Why did you choose a career in copywriting and how did you get into it?
I don’t think I did choose it, to be completely honest…! My career has been one big happy accident. As a child, I was obsessed with words. I dreamed of editing magazines (which, in hindsight, is kind of odd). I didn’t really have a plan, though, and was too shy to articulate those ideas at the time.
Thankfully in 1997, at the age of 22, I had a lucky break: a friend at an advertising agency invited me to do some proofreading, despite my lack of experience. A couple of months later, that experience helped get me a job churning out advertorial features for a free newspaper – which taught me how to conduct efficient phone interviews and write neat articles to really tight word counts with relentless deadlines.
A year or two later I moved to a computer book publisher which gave me lots more writing experience and, more importantly, taught me how websites work. I learned HTML and spent the next decade specialising in “writing for the web”, producing content for some big sites.
At National Express I learned how clever signposting and improvements to the user experience can drive sales. At Channel 4 I learned how to “live Tweet” TV shows and write instructional craft guides in the voice of Kirstie Allsopp.
I went freelance in 2012 and haven’t looked back. Now, I get to work with words as a writer, editor and proofreader, but I’m also really at home doing design and layout for print or web. I love it – and young Emma would be proud. I’m still amazed that I managed to end up with my dream career, despite myself.
What work are you most proud of?
I like it when it feels like my work is genuinely helping people or otherwise doing some good. For example, one of my regular clients is an organisation that delivers local health services, including a local authority Stop Smoking service.
When Covid hit, there was a sudden interest in smoking cessation services, so I made a quick poster that aligned their key messages with some of the phrases coming up in the news.
Within 24 hours it had been picked up by ASH (Action on Smoking and Health), who circulated it nationally as an example of good practice, and two city councils had asked if we could provide a generic version for them to use locally. It was simple, but it clearly hit the spot (and hopefully helped some people to quit smoking!)
What piece of copy do you really wish you’d written?
I don’t know about wishing I’d written it, but the other day we bought a ready-to-cook kit from Ding Dong Dim Sum and the instructions were really, really good.
They’d clearly thought a lot about the thought processes people would go through as they prepared each part of the meal – and yet they managed to keep it fun and chatty. It was very satisfying (and so were the dumplings)!
What do you do if you hit a bit of writer’s block?
I’ve realised over the years that if the words don’t come easily, there’s probably something I don’t quite understand about the job.
So now I’ll clarify things with the client as soon as possible (I’ve stopped worrying about sounding like an idiot). Then I’ll start writing anyway, whack a comment on the missing bits, and be kind to myself.
I’ve learned that an initial “nope” and a bit of imposter syndrome is actually part of my working method, so I just let it happen. The words will always come eventually – once my subconscious has had a chance to process things a bit.
What are your favourite and least and favourite writing-related tasks?
I love case studies and over the last few years I’ve written hundreds of them for the European Social Fund. Digging through Euro-speak and statistics to turn boring reports into joyful little stories about social projects is brilliant. It’s like panning for gold.
My least favourite writing-related task? You’d think I’d be used to it after this long, but I still find the proposal stage quite excruciating and I hate putting quotes together. How long will it take? How long is a piece of string?
Any copywriting pet hates?
This isn’t really a “hate”, since it’s easily fixable (and often my job to fix!) but it does bug me when companies forget to connect what they do with what their readers actually need.
Want them to be interested in your products or services? Stop writing about you, and start writing about them! It’s like meeting someone at a party who bores you with their travel stories but forgets to even ask your name. What a turn-off.
Oh, and poetry in TV ads really makes me wince. “This one’s for the dreamers. The in-betweeners. The clean-up on aisle sixteen-ers.” What? Stop being weird and just sell me the thing.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
This was freelancing advice rather than writing advice, but when I first became self-employed someone told me to split my time into 3: client work, business development and admin. I was aghast. The whole point of this was that I wanted to be a writer, not a salesperson or spreadsheet wrangler!
But they were right. Although it’s tempting to try and fill every free hour with billable client work, you must remember you’re a business too.
Otherwise, you’ll forget to invoice people, or get to the end of a contract and realise you’ve got nothing to replace it with. Which, erm, I never do, honest.
And you have to give yourself a LOT of space around tasks. A meeting with a new lead might look like an hour in the calendar, but now I make sure to schedule in the prep beforehand, and the time afterwards where I’m writing up notes, emailing them the links I mentioned in the chat, doing further research, drafting proposals, and all the rest of it.
What advice would you give to people starting out on a copywriting career?
If you’re writing a lot of copy, it’s easy to stick to phrases that work for you – so try and spot when you’re falling into lazy patterns. When I worked in marketing teams, I was lucky to have colleagues who weren’t afraid to take the mickey occasionally and point out my personal clichés.
I particularly remember a sarcastic chorus of “And what’s more…” after using it to round off the third marketing email in a row! Now that I work alone, I have to keep an eye on that myself. Keep things fresh by reading (extra points for reading about writing!) and writing creatively as often as you can.
Why do you find ProCopywriters membership useful?
I really appreciate being part of a community – it makes such a difference when you’re self-employed and working alone.
And, of course, being in the directory has brought me new work. Some of my favourite clients originally found me on the ProCopywriters website! I love the way it allows people to focus their search and find the best match.
Where can people find out more about you?
I’ve been known online as “editorialgirl” since about 2005, so you can find me by searching for that. (And yes, I agree, that name is a bit embarrassing now. For the avoidance of doubt: I’m a fully-grown adult woman).