The Accidental Copywriter

I’ve always tended to drift into things and follow my passions.

I chose to do a degree in zoology in the late 1970s because I loved Hammer horror films starring Peter Cushing as Frankenstein, and wanted to build my own creature from scratch. Fantasy has usually come strongly into the mix, you see.

I managed to get my degree just as boredom was starting to set in, then I drifted for three years until I finally ended up doing computer programming via one of the old TOPS (Training Opportunities Scheme) courses.

I made a decent living at a big insurance company near London Bridge until thirteen years later when the whole IT industry changed. I was made redundant and spent the next few years unemployed as the demand for COBOL (Common Business- oriented Language) programmers vanished overnight.

I eventually landed a job as a programmer again but the company (which shall remain nameless) was odious in every way and I finally threw in the towel and resigned, preferring the uncertainty and freedom of unemployment to being nailed into a coffin all week with no hope of a change.

Eventually, I was forced to reconsider my options and work out what I was actually good at.

I reflected that, during my years of unemployment, I’d written numerous long letters to various IT publications, some a couple of pages long, and all of them had been published. I’d always been naturally good at creative writing, but it had never occurred to me, perhaps for that very reason, to try and make a career out of it.

Looking for jobs for writers, I found what I now know was a content mill and successfully applied. The pay was peanuts, but my immediate goal was to make at least the equivalent of Jobseekers’ Allowance so I wouldn’t have to sign on anymore, and I managed to do that, and occasionally even exceed it.

But the important thing is that I learned the ropes, so it was a valuable apprenticeship into copywriting. The pay was so poor that I had to learn to write quickly and accurately on any subject that was thrown at me, just to survive.

After a few years, I found a much better paying agency and, after my years in the galleys, was able to hit the ground running. I got onto their ‘preferred writers’ list as I could be relied on to produce good, accurate copy in accordance with the brief, every time.

The old mill also kept asking me to come back. I figured that I must be pretty good by now so, instead of relying on the whims of an agency to send me work, why not try striking out on my own?

I used to hate the internet because it had robbed me of my career in batch programming. Now, I love it because it has enabled me to do what I enjoy most. If it hadn’t been for those traumatic changes I would probably still be working in an office and doing a job I wasn’t really cut out for, and from which I derived no enjoyment or creative satisfaction.

Anybody had similar experiences?


25th April 2018

Leif Kendall

Yes! I bumbled around between dead-end jobs until I stumbled into copywriting. But as soon as I found this profession I knew it was for me. I think copywriting is one of those jobs that few people aim for when they’re starting out. Perhaps that’s because it’s slightly obscure…? Maybe if more people knew about copywriting, there would be more youngsters aiming for this profession from the start.

1st May 2018

Andy Nattan

I’m always pretty envious of these tortured paths to copywriting. All these stories people have to tell. Aside from bar work at University, manning a customer service line at sixth form and one summer sweeping on a building site, I’ve never done anything else.

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