Haris Halkic: Hi Linda, thanks a lot for agreeing to share some tips on copywriting and your background.
Linda Muterspaugh: My pleasure.
Haris Halkic: Let’s start with how you got started in copywriting. Please, tell me more about your story.
Linda Muterspaugh: The first time, I got started in copywriting on a whim.
After almost eight years at a dream job with a major publisher in Chicago, my employer was sold. My options: Move to New York or file for unemployment.
Instead, I became a freelancer. The day I gave notice, I confided in a colleague in another department – and she became my first client. My focus was editing and writing textbooks, feature articles, chapters, glossaries, test banks … whatever a client needed.
One day, a friend showed me an internet post for a copywriter. In one of those “why not” moods, I answered.
After all, I had a master’s in journalism. I’d studied advertising and marketing and even designed and wrote a few display ads. How hard could it be?
Within a couple of days, I got a package with the instructions: “Please write a product description of the enclosed videotape.” No details on number of words. No samples to go by. No transcript.
Not so easy, after all.
By instinct, I knew the description needed details, the kind that weren’t shown on the back of the package. The only way to get the details was to watch the videotape. Over the next few days, I created my own transcript, playing a few minutes and then rewinding the tape – over and over.
I sent off my sample and then forgot about it. There were a new set of deadlines to meet.
Within the week, the company president called me.
(He oversaw the copywriting.) They all loved the product description. Would I like to write a brochure for them? The only snag – a perennial one for freelancers – was the budget.
After some back and forth, we met in the middle. The result was an assignment to research and write an eight-page brochure for a two-day hands-on seminar for a major desktop publishing software package.
The writing was fun. Had I found a new dream job? Due to an unfortunate series of events, I had to wait for an answer. My parents’ health was failing, and they needed to move into an assisted living facility. To give them financial help, I needed a stable, reliable income.
I accepted a staff job at a map publisher that needed someone to manage a team of freelancers and temporary staff. Our mission: Validate and update 11,000 pages of travel information embedded in a consumer software package that helped people plan road trips. In addition, my marketing manager expected me to develop new features, including a website that was integrated with an airline and hotel reservations system.
With this job, I launched a new career in Information Technology (IT).
Over the next eighteen years, I worked as a technical writer, a training designer, and a business analyst.
In fact, I still get calls about opportunities in IT.
Haris Halkic: But now you’re a freelancer again. How did you transition to freelance copywriting from your previous job?
Linda Muterspaugh: My goal was to find a way to keep myself busy and supplement my retirement income – once I finally reached retirement age. My original plan had been to entertain myself by writing feature articles for magazines and newspapers. And then I got a mailing from AWAI (American Writers & Artists Inc.) about the opportunities in copywriting.
Over the next couple of years, I immersed myself in exploring these new writing opportunities. In my spare time, I moved from the expensive Chicago area back home to Indiana. After all, if I have an internet connection, I can work from anywhere in the world.
My new home was still full of moving boxes when I started a new assignment as a business analyst. I worked full-time until the first monthly Social Security payment landed in my checking account. After I wrapped up all my current projects, I left to start my business, Content Plus Marketing, LLC.
Haris Halkic: What’s your best piece of advice for someone who is employed and wants to become a freelance copywriter?
Linda Muterspaugh: My best advice is to have at least six months income in savings – just in case – before you ever leave your full-time job.
If you’re in your thirties or forties and have children or aging parents, think about starting freelancing as a part-time endeavor.
It’s not that you can’t start making money as a copywriter quickly. Many people do. The problem is money worries sap your confidence and cut into the joy of writing.
Take your time, hone your writing and marketing skills, and build your emergency fund before you take the plunge.
My second piece of advice is to pick a niche that you love and know well. A niche refers to a specific industry or market. Ideally, you’ll research your market carefully and pick a lucrative niche that values good writing.
Many writers balk at picking a niche. I should know. I was one of them. I was proud to be a jack-of-all-trades. But I came to my senses and decided to take advantage of my professional experience in technology and training.
Three things to remember about picking a niche:
(1) A specialist gets paid more than a jack-of-all-trades;
(2) It easier to research and write about a subject you already know and love; and
(3) Picking a niche is not a life sentence. Writers change niches or write outside their niche all the time.
Haris Halkic: Getting clients is one of the greatest challenges for freelance copywriters. Could you tell me more about how you get clients?
Linda Muterspaugh: I’m a big believer in LinkedIn. Of all the social media, LinkedIn is the only platform that targets business people and professionals – the kind of business-to-business (B2B) clients that value good writing. In fact, I’ve had prospects contact me because they liked my LinkedIn profile.
LinkedIn is a great way to research prospects, too because it has a great search engine.
For example, you can find a specific company or a list of companies in a niche. Once you find a good prospect, you can study the company’s LinkedIn page and read through its posts and comments.
If a company seems like a good fit, LinkedIn lets you “follow” that company. That means your LinkedIn newsfeed will begin to show the company’s posts. These posts let you keep up with the company and add meaningful comments to their posts. The company page will also link to a list of employees. With a little sleuthing, you can find one or more marketing managers who might need a freelancer.
You can make contact by sending a personalized connection request on LinkedIn. For advice on creating a LinkedIn profile and prospecting for clients, I highly recommend Melonie Dodaro’s books.
Or you can send a “warm email” that makes a low-pressure request about freelance opportunities. To learn more, see Ed Gandia’s book, Warm Email Prospecting: How to Use Short and Simple Emails to Land Better Freelance Writing Clients.
Haris Halkic: How did you learn to write copy? Are there teachers, books or resources that you can recommend?
Linda Muterspaugh: Since that first email from AWAI, I’ve taken many, many courses from them. In the last couple of years, they’ve been adding new courses on every type of copywriting and content marketing, as well as resources in almost every format, from live events to videos and podcasts you can study at your own pace. I especially liked the courses in web writing that Nick Usborne teaches, because he stresses writing brief but conversational messages that get read.
If you want a deep understanding of digital marketing, I highly recommend a membership in the Digital Marketer Lab, which includes a set of “execution plans” on specific tasks, as well as access to their certification courses. For example, I’ve earned Digital Marketer certifications in content marketing and social media management.
Haris Halkic: How do you prepare for a writing session?
Once I’ve done my research, I start looking for a “hook” – the “what’s in it for me?” answer that will get a prospect’s attention.
Maybe there is a metaphor that captures the big promise. And then I rough out an outline, to see if the logic will work from headline to call-to-action.
When I’m ready for serious writing, I put on light classical music in the background. No words, ever. Just having that music in the background keeps me focused.
Another approach is setting the timer for 15 minutes and seeing if I can accomplish a specific task before the ding.
If I ever get stuck – don’t we all? – I get up and walk around. Or maybe I’ll pet the cat or play a few games of Words with Friends.
Haris Halkic: Who’s your favorite copywriter or piece of copywriting?
Linda Muterspaugh: That is a hard question. I’m a big fan of the classic storytellers, like John Caples. I really admire the analytical approach of Dan Kennedy, too. And who doesn’t like David Ogilvy’s approach to copywriting? But I write for the web, so my writing must be concise but conversational. I’m always looking for good samples to inspire me.
Haris Halkic: In your opinion, what are the greatest advantages of being a freelance copywriter? What makes this lifestyle so special?
Linda Muterspaugh: For me, one of the advantages is the flexibility. As a freelancer, it’s easy to blend billable work with normal life events. For example, my senior cat, Scarlett, has chronic kidney disease. She’s doing great, because she goes to the vet twice a week for the equivalent of kidney dialysis. Each session takes about an hour, so I just plan around her appointments.
Having a comfortable, flexible office setup is important too. Most of the time, I work out of a home office with a big desk, a laptop, a separate keyboard, a comfy mouse, and a second, oversized monitor. But I can just as easily pack up my laptop and work from the back deck, the library, a coffee shop, or an airport lounge.
Then there is the work itself.
Every project is a creative challenge – to find that hook that will resonate with the reader. And that challenge is a lot of fun.
But the biggest advantage is the opportunity to control how much money I make. Most of my income will always come from working with clients. However, I love the idea of having multiple streams of income, so I’m thinking about some information products to sell on the web.
Haris Halkic: What one daily habit has contributed to your success more than any other?
Linda Muterspaugh: I would say the art of gentle self-discipline.
While I love working at home, it’s easy to get distracted. For example, I finish breakfast and then start to check email on my iPad. Suddenly an hour has passed and I’m not “in the office” yet. Once I’m in the office, though, it’s sometimes hard to break away. Or perhaps I’m “off duty” and suddenly get a great idea for a headline.
For me, it’s important to recognize these tendencies in myself. After all, they’re part of what makes me a good writer.
I just try to manage these tendencies with a set of routines. I end each day, for example, by making a to-do list for the next day. And I always have a notebook handy for jotting down those a-ha inspirations.
When I have a deadline, I work backwards to be sure I allow enough office time to get everything done.
In between the deadlines, I’m a little more flexible.
As an introverted extrovert, I try to schedule time to get out and see other people. Either I schedule lunches with friends or sessions at the gym – someplace where I get to talk.
Haris Halkic: You stressed the importance of choosing a niche before. Out of curiosity, what is your niche?
Linda Muterspaugh: My overall niche is technology, but I’ve divided it into three related sub-niches: Software as a Service (SaaS); technical training in skills such as cyber-security or software development; and business training in soft skills such as business communication or leadership.
Haris Halkic: If someone wants to hire you, what is the best way to get in touch?