Becoming a Real Writer: Getting Paid for Copywriting

It’s not as easy nowadays as walking into a newspaper office and impressing the editor-in-chief with your spunk. The newspaper and magazine industries have both been in decline for years, a decline that was certainly exacerbated by the financial crisis in 2008, but can trace its roots to the increasing number of people getting their news online, and a certain amount of uncertainty about how to make money this way, and pay their writers at the same time.

If, like me, you don’t have a degree in journalism, or some kind of related education, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get one of these traditional writing jobs, at least right off. Actually, the odds are against recent graduates of those programs, as well. There just aren’t enough staff jobs to go around. But that still leaves freelancing.

Freelancing involves getting paid by the assignment. In fact, many of this work won’t be assigned at all, but written in advance and then pitched to potential buyers. There’s plenty of unpaid work for a skilled writer, but if you’ve been doing this for a few years, and think the copy you produce is of a consistently-high quality, maybe it’s time you got paid for it.

Having said that, if you’re just starting out, you need to take anything that will pay the bills. Don’t sit there starving because you refuse to let your work be published anywhere other than National Geographic (which would probably be about the pinnacle with respect to my writing interests).

There’s a lot of work out there producing ad copy or basic content for informational or business sites. For example, a banking web site may want to hire a publicity team, which will in turn require copywriters, to create a series of articles on the different types of accounts they offer. Informational/instructional sites may want a tremendous volume and variety of material, on everything from cooking tips to financial advice to homework help.

You need two things: pre-existing areas of expertise (or at least solid research skills), and technical writing ability. If they want their copy to be AP style, you need to be able to produce copy in accordance with that style guide. If they want Chicago, that’s what you have to come up with. But when applying to these kinds of jobs, this is where you really take stock of everything else you know, and start using that non-writing experience to get your foot in the door.

Have you ever worked in finance, education, accounting, engineering, with animals, in construction? It’s possible that someone out there wants someone who can write copy on any of these subjects, or many, many more. My science and education backgrounds have both gotten me gigs in the past; more recently, my experience as an investor has gotten me a gig writing about  finance.

It’s all very romantic to say you’re throwing it all away to be a writer, but in reality, nothing should be thrown away. Everything you’ve ever done, including non-writing jobs and training, may be something you can leverage for a particular job. The next time, I can just say I have experience writing about finance, and provide some samples. But this time, I had to draw on knowledge from the non-writing areas of my life.

This is good general career advice. You never know what past job or volunteer experience you can use to help sell yourself for a particular position. A varied CV is a job-seekers best weapon.

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