Beef Jerky, Bras, and Car Parts: Writing for Advertising
Rachel Kessler | August 2014
F. Scott Fitzgerald did it, Salman Rushdie did it, Don DeLillo did it – it is no surprise that many serious writers have made their rent by writing copy for advertisements. I interviewed nine writers at various stages in their writing careers, who are currently working in this field, and found that most derive a great amount of satisfaction from this work. The pay can be decent, and many report that the rigor made them more nimble writers. Beef jerky, bras, car parts, fruit baskets, Maseratis, financial advice, bacon-flavored mouthwash, stomp rockets, night vision goggles, hand lotion, and robotic crabs are a few of the things my sources worked on describing for television commercials, catalogs, websites, and marketing emails.
As a young writer, I regarded writing ad copy as “selling out.” This judgment depended upon A) my misunderstanding that this kind of writing had nothing to do with my Serious Writing, and B) the fantasy that this work was easy to do and easy to find. Informed by pop culture representations of people working in advertising, I saw Kevin Bacon’s frustrated novelist forced to work at an ad firm in She’s Having a Baby, the 1988 romantic comedy directed by John Hughes. The protagonist crafted advertising propaganda during the day and mowed his suburban lawn on weekends. This was exactly how I did not want to live.
After a few years of searching for that elusive unicorn—steady, decent-paying work teaching creative writing as a relatively inexperienced teacher that would support me until I could make a living from my art—I felt lucky to land a gig writing reviews of erotic movies. Being broke and caring for an infant transformed me into a pragmatist.
Writing reviews of porn taught me how to be a writer. When I was studying writing at university, I would wait around for that special feeling to strike me, usually after consuming a lot of whiskey and/or crying a lot. But the writer of reviews could not lie around, hung-over, waiting for inspiration. Instead, deadlines and the threat of no paycheck moved me to write. “The discipline required to produce vast piles of product copy is very helpful to ‘creative writers,’” says poet and catalog copywriter Jan Wallace. “Also, keeping a fresh ear for the language and rhythms used by various brands keeps me constantly awake to language.”
It turned out that my usual writing voice, that of a radical feminist, did not always sell dirty VHS tapes, so I experimented with different personae in my “review” writing, which allowed me to let go of the precious idea that I had a true, authentic voice I needed to hew. As a hack, I was free to mimic stereotypical intonations, explore archetypical articulation, explode everyday expressions. I was a sex-talk ventriloquist. Writing daily in the varied voices of my multitudes, I practiced disappearing into a character’s head. It reminded me of when I was a kid inventing universes and populating them with characters. What liberation to break from the serious business of Being a Writer and party with all my fakery once again!
Novelist and copywriter Joe Taylor recounts writing “hundreds of descriptions about children’s toys, bacon-themed gifts, and an obscene amount of cell phone cases targeted towards a 32-year-old male persona ‘Michael’ who needed all the gift-buying help he could get.” David Johnston, writer, editor, and copywriter, says, “The issue with custom and business publications is that your job is to write for a client with their own closely-held corporate identity. Sometimes you have to let your own sensibilities go, if that’s what the client requires. But it is, after all, their own work, so that makes letting go easier.”
Writing under the guise of a corporation or an invented character targeted at a certain demographic can be a relief while lubricating the writing gears. “If you’ve been working all day on finding the right words to describe why one moped is better than all other mopeds, it’s easier to get a similar ideal-word-search process going for your own work when you get home,” says Johnston.
Poet and copyeditor Arlene Kim acknowledges that her MFA program made her more aware of her reading audience, “When you’re copyediting for work, especially a retail website, always keeping your readers in mind is essential in helping create copy that does what your company wants it to do. It’s strange in that it’s the opposite of my more art- and ego-driven poet’s mindset, but also a gigantic relief to have someone else beside me in mind for once when figuring out which words are best.”
Copywriting requires very specific coverage of exactly what the consumer should expect to find while being entertaining to read, all within a concise word count. Jan Wallace says copywriting is “working with various levels of information (usually sketchy) to describe products in a way that sounds like the brand voice of a company, and in a way that will make the consumer want the item.”
Writing like this every day teaches “how to tell a story in a confined space,” as Joe Taylor puts it. “With websites, you’re writing for a wide audience…dealing with strict word count limitations, so communicating something clearly and concisely is the most important thing…[this] shares a lot in common with poetry.” Many writers attribute copywriting to the development of a leaner, more compressed style in their writing.
Poet and technical writer Sierra Nelson points out how being a poet made her uniquely qualified for this work. “On a very basic level a poet’s job is to describe things, to take a creative perspective, and to be able to communicate something clearly and compellingly in just a few words. It was validating in a way to realize that these were useful skills, not everyone had them, my MFA had in fact helped me develop them further, and that lending these skills to other fields and applications could be a way for me to make a living…between the cracks of more traditional teaching and advertising jobs.”
Creative writing can both aid and be strengthened by this type of work. Joe Taylor appreciates the stimulus of copywriting. He writes, “Whether I’m crafting sentences for commercial or non-commercial projects, my preferences for certain words and internal rhythms are constantly evolving, so discoveries I make in one area certainly come to influence how I approach the craft in the other.”
Meeting deadlines and word count instills a cellular understanding that you are, in fact, a mule. Being forced to fake enthusiasm for a product you do not understand or enjoy stretches your imagination and writing skills. If nothing else, writers develop a more spare, sinewy style from copywriting’s constraints, and are forced to establish strong writing work habits. Writing is a muscle, not a sparkly feeling. You pull the plow and till the field and eventually something will grow.
Invite Creative Writing Into Your Day Job
Not only will this type of work develop writers into workhorses, but the work can, in the words of writer Sierra Nelson, “become potential poetic material.” In her experience writing product descriptions, she observed “any work has the potential to take you farther from your creative endeavors, but in the right dose it can also provide creative material and be a catalyst. For example, if through my deepened knowledge of car parts or beef jerky described for commercial purposes I can switch to a new mode of looking (for as [Richard] Wilbur wrote, “Love Calls Us to the Things of the World”)—then these things…may be of delight and use to me in my own work.” Poet Matthew Dickman has authored intriguing Super Bowl Halftime commercials, scripting monologues that read like poems for actors such as Clint Eastwood (Chrysler, “It’s Halftime in America”) and Quvenzhané Wallis (Maserati Ghibli, “Now We Strike”)
Dickman says he is lucky to freelance for Portland ad firm Wieden & Kennedy, innovators in the field (the minds behind Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign) and poetry lovers who produce widely viewed television spots that push the form into something that feels more like short art films. He encourages writers to pursue this kind of work, “Because you come from outside the world of advertising is no reason not to knock on a firm’s door. I think the most dynamic ad firms that produce the most interesting work often hire outside [their] immediate world.” A poet with several acclaimed books, who has appeared in the New Yorker and is poetry editor at Tin House, he finds the “balance between work and pay is more equal in advertising than in any other job I have had, whether… working at a grocery store or as an adjunct.”
Writing copy can be an alternate career path for writers who want to work outside academia. Arlene Kim says, “It most definitely lessens my financial woes so that part of my brain is freed up to think about poetry instead. Plus it gets me out of the sometimes claustrophobic space in my own head and into the world doing things that are different from whatever I’d be doing regularly—that way, when the freed-up bit of my brain is ready to use the precious slivers of time I have to do my own writing, it’s at least fueled with some strange, random stimulus—that’s my favorite kind!”
Author Lacey Jane Henson discovered that copywriting is “a fun way to pay the bills, more profitable than teaching and…way less stressful than teaching, too. I write just as much as I did at my old, non-writing-related job…[I] encourage writers to be open to inviting writing into their day job…I felt like advertising was the dark side. It turns out the dark side is more fun than I thought.”
But Does It Pay?
Should you pursue writing copy in order to avoid adjunct purgatory? That depends. Freelance work copywriting can be unpredictable and requires some hustle to find and keep. The work comes erratically and is often seasonal, the busiest time falling in the summer “when companies are working marketing vehicles for the fall and holiday time frame. Companies make most of their money during that time frame so the summer can be a pressure cooker getting ready for it,” says Jan Wallace.
Even if you are able to find work, it is not always reliable, as most of it continues to be contract or freelance work. Arlene Kim says, “Copy editors are among the first to go when reorganization madness and company layoffs are afoot.” There is a lot of competition, especially for full-time work, and it can be hard to break into this field. But, Jan Wallace says, “If you are able to leave your ego at the door, are persistent and super deadline conscious, have a great work ethic – you will find plenty of work once you break in.” As a creative writer, you have the skills to do this work, but to break in requires persistence—dogged persistence—working your connections, and a bit of luck.
The pay “is and probably will continue to be less than what it once was,” warns financial writer Dan Newman. “You must never, ever calculate your hourly wage if you’re a freelance [piece] writer!” says writer Brangien Davis, who works full-time as the arts editor at Seattle Magazine. “I would say that my job is really fun, totally legitimate (and important!), and I’m lucky to have it. It does, however, consume well over 40 hours per week, and salary increases are minuscule, at best. For a job like this to work you genuinely—seriously—have to find more personal gratification in writing creatively than in raking in the dough," she emphasizes.
Making $30,000 a year seems like a lot when you’re 25, but after working in your field for 20 years, to be making a salary that barely covers rent on a studio apartment in the city where you live is exhausting. David Johnston, who has a contract and is paid a salary, puts it this way: “There is money to be made, just not gushing torrents of money. If I were to take my typical paycheck to the bank, cash it, and then spread that money out on my bed, it would not be too much fun to roll on. Unless I had it exchanged for nickels. However, I do receive a steady paycheck, which is important for me… and it gives me time to do my own writing, which is essential.”
Arlene Kim agrees, “You won’t get rich doing it, but if, like me, you have no interest in starving as an artist (I’m not very creative when I’m hungry), then yes, there’s money to be made in the copyediting field. The annual salary ranges from about $30,000 to $60,000.”
Other writers report that a contract position as general writer and editor for an IT company in the greater Seattle area starts out at $12-20 an hour, moving up to $35 an hour for senior writers. Freelance rates are higher, so when there is work, some clients are willing to pay up to $50 an hour. For freelancers, Matthew Dickman says, “I believe that an average range (depending on experience, the company hiring, etc.) for a freelance copywriter is $200-$1,500 per day. But this comes with many variables.”
Writing and editing for tech businesses (such as Microsoft, Amazon, and companies that contract with them) can pay more. Technical writing and editing “requires you to know your way around technical software jargon and to help decipher it for people who don’t” and will pay more. If you are knowledgeable about or interested in finance and investing, it is possible to make $50,000 a year starting out. “The contract is pretty flexible, though, and the company [I work for] is happy to accept and pay for more articles,” says Dan Newman. “I would guess the top writers make in the six-figure ranges.”
Jan Wallace cautions, “Climbing up the corporate ladder seems attractive because you make money. But the expense to one’s psyche is pretty high. I’m talking about becoming a manager or director. Working as a copywriter, though…I think the discipline helped me. Also, as a writer in the retail industry you work with lots of other interesting, creative people.” Many writers warn that this deadline-oriented work can be all-consuming and recommend setting boundaries around work and writing time.
Fake It ‘til You Make It (Or, How To Sell Yourself)
How does a determined, ambitious writer find this type of work in the current marketplace? “The Catch-22 is you need copy samples to get started at a job where you would create copy samples,” Jan Wallace says. “Take some classes at a place like the Art Institute to generate a portfolio of mocked-up ads.” According to copywriter John Kuraoka, a good program will provide you with useful industry contacts and feedback from professionals.
If you don’t have the means or don’t want to pay to take classes where you develop speculative (“spec”) ads on your own, you can assemble a portfolio by working. Lacey Jane Henson recommends a smart way to build up a portfolio and website which you can show potential clients is to work “a desk job with a strong creative team.” She advises finding a reliable nine-to-five entry-level copywriting job at an ad agency, retailer, or corporation, from where you can work steadily and over time put together a good portfolio of work.
Writing copy is much more than penning jingles for print and TV ads. For instance, Henson currently writes marketing emails for Nordstrom. She got her start blogging for a small internet startup, then got a position at a digital marketing agency through a friend. “There's tons of digital marketing opportunities…All those retail emails you get in your inbox are painstakingly crafted by a copywriter somewhere. Not to mention websites, apps, and those display ads that follow you around everywhere,” she says.
Having a digital portfolio to show potential employers what you can do is essential. Sign up with as many creative talent agencies as possible. Joe Taylor says, “These agencies tend to value talent more than experience (especially for entry-level jobs), so if you can put together a good portfolio of work, they may be willing to represent you.” Your portfolio will continue to grow and evolve throughout your career, but start out with three or four strong pieces, especially targeted at where you’re applying.
Another way to accumulate a strong portfolio is through internships. Most of these, unfortunately, will be unpaid, or pay very little. Regardless, “don't phone it in on a small job just because you've got your heart set on writing for the New Yorker,” cautions Brangien Davis. “Build up some excellent clips that show your savvy and versatility as a writer.” Consider targeting nonprofits whose work interests you. Call agencies whose work you admire and wrangle an interview with the Creative Director.
“Brush up on your style guides, grammar, spelling, and careful reading,” Arlene Kim urges. Potential employers for copywriting and copyediting work pay close attention to the tiny details of your inquiry, application, and resume, and if they do hire you, you want to be in top form. (Check out websites like http://afterdeadline.blogs.nytimes.com/ for some nitpicky fun).
Many writers described rejiggering their resumes to highlight aspects of previous work that would apply to a job copywriting or copyediting. It is your job to market your creative writing skills. Frame the work experience and skills you have acquired in a way that helps a corporate organization understand how they benefit from your ability to think creatively and write succinctly, to paraphrase Sierra Nelson. “I think many people may not know what poets do exactly, or why on earth you’d want to hire one,” says Nelson. This is your opportunity to showcase what you have to offer.
“I got the job by claiming fashion was my life. Which is a bald-faced lie,” Jan Wallace recounts. “The woman who hired me had studied with Richard Hugo at the Montana MFA program. She said she chose me because if a person could write well, they could do anything.”
Lacey Jane Henson puts it this way, “advertising is all about telling a story,” and, as a writer, you know how to do this. Emphasize the skills you acquired as a creative writer. The workshop “set me up to be okay with being criticized and also to know how to argue my case when it’s appropriate,” she says. “The most helpful experience during my MFA was one of collaboration.”
Matthew Dickman applied this to his work copywriting: “A commercial is based on collaboration and a million failures to come up with something that works… Writing poetry and reading poetry is about empathy (in part) and connecting to some truth about yourself (in part) and these are great ingredients to a successful piece of advertising… Leave your ego at the door and embrace the malleability of your writing as well as the funky process that is advertising. And remember: this kind of work is Secular while your art is Spiritual.”
Every single writer I interviewed for this article emphasized the importance of working your personal connections. Arlene Kim stayed “in touch with editor-writer friends who try to keep an ear to the ground” and let people know she was looking for work. Similarly, Sierra Nelson finds most of her technical writing work through word of mouth, “generally through other writer and [nonprofit] arts administrator friends – via people I met during my MFA, and through the network of current and past jobs… in both of the content-writing jobs I had… there were other poets on staff there as well with some hiring influence.”
Don’t be shy about offering your help as a writer in any capacity. Word will get around that you are motivated and hardworking. Tell friends and acquaintances that you want work writing. I once found well-paying work writing stories for kids online by blathering about my writing ambitions to another parent at my kid’s soccer practice.
Specifically, conduct a job search online for “copywriter,” “technical writer,” “copyeditor,” “editor,” “proofreader,” “financial writer.” Search Craigslist under the categories of Marketing and Writing. Utilize websites such as Indeed, SimplyHired, and LinkedIn. Stalk particular companies by checking their websites obsessively. If you’re looking for financial writing, check out sites like Seeking Alpha, Forbes, Yahoo! Finance, or the Motley Fool. It is critical to be well informed about what the companies that you are applying to actually do. “Each site aims for a specific voice, so get a feel for whatever that is by reading through some of their articles,” Dan Newman suggests. Do your background research.
Joe Taylor warns that “many freelance websites such as Elance, oDesk, and Guru support clients who basically want writers to work for free…despite this, competition on those sites is something fierce…it’s theoretically possible that one could do a lot of jobs for free to build experience, and then eventually begin competing for higher rates, but honestly, I think it’s a pyramid scheme.”
David Johnston eloquently summarized the current moment in writing copy: “We’re at an unusual crossroads, because recently writing has become ‘content.’ And I shudder when I say ‘content,’ because that lumps writing into the same sausage-making factory with celebrity Coachella photos, porcupine videos, and the amazing thing that you can’t believe is now bacon-flavored… While it doesn’t matter if you are selling your writing or not, it does have value. Because of this, I would suggest pooh-poohing the idea that you’re a ‘content producer’ at every opportunity you get, and remember that you’re a writer.”
Rachel Kessler is cofounder of poetry performance collaborations Typing Explosion and Vis-a-Vis Society. Her poems and nonfiction have appeared in Tin House, USA Today, The Stranger, Poetry Northwest, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She is currently writing a book about the intersection of puberty and religion.
Kuraoka, John, “How To Become an Advertising Copywriter” http://www.kuraoka.com/how-to-become-an-advertising-copywriter.html
Shultz, Athena, “Copywriting: A Crash Course for Writers Looking to Break In,” Writer’s Digest, March 24th, 2014