5 Questions to Ask Before You Start Your First Copywriting Job

What to do before your first copywriting job.


Over the last 10 years of writing radio scripts, explainer videos, web sites and commercials, I’ve come to realize that there are some really important questions you should be asking before you get started on your first copywriting job. This is assuming you’ve done the hard part – set up an online profile at some freelancing websites and actually landed your job.

The first thing that you’re going to want to do is jump right in and show your new boss how SUPER-COOL you are and how you are the most MIND-BLOWING writer in existence. Ummm…

Don’t. Not yet.

Now, here’s a little tip from your resident pro copywriter: most people who hire freelance writers on sites like Elance and Odesk are start-ups. This means that they have basically no idea what they’re doing. This can be a problem if you ALSO don’t know what you’re doing. What ends up happening is that they give you some vague instructions like, “Write an article with the phrase ‘Hot Cheetos’ in it,” and you’re like, “TOTALLY. I love Hot Cheetos.”

Then, you come back with a dissertation comparing Hot Cheetos to regular Cheetos and their role in evolution dating back to the dinosaurs. And the guy doesn’t pay you because he just wanted you to write about Hot Cheetos being sold in his online store. Lame.

So, to save you from tracking down and killing a stranger with 100 bags of Hot Cheetos, here are some things you should be asking before you even begin.

1. What is the purpose of this piece of writing?

Sure, it seems an obvious question now, but I can’t tell you how many times copywriters don’t ask it. If someone asks you to write a commercial for cigarettes, you might be thinking of new, fun ways to make cancer-sticks sexy again. Then, when you’ve polished the piece and sent it off, you get an irate e-mail saying that your boss’s aunt died from smoking, and that this was a commercial AGAINST cigarettes. Even if that’s not what he/she said originally, it doesn’t even matter at that point. You have to write the whole thing over again.

So, instead of asking what the article is about, ask what it’s purpose is. Who will be reading it? What is the end goal for that reader? How should it make them feel? Those questions will give you much more actionable information.

2. How long should it be?

Also a simple question that often gets overlooked by newbies. Since writing is all about how fast you can complete a fully-finished piece, wasting time is literally wasting money. You don’t want to write any more than is absolutely necessary to create the most complete (and succinct) piece possible. Make sure you get an idea before you even take the job how many words will be required. That way you know if the job is worth the money that your potential boss is willing to pay you.

3. What is the tone?

A lot of start-up business owners don’t really know what the word “tone” really implies, so they’ll just say something like, “businesslike.” Give them some options so that you really know what they want from you. Or, if possible, request them to send you some samples of work that they really like. That way you can glean the style and tone for yourself. If they really have no idea, you may have to come up with a few samples yourself, sometimes based on just talking with them. Here are some differing styles that you can try out:

  • Business friendly
  • Academic
  • Professional
  • Alternative
  • Expert Opinion
  • Intimate

4. When does it need to be done?

Note that this question doesn’t say, “When would you LIKE this done?” It says “need” for a very special purpose. I actually ask both of these questions, and here’s why: When a person WANTS something done and when they NEED something done are often two totally different times. It is vital that you know far in advance (preferably before you take the job) when you NEED to have it done. That’s called a “hard deadline.” If you turn it in late after that date, you probably will have to deal with an irate customer. Then, it is also good to know when they’d WANT it (that’s your “soft deadline”). That way, if you want, you can promise them a completion date close to their “hard deadline,” but surprise them by having it completed by their “soft deadline.” Customers love being surprised with excellent writing that comes in earlier than they expected.

5. When, how and what am I getting paid?

If you’re the kind of person who is squeamish when it comes for asking about getting paid, you’ll get over that pretty quickly. Before you start any copywriting job, make sure that you know EXACTLY when, how and what you are getting paid for your time. If they try to squirm out of it by saying something about, “Well, I don’t know until I see it,” or, “We’re not really sure when the payments are going to go out,” walk away. You don’t have time to be jerked around by people who may or may not pay you.

As far as payment goes, I’ll do another whole post about it. But, for now, here are the basics that you need to know to keep yourself safe and making money.

Have a PayPal account – This is the safest way to do business online (I know, it sounds like I’m getting promotional consideration. What about it, Paypal? 🙂 ) Since PayPal stores your personal bank account information as a 3rd party, your personal financial information is never available to employers. You receive payment in the dark, they send payment in the dark. Online companies like Odesk go a step further by verifying the accounts of employers, which adds an extra level of safety.

Be cautious with your I-9 info – Okay, so really big companies often ask you to fill out an I-9 when you work for them, showing that you are a freelance writer for their company. They will request that you send personal information like your social security number and address. This is actually pretty normal. At the same time, do a little background research before you do. There are a lot of jerks out there who would love to pretend to be you, and those forms are just the place to get the info. So, you can share that info, but do it very carefully (and not across e-mail, if possible).

Break up big assignments into smaller paid segments – This means that, if a dude asks you to write 10 articles for him at $10 a piece, split it up. Then, do 5. Send him the 5 articles and request payment on the first 5. He shouldn’t be too weirded out about it, and you can always tell him that you need to split up the work into smaller chunks for your own business records. This gives you a good idea of how fast he will pay you, and also give him incentive to give feedback halfway through the process that will help you finish the project more to his liking.

Now you know the things you need before you can start on your big project. Good luck! You’re going to do great! Also, can you pick me up some Hot Cheetos?


Willow Dawn Becker is a professional copywriter that actually makes a living doing it! She doesn’t have any multi-level marketing plans for you to buy, but she really likes helping people. You can follow her wild and crazy antics on her blog, read some of her short fiction at 52 Stories or catch her every Friday on Twitter playing Friday Phrases.


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