This Pen for Hire

July 13, 2005

Several years ago, a friend from graduate school lent me a copy of Randall Rothenberg's Where the Suckers Moon: The Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign. While I enjoyed it, part of me was appalled by the book's portrayal of cynical copywriters seeking to drive up sales through intentionally manipulative prose.

Another part of me, however, couldn't help marveling at how little my own experience as a freelance copywriter resembled Rothenberg's depiction of the craft.

Many academics who yearn to write for a living gravitate toward some form of journalism. The image of the journalist as a dedicated truthseeker, unencumbered by crass commercial concerns, resonates far more strongly with scholars than does that of the copywriter -- a corporate shill in writer's clothing, a literary hack whose job it is to fleece the gullible and the unsuspecting of their hard-earned cash.

Yet copywriting encompasses a broad swath of writing for hire, the vast majority of which is entirely unobjectionable. And if you choose to work as a freelancer -- as opposed to taking a staff position at an ad agency or marketing firm, for example -- you have the luxury of pursuing only work that you're comfortable with, and avoiding anything that might make your ethical antennae twitch.

I wrote my first batch of copy while working toward my Ph.D. in musicology. A random encounter with a European record-label executive led to a job writing liner notes for scores of CD's. The work was fun, and it was lucrative. And while I didn't know it at the time, my essays comprised a form of copywriting known as "marketing collateral." The blurbs I now write for CD and DVD releases fall under the same broad category, as do the brochures I write for artists and nonprofit organizations.

The word "marketing" alone is enough to make many academics skittish, but it's often misunderstood.

There are, to be sure, scads of crass and offensive direct-mail pieces out there ("Dear Alexander Gelfand! You have ALREADY QUALIFIED for your FREE GIFT! Simply return the enclosed postcard with your SIGNED CHECK..."), just as there are fatuous, sleazy ads for fatuous, sleazy businesses ("At last, a way to eat more and exercise less, while LOSING AS MUCH WEIGHT AS YOU WANT!")

But most marketing copy is intended to inform rather than to deceive. And there's a sound business reason for this: People aren't stupid.

As Robert W. Bly points out in The Copywriter's Handbook: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing That Sells, you might succeed in fooling someone into buying a product or service once, but you won't do so twice. As a result, most businesspeople understand that honesty is the best policy, for reasons both ethical and economic.

And while copywriters are obliged to present their client in the best possible light, freelancers effectively choose their own clients, which means never having to write anything that makes you feel even vaguely uncomfortable for anyone whose product or mission you find suspect in any way.

As a result, I've been able to pay my rent without mortgaging my integrity. I've had the added pleasure of helping respectable organizations improve the quality of their written materials.

Those materials range quite widely. Corporate newsletters, requests for proposals, research reports, catalogs, conference literature, speeches, press releases, product packaging, direct-mail pieces and brochures -- virtually anything written for business, public relations, or marketing purposes lies in the copywriter's domain.

Fees vary widely, but copywriters in major metropolitan areas can bill anywhere from $50 to more than $100 per hour, depending on their expertise and experience. Many charge flat fees for particular kinds of projects -- this much for a brochure, that much for a press release -- based on ballpark time-and-effort estimates, as well as a sense of what the market will bear.

Like journalists, some copywriters write about anything and everything, while others prefer to specialize in a particular niche or two. Either approach is viable, but there's something to be said for playing to your strengths.

I've personally found it easier to acquire clients in areas where I can demonstrate some expertise, such as education, technology, and the arts. In addition to parlaying my musical skills into writing work for record labels and individual artists, I've capitalized on my experience working in software development to pursue technical writing and high-tech marketing jobs.

In addition, I've used my academic background to land clients in the education sector. (Most educational institutions have public-relations and marketing departments -- sometimes known as communications or public-affairs departments -- along with various alumni publications and newsletters. And many use freelancers.)

In copywriting, as in journalism, work samples are the coin of the realm. Copywriters have portfolios, while journalists have clips, but the idea is the same. And so is the problem, at least for the novice: How do you generate samples without first landing a gig?

Fortunately, building a copywriting portfolio from scratch is easier than you might think. Campus and community organizations are always in need of written materials, from event flyers and public-service announcements to grant proposals (grant writing is a specialty unto itself, and one with which many academics will already be familiar).

Copywriters who specialize in serving the nonprofit sector do much of their work for community-service organizations, local economic-development groups, school districts, and the like -- all of which have a need for white papers, research reports, and standard communications materials.

Identify an organization or business for which you'd like to write, and offer to do so for free. It will pay off in the end. Many copywriters, myself included, continue to write pro bono. Even when written in a spirit of altruism, such pieces can make excellent samples.

While you're at it, write a few pieces for trade and consumer publications, as well. I post both copywriting and journalism samples to my Web site, and the two reinforce one another. A well-written feature article may impress a prospective client as much as a brochure.

Some copywriters make money ghostwriting articles and books for businesspeople who lack the time or skill to do so themselves. You won't earn bylines doing that kind of work, but you'll still have the satisfaction of being paid to write well.

That last point is an important one: Good copywriting is good writing. Period. Some copywriters specialize in producing snazzy corporate slogans or memorable taglines, but most make their living by clearly and effectively conveying a client's message in simple, straightforward language.

While the content and format of what I write vary widely from project to project, the copywriting process itself remains largely the same. I begin by familiarizing myself with a particular product, service, or organization -- whether it's a Web site designed to help students prepare for the SAT, or a nonprofit agency with a central mission. Then I search for ways to express its benefits and features to a particular group of people.

My subject and audience determine the tone I'll adopt in the writing: formal or breezy, technical or jargon-free. But the process of researching, analyzing, and organizing my topic is one I first honed in graduate school. And finding the right voice for a piece -- determining how to reach a particular group of people in language they'll understand, making your message meaningful and relevant -- is something that should be familiar to any teacher who's ever had to explain an unfamiliar concept to a room full of students.

Of course, teachers don't normally have to recruit their own pupils, whereas freelance copywriters must find clients. The most effective means of doing so are networking and prospecting.

I landed my first copywriting and journalism assignments through networking, and I remain a fan. Nonetheless, in the absence of a large pre-existing network of people who can throw you work, the best way to build a client list is to identify a group of businesses or organizations to which you can make an effective pitch based on your skills and expertise, and offer them your services. Alternately, you can approach advertising agencies, marketing firms, and graphic-design shops, many of which use freelancers on projects.

The prospect of prospecting can be daunting at first, but it does get easier over time, and it's certainly effective. Whether you make cold calls or send out samples and cover letters, you will eventually generate interest. Even established copywriters periodically make calls and send out mailings to drum up fresh business.

I'm currently engaged in a round of cold calls, and while I may never love the process, I do like the results. (Peter Bowerman's The Well-Fed Writer provides a step-by-step plan for building a freelance copywriting business through directed cold calling, while his Back for Seconds illustrates various alternative methods for contacting prospective clients.)

While it does require effort, I've found a mixture of copywriting and journalism to be a financially sustainable way of exercising my creative and intellectual muscles. And I very much enjoy the independence of being a freelance writer.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a few phone calls to make.

In addition to his work as a freelance copywriter, Alexander Gelfand is an adjunct assistant professor of music in the fine-arts department at St. John's University in New York.