of extra dollars per month.

I get the attraction. After all who wouldn’t want to be paid good amounts of completely passive money?

The problem is the markets who have the potential to make this a reality are hyper-competitive.

Don’t get me wrong. I knew copywriters who were pulling this off. But they were the best of the best. And even they failed to win more times than they care to mention.

Besides, even if you do manage to write a promotion that becomes the control – the publisher is immediately going to ask a couple more great copywriters to try and beat your promotion.

So the chances of your promotion continuing to bring in royalties long term are pretty small.

I would have had more success, quicker if I had focused on different markets.

They don’t offer royalties but they are far less competitive.

4. Focus On Relationships – Not Royalties

One of the biggest problems with copywriting is that it’s not a recurring model.

What I mean is that you put a lot of energy in the beginning to meeting potential clients, agreeing on a project and getting paid.

But once that project is done … it’s done.

You have to go out and meet another potential client and drum up another project.

That is, unless you’ve built a good relationship with your previous client.

Then they may be able to bring your some repeat work. That’s why doing a good job and building actual relationships with clients is so important.

This is something I failed miserably at.

5. The Most Important Question

This is one I overlooked. And it cost me.

First, the question: anytime you decide to work on a project you need to ask yourself, “Do I personally believe in/use this product/service”.

If your answer is no then don’t take on the project. You’ll be miserable doing the work, it won’t be high quality and you won’t be helping people.

Write for stuff you believe will actually help people.

I’m not saying you have to think it’s going to change the world – but you just have to believe that your promoting something of actual value.

So, why did I say overlooking this question cost me?

Because as a pharmacist writing for the natural health and supplement market was a no-brainer. So after my foray into the small business market – that’s where I eventually ended up.

The problem was – pardon my french – that market is one of the sleaziest around with products that are basically overpriced piss.

For example, you can almost always find a study or some sort of nugget of information to say some supplement is going to cure back pain.

But when you also know that the guy buying the supplement is 60 pounds overweight and eats garbage most of the time – the problem isn’t his back.

It’s his front.

How I Would Start Today

I’ve been asked before what I would do to get started as a copywriter nowadays – knowing what I know now.

So here is my step by step plan with a focus on taking you from knowing nothing to being a competent copywriter and going out and getting your first client within 60 days.

Read this book. Like I said above, my biggest mistake was letting my fear of going out and getting clients push me into information overload and thinking I had to be perfect at copywriting.

You don’t. You just need a basic understanding of psychology and copywriting. After that you need to understand how to get clients.

Bob Bly Secrets of a Freelance Writer
Out of all the copywriting material – including expensive courses – this book by Bob Bly is really all you need to get started.

You don’t need a ton of books, expensive course or coaching programs. Just start with this book by Bob Bly.

Bly is different – in a good way. He has been a successful copywriter in a number of different niches for decades. His stuff is practical and works.

Start reading this book. It shouldn’t take you more than a week. While you’re doing that I’d do the next step at the same time.

Copy out successful sales letters by hand. Go to swiped.co and look for good sales letters. Take 30 minutes every day and copy one out by hand. Don’t type it.

Writing it out by hand helps you really learn what good writing feels like. This is a great exercise that you can actually start doing as you’re reading the books above.

By the 30 day mark you now have a better working knowledge of good, effective copywriting than 80% of the people out there.

That’s enough to go out and start getting clients (if that is what you want).

Decide which companies you want to go after. Before you actually go get a client you need to decide WHO you’re clients are going to be.

Rather than trying to go after ultra-competitive niches again (health and fitness newsletters) or ultra-small businesses (i.e., they don’t value what you do or have the money to pay you) I’d go after ‘boring’ but profitable businesses.

For example, when I went out to get my first digital marketing client I focused on industrial manufacturers.


They have money and a problem they know about that they need help with.

Specifically these businesses:

  • Made $2 million+ each year
  • Had buildings, staff, overhead, etc. In short, they were real businesses.
  • They knew they had a problem (their website wasn’t very good) and that their customers were using Google more and more to make purchasing decisions. They didn’t want to fall behind.
  • Their products were actually helpful to the end user.
  • Their products were high value.  They sold for well over $2,000 per sale. Usually five figures. Sometimes six. So if my help could bring them one more sale per month – or even a year – it made sense for them.

I’m only giving this to you as an example. I’m not saying you should go after industrial manufacturers. It’s just an example.

But find real businesses who are making real money and help them solve a problem they are having.

Go out and get a client. Use Bly’s advice in the book to go approach clients. I’d also encourage you to read my article about how I got my first digitial marketing client for ideas.

I found lumpy mail to be a great conversation opener.

The bottom line is that when you start dealing with real business owners and executives they’re busy. They don’t want to be BS’d.

I found being direct and not beating around the bush to be a huge help.

And yes, I am recommending direct outreach to get started. Unfortunately, outreach is something that is treated like a dirty word when I first got started.

After all, I was great at my craft so I want people reaching out to me. Inbound marketing is where it’s at.

Unfortunately, inbound marketing takes a while to get going. We want clients in the short term. Besides, inbound marketing is a lot more effective when you can show people actual results.

You don’t have any – so we need to go out to the market.

Find or make a list of people you think you can help. Contact them and then directly ask them if they would like help solving their marketing problem. It’s really that simple.

If you need a few more details here you go:

Reach out to decision makers through ‘warm’ methods. Meaning, at least they’ll have some idea of who you are and it gives you a reason why you’re reaching out.

I would focus on lumpy mail, email or social media (Facebook or LinkedIn). Avoid cold calling – it’s basically purgatory.

Email is still effective – but you need to keep it short and direct.

Lumpy mail works well for getting attention but it can get expensive. Especially when you use signature confirmation – which I found helpful.

It’s great to reach out via those methods but you’ll seldom get a response right away. The best thing you can do is follow up via phone and have a conversation.

Start your phone call with, “Hi Joe, is this a bad time?”. Psychologically this puts down the persons guard a bit.

If they say it’s a good time then go into your pitch.

If they say it’s a bad time schedule another call for a specific date and time.

If they ask what the call is about then you have a couple of options. If I had sent lumpy mail to them I would say, “I’m the garbage can/bank bag guy.” This is in reference to the type of lumpy mail package I sent him.

If I had emailed him I would say, “If you can give me 30 seconds I can explain why I’m calling. If we talk longer it’s only because you want to.”

At that point you’ve got their attention and their permission to talk. I’d encourage you to just focus on asking questions, uncovering pain points and trying to find out what is really bothering them.

Yes, some people will tell you no. Most of them are polite about it. Some people won’t be.

The first time someone treated me rudely it bothered me. But when you make enough calls you eventually realize that some people are just damaged goods. That’s life.

Move on. I promise you it’s not nearly as bad as your mind is telling you it well be.

That’s it. Find people who you think you can help. Reach out and start a conversation.

Even if you work full time you should be able to reach out to 100 potential clients in 30 days. If you do that you’ll find a client.

The first time I did this I made $1,000 in 10 days and I didn’t do any work. The guy actually paid me just for the info I had included in my lumpy mail package.

I’d also add that you’ll build your sales muscle. It’s one of the most valuable skills you can develop in life.

Once you have a client focus on doing good work and building a relationship. What constitutes good work? A lot less than you think actually.

I found that one of the most effective things was never missing a deadline. But an even more important strategy is to find out from the get go what the client REALLY wants.

For example, you may end up writing a promotion for the client. But during the course of working with them you discover that they’re having trouble retaining clients.

A great strategy to help retain clients is with a monthly newsletter. Not a crappy corporate one – but something that is actually fun to read and valuable.

That’s not only helpful for the client but gives you a recurring income stream.

Always be thinking about what could help your client and their customers and don’t miss a deadline. You’ll be 80% farther ahead then the rest of the competition.

Keep Things Simple And Take Action

If you want to become a copywriter (or any service provider for that matter) – it’s not complicated. Just take the advice in this article and put it into action.

It’s realistic to expect you can have your first paying client in 60 days. After that it will become easier and more profitable.