Content Crafters

Joanna Wiebe on Learning Copywriting and Giving a Damn (Q&A)

September 17, 2019

Content Crafters is an interview series where we de-construct the tools, tips, and tactics that top bloggers use to get so much work done. you’ll walk away in mere minutes with actionable takeaways you can try out right away. Let’s dive in!

Joanna Wiebe is the original conversion copywriter and is the creator of Copyhackers, the hugely popular copywriting blog, agency, and copy education provider.

She also founded Airstory, a SaaS product that helps organize your research and writing. It’s used by tons of researchers, students, journalists and copywriters.

Joanna is one of the biggest names in the copywriting and conversion optimization spaces, and she’s talks at conferences like Mozcon, INBOUND, SearchLove, and CXL Live.

In this interview, we cover her transition from copywriter to business leader, her early inspiration and ambition, why copywriting is a hard skill, and much much more.

You can find Joanna on Twitter at @copyhackers or you can follow her writing at

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How did you get into copywriting? What’s your origin story?

I fell into it.

I’d just dropped out of law school (best move ever) and didn’t know what to do. So I stumbled into a job at a local agency as a “creative writer.” In retrospect, that title set me back a couple of years. Should have taken the title “copywriter” so I might’ve actually started studying the stuff sooner – but “copywriter” sounded so dull. Ah, naive child that I was….

Two years later, I joined Intuit as a senior copywriter, and that’s where I started studying conversion rate optimization and old-school copywriting. When I wrote my first sales page, I was hooked.

Is there anything particular to your background, personality or skill set that you would attribute to you being a great copywriter?

Hmm – great Q. If I’m a great copywriter, it’s only because I give a damn and keep giving a damn. Which means I get offended by people who don’t give a damn – who treat copywriting like an afterthought, use lorem ipsum, apply “best practices” lazily, hire the lowest bidder, think they can pick this stuff up in a weekend and say things like “nobody reads anyway” and “sex sells.”

Because I give a damn, I’m also going to work on something until I get it right. And question things that aren’t right. And know I’ll probably never get it 100% right. But work my can off to get as close as humanly possible.

When you began to transition in your career from a specialist/copywriter to more of a business building role (hiring, management, sales, support, etc.), what were the biggest challenges? Which skills were most crucial in that transition, and which were the hardest to learn?

Oh geez – these are good questions.

The biggest challenge has been, without question, hiring the right people.

Over the past five years at least, I’ve learned a ton about how to manage (or semi-manage) people – the people I managed then wouldn’t recognize the manager I am today.

The most crucial skills, I think, are patience and, once again, giving a damn. Both the employee and I need to be patient – with each other, with the process, with the ever-changing world of digital marketing – and we both need to give a damn. (A problem is, too often, that you care more about someone’s success than they do.)

I was cool with the second skill, but the first – patience – has been stunningly difficult to learn.

My dad always said “never pray for patience because God will teach it to you,” but perhaps I should’ve done once or twice so I’d have a foundation in being patient. ?

To what extent are copywriters born versus made? Can a marketing or business generalist (or, for example, a small business owner) ever become a master at copywriting, or is this something that, at some point, people need to hire out to more deeply specialized copywriters?

Karl Blanks of Conversion Rate Experts is a rocket scientist. And a badass copywriter.

Ramit Sethi is a finance guy. And a badass copywriter.

I believe great copywriters are made. You CAN read a bunch of copywriting books, practice what you learn, observe what others are doing, practice what you learn and end up writing world-class copy that gets results. You do not have to be a particularly good writer, although that doesn’t hurt.

Can you form a good argument? Can you neutralize objections? Can you build anticipation? And do you care about doing all those things?

That’s what matters, based on what I’ve seen working with, by this point, more than 500 freelance copywriters.

That said, you won’t ever be a great copywriter of all the types / forms of copy.

It’s far more likely that you’ll find yourself operating as a great email copywriter and outsourcing web copy – or you’ll be a great sales-page writer and need to outsource email copywriting. Because once you get good at something, you realize that you need that same level of expertise to be good at all the things – and it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever get there.

Do you view copywriting as a hard skill or a soft skill (or a mixture)? Why?

For me, it’s both.

The foundational stuff is a hard skill: instructions for it can be clearly written out; it’s formula-rich; it’s all about rules, systems and processes. That’s about 80% of the work.

The remaining 20% is soft – it’s the art that breathes life into the math and science. We’re talking big ideas, persuasive insights and simply making things “sound good.”

What are the most common mistakes you see copywriters making when trying to strike out on their own and build a freelance writing business?

I see new freelance copywriters make the same three mistakes:

  • Charging too little because they’re suffering from imposter syndrome (which is a very real thing for freelancers)
  • Charging too much because they have a salary in mind they think they “should” be earning (and then set expectations super-high only to leave their clients disappointed)
  • Managing their time as if they have a regular nine to five job.

First: what you should charge is based on the value you provide, where higher value is often the product of lots of useful experience (e.g. you’ve actively trained under pro copywriters for years).

And second: as a freelancer, you need to change your relationship with time.

Unlike your friends and ex-coworkers, you will work weekends; unlike your friends and ex-coworkers, you will take a Wednesday off if your work’s all done and you feel like taking Wednesday off. Think about time differently.

Those hours you spend on Facebook are not just a waste of billable hours – they’re a waste of time you could be spending enjoying your life. So be at your desk when you’re working, and get away from your desk when you’re not.

You do not need to sit at your desk nine to five. But you do need to put in forty hours a week.

Is there any crossover in the ability to write, say, a good blog post, and a good value proposition, headline, or campaign tagline? Anecdotally, I feel super comfortable writing a blog post, especially long form, but get anxious if I have to write anything terse like a headline.

I’d say yes, there’s crossover – but perhaps not much.

When you write a great blog post, you shape a good argument and leave the reader with something to chew on. Same is true for writing a long-form sales page. Both a great blog post and a great long-form sales page are made up on a strong value prop, great headlines and crossheads and other “smaller” copy. So yes – they all play together.

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That said, a blog post isn’t trying to sell a person on X. It’s not trying to “get the yes.” It might be trying to get a nod or a thumbs up – which is the job of a headline. A blog post takes two thousand words to get you there. A headline has, like, ten words to get you there.

So when it comes to writing content vs writing copy, sure, there’s a little crossover.

But I honestly wouldn’t hire – and haven’t hired – a content writer to do the job of a copywriter. The tools are the same. The execution is quite different.

You’ve mentioned having early ambitions for law school and also for dermatology, but was there any sign or indication in your childhood that you would eventually be drawn towards copywriting?

Well I loved that Angela from Who’s the Boss was in advertising. I had no idea what it was about, but I liked that she was, in this one scene, pitching a creative idea to a room full of people. Like, you can come up with cool ideas… and get paid for it? Whaaaaat???

As for law school, I think I just really liked writing the LSATs. Dermatology is something I believe more people should have access to, which might sound odd because there are so many important forms of care that people don’t have access to.

But a teenager with acne can suffer from bullying, depression, suicidal thoughts – and spend some crazy-formative years hating himself and envying everyone else. People need confidence. So that’s where I would’ve loved to have become a dermatologist.

But I was just more drawn to the Arts and literature.

What has been surprisingly challenging about building a product? What lessons do you wish you had learned earlier?

Every single thing is unimaginably challenging about building a product. But I just love building things. So I keep doing it.

A lesson I’ve seen play out repeatedly but still haven’t really learned from is to get an influencer with a platform to be an early investor. Would ConvertKit have grown like it has without Pat Flynn recommending it so heavily to his audience?

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What skill(s) do you believe are underrated for content marketers and copywriters? What would you advise young or aspiring copywriters to get great at if they want to stand out and be successful?

Any content marketer or copywriter who isn’t killing it today is, IMHO, just being lazy. This is the PERFECT time to be a person who writes.

So skills that are underrated for these folks: writing blog posts and ebooks, promoting them in communities they’re already a part of and then _continuing_ to show up and do the work day after day, year after year.

Gimme three tips to improve my writing? Or rather, three tips anyone can use to write better.

Three quick tips to improve your writing:

  1. Use the Problem > Agitation > Solution (PAS) formula to lay out your page or email. It’s a great instant argument shaper.
  2. To find the pains to discuss and agitate, reference voice-of-customer data. To do this fast, type inurl:”product-reviews” “tired of” keyword into Google, replacing “keyword” with whatever your keyword is, like “acne.” The results will fill your page with pain points worth agitating.
  3. Make your crosshead that leads into the close stronger using “even if,” where you have your promise then the words “even if” then the objection your audience has. So if you’re trying to close your visitor at the end of the page, instead of writing just the promise of “Get rid of acne for good” as your headline, you might write “Get rid of acne for good even if you’ve tried ProActiv, OtherBrandX and home remedies but had zero results.”

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Jim Berg
Jim is the editor-in-chief at Wordable.
Jim Berg
Jim is the editor-in-chief at Wordable.