What Does a Copywriter Do? In 7 Super-Simple Steps

Carol Tice

You may have heard that sales copywriting is where the money’s at, for freelance writers. But maybe you’ve only written blog posts or articles, and feel nervous that you wouldn’t know how to pull off sales copywriting. I often get asked, ‘What does a copywriter do?’


‘Are there any good books I can read, to become a sales copywriter?’

A: No. I have nothing to recommend there. Learning writing out of books is extremely ineffective, especially when your goal is to have freelance clients.

You can’t learn how to interact with and please clients from a book. You can only learn it by working with clients.

Luckily, sales copywriting is something you can easily learn on the job. Grab any struggling small business and offer to help them pro bono.

Then, use the 7 simple principles below to rapidly become a crack copywriter. Note: For purposes of this post, when I say ‘copywriting,’ I mean sales writing, not all the informational content we write for businesses.

1. Lend an ear

Panicked writers often ding me on the Freelance Writers Den forums before a client meeting.

“What questions should I ask?”

Good news: Questions are not the big job, in first client meetings.

When I go to a first client meeting, my attitude is that big main, #1 job here is listening.

Be quiet and listen.

Carefully. Deeply. Quietly. Don’t fidget or draw attention.

Take lots of notes. Smile a lot. Look in their eyes. Make them feel seen and understood.

Gather wood

If you listen hard in that first client meeting, you’ll hear much that will help you write their sales copy. And save you a lot of rewrite time.

You can also pick up on things that will help you make the sale. You’ll hear their urgency, their desperation. Or possibly, that they aren’t that enthused — and you’ll need to really sell the value of what this copy will do for their business.

You’ll hear their worries, their goals for the copy, how they want to be perceived as a company. You’ll gather lots of useful ‘wood’ for building their copy.

Be a mirror

At the end of this listening brain-dump, mirror back what you’ve heard.

“So, can I sum up what you just said? I’m hearing that you have a new product we need to write a sales page and an email sequence for, and there’s a free PDF that promotes it. It needs to attract more [X type of client] by spotlighting [Y thing this product offers].

“Is that right?”

They may add or elaborate further, on hearing what you ‘got’ from their talk. That’s great. Take more notes.

It’s not all listening, though. At some point, you’ll probably realize there are important facts that haven’t been discussed yet.

Then, it’s time for the next step. I try to get here within about 15-20 minutes.

2. Ask key questions

Business owners tend to tell you their life story. Talking the boring details of your assignment? Not so much.

That’s why you should try to bring the conversation around to the esssential things you need to know, to leave this meeting with a firm assignment that has parameters you understand. So you need to gently break in and ask questions such as:

  • When is this due?
  • What’s the wordcount of this assignment?
  • Who will be my point person for interviews and information?
  • What will our process be for looking at drafts, we’re setting up a Slack channel, you use BaseCamp, it’s emailing a Word doc with ‘track changes,’ weekly Zoom meeting, something else?
  • What are your means of payment, and payment terms?

This is where we have a quick ‘how I work’ discussion. If you’re writing for a new company, be sure to ask for a 50% up-front deposit. If they balk at that, it’s a big red flag.

Companies that understand working with contractors know that deposits are standard. So asking for one makes you look like a pro.

Having clarity on your assignment will help you deliver exactly what’s needed, and save a lot of awkward conversations later.

3. Feel their pain

Once you have the fundamental outline of your assignment, you can learn more about why this assignment is the one this client needs to have written now.

There are two big problems on the table, and you need to learn about both:

  1. The pain your client feels — do they need more traffic, leads, sales, to stand out from the competition?
  2. Their end client’s problem, and why this company’s offering is the solution.

Always remember that you’re really serving two masters, with sales copy.

Also, note that your client may have more than one type of client you need to appeal to in your copy. Be sure to find out about all the customer types your copy must appeal to, and why this solution helps them.

Ask for customer avatar info. Understanding where different customers are coming from mentally will make word choices in your copy a lot easier. You’ll understand how they think, and how to appeal to them.

4. Be a spy

This is one of the easiest ways to nail sales copy: Ask your prospective client who their top competitors are, and whether they think their marketing is admirable, or they don’t like it.

They will have an earful for you. Pull samples of these other pieces of copy to quickly learn who your client admires and would aspire to be like, marketing-wise, and who they think is doing a terrible job with marketing. They hate their tone, they’re too pushy.

This stuff is gold. Soak it up. Competitor marketing samples, and your client’s reaction to them, will give you a road map to follow when you sit down to write.

5. Know the puzzle

Here’s one other super-useful way to learn how to write copy your client loves: Ask them where your piece fits into their big marketing puzzle. A new piece of copy has a context it needs to harmonize with, so it seems to fit well with all the rest of your client’s written marketing.

What else are they selling, and how do they like their marketing there? If they like current marketing, you can break down current sales pieces for phrases and ideas they like to use.

If they don’t like it, ask why. Go back to the competitor-example drawing board, and come up with how they want their marketing vibe to change, if this is the first piece in a new direction.

Every piece of copy has a goal. Ask:

‘Why are we here?

‘What is the purpose of this assignment?

‘What would success look like?’

Use these answers as your North Star, as you navigate your way to writing this assignment.

6. Write their flavor

When you sit down to write, remember that tone and style are super-important in copy. Getting this right often means your first draft is accepted and you’re done. Getting it wrong can get you fired.

Use what you’ve learned studying existing client marketing and the competition. If you’re still stumped on their tone, ask them this tone-setting question:

Can you supply 3-5 adjectives that describe how you would most like to be regarded by your customer? You know, approachable, authoritative, creative, fun… what?

Once you get these descriptors, keep them in the forefront of your mind. They’re going to inform your word choices. When you write a draft, review with these in mind, to see if a better word would be more in line with how they want to be peceived.

Good copywriting really is rewriting, of course. So be sure to carefully edit and proofread before you turn in your piece.

7. Don’t be a diva

You’ve written and turned in your draft — congrats! Next, your client may well have some feedback for you. They’d like you to rewrite things.

Here’s where you get this client to love you… because you cheerfully take in their comments. Then, you produce a better draft, one that’s more in keeping with their goals.

You are completely egoless about your copy and your words. Copywriting is done entirely in service of the client’s desires. You keep that ever in mind, as you process feedback and send rewrites.

Think they’re seriously going astray with these changes? Politely and professionally make your case for why your way will be more effective for them. Couch it in terms of their results, and how great we all want them to be. They may listen.

If they don’t, accept your marching orders. Do your rewrites. For a new client and a first project, you want to write until they’re ecstatic — don’t get hung up on that whole ‘two rewrites and then I charge more’ attitude a lot of copywriters have.

Your willingness to put in a bit of extra work to make them happy will have them calling you back.

What does a copywriter do? Your answer, please

It may seem like there are more secrets to know — I know a lot of people who offer $2,000 courses would like to convince you there is so, so much more.

But honestly, these are the basics.

Listen, define, ask, learn. Understand the goal and the need. Find out about tone, write, edit, polish, file. Rewrite to your client’s satisfaction.

And they can take you far.

But maybe you have a different opinion of what the important tasks of a copywriter are. If so, let’s discuss in the comments! Bring on the debate.

What do you think a copywriter does? Let’s discuss in the comments.

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  1. Rosiland Wells

    I totally agree with the formula for professionalism you laid out when consulting with a client.

    It’s brilliant.

    While I won’t say that copy is formulaic, it does adhere to a more rigid structure.

    Good copy is creative and persuasive within that structure.

    Here is a copywriting book that teaches how to write the structure of copy very well:

    “How to Write Copy That Sells” by Ray Edwards

    Once you understand the structure, the rest is just writing…and rewriting…and rewriting…

    • Carol Tice

      Rosalind…. I love Ray. But I think how we sell has changed a bit in the 40 years since he got started. I mean… maybe I’m the only one who cringes when I read AWAI’s scare-tactic, old-school long sales pages… but I think I’m not.

      And that — as I say in the post — I believe learning formulas out of books doesn’t produce a lot of working copywriters. Learning copywriting structure in a class where you SEE it done, get a chance to DO it and get FEEDBACK on it… THAT gets you read to do copywriting for clients.

  2. Julie Ann Trentin

    A copywriter rewrites the narrative of the business and polishes it off with good wording and proper spelling with the intention of drawing in new customers.knowing the tone of the business and using it to color a new perspective can be excellent for someone’s business. I am a past business owner myself and I remember the narrative voice we were trying to convey to our customers. Thank you for all this wonderful information.

  3. Jim McCarthy

    Brilliant, Carol!
    You have given a synopsis of the copywriter’s trade more clearly stated than any of those “$2,000 courses” you mentioned.
    Wish I could have seen this article before I blew the wad on one of those last year.
    Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could write a book with such a detailed description of each of a freelance writer’s other choices (blogging, copyediting, web design, site auditing, etc.) so he/she wouldn’t have to spend a fortune trying each one to find the best fit?

  4. olumisin Tolulope Tinuoye

    Hello, I really appreciate these hints, but would like to ask, who provides the email addresses, the clients, or the copywriter?

    • Carol Tice

      The email addresses of whom, Olumisin? Not sure I understand…

    • olumisin Tolulope Tinuoye

      Thank you for your response, sales copy is meant to be sent to email addresses of prospective clients, so my question is who provides all the email addresses? The copywriter or the company?

      • Carol Tice

        Lots of sales copy doesn’t go out on an email. There are long website sales pages, brochures… many forms.

        But IF it’s the type that gets emailed out, the copywriter isn’t responsible for providing that list.

        Hope that helps!

  5. Joe

    This is a great breakdown of what a copywriter does. Asking questions up front is so important; it makes capturing the client’s voice and direction so much easier. Being willing to make edits without getting frustrated is a good way to guarantee they will hire you again for future projects, too.

  6. Navin Israni

    Very, VERY helpful article!

    No doubting your expertise Carol! 😉

    I doubt have one thing to add:

    When we quote 50% advance, it may come as a shock to companies who have never worked with freelancers/contractors before. This may be especially true if they’re a small business.

    What I would do instead -> Ask for 30% advance (negotiable down to 25% if they ask), explain why you set up the way you did. And let the client-contractor trust take care of the rest. I would be signing a contract anyway, so I wouldn’t be worried about the remaining 70-75% of the money. One can also set up staggered payments cycle – 30% advance, 30% on delivery of the first draft and 40% on completion (post reviews)

    • Carol Tice

      Navin — Have to say I disagree.

      Cutting your up-front accomplishes nothing. Either they understand that contractors start work when they get a deposit, or they don’t. Making the deposit smaller doesn’t solve the problem, if they are so inexperienced at contracting — have never hired a plumber, for instance — that they are shocked to discover we start work upon receiving a deposit. Educating them that this is how we work does.

      Giving them a lot less skin in the game does increase your odds of getting stiffed, as well.

  7. Ubai

    Hi Carol
    Awesome, simple, and to the point.
    I agree that learning any skill requires much more than reading. Unless we put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), there is no conversion at all.
    Your simple 7-step solution pretty much covers the copywriting gamut. It gives me, an aspiring copywriter, much-needed boost.
    I am amazed at the ideas you come up with for your blog!

  8. Anna Matetic

    This makes me feel better as I transition from tech writer to freelance writing (maybe tech, maybe copy, maybe both). Tech writers are immune to hurt feelings when it comes to edits! IT folks are not really known for tact. I’ve gone through so many content reviews in the last 10 years, my attitude is more “tell me what to change and I’ll change it!”.

    • Carol Tice

      Love it, Anna — I cut my teeth getting song lyrics critiqued on Hollywood Boulevard by a working chanteuse and our writer group, so I’m totally immune. Being egoless about your words is a KEY skill in writing for pay!

    • Evan Jensen

      Hi Anna. LOL. I love it. I wrote a lot of UX copy for developers a couple years ago and “not really known for tact” describes my experience too. No hard feelings, they’re just very pragmatic thinkers.

  9. Jim Mahannah

    Great job on spelling out the essentials in a clear and concise manner, Carol. I valued the comment about getting the tone and style right for our clients – that’s easily overlooked.

    Thanks for your wisdom.

    • Evan Jensen

      Hi Jim. No doubt, you want get to know a client well enough to think and write in a way that matches their tone and style, and speaks to their audience.

  10. Laura

    Thank you, Carol. I’m due to start my first copywriting gig on Monday and honestly I’m nervous about it. Hello imposter syndrome! Many other blogs and how to’s have you believe there’s a secret to it, couched in acronyms and alienating phrases. This blog has really helped me accept that actually it comes back to my core skills as a journalist and someone who’ll loves words. Yes – I’m capable of asking the questions, listening, researching, writing and getting feedback, and so I’ll do a good job. Thank you.

    • Angie Mansfield

      Imposter syndrome runs rampant among freelancers, so you’re not alone, Laura! One thing that helps me when I’m doing a type of project for the first time is to ask the client for samples of similar pieces they like, and ones they don’t. Gives you a better idea of how to nail the piece on the first go.

      Good luck!

  11. Vanessa S. Lewis

    Hi Carol,

    I like that you discussed tone, because that goes right along with knowing who we are writing to; our audience.

    I also I like that your process above starts with listening.

    By listening to our client’s needs and wants, we not only help them feel validated, we might hear words to use in their copy. I do think copywriters are skilled with understanding human psychology, as well!

    Being able to get inside of a customer’s head helps us to understand their problem, and position the copy as their ideal solution, and this all helps us persuade them to hit the buy button.

    • Carol Tice

      Listening is very underrated in our society today! People can’t even look up from their phones while you’re talking. People don’t feel SEEN and UNDERSTOOD, and if you can do active listening, at this point, it’s a real point of difference that can help you get the gig.


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