Sad news today that the great American novelist, Philip Roth, passed away.
I’m a big fan of his work.
He’s one of the writers who inspired me to write in the first place.
At school, in English literature, I was mostly force-fed old Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy period-waffle that I just couldn’t connect with.
It put me off reading at all.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I had somewhat of a renaissance and discovered books again.
That’s when I came across modern novelists like Roth and realised writing could be edgy and raw and say and do things that might offend or confuse.
I liked that.
I started writing. Trying to emulate people like Roth, John Updike, Don Delillo, Paul Auster.
(I realise that list makes me sound like some terribly misogynistic white male…but at the time it’s what connected. You’ll be pleased to know I’ve expanded my reading to be more diversified these days. Thankfully.)
This week I was interviewed by fellow copywriter Haris Halkic as part of a series of interviews he’s doing with as many freelancers as he can reach.
Where I’m able, I’m always happy to help out a fellow copywriter and I jotted some ramblings for him. (Get in touch if you’d like to quiz me for your website.)
Haris was interested in how I started out. Though I didn’t cite Roth, it was discovering writers like him that made me go back to University to study creative writing as I discuss in the interview.
You can read the whole thing over on Haris’ website here, where you’ll find interviews with a whole host of different copywriters.
But I thought I’d share the first part here:
Haris: Hi Glenn, first of all, thanks a lot for agreeing to share your best tips on copywriting and your background. Let’s start with how you got started in copywriting? Please, tell us more about your story.
Glenn: No problem, Haris. I’m not sure about my best tips, but hopefully fellow writers will get some use out of my strange ramblings. And a fair warning, most of what I’ve learned personally has come completely from trial and error. I highly rate it as a success strategy. Who needs expertise, right? Just try things out. It’s how I got into copywriting in the first place. I trialed being a proper human and working a regular job, but realised that was an error.
I decided I’d be a writer instead and went back to University to get some proof I could write. Arbitrary certificate of academic proof in hand, I applied for every junior writer job I could find. That was a soul-crushing farce. Pretty much nothing came of my applications aside from some paradoxical arguments with industry gatekeepers. Finally I saw a weird little advert for what turned out to be the financial publishing giant, Agora. And thankfully, the guy who interviewed me was as weird as I am and I got the job.
That said, I distinctly remember leaving the office not knowing who the job was for, what I’d actually be writing about or why…but I also felt something good was happening. It turned out I was right and I spent ten years learning about the still relatively underground world of direct response copywriting. It seems I have a knack for this type of writing, so I’ve just carried on running with it.
Haris: How did you transition to freelance copywriting from the job you had before? What specific challenge did you face and what advice would you give to someone in a similar situation?
Glenn: As I’d been working with Agora for so long, I’d got to the point where I was spending too much time managing things and not enough time actually using my key skill and writing. At the same time, my life was changing outside of the job too. I wanted to spend more time back up North with my partner and my dog and I wanted to write more.
The majority of my writing is still for Agora, in the UK, but also in America and Australia. But working freelance now means I can focus on some other personal projects too…coaching new writers and branching out into other copy niches. It’s also allowed me to finally finish my book, which is being released later this year. It was the right step for me at the right time, but if I were to offer some advice to young writers, it would be not to chase ‘the dream’ of being a freelance writer just for the sake of it.
I discussed this topic with Vikki Ross in an interview, recently. She’s another successful freelance copywriter, but we both pointed out that we’ve only got the freedom we have now because we put the time in with major companies.
All power to those writers who are brave enough to go freelance from day one, but I would encourage people to find a good company with good people who will teach you what you need to know and ‘serve your time’ so to speak.
It might seem like the slow way, but it’s worked well for me, and many others.
Haris: Getting clients is one of the greatest challenges for freelance copywriters. I know that you are in a special situation mainly working with Agora. I was wondering if you could talk about how you get clients beside that?
Glenn: Sure. As I say, I think it’s one of the most daunting elements of being a freelancer and I ‘doff my cap’ to anyone who’s got the stomach for going solo from day one. Like I say, ‘serving your time’ with a big company like Agora, or with one of the many copywriting agencies out there also has the advantage of introducing you to a lot of different people in the industry. I have a little black book of clients now who I keep in touch with and when the stars align and they have a project and I have the time, we can often figure something out. So, again, I’d say find a junior position and see it as a kind of apprenticeship.
Second piece of advice would be to write publicly and be a presence. This takes more work, but I’ve been writing my own blog AllGoodCopy.com for years and that’s brought me many new contacts I wouldn’t have had otherwise. This week alone I’ve had a writer ask if I could mentor them, a request for an interview and someone asking me to write a sales letter for them…all because I’ve been present.
Finally, and because that makes it three pieces of advice (and we copywriters love the power of three): I would encourage aspiring copywriters to focus on how you can help people and then go out of your way to do exactly that before worrying about money.
The rewards will follow…but even if they don’t, you know you did your best and acted professionally. Working freelance, I think that’s important.
Haris: How did you learn to write copy? Are there teachers, books or resources you can recommend?
Glenn: I have no idea. I’ve thought about it a lot and I’m not sure specifically ‘how’ I learned to write copy. I think it’s something to do with being able to emulate writing styles pretty well. Or it’s something to do with being able to sell myself on an idea and then write about it authentically. That’s not too helpful to people, though. So let me try a different tack. I know I was lucky to have number of different influencers and mentors early in my career.
A chap called Dave Fedash (the weird guy who hired me) taught me a lot, as did Agora legend and copywriter, Mark Ford. I spent a ton of time learning about marketing with two former Agora guys called Darren Hughes and Vinod Gorasia, before meeting a whole other host of experts in the Agora world, people like John Forde who became good friends. Again, it’s the advantage of getting in with a company full of experts, rather than going it alone off the bat.
As well as listening to people a lot, I read more books and copy than is probably safe…and I write every day. Even if it’s just a small thing.
There are so many books I could mention, but I won’t, because they’ll be the same as everyone else’s. Instead, I’ll shamelessly say people should read my book when it comes out later this year. But also, more important than reading any book (even mine) is reading copy. Everyday. Do it.
Haris: How do you prepare for a writing session?
Glenn: I have a bath. It’s called my ‘thinking bath’ and it’s a weird image to have in your head, so my apologies. But you did ask. If you don’t have a bath, I would recommend reading around the subject you’re writing about before you sit down to write. And though doing it in the bath isn’t essential, I would recommend you do that reading and research away from where you’ll be sitting down to write.
I find when I come to write I need to get really psyched-up and focused and then get things down on the page fast. I feel like I’m running at the computer, hunched over it like some mad Jack Kerouac figure. I think that urgency helps with the copy. But it’s hard to create that sensation if you’ve been sat at the same computer researching for hours, you’re surrounded by empty crisp packets and there’s about fifty search windows open with random articles.
I hope you found that interesting…
And as I say, you can read the rest of the interview over on Haris’ website to find out who my favourite copywriters are, what I like most about working freelance and the one thing I do each day to be successful (though the answer is a disappointment).
Otherwise, I’ll be back next week with some new insight. We’ll be looking at how to manage an idea from headline to offer, so look out for it.
P.S. Don’t forget, if you’d like to join me for an exclusive Q&A webinar later this year, all you need to do is sponsor Ruth and me for the charity run we’re doing. It’s an ethical bribe, as they say. We’re 76% of the way there to raising our total, so every little helps.
Just send me the confirmation and I’ll add you to the list for the webinar.