5 Things I’ve Learned Since Starting to Call Myself a Copywriter

Look, it’s the last Thursday in November in the United States!

Allow me to cram this post into a contrived Thanksgiving framework so it makes sense that I wrote and published it today:

What am I thankful for? The following 5 knowledge bombs, and the knowledge that more knowledge bombs will continue to drop as I turn into an old, wrinkly, cranky version of myself (and eventually go live on a mountaintop where people come to seek my wisdom. And bring me gifts. Preferably gifts made of simple carbohydrates.)

There! Done. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

5 THINGS I'VE LEARNED SINCE I STARTED TO CALL MYSELF A COPYWRITER

5 things I’ve learned since starting to call myself a copywriter

1. Being a good writer does not make you a good businessperson

Here’s the thing about starting a business: the better you are, the more self-conscious you are about bragging on yourself. Can literally anyone hang their shingle and say, “I’m a copywriter”? Yes. Yes they sure can. Self-doubt is the name of the game when you are a baby writer looking for any and all jobs on Elance (and Craigslist–see below).

And oh boy, if you’re ever looking for evidence that running a business is about growth, check out the first few client emails you sent.

Mine were so stiff, and yet somehow defensive at the same time. It was as if I was saying, “I’m important! I’m good at stuff! But also I am scared to death and you better pay me, or else.”

I also used to offer copy editing services on Craigslist. I wish I could say that was a learning experience.

I also used to offer copy editing services on Craigslist. I wish I could say it was a learning experience.2. You can always be a better writer

Dear First Clients and Clients Shortly Thereafter,

Do I think you got a raw deal? No. I was undercharging like crazy and doing free work all the time, and I’m 100% certain that I improved your copy.

Do I think my understanding of copywriting and sales and pretty much everything about me has improved a millionfold since then? Yes. Yes I sure do.

3. Sometimes cutting extra words is not the answer

I offered editing services–both copy editing and more substantial content editing–for a long time. Cutting copy down to its bare necessities has always been one of my strengths. But no best practice is best 100% of the time. [Click to tweet]

Long-form sales pages have been shown time and time again to be effective in many cases. Turns out that when you need to persuade folks to do something, you gotta spend some time and effort. File under #commonsense and also #notaseasyasitsounds.

4. People are irrationally attached to the words they use to describe themselves

Copywriters reading this: Ever have a client who hired you to write something for them, then changed your final draft on their own? Without giving you a chance to explain why you chose the words you did?

Or a client who turned out to be completely intractable when it came to revamping a tagline or elevator pitch, because they’d been using the same one for so long it just felt wrong and weird to mix it up?

People can be stubborn and dumb and scared, so copywriting is sometimes less about the words you use in your work, and more about the words you use to persuade them that 1) this is forward progress and 2) forward progress is good.

5. Saying no is fucking great

Everybody and their mom talks about why it’s important to learn to say no. But this is my blog, so now you have to read what I think about it.

Recently, I’ve been turning down new client inquiries left and right because I am very popular and important, according to my mom.

I’m not turning down requests because I can’t handle the work (we’re all gluttons for punishment, after all)–but because I’ve learned to sniff out a “bad client” from miles away. This is the archetypal Disney villain-cum-bullheaded-moron who simultaneously undervalues you and needs your help all the time; whose invoices are late and whose revisions are premature.

The flip side of this is that when I spy a potential client who seems to really know why they’re looking for a copywriter and the actual dollar value (in ROI) of the services I provide, I will run to that client like Forrest Gump to Jenny.

TL;DR: Today, on Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for growth. And pie.

GET CREATIVES is coming to Propeller on July 13!

Hey, New Orleans business owners, marketers, and entrepreneurs! I’ve been working on this thing with my talented friends Julia Sevin and Frank Aymami, and we want to share it with you.

Get Creatives is a pithy 45-minute presentation that packs in a ton of information you need to know if you’re the one who markets your business. Register now on Eventbrite, or read on for a few more reasons to join us on July 13 at 6pm!

Communication design: What it is, and why it matters

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You’ll learn how your investment in communication design (including copywriting, graphic design, and photography) actually increases your profits and positions your brand for bigger and better things.

You’ll get actionable tips on where to find “creatives”; how much to pay them; what to ask for; and what to look out for.

And you’ll learn how to scrimp smartly so you can save your marketing dollars without sacrificing the end quality of your product.

Register ahead of time >>>

Did you know…

  • 55% of your website visitors will spend less than 15 seconds on a given page
  • Your contract with an independent creative should always specify a kill fee
  • You might not own the rights to the photographs you commissioned

There’s a lot more where that came from.

We’re going through the entire process of working with a “creative”–everything from how and where to find quality writers, designers, and photographers, to contracts and taxes, to the best way to send feedback and get the results you want.

Join us July 13 at 6pm at Propeller Incubator to find out more!

What I Wear to Write

[Note: Hilary Joyner of Cutie Cameras and a few other ladybloggers invited me to do a #bloggeroutfit post today. Get ready for some serious navel-gazing. –Lianna]

 

The write way to dress

Here’s how I feel about “writing clothes”: What you wear informs your comfort, and your comfort informs the tone (and sometimes the quality) of your writing. Bear with me, because there’s a happy middle ground here.

Comfort is paramount. But being too comfortable isn’t good either. After all, I’m working. Gotta get my brain in the game.

As I write this, I’m still in my pajamas. Why? I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU, FELLOW SLOBS. But when I’m writing something important–say, a landing page to increase conversions–I’m probably going to want to wear pants.

If I have a solid writing day with no meetings (#blessed), I usually go for jeans or cutoffs, a comfy T-shirt, and flats. If I really don’t want anyone to bother me at the coffee shop (read: most days), I wear my glasses. They frame my BRF nicely.

 

You can have my T-shirts when you pry them from my cold, dead hands

You probably want one of these shirts now.
Hildegard T-shirt FTW.

I collect T-shirts on pure intuition, which has led me to acknowledge that:

1) They’re usually gray.

2) They must be insanely soft.

3) I like people to know that I know about cool things that they probably don’t know about.

My newest acquisition–this kickass band tee from my friends (and rock superstars) Hildegard–fits the bill. It’s just creepy enough, nice and long, and did I mention how soft it is? Perfect for writing. And doing everything else.

Please don’t make me take it off.

I feel naked without earrings

In high school/early college, I went through a phase wherein the bigger my earrings were, the better. I’m talking plate-sized, pressed-tin “LEO” astrology-themed danglers, big ol’ wooden circles, you name it. I loved them.

One day, something changed, and since then, I’ve preferred post earrings. Was it an invasion of the body snatchers, or my burgeoning maturity? Maybe it was Maybelline! We’ll never know.

Either way, my Etsy wishlist now bears witness to my love for delicate post earrings. And wooden furniture. And backpacks. And necklaces. OH MY GOD I WANT IT ALL.

Owl about town.
Hoooooo are you?

These adorable little owls were made by my pal Miss Malaprop, who also happens to be participating in the #bloggeroutfit post roundup! They’re the earring equivalent of a great T-shirt: cute but not too fancy, goes with everything, and can be worn multiple days in a row without anyone noticing the smell.

Flats are my jam

Look, I love heels. I have a closet full of beautiful heels that, if they could talk, would probably be croaking something like “Please…just let me die…” I bust out a pair about two or three times a year.

Maybe it’s my crippling lack of self-confidence, but most days, I’m happy being 5’8″ and walking comfortably.

eBay jelly flats!
Flat as hell and SPARKLY TO BOOT! (Get it?)

I got these insanely sparkly jelly flats on eBay for like, $5. I wear them on days when the sky is not quite ominous enough for rain boots, but you JUST KNOW that if you wear anything leather on your feet, you’ll get drenched.

Moment of silence for all the ruined suede flats out there.

Anyway, that’s usually what I wear to write! Was this the most self-indulgent post ever? If you think so, you probably haven’t read this one.

The 3 Laws of Copywriting

[Psst–this post is by Terra, the sharp-as-a-tack English Maven intern! Don’t you wish your intern was smart like mine? OK, enough bragging. Read on. — Lianna] 

Fabulous graphic goes here.

When it comes to writing for any genre, there’s a clear list of minimum required skills. You need to know how to read and write, how sentences and paragraphs work, and how to build on them to create meaning. And while anyone can apply that baseline, lowest-common-denominator skillset to just about anything written, not all wordsmiths can write copy.

Let me break that down just in case you, like me, are math-challenged: you need to know how to do much more than write to be a good copywriter. It’s not enough to be able to write a nice metaphor—great copywriters turn phrases that turn into dollars. And you can, too.

In order to harness this power, you must first understand it. The art of copywriting distinctly differs from other forms of writing. Once you learn the rules of copywriting, you can follow them, apply them, customize them, and use them to transform into the copywriter you were meant to be.

Are you ready? Let’s begin.

1. Copy sells something.

Copy is writing that businesses use to advertise a product’s market value. To effectively sell a product, copy must inform, entice, and inspire the audience to become customers. Good copy appeals to its audience, and allows readers to realize the product’s value, connect its benefits to their specific needs, and compel them to buy it by outlining how said product could improve or enhance their lives. If your writing doesn’t sell, the product won’t either. That’s it.

2. Copy targets a specific audience.

Everyone is different, but not that different. Understanding what unifies your target audience is crucial to determining its wants and needs: information you can use to better appeal to them.

Knowing your audience will also shed light on other make-or-break factors, like which publishing platform will drive the most traffic, which advertising channel will return the best results, and which tone and style resonates the most with your audience. Focusing on the customer is a huge part of that equation—by tailoring your copy to a key customer demographic or demand, you can capture their attention more fully and direct business where it matters most.

3. Copy compels its audience to take action.

If your copy doesn’t impact your bottom line, it’s your bottom on the line. Copy’s ultimate goal is to turn readers into customers; if your copy isn’t compelling, the audience won’t respond to it, period. Inciting copy allows readers to visualize the product’s benefits to their lives, which makes becoming a customer more attractive to them.

In order to spur its audience to action, your copy needs to explain why the reader should care, what to do about it, and then exactly how to do that thing. To that end, clients often work with copywriters to determine how the copy should come across to maximize results– inclusive of tone, language style, customer preferences, length, structure, content, and technicalities. Such client specifications are important for producing effective copy, but the process is by no means a one-way street: copywriting is very much a collaborative activity, one in which the customer’s needs and writer’s voice must be heard (and read) to achieve the best possible end result.

There you have it: the three tenets of copywriting that will help you drive profitable business, better communicate with potential customers, and transform your love of language into a tool more powerful than you could ever imagine. By crafting masterful copy, a writer can convey meaning and create opportunity.

But do be wary of your new powers…with great copy comes great response-ability. 

Book Review: Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin Better Than Before. Am I right or am I right/

Here’s a confession: I have discovered my soft spot for self-improvement books. I don’t say “self-help,” because that genre has long been maligned (and justly so, for titles like these), and now it just sounds stupid.

But “self-improvement” books—books based on research, on science, on facts—those I can get behind. So, when Birchbox Book Club sent me a free copy of Better Than Before, I set about reading it.

Better Than Before is an obnoxiously profound read.
I wanted to like it. And I did.

Step 1: Recognize you are just completely, totally flawed.

Rubin writes in a casual, conversational style, which is great when you’re subconsciously comparing yourself to her and losing.

I held off judgment until page 20 or so, when Rubin describes the “Four Tendencies” of people. There are Upholders, who meet both internal and external expectations, but may get exhausted and fail to find time to recharge. There are Obligers, who have no trouble meeting external expectations, but won’t meet a goal if no one’s relying on them for success. There are Questioners, who will only meet an expectation if it seems worthwhile, valid, and reasonable to them. And then there are Rebels, who don’t give a fuck about “expectations”.

I’m not one to dichotomize myself, but it was pretty gratifying to immediately identify with the Obliger tendency. Most people see me as an Upholder, but they have no idea how many of my own projects and commitments are languishing at the back of my mind, slowly starving to death. I know I should do [Certain Thing], but unless someone is counting on me to do it, there’s a good chance I won’t.

For example, my exercise schedule tends to go something like this.

Friend: “Hey, want to run around the park on Wednesday?”

Me: “Yeah, let’s do it!”

Friend: “I can’t go today 🙁 “

Me: *sits at home binge-eating pita chips and re-watching Battlestar Galactica*

The book offers more tendencies and how to identify your own—from things like when you wake up and go to sleep (Owls vs. Larks), to whether you’re able to control your food cravings (Moderators) or you’re better off avoiding temptation completely (Abstainers).

Each idea is framed by Rubin’s own experiences forming new habits, breaking old ones, and inflicting her Type A personality on friends and family members.

Step 2: Be okay with that.

The point is not simply to classify yourself, though. The point is to get a close-up view of the type of person you are–so you can approach forming better daily habits in a way that works for you and will be more likely to stick.

Rubin peppers the book with research citations and other examples that, while less scientific, are at least inspiring. This is another book that makes you think, “Well, why not?” or “What if…?”

She then offers several “pillars” for building stronger habits. These strategies are often rooted in common sense, and more often than not, the need to be honest with yourself replaces the need for iron willpower.

Step 3: Are you enlightened yet?

It’s funny, because I’m not sure if Rubin and I would be friends in real life. She says she doesn’t like music and prefers plain food, and other things that sound, well, pretty boring. But she knows these things about herself, and she is fine with them. She has enough self-knowledge to empower habits that matter to her (like enforced daily “Quitting Time”), and ditch the ones that don’t (like meditation). Seriously, though? Everyone can benefit from meditation.

Her main commandment is “Be Gretchen”. That earned her my grudging admiration (you’re welcome, Gretchen. Surely you were sitting at home, waiting for that).

In some way, it’s almost like permission to “Be Lianna”. It’s a heady feeling for someone already deep in the process of trying to be her best self (still talking about me here). This book is Mindfulness Lite, for people who want to gain more self-knowledge—which makes it especially funny to me that Rubin didn’t see any benefit to meditation.

But far be it from me to call the kettle black. I can’t promise that I’ll stick with my newly re-energized dedication to 10 minutes of daily meditation, or with the  bright yellow blocks of time on my calendar dedicated to twice-weekly yoga. Or that I’ll stop eating sugar. (Hell, I ate half a bag of Hershey kisses while I finished this post.)

But the one  lesson of Better Than Before that stuck in my mind (and was promptly supplemented by this TED Talk) is that once you’ve decided to do something, you’ve decided. You need waste no more time on agony.

I hadn’t thought of my life like that before. It seems like a game-changer. We’ll see what happens.

 

Your Pre-Event Social Media Checklist

Y’all, New Orleans Entrepreneur Week kicked off this weekend, and in between preparing for our presentation and building a new website to go along with it (yes, that’s right, I took that on for some reason), I’ve been thinking about writing this post.

There are lots of “social media checklists” out there–and some of them are super helpful. But there wasn’t one that focused specifically on what to take care of before you attend a conference, talk, or party. Until now.

May I present to you: 5 social media tasks to handle before you step inside the doors of your next event.

1. Update your headshot.

If the last time you got your professional photo taken was more than 5 years ago; or if you’ve changed your look significantly; or if you had a luscious head of hair back then, and now, schoolchildren regularly rub your chrome dome for good luck–it’s time for a new headshot.

Once you’ve got a new headshot, standardize it across your professional profile. You want to avoid having your LinkedIn photo, which says, “Yes, I am a consummate professional!” undercut by your Twitter photo, which says, “Yes, I sure do love to stuff my face with crawfish, yes I do.”

2. Make sure your last tweet showcases your business.

If you’re a prolific tweeter, this won’t be a problem for you. Chances are, you’re tweeting interesting industry tidbits at least a small percentage of the time. But if you only created a Twitter account last year because you read in Forbes that it’s important, and your last tweet dates from the Super Bowl and reads, “lol wats up with those sharks next to katy perry??? #confused”…just post another, more flattering tweet.

Or better yet, more than one.

Push that Katy Perry tweet as far down as you can, friend.

3. Check your privacy settings.

Don’t want 400 creepy friend requests from strangers or deposed Nigerian princes? Would prefer your intimate Disqus comments stay, well, intimate? Better tweak those privacy settings before you give out a million business cards.

4. Create a boosted post.

Targeted correctly, a boosted Facebook post can reach the people you’ll be meeting at your fancy upcoming event. That way, when you reach for their hand and introduce yourself, they might just be familiar with your brand already–and as we all know, familiarity breeds contempt loyalty.

5. Write a new blog.

You like how I’m taking care of item #5 with this very post? It’s so meta, either you or I will probably explode at the end of this sentence.

But seriously, update your blog if you have one. This item is especially important for those in a content field (which, ahem, is all of you. Even if you don’t think so). A new blog says, “I’m active and invested in my business!” An old blog is almost as bad as a Katy Perry shark tweet. These pop culture references will self-destruct in three…two…one…

 

One last thing: If you are not the schmooziest schmoozer in the book, a slug of bourbon and a big friendly smile never hurt anyone.

 

How to Build a Better Bookshelf

Let me ask you something: How many of the books on your bookshelf have you read more than once?

Do you have a book (or books) that you reach for when you’re feeling down, or motivated, or adventurous?

Side note: If you don’t have a bookshelf, GTFO. I refer you to this John Waters quote.

Here’s the Best Bookshelf for Me — What’s Yours?

Here's my much-loved shelf.
Books, whiskey, pictures of friends and family. Plus a gumball machine. What’s not to love?

I’ve been too focused on screens lately. Using RescueTime, I can tell exactly how long I’ve been on my computer–and it’s around 45-50 hours every week.

I’ve been forgetting to read. 

When this happens, I get a handle on my brain by standing in front of my bookshelf. I reach for the first title that speaks to me. Usually, it’s fiction. Usually, it’s something I’ve read before.

We overuse the word a lot, but I believe your bookshelf should be “curated”–so that when you make the conscious decision to read, you don’t grab something that sucks and spend a half-hour trying to believe the narrator.

Right now, I just have this one bookshelf. Space is at a premium. I regularly cull titles that I didn’t love, or that I know I just won’t read.

The result is a highly selective, tiny library of the ideas that move meMy shelves are loosely divided into categories: Fiction I Love, Fiction I Haven’t Gotten to Yet, Business/Grammar Nerd Stuff, and Creative Shit (where craft-making books and all of my favorite graphic novels from high school live).

Here’s the top shelf, where I keep some of my favorite fiction, and a few novels I haven’t read yet, so they’re on my eye level. (Also, whiskey is a plus.)

This is the top shelf of my bookshelf. It contains a lot of my favorite things.
That little blue car is a flask.

Every single book here is meaningful to me in some way, whether I love it, I hate it–but grudgingly respect its incredible craft–or I haven’t read it yet.

I’d say I’m saving the unread ones for a rainy day, but my inbox has nothing to do with the weather [click to tweet]. Working on that.

It’s Okay to Be a Creature of Habit…

…as long as you know that about yourself.

I’m a bit predictable sometimes. I like to know what I’m getting. I often order the same sandwich from the place down the street, because I know it’s good. It’s not that I don’t want to try new things; it’s that I search for familiar feelings because I’m still pinning down what, exactly, I love most.

I reach for Plainsong by Kent Haruf when I want to revel in the simple beauty of the English language. I pluck my well-worn copy of Burning Chrome, by William Gibson, when I want to be transported to other universes and times (actually, this one just lives on my bedside table).

I page through Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath when I want a no-nonsense reminder of what works in marketing psychology, and what doesn’t.

Sometimes, though, I grab a title I haven’t read yet. The last two books I ended up with were The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, and The Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles. Both were fan-fucking-tastic. I didn’t shut up about Devil in the White City for weeks.

Simply Put, Your Bookshelf Should Make You Want to Read.

It should fill you with joy, not aversion. It should make you pause. It should calm you.

I have nothing against Kindles; mine’s in a cute little red-leather case so I can pretend to use it for work. But nothing can replace the scent and heft of a book in your hand–and the sweet relief of giving your eyes a break from Netflix, texting, and obsessively refreshing Facebook.

What are you reading?

 

NOLA Tradeoffs: What You Pay For in New Orleans

I love New Orleans, y’all. But anyone who lives here knows we make daily trade-offs for the privilege of living in the “Northernmost Caribbean city”.

Sure, it’s hot half the year. You can hear live music anywhere. And there are more parties than days on the calendar.

But we also have some of the worst streets in the country, some seriously-behind-the-times politicians…and probably the jerk who invented the Jungle Juice daiquiri.

Here’s a list of things you can expect to save money on while living in New Orleans–and what you’ll spend that money on instead.

Got something to add? Throw it in the comments or holler at me on Twitter @theenglishmaven.

WHAT YOU DON’T PAY FOR

Drinks. Like the endless rain during one of our seasonal monsoons, drinks are plentiful and cheap all over New Orleans (unless, God help you, you are going to a cocktail bar).

WHAT YOU PAY FOR INSTEAD

New tires every year instead of every two years because of our sinking swamp-streets, since New Orleans’ attention-deficit city government ignores potholes that routinely eat entire SUVs in favor of randomly ripping up streets throughout the city. Constant steering alignments to keep your car from drifting into oncoming traffic while you put on some tunes.

 —–

WHAT YOU DON’T (HAVE TO) PAY FOR (BUT YOU CAN)

Good food. Get in my face, $9 giant sandwich from Milk Bar! Come home with me, garlic knots from Pizza Domenica happy hour! Become one with my stomach, spring rolls from Magasin!

WHAT YOU PAY FOR INSTEAD

Education. Product of the New Orleans Public School system right here! I went to what was (then, and somewhat debatably) considered the best public high school in the state of Louisiana. Since Katrina, the charter school system has taken over most public schools in New Orleans, with mixed results and not a whole lot of unified oversight.

—–

Mmm. Wait, HOW much?

WHAT YOU DON’T PAY FOR

Entertainment–especially live music. Drink in hand, you can wander happily down Frenchmen Street, popping in and out of clubs that don’t charge covers. In a single night, you’ll hear everything from brass bands and jazz combos to funk, bluegrass, and the occasional gutter punk howling to handmade accompaniment.

WHAT YOU PAY FOR INSTEAD

Good coffee. Yes sir, Mr. Barista, I will re-mortgage my house for this $5.65 latte. (Granted, I’m thinking this may simply be the cost of good coffee, but damn it, I needed an item here).

 —–

WHAT YOU DON’T PAY FOR

Gas. Whoohoo! Welcome to the Gulf South. We routinely have some of the cheapest gas in the U.S.

WHAT YOU PAY FOR INSTEAD

Housing. Y’all, at this rate, native New Orleanians are going to be totally replaced by New Yorkers looking for fun places they can gentrify Airbnb by, like, next summer.

WHAT YOU DON’T PAY FOR

Public transit. New Orleans has one of the least expensive public transit systems in the U.S.–despite it being among the most expensive to operate.

WHAT YOU PAY FOR INSTEAD

Um, well, you still can’t get anywhere by bus or streetcar (unless you’re Odysseus and you’re not planning to return home for, say, 20 years).

 

Despite it all, NOLA remains one of the most vibrant cities in the world. Just don’t forget to open an extra savings account for car repairs.

You Have Grammar Cancer

You have grammar cancer.

I’m sorry. I should have told you to sit down first. If it makes any difference, I have it, too. We’re in this together.

You’re probably wondering about the symptoms of grammar cancer. The good news is that it’s not fatal–although, if left untreated, it can kill your social life.

Grammar cancer is that seemingly benign, creeping affectation wherein you begin to casually drop your punctuation. “Hi, friend!” has become “Hi friend!” (or, more likely: “hi friend!”). You can also think of it as “meme speak”.

nice grammar idiot meme

This new syntax makes you look weird or overly formal if you punctuate correctly (and you’re also a reasonably social person under the age of 45). Add this lack of punctuation to a growing reliance on exclamation points and smiley faces, and you have a new, subtle language, characterized by the fear of being misunderstood.

The Onion recently lampooned standard email punctuation, hitting the nail on the head by raising the question: When is it OK to abandon our creeping, cancerous new communication in favor of correctness?

Personally, I become more and more casual as I get to know someone. Just met me? I’m probably capitalizing and punctuating correctly. Been my pal since our daiquiri-fueled college a cappella days? You have seen me type (and say) things that are just straight-up not English.

As with all cancers, curing grammar cancer starts with awareness. I’m thinking of making rubber bracelets.