Today’s guest post is excerpted from How to Launch a Freelance Copywriting Business by Jules Horne. Jules is an award-winning playwright and fiction writer from Scotland who runs a copywriting business, Texthouse.
Writing for businesses is a way for skilled writers to earn a good, dependable income. Someone is responsible for writing all the websites, brochures, and marketing materials out there. Why not you?
In business, the people who write copy often aren’t trained writers. They may be business owners, or an employee who got stuck with the job. They probably don’t love writing as you do. They’re probably less than good at it. In truth, their writing may be letting down their business badly. This is where you come in, with your magic pen and professional writing skills.
Businesses large and small need writers. They need them to make a connection with customers, to get the message out about their products, to sell and to survive. But copywriting has changed massively in the past few years, and different kinds of work keep emerging. Most writing for business used to be print work; now the emphasis has shifted to web. Though most copywriters do both, it’s important to recognize that they draw on different skills and styles.
The emphasis on “content” in the digital world has also changed how writing skills are perceived and marketed—something to be aware of when reaching out to client businesses. Print and web writing also differ in the kinds of team members you’ll collaborate with. Print writing partners are usually graphic designers, while web writing partners may be web designers or SEO specialists. Here’s a breakdown of the main differences and challenges.
Writing for Print
Despite the rise of digital marketing, print is still important. One of the reasons is the longevity of print. It’s easy to close a website and forget it – out of sight, out of mind. But a brochure or leaflet is harder to discard. Many online retailers, particularly in fashion and lifestyle, still invest in print catalogues. Their book-like form makes them attractive – something for customers to hang onto, and return to. Color printing is also getting cheaper, thanks to digital technology opening up small print runs and print on demand. This puts print material within the reach of even tiny businesses. So print is here to stay.
The longevity and prestige of print has implications for copywriters. Clearly, whether you’re writing for print or web, perfect spelling and grammar are vital. But with print, your creation may stay around for a long time. I found one tourism leaflet I wrote still being used ten years later, even though some of the places it mentioned had closed.
Particularly for print jobs, if you can, it’s a good idea to work closely with the designer, respecting their process and responding to their drafts. The client will get a far better result, and you’ll have a great portfolio piece, which will do good business for you.
Writing for the Web
People reading on the web are often looking for information, usually as quickly as possible. So web copy has different features to print copy, including:
- shorter sentences, for easier flow on small devices
- headers, bullet points and paragraphs to break up the text
- non-linear flow, with more jumping around for the reader.
Distracting ads and animations also make it much harder to retain a reader’s attention, so reading is experienced as less immersive than in print. This means writers need to cut to the chase, and avoid introductory scene setting. Overall, writing for the web uses all your usual strategies, but with even greater emphasis on clarity and brevity.
SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” SEO copy is the art of writing content that is ranked high by search engines. In the early days of the web, this was something of a dark art. Shrewd web developers and writers could game the system by loading the copy with search terms—a process known as “keyword stuffing.” If you were marketing a disposable widget, the words “disposable widget” had to appear as many times as possible within the text. This led to shouty, unnatural web copy with a high keyword density. Thankfully, Google and other search engines now penalize these practices.
If you’re technically and analytically minded, you may want to consider specializing in SEO, and go on to learn about Google Analytics and digital marketing. Most SEO specialists aren’t trained writers—and lack skills to disguise SEO tactics—so this could give you a lucrative niche.
Search engines are evolving all the time, so SEO tactics that work one month may not work the next. Companies sometimes put their efforts behind a specific SEO strategy, only to find their sites taking a big dive in search rankings, when Google changes its algorithms. The only consistently powerful strategy is fresh, relevant, well-written content that people want to read. This is good news for writers.
A complete SEO copywriting primer is a book in itself, but the good news is that a few basic principles will get you a long way. Search engine-friendly writing means writing for two different conceptual spaces:
- Body content. This is the copy on the actual web pages and blogs, clearly visible on the web, to both people and search bots.
- Structural content. This is the behind-the-scenes text that helps search engines. It includes meta descriptions, tags, headlines, titles and other structural elements of a site. Some of these are invisible to people, and planted solely for search bots.
Search engine bots are truffle-hunting the best words relevant to each search. You don’t need to write code, but if you can write the basic bot-friendly elements, you’re on your way to being an SEO copywriter.
Meta descriptions are the two-line elements (“snippets”) of text that appear in search results. If you haven’t inspected them before, take a look now, by opening your browser and doing a search.
Meta descriptions are a mini taster for the web page. They help visitors to decide whether to click on the site—essentially a free advertising space—so they need to be specially written. If you spot a meta description filled with incoherent text, it’s because the bots didn’t find a pre-written snippet, and used whatever was at hand. An SEO copywriter will supply separate meta descriptions for each page. This is typically a customer-friendly sentence or two, of no more than 140 characters.
URLs are the web address at the top of every website page. Any words they contain need to be carefully considered from a marketing and keyword point of view.
This isn’t really a copywriter’s job. It’s an SEO job. Ideally, your client should either hire an SEO expert, or do their own research. However, some awareness of SEO considerations can help you give a valuable steer to clients.
For example, a URL that includes “cheap-flights” is likely to get more hits than one with “low-cost-flights,” simply because it’s a more intuitive, easily typed search term. You can help clients and web designers to make better choices by making sure the URLs include words customers might use in search. These may not be the words most used by companies, who are often steeped in expert vocabulary.
If you’re working with an SEO specialist, they should supply you with a list of site URLs containing keywords agreed with the client. If not, check in with the website designer, for a clear understanding of the site map and intended URLs.
“Content” is a rather maligned term amongst writers. It conjures up the unfortunate image of bottomless digital vats waiting for “stuff” to be poured into them, whatever the quality. However, it’s really just a matter of terminology. People searching the internet are looking for something, mostly information and entertainment. “Content” is whatever meets their needs. Content farms deserve special mention because some writers have been lured into writing for them for ridiculously low pay. Don’t go there! This activity is at the low end of the internet market, highly exploitative, and needn’t concern you. Mass-produced content is increasingly filtered out by search engines, in any case.
Be aware, however, that you may be asked to write “SEO content,” as SEO specialists widely use this terminology. If you work with an SEO specialist, they’ll usually provide the URL, some keywords, and the target audience, and you then write to that brief. The trick is writing within these tight parameters in an engaging way that hides any clunky SEO techniques.
If you can write creatively to order, you may find SEO specialists knocking at your door. Or, even better, acquire those skills yourself. SEO specialists are often paid a monthly retainer, so it can be lucrative and regular work. SEO is the Wild West of marketing. The territory is constantly shifting, and you need to be prepared to keep up with training, algorithms and future developments such as the “semantic web.” If this sounds exciting rather than terrifying, it may be for you.
Blogging is another area where copywriters can help businesses. Often, people don’t have the time to write their own blogs on a regular basis. Many new sites start off with great enthusiasm with two or three posts, then peter out. You can help here, by providing business owners with a straightforward solution. If you do this well, it can become a regular source of income.
Some copywriters offer to “content manage” client sites. This means offering an end-to-end service, including posting at the blog and sometimes images on the client’s websites. To make this more economical for clients, offer to batch up items and do several at once, saving time on both sides. Short-form blog content isn’t a lucrative source of income, but a blogging specialist could develop a nice work pipeline with a large enough number of clients.
- SEO introduction. Get the basics in five minutes from Moz.
- Start local. Get your first job close to home.
- Copyblogger is long-time resource for copywriters on the web.
- For US-based writers, consider scanning Freelance Writing Jobs for copywriting gigs.
If you found this post helpful and are interested in starting your own copywriting business, take a look at Jules Horne’s How to Launch a Freelance Copywriting Business.
Jules Horne is an award-winning fiction writer and playwright. She teaches for the Open University and lives in the Borderlands—the part of Britain that inspired Game of Thrones. For a manual of performance-ready tips and techniques needed for audio-first writing, see Writing for Audiobook: Audio-First for Flow and Impact by Jules Horne, Book 3 in the Method Writing series.