I’ve been a working writer for a few decades now. And in the past 10 years or so, I’ve had the additional privilege of being able to teach commercial writers how to get better gigs, and how do a better job with them.
As I look around at advice given to aspiring copywriters, there’s a weird piece of advice that I see all the time.
Success as a copywriter is about strategy, not writing ability.”
So, yeaaah, there’s some truth to that.
If you want to write for clients, understanding how marketing works tends to be more important than being able to write a short story that shows you’re the next Toni Morrison.
(By the way, if you are, in fact, the next Toni Morrison, embrace the hell out of that.)
But you need to take this advice with a Costco-sized grain of salt.
A few well-paid writing gigs are almost all about strategy. There are some very (very) highly paid conversion projects, like high-ROI sales pages, that call for what we at Copyblogger call a “pure killer.”
The pay can be stunning. But the truth is, there aren’t many of those jobs available. And they tend to go to writers who have years (or decades) of conversion copy experience, and stacks of data showing their results.
It’s a terrific gig, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy to attain. You’ll work your ass off, and it’s going to take you some serious time (and typically a great professional network) to get there.
At the other end of the professional spectrum, there are a lot of writing gigs that can nearly be written by a bot, and increasingly, that’s how they’re getting done. This is the very bottom of the Upwork barrel. The pay is typically terrible.
There’s really nothing to aspire to in this one, although you may want to experiment with a few of them as a way to try out the “writing for someone else” thing. Spend as little time as you can here.
But most good writing projects fall in the middle.
They don’t need a “pure killer,” who’s using strategic skills that have been honed over years of practice. And they don’t call for a voiceless bot, who’s just plonking words together one after the other.
They call for a little bit of strategy, a strong dash of creativity to make the work stand out, and a good listening ear.
Most of the time, for most good projects, being able to write well is a massive differentiator for well-paid copywriters.
What does “writing well” mean?
Typically, “writing well” means you can arrange words in a way that creates something powerful in the reader. An emotional state, a beautiful mental image. A writer who can make you laugh or cry or dream or shiver.
So why is there all this advice out there saying, “writing ability doesn’t matter”?
Because (and I realize this is kind of ugly), some folks can make a lot more money selling copywriting programs to people who can’t write very well.
The market for that kind of program is just bigger, because … most people aren’t good writers.
Adding to that is the widespread myth that “writing ability can’t be taught,” which is as silly as saying that the ability to play piano can’t be taught.
In fact, for all but a tiny minority, creative skill has to be taught.
The muses were mythological beings. The are no immortal Greek ladies who grant talent to the chosen few. In the real world, we study to get better.
Don’t polish a turd
I love strategy. I even love marketing.
I know it’s weird, but someone has to.
And there’s a marketing truth that no one can afford to ignore.
Great marketing of an inferior product just gets the word out more quickly about how crappy you are.
If you want to make a living writing, learning superb marketing strategy when your writing is still clunky can only take you so far.
Your website might be amazing, your prospecting skills might be exceptional. But until you can put words together in a pleasing way, most potential clients will look at your work, and … keep looking for another writer.
What kinds of things should a professional writer be working on?
Craft: The structure of your writing, including a strong writing voice and the ability to vary tone depending on the audience.
Creativity: The images, metaphors, and stories that make words on a page come to life.
Polish: The nuts and bolts of grammar and usage, so clients can relax and know that “my writer’s got this.” It shocks me a little that there are still professional writers who are sloppy with this one, because it’s the easiest to get right.
The sweetest writing careers are made of marketing strategy and hustle combined with a commitment to writing excellence.