Updated: Jan 16
How do you transition into copywriting from another career?
I often hear from newsletter subscribers who feel burnt out in their careers. The most common story I receive—probably because I work in tech—is from developers and IT professionals. They’re burnt out from coding and constantly putting out digital fires. They'd rather put their creativity to the test. Copywriting seems to them like a great option (and I agree!).
Another group I hear from regularly are journalists. In their case, most want to leverage their writing chops to work with businesses. Why? Because businesses tend to pay more and have more projects than publications. Copywriting is an opportunity to earn a better living as a writer.
So, let's talk about what a copywriting career is actually like and how you might be able to break into it. I began my freelance copywriting business six and a half years ago. In this article, I'll break down how I would transition into copywriting if I had to start from scratch today.
Copywriter job description
What does a copywriter do?
A copywriter is someone who works in the marketing industry. They write the words that are used in TV commercials, web pages, sales scripts, digital ads, and direct mail campaigns to persuade someone to make a purchase.
Think of copywriters as salespeople. Instead of picking up the phone to speak with leads, copywriters do their selling through the written word.
A day in the life: Is copywriting a good career?
Copywriting careers fall into three general buckets: in-house, agency, and freelance.
Most of the people I hear from in my newsletter aspire to be freelancers because of the autonomy of working for yourself. But there are incredible benefits to each of these copywriting career buckets. Let’s explore a day in the life of each.
In-house copywriting career
In-house copywriters work for one company. They report to the marketing department of a single organization, drafting everything from the website to the advertising copy. The upside of working as an in-house copywriter is that you get to imbed yourself in a team and help build something for the long term. Instead of constantly changing focus and being onboarded to new teams and projects, you can become a master writer for that one brand.
One of the most obvious benefits of in-house copywriting is a salary. You get paid to write! Plus, working for a company often means receiving additional benefits retirement matches, health and life insurance, and stock option benefits, among other perks.
So, who are the best people to work in-house? My bet would be people who are excited about the brand they’re working for. In-house copywriters can help form the voice and tone of their company, defining over time who the company is and how it communicates with its customers.
Agency copywriting career
Agency copywriting careers carry many of the benefits of in-house copywriters, with a few key differences. Rather than working for one company, agency copywriters might work with several brands at once. If you enjoy variety in your workweek, agency copywriting might be an ideal career.
One way to think of agency copywriting is that it brings together the best of freelancing with the best of in-house work. For example, freelancers also get to partner with many people and brands, but they also carry heavy risks: if freelancers don’t find clients, they don’t get paid!
At an agency, you can work with many clients while also enjoying the steady salary and benefits of working for an established company. The downside is that agency life has a negative stereotype: working around the clock. Many agencies must produce remarkable work on short deadlines. If you’re trying to achieve work-life balance, better read some Glassdoor reviews before applying to any agency.
Freelance copywriting career
I’ll try to hold myself back here because I’m heavily biased toward freelance copywriting. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. So, here’s my experience:
As a freelance copywriter, I work with many companies across industries (though I’m focused on tech). I get to (mostly) set my own schedule. I earn way more working for myself from home than I ever earned working a 9-5 job.
But let’s not ignore the downsides. Freelancing is very risky. If you don’t build a reliable system for finding clients, your income can dry up overnight. This is the dreaded “feast or famine” that people talk about in business. One day you’ll be earning more money than you ever imagined. A month later, you’re at your desk wondering where all the work and paychecks went.
Also, a freelancer must wear all the hats in their business. You don’t just write copy all week. You must promote your business, track income and expenses, correspond with clients, and onboard regularly onto new teams, software, and process. It can be exhausting. Plus, many find working alone lonely.
All in all, I think whether you choose to be a freelancer, agency copywriter, or in-house copywriter depends on your risk preferences and personality. The good news is: you can give each of them a try. Test the waters. Get a few freelance gigs and then work for an agency for a few years. When you’re ready to move on, you can apply to work in-house for a company. Copywriting is a highly flexible creative career.
How to successfully transition into copywriting from another career
The difficult thing about writing articles like this is that everyone’s professional path is different. If you want to become a copywriter, I believe you can do it by putting in the time, energy, and hard work. Copywriting is, after all, a highly in-demand skill set. You also don’t need any special degrees or certifications.
While it’s true every career is different, there are a few general steps that most career transitions into copywriting have in common. The way I see it, there are five steps to a smooth career change.
(Also, if you want a longer deep dive, you can explore my popular article about becoming a freelance copywriter.)
Here are the five steps to transitioning into copywriting from another career.
Step #1: Learn copywriting best practices and first principles
There are no shortcuts to learning any new skill. Mastering copywriting requires practice, feedback, and dedicated learning.
The good news is, if you have a genuine curiosity about copywriting, there is no shortage of awesome resources on the web to move your education forward. Here are some places to learn the basics of copywriting:
Subscribe to my free newsletter: The Craft and Business of Writing
Buy my copywriting guide (just $14)
Listen to High-Income Writing Podcast
Listen to The Copywriter Club Podcast
Read the Copyhackers blog
Read the Copywriting Course blog
Read the Millo blog
Browse the Marketing Examples website
Read my copywriting blog (like you’re doing now!)
Step #2: Create samples
Once you’ve learned the basics, it’s time to put those skills to practice. You can practice on your own by rewriting ads and website copy you come across throughout your day. Go to your favorite websites and pay careful attention to the text used throughout the site, especially the main pages. How would you rewrite this copy? What do you like about the current copy? What do you dislike? Pay attention to all these things. It’ll help you improve.
Not interested in writing just for yourself? You can also practice writing for real organizations. My recommendation is to volunteer (or charge very little) for your first few projects. You’re new to this, after all, and should probably put a few reps in before you start charging the big bucks.
Consider volunteering your writing for an organization or cause that you believe in. This is how I got my first professional writing samples. You can write for your church, your favorite local nonprofit, or just for an event in your community.
Do some of your friends run small businesses? Ask if you can write (or rewrite) their copy for free. If they insist on paying you, just ask them to leave you a kind review instead. A great review is more valuable than money at the beginning of your copywriting career because it helps you generate future paid work.
The point of these exercises isn’t just practice (though that’s important too). You’re also building a portfolio. Portfolios are where copywriters showcase their writing samples. Having a strong portfolio will increase your chances of getting your first copywriting job or project.
Step #3: Decide between freelance, agency, or in-house copywriting opportunities
Armed with your copywriting samples, it’s time to begin applying to copywriting opportunities. That means deciding whether you’d prefer to freelance, work in-house, or work in an agency.
For in-house and agency roles, I recommend browsing these sites:
And here’s where to find your first freelance copywriting gigs:
Your network (email friends and former colleagues)
Step #4: Find your unique advantage
When you transition into copywriting from another career, you bring one unconventional advantage: outside experience. In other words, what you lack in copywriting experience you make up for in other industry experience.
For example, if you’re a software developer transitioning into a copywriting career, you understand software, web development, and computer science much more clearly than most other copywriters. That can be your competitive advantage when you begin applying to jobs.
My sister works in sales. During the 2020 pandemic, she was put on leave. My sister asked me where she could find freelance writing work. I pointed her to Upwork and encouraged her to leverage her sales experience in pitches and during interviews. Within 24 hours, she landed her first writing client. Over the next few weeks, she won multiple other writing contracts, providing her with a decent replacement income when she needed it most.
Consider how you can pull your prior career knowledge to make you stand out in copywriting roles.
Step #5: Master higher level copywriting skills
Once you’ve mastered the basics of copywriting through practice, you can begin to raise your value by learning additional skills. Copywriting is like most careers: it seems simple on the surface but carries endless depth once you really start exploring it.
When you’ve learned the basics of copywriting, here are a handful of additional skills you can master to take your earning potential and competitiveness to the next level:
SEO writing and keyword research
Direct response and conversion copywriting
Content marketing and content marketing strategy
Split testing (A/B testing)
UX writing (content design)
Customer research and interviewing
My story: How I stumbled into my copywriting career
I’ll be honest: it’s odd to reflect on how I discovered copywriting. I’m sure many people will look back on their careers and relate. In the moments leading up to significant changes, everything feels random, normal, or natural. It’s not until years later, with hindsight, that those moments unveil their significance.
As Steve Jobs once put it, "You can't connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward.”
In a way, I was born to be a copywriter. I grew up with a deep passion for writing. I was the kid who always wrote short stories and aced school papers. Also, my dad was a consultant who used writing to grow his one-person practice. So I grew up in a household with someone who was effectively a freelance writer.
As I entered the workforce, I continued to write. Businesses took notice. My first professional writing opportunity was for a nonprofit. They were looking for a volunteer writer. I loved the idea of writing for a cause, so I volunteered my time and words for two years.
Over the next handful of years, I worked many odd jobs. I put on live events, worked in a print store (where I learned the enjoyable art of binding books), and performed a smattering of other jobs, never falling into a true career.
At 23, I resigned from the print store and didn’t have the next job lined up. I asked my friend Aaron what he thought I should do next. His answer changed my life. He said, “Alex, you live in a tech city and you’re a great writer. All these developers know how to create software but they don’t know how to talk about what they’ve built. Why don’t you just write for those tech companies on a freelance basis?”
The next day I bought my first copywriting book. Within a few weeks, I had my first copywriting client. Six and a half years later, I’m still here—and not going anywhere. Like I said at the top of the article: Freelance copywriting is the best job I’ve ever had. I’m in this for the long run.
But enough about me. What piqued your interest in copywriting? Share your story in the comments.
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