Bizzy Coy on Copy, Clients, and Humor
and writing for The New Yorker
Bizzy Coy makes being a copywriter sound super fun. And when you find your niche and do it right—it absolutely should be. As a freelance copywriter, Bizzy specializes in writing for theater and entertainment brands. She’s also a humor writer with bylines in The New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs column, McSweeney’s, and Splitsider.
We don’t talk about copywriting a lot around here—mostly because I’ve been more focused on pitching journalism pieces lately, so I have more to say about all that. But the truth is, when I do land a copywriting assignment, they pay much better than most of my other work, the money arrives faster, and I generally pull less of my hair out along the way. (And I would like to do more copywriting because having money is really nice!)
Copywriting is a valuable skill that can be creatively fulfilling and challenging, so I was very excited to ask Bizzy all about this type of work. We covered how she finds it, how she charges for it, and some super helpful advice for journalists looking to break into copywriting.
Bizzy Coy on Copy, Clients, and Humor
I tend to approach my career decisions with an over-inflated sense of confidence, so I don’t think I ever had a moment of thinking it wouldn’t work out for me.
BR: So on your website you describe yourself as a copywriter, humor writer, and public speaker. What percentage of your time is spent on each of those? And is there work that doesn't fall into one of those categories?
BC: I’d say I spend about 0–20 hours a week on paid copywriting jobs and 0–20 hours on my own secret, personal writing projects. If I’m being completely honest, I haven’t written a humor piece in over a year. I have not felt very funny lately! And I don’t actually do any public speaking right now, other than the odd online comedy show—but I want to do a lot more public speaking, which is why I put it right there on my website and pretended that I do it all the time. Hey! Folks! Hire me to appear at your event, panel, reading, podcast, Ted Talk or Zoom wedding!
How do you go about finding copywriting clients, and what makes a good client to you?
I mainly write for clients in the theater, arts and entertainment space. It’s a small world that I’ve worked in since 2006, and clients typically come to me instead of the other way around. When I’m in search of a new client, I always start with my existing network. A personal referral is worth 100x more than a cold email.
I’m very fortunate that I only work with good clients! I define a good client as communicative, organized, curious, respectful of my time and creative process, open to a true collaboration. They pay fairly and on time. They treat me as an equal member of the team. They’re fun and we have fun working together! It helps if they have a sense of humor.
What's one mistake you made in your earlier days of being a freelance writer, and what did you learn from that?
It’s less a mistake and more something every freelance copywriter goes through—when you’re desperate for money and you take on a new client even though you see red flags waving violently on the horizon. In the past, I’ve ignored that feeling in my gut that says “this client is not a good fit” and I’ve found my gut is 100% correct every time. Now that I’ve been doing this a while, I can afford to be pickier, and I always listen to my gut. Sometimes my gut tells me, hey, work with this weirdo because you need the money, but at least I enter into it with open eyes.
You're always offering up wise advice and encouragement to fellow writers on Twitter. One piece that stuck with me was about charging project rates instead of hourly. Can you shed some light on how you come up with project rates?
What do I charge?? I get a lot of questions from freelancers via Twitter and email, and this is the most common one I hear. In a nutshell: clients love hourly rates because it’s how things have been done in the past and it’s easy for them to wrap their heads around. However, it’s not always the most lucrative way for a freelancer to charge. If you can get the job done in an hour because you’re super efficient and have tremendous experience, why should you be paid less than an inexperienced copywriter who takes three hours to complete the same job, perhaps not as well as you? Also, I hate tracking hours. So I don’t do it. I prefer project fees that are driven by the client’s budget and the worth of the project in the client’s eyes.
For example. Client A needs me to write a sales email for them. But Client A is a small company my friend is starting. They don’t have a big budget. They have a small email list. They don’t expect a ton of sales right away. So I charge them, let’s say, $200, $350 or $500 for the email, and they’re very happy with it, and they keep coming back to me again and again as the company grows, and I increase my project rate as they make more and more sales.
Now let’s say Client B wants me to write an email. Client B is a big nonprofit. Maybe they want a donation email instead of a sales email. Before I tell them any number, I do a little digging to help create a smarter estimate. I look up their financial records online because nonprofits are required to disclose their information publicly. I see that they have a multi-million dollar operating budget. I look at the size of their company payroll and what they pay to lease their NYC office every month. I Google the company name and find that they just received a major grant from a foundation. I look at their previous fundraising campaigns and see that they’re trying to hit a donation goal of $1 million. So, I can see how this email is incredibly valuable to them. So, perhaps I charge them $1,000 for the email. Or $5,000. Or $10,000. Or $50,000? Would I have the audacity?? Probably not. But what if the client is like, sure, that’s a drop in the bucket for us!
The important thing is to realize that what you ask for has very little to do with how much time it takes you to write the email. It has much more to do with how much value the email has to each client and the size of their marketing budget.
What does success in writing look like to you? Have you gotten there yet?
Success in writing, to me, is simply doing it. So when I’m writing, I feel successful. And when I’m not writing, I don’t feel successful. Writing is not just words on a page, though. It can incorporate all sorts of activities, like thinking, dreaming, drawing, walking, outlining, journaling, revising, reading and resting. Resting is really important. I’ve been writing quite a bit lately, so I would say, yes, I feel successful—for the moment.
Was there ever a time when you felt like writing wasn't going to work as a career for you? How'd you get past that?
I tend to approach my career decisions with an over-inflated sense of confidence, so I don’t think I ever had a moment of thinking it wouldn’t work out for me. I worked as a full-time copywriter before I went freelance, and I was certain I could successfully make the switch to freelancing. I realized very early on that I would never make a living as a CREATIVE writer, though. In fact, I’ve made barely money at all with my creative writing. I tell young writers not to feel bad or discouraged if they can’t fully support themselves with their writing—it is super hard to do and it is not your fault. Even people with incredible bylines and published books often earn their living in other ways, or have wealthy families or supportive spouses.
What do you think convinces people (editors, brands) to hire you instead of someone else?
The reason people tend to hire me is because they know me or someone they know, knows me. That personal connection, however vague or tenuous, is the #1 reason I get hired. I wish I could say it was my brilliant copywriting skills, my undeniable turns of phrase or my mane of silky hair. But no. The personal connection will win the gig, each and every time. Which is why networking is so crucial in freelancing. It’s not a meritocracy, it’s a who-you-knowcracy.
Can someone with mostly journalism experience become a copywriter? What are some skills you should focus on in making that transition?
I’m hearing from more and more journalists who are looking to get into copywriting because it’s incredibly difficult to support yourself as a freelance journalist. We all know the media business model is broken. And journalists need a way to make money.
A few tips for journalists looking to get into copy:
Get comfortable writing with a strong opinion and POV, and forget all about facts, truth and objectivity—we’re here to sell shit and shill for our brand!
Get comfortable writing things that are not paragraphs or even complete sentences—in copy, shorter is better. Think taglines, calls to action, short phrases, bullet point lists, blips, blurbs, etc.
Get comfortable writing the way real people talk, not the way the AP Stylebook recommends.
Practice writing in different voices. Write a sentence, then make it fun. Then make it professional. Then make it snarky.
Practice getting into a consumer’s head. What would make them buy this product? What do they want to feel or be? What message will convince them
Replace your five reporting Ws with five copywriting Ws:
WHO is the target audience?
WHEN and WHERE will they see this copy?
WHAT do we want them to do?
WHY should they do it (what’s in it for them)?
HOW does the brand voice sound?
Think about how to translate your journalism beat and expertise/experience into your copywriting niche. Clients love a copywriter who understands their industry.
OK, so you've written a bunch of humor pieces for The New Yorker, and The New Yorker is my dream pub so I'm dying to know... how did that first byline come about?
The first humor piece I ever wrote, I emailed to the general submission inbox at The New Yorker. Three months later, I received an acceptance email. It was surprisingly easy on the surface, but was the result of years of work. It was a piece satirizing Broadway, so first, I had to be in a lot of high school musicals and then get a degree in theater and work in the theater industry for a decade. Then I had to read Shouts and Murmurs for about twenty years to understand the makings of a humor piece. Then I had to write and get rejections for a Novel That Was Very Bad which led me to realize I should try my hand at something funny instead of serious. Then I had to pay therapists a lot of money to give me the guts to submit a piece to The New Yorker.
This particular byline came at the end of a very long road.
Did EVERYTHING change when you got to say you've written for The New Yorker?
In some ways yes, in some ways no. I still can’t get any of my books published. I still can’t support myself as a creative writer (thank God for copywriting!). I still get rejected by The New Yorker and other places (and rightfully so). But having that byline has certainly opened doors for me, even just a crack, as gatekeepers often do not like to take a chance on a person unless they already have the approval of other gatekeepers. Oh, the terrible irony of it all. I will say, though, having that byline has given me a bit of swagger when it comes to submitting to other places and applying to other things. And the rejections sting a little less.
What's one thing you've written lately that you're really proud of and why?
My passion project in 2020 has been #Scribblewits, a compilation of the witty women of history. As a humor writer myself, I’m always curious to learn about women from olden times who had a sense of humor. So every week I research and write a short profile of a funny lady you may not have heard of. I’ve written about female clowns, jesters, courtesans, poets, playwrights and vaudeville stars, just to name a few. There are so many women who deserve a little more time in the spotlight for their comedic contributions. You can check out #Scribblewits at www.scribblewits.org.
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