Anyone who can string a sentence together can claim to be a copywriter, and many writers do.
This begs the question: What exactly is copywriting then, and what makes you a copywriter?
If you’re interested in freelance writing, writing copy for a living can be a lucrative practice—or it can be a complete waste of time. It’s absolutely critical that you develop a wide range of techniques beyond just copywriting skills.
So! Want a black belt in freelance copywriting? See if you’ve got these 11 skills you need to become a successful freelance copywriter.
(Don’t worry if you don’t have them all yet. These skills take time to hone and master, and as you develop them, you’ll begin to notice improvements even as a freelance writer. But gaining the copywriting skills you need in order to call yourself a freelance copywriter with confidence will generate enormous long-term profits as well.)
Skill 1: Creative writing
We tell stories for many reasons. They draw us in and provide gratification through escapism when all we want to do is just shut off. They help us make sense of issues from various perspectives that may not be readily apparent in the real world. They also help us relate, to people, to places near and far, and even to everyday events.
This skill set is one many copywriters share with writers in general, but very few people end up mastering the craft of creative writing. It’s a field all on its own, after all, but I’d argue that it distinguishes great copywriters from your average copywriter, and this applies to writers as well.
It’s safe to say, however, that most writers aren’t the creative type. But here’s a little secret:
No one is born a natural creative writer, let alone a creative copywriter. No one.
But we are all hardwired to share stories. (Whether we’re good at it is another matter.)
Storytelling has been a favorite human past time that predates writing. We engage in it daily. Get home from work and explain to your significant other why an ambulance had to show up at your workplace to take poor Patrick away on a stretcher.
Since conflict drives all stories, if you want to create content that’s immediately engaging, start by introducing a problem your reader might be experiencing. Then, guide your reader to the conclusion.
Quick side note: If you’re at all interested in writing brand copy or publishing fun and personable social media posts, creative writing skills will grant you a major advantage.
Must-Read Books on the Psychology behind Storytelling
To find out more about the psychology behind what makes stories memorable, I strongly recommend reading Dan and Chip Heath’s “Made to Stick”.
Skill 2: Persuasion Principles
Any writer can draft a decent landing page by copying and paraphrasing other landing pages in the same niche, but it takes a master copywriter with a comprehensive understanding of human behavior and decision making to persuade a substantial portion of the intended target audience to answer a specific call to action.
In essence, understanding what makes people tick (and why) is an essential skill any copywriter worth their salt should have.
And if it’s lacking from your arsenal, get to honing this critical skill immediately, because it’s the main skill set that distinguishes a copywriter from your average writer.
And that’s why it’s a common mistake for many copywriters to pigeonhole themselves into reading only books about writing copy. A great copywriter must read books in many fields, but especially in behavioral psychology (also known as Judgment and Decision Making).
“Influence” by Dr. Robert Cialdini is an oft-touted book. It’s a bit dated now because so much of it has entered common knowledge. But it’s still an excellent resource for beginners who want to learn about the psychological workings behind principles like social proof, scarcity, and other persuasive elements that are visible and applied all over the web today.
Marketing classics such as Jack Ries and Al Trout’s “Positioning” as well as Marty Neumeier’s “The Brand Gap” contain gems of knowledge that’ll strengthen your overall understanding of how people perceive symbols and associate them with how they feel.
This, in turn, should grant you greater control over how the companies you’re working with are perceived by their intended audiences.
As you can probably tell, persuasion skills come in many other forms.
For instance, I recently read 2 texts on how to present statistical data and graphs to help bolster my arguments.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
If you’re trying to improve your understanding of how people absorb information, high-converting sales letters and landing pages are worth studying closely before focusing on any other minutiae. Pay particular attention to how copywriters develop their argument, from the headline all the way down to the very last word.
|Check out Swiped.co for an extensive collection of classic ads that include annotations from copywriter Mike Schauer.|
Skill 3: Analytical and critical thinking
Can you look at an ad or a sales page and dissect it with a critical eye? Or understand the reasoning behind it?
Few copywriters make a living providing copy critiques. Kyle Pendergraft of Killjoy Copy is one such copywriter.
“Buyers aren’t impressed with copy. It’s not even something they’re aware of. Everyone has to budget what they want and need—even if the resource they value most is time. So be merciless in giving them a good reason to include your service in the list of things they’re willing to pay for.”
Also: Don’t be afraid to have your own opinion. Through experience and over time, you’ll come to notice that much of the information out there is a matter of opinion too, even when they come from gurus. A lot of it isn’t actionable, or even very good. So it’s important to be able to think critically for yourself, and question established norms.
Moreover, understanding how things connect and work in tandem (systematic thinking) is a critical skill that will definitely give you an edge over other copywriters, especially when it comes to growing your business.
To be able to examine a company’s marketing materials—from their website to their landing pages and video scripts—and to see how everything clicks together will make you a valuable asset for any business, big or small.
Also critical is an understanding of where their weaknesses and strengths lie based on your analytical and critical assessments.
Skill 4: Approachability
I’m not a social butterfly, and you don’t have to be either. Some friends think I thrive on social contact, but I can be socially awkward and intimidating. But if there’s one skill every freelancer must have, it’s this:
You must know how to talk to people. Not just pitch.
That doesn’t mean you have to be an extrovert. Not by any stretch. You can even be shy.
What this does mean, however, is that you must be able to perceive people’s reactions. Be observant. This is one skill you can definitely learn, even if being a social savage doesn’t come to you naturally. It just takes a little practice, like meditation.
Here’s a personal example:
A former research colleague of mine was strapped for cash, so I taught him some marketing and copywriting fundamentals to get him started. I tried to train him and drill into him a few concepts about human nature and communication, but he just. Did not. Get it.
He kept emailing prospects trying to sell to them, instead of approaching them with something they would find of value.
I hope he’s doing better now, but there’s a certain level of intuition at play that he was lacking.
Here’s what it boils down to:
Don’t approach potential clients with, “Hey, do you have a minute? This is what I’m selling” or anything of the sort. It’s self-serving, so why should they care?
Instead, give them a reason to care about what you have to say. Make it about them and their needs and what they stand to gain.
Leave them with a burning need to contact you back. Something that might be of such tremendous benefit to them that they would be complete fools to not throw money at you, or at the very least, reach out and hear what you have to say.
Skill 5: Pricing negotiation
If you’re starting out, it’s difficult to know what to charge. Charge too little, and you risk being seen as an amateur. Charge too much, and prospects will scoff at you.
That’s why it’s important to know your worth, negotiate accordingly, and be prepared. Make sure you arm yourself with the knowledge you need to be able to charge what you’re worth.
And if you want to charge higher rates, consider niching down. Take a page from veteran copywriter Chima Mmeje of Zenith Copy, who says, “Expect to pay more for subject matter experts who have more knowledge about your industry than a generalist.”
(Her link here is to an article on how prospects should choose a copywriter. It offers some fantastic insights into your prospects’ mindset. Well worth reading.)
How to make more money as a freelance copywriter
Read my comprehensive guide on negotiating your way to higher freelance copywriter rates.
Skill 6: Organization
Each freelancer needs to have their own way of staying organized.
For me, because I’m so terribly disorganized, I rely on online tools to stay on top of my business.
Here’s an example:
I use my phone to set reminders, use Google Calendar for a macro view of my schedule, and use Asana to coordinate all my projects.
I used to use the SEMRush marketing calendar (back when I was using SEMRush) to organize my marketing campaigns. I also had glass doors installed for my home office so I could cover it with illegible scribbles in my white, orange, and green markers.
Another thing I do regularly is keep checklists. There’s something so psychologically gratifying about ticking off those little boxes. Checklists also help keep you focused and on track. You can see all your tasks for the day on one list, so you know which ones to prioritize, should you not get to all of them. (I rarely do, but again, for this I use Asana.)
So I have a daily list of tasks to get through, and once I do (like reaching out to a minimum of 5 leads per day), I can end the day knowing it’s been a productive one.
If I can stick to it for a few days and consistently hit my targets, I reward myself because it encourages me to keep at it.
By the way, try writing your checklist for the next day the night before. If I write them on the day, they lose some of their pulling power.
Skill 7: Productivity
Self-discipline is one of the most desirable traits for anyone, but it’s particularly critical for freelancers. It’s the key to creating content consistently, the importance of which I cannot overstate.
Admittedly, productivity is an area I struggle with. I can go days without writing a word, whereas on other days, I’ll produce a full-length guide that’s ready to be published in a single sitting.
But if I couldn’t call the rates I do with my copywriting clients, I’d be in some serious trouble.
To stay motivated, I have post-it notes placed strategically around my house to remind me to take action.
“You cannot pursue greatness and comfort at the same time.”
Whenever I read it, it reminds me to get off my ass and start writing, studying, or whatever it is that keeps me away from the chessboard, where hours can vanish without a moment’s notice.
Skill 8: A Growth Mindset
If you’re defining what you do strictly as copywriting, and “freelance copywriter” is how you define yourself, then you’re seriously limiting your potential.
You must start thinking of yourself not just as a copywriter, but as a business owner. And not just as any business owner, but as a creative problem solver and content marketer as well.
Interested in content marketing?
Here’s a great blog post that’ll get you up to speed.
Most importantly, however, you need an entrepreneurial mindset.
This means you need to exercise flexibility and be adaptable to a wide variety of challenges. To recognize opportunities, to start perceiving things in terms of investments, and to start taking calculated risks.
It also means you need thick skin.
Constructive feedback can oftentimes get nasty, especially when it’s from good copywriters who don’t care about your feelings. And that’s fine. Your only job is to take what’s valuable to you, and discard the rest. Trust that they’ll respect you a whole lot more for it.
And don’t let the toxicity get to you. Certain people are outright nasty. So ignore them. If they’re not contributing to your success, they don’t matter.
I was listening to Joe Rogan on his podcast. Joe also does stand-up, and he’s a highly accomplished BJJ black belt. So imagine my shock when I heard him talk about how he feels inferior when he’s around other comedians he admires.
What helps? According to Joe, it was the realization that even the people at the top were ordinary folks just like him, just like you, like me, like all of us. They just found one way to make “it” work for them.
Skill 9: Writing for the Web
Writing for the web is different from writing in print. And we’re not just talking SEO, which we’ll get to in a second.
Because people read differently online (people tend to “scan”, rather than read), a fundamental understanding of how to help people absorb information online can go a long way to getting your message across.
What is readability?
Readability concerns the ease or difficulty your target audience experiences when absorbing your message. So if your target audience comprises engineers, you would not only speak in their language, but you’d keep your tone relatively formal and use more technical jargon.
But if your target audience comprised elementary school kids, would you speak to them about semiconductors and voltaic systems and what not?
And speaking of white space, be mindful of it.
Think about the struggle of having to read through a heavy block of text on a screen, especially a small screen like your phone’s. (To give you an idea, my paragraphs rarely go over four lines when I write for the web, but print is more accommodating when it comes to elaborating upon any of your points.)
Skill 10: Content Promotion
If you’re writing for the web, you must have, at minimum, a super basic understanding of SEO.
Why do I stress that every copywriter writing online must know at least a little SEO?
Think about it this way:
You’re the best damn copywriter on the planet. But if no one can actually find and read your copy, then you might as well hang up your pajamas and go looking for a “real” job.
But I didn’t say SEO in the heading here. I said content promotion. Why? Because that’s the second half of SEO, or as you may know it, link building.
See, the more links you have from authoritative sites linking back to you, the more Google believes your site is super important. This means you climb the search rankings, and appear for your chosen terms when your target audience searches for the info they’re after.
|A Brief Overview of SEO |
If you’re curious about SEO, the best beginner guide for SEOs is still brought to you in 2020 by Moz.
Skill 11: A positive attitude
As a freelance copywriter, there will be times where you struggle. Not every month will be a breeze. Sometimes, you’ll be wondering why you ever took the risk. But risk-taking is a big part of freelancing too.
So don’t be afraid of failure.
Because, make no mistake: You will fail.
I can promise you that.
But every failure is an opportunity to learn, and if you learn from it, it’s not actual failure:
As one of my favorite business people put it, “If you’re not failing, you’re not pushing your limits, and if you’re not pushing your limits, you’re not maximizing your potential.”
(This is from Ray Dalio’s seminal work, “Principles: Life & Work“, which I recommend to everybody.)
So! Fail. Analyze. Learn. Grow.
Embrace failure, and instill in yourself a healthy dose of resolve and determination to overcome your challenges.
Because no matter what, a positive attitude is a rare trait in this business, one that will get you very far in your journey to copywriting and business mastery.