Interview: Krista Jones on How to Get Started and Succeed As a Self-Help Copywriter

CI: You’ve been an AWAI member and successful, professional copywriter for some time now. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey?

KJ: Sure. I took AWAI’s program in 2001 and went to Bootcamp that year in September. There was a spec assignment to write a letter to rival their “Can you write a letter like this one?” promo for the copywriting program. I completed the assignment, and they liked it and mailed it.

As a result of that first paid assignment, word spread, and I got some other assignments. Within a year I was able to quit my environmental engineering career altogether. I’ve been a full-time copywriter ever since.

CI: Word-of-mouth is a marketing technique that people sometimes gloss over because they don’t realize it’s something you can cultivate … you have to deliver on every project and welcome referrals, before you can count on it.

KJ: Exactly. That’s the way I look at it … if you prepare yourself and do the work and do what you say you’re going to do.

For example, if I say I’ll call at three o’clock, then I call at three o’clock. If I say I’ll have a project in by a certain deadline, then I get it to them when I say I’ll get it to them.

Also, while I’m working on a project, I work really hard on it. I revise it and revise it and revise it until it’s the best it can be. I’ve always done the best I could on every project. And it’s paid off.

CI: Nowadays, you write quite often for the self-help market. Can you share how writing for self-help differs from writing for other markets?

KJ: I’ve never really thought about how it differs. That’s a good question. The difference for me personally is that I’m just so passionate about the market. I’m such a student of self-help and of Nightingale-Conant, in particular. For me, it’s been different from other markets, because every time I work on a self-help project, I’m personally more invested.

I’m a typical prospect for just about anything I’ve ever written in self-help. I’ve been fortunate that they’ve all been good products or things that I would be interested in, or at least knew someone personally who would be interested in it. So, that really has helped me be a success, because I’ve always been very excited about it and very passionate about it.

CI: I think you’ve touched on an important point – that you need to be passionate about what you’re doing. You also mentioned being a prospect for what you’re writing about. When you actually are a prospect, does that change the writing process for you?

KJ: It does. I don’t have to do quite as much research from the standpoint of talking to other people or visiting chat rooms. I’ve done this for a while. I know people who are also interested in self-help, so I know what makes the self-help buyer tick. I don’t have to spend time trying to get into the mind of the prospect because I’m already there.

CI: So, what is it that makes a self-help prospect tick?

KJ: Drawing from my own experience and from the writing that I do, we’re always searching for more … always looking for that next “thing.” That one bit of information or that one tool or that one technique that we haven’t heard of.

I think we’re also very much driven by positive things. When I write for the self-help market, it’s very, very rare that I make anything a negative. When writing for some markets, you might state things in a negative way. For example, you might say, “Are you worried about the future?” But for the self-help market, I’ll spin it around and make it positive. I’ll say, “You’ll get excited about the future,” as opposed to focusing on the negative emotion. That seems to work really well for the self-help market.

There are some markets, like health, for example, where you can draw on fear. But for the self-help market, I’ve found that doesn’t really work too well.

Another thing that I find in the self-help market is that you have to be careful about not revealing too much in the copy. You get to the benefits and you tell what’s unique about the product, but you don’t reveal too much. That’s true to some degree for anything, but I find that in self-help, I tend to reveal even less than I do when writing for other markets.

CI: For copywriters who are new to the self-help market, can you tell us about the writing process you use?

KJ: Sure. When I get a project, I always get all the background information first … including the actual product, the research, the supporting materials, etc.

I’ll spend anywhere from four days to a week going through the product and doing all my research. Then I’ll come up with a list of questions for the client (or for the author of the book or program). Next I’ll have a launch call or a project kick-off call with the client’s marketing team. We’ll talk and I’ll get a chance to ask my questions … but the most important thing to me on that call is just to listen. And I always ask permission to record the call.

When there’s more than one person on the call, I just let them go because they’ll sort of feed off each other. They’ll talk about what they like about the product, and what makes it so different, or whatever the case might be. You get all this good inside information that you might not get from the background materials. I love to kind of take myself out of the equation for a while and just let them talk without interrupting them.

Sometimes I’ll get really good ideas for headlines or selling ideas from this discussion … and a lot of the times during that process they’ll answer the questions that I had anyway. By the time they’re finished and they ask if I have any questions, I might have only one or two.

After the call, I go back and listen to the recording and take notes. Then I’ll usually spend a day or so not doing a lot with it. I just let it sink in.

Once I’m ready, I put together a two-page document – kind of like a copy platform – but I don’t really get into the audience and talk about the demographics or their latent feelings and desires because I’m very familiar with the self-help audience.

The document is basically my tick list – what I want to keep in mind as I write. I put the name of the product at the top and the author. I write down what the USP is. I come up with the big idea, the big promise, and then I do a long list of all the benefits I can think of. Then I go back through those benefits and decide which three are the most important ones to the prospect.

Then, for each of those primary benefits, I think about the deeper benefits … the ones nobody really wants to say out loud, but that are implied … what the prospect really wants from this product.

Before I start writing, I review my document and get it all in my mind, and that helps me create a view of where I want to go. Sometimes I do an outline, sometimes I don’t.

Then I start writing. For the first day or two, I concentrate on headlines and leads. And then I write the rest of the letter and get that done. If it’s a direct-mail package, I then move on to the other components – such as the envelope and lift note.

In the final days, I go back through and revise everything several times. I usually do a minimum of three revisions, but I prefer to do five.

CI: You’ve recently started doing some self-publishing in the self-help market … is that correct?

KJ: I’m getting ready to. I’m working with a partner. It’s actually somebody who I mentored as a copywriter, and we have very similar interests. We’re working on something right now and hope to have everything going late this year or by the beginning of 2009.

CI: How has your copywriting career helped support that project?

KJ: Self-publishing is exciting … I like the idea of doing things for myself. But it’s also scary because it’s my own business as opposed to helping someone else with theirs. There’s a lot to learn as far as starting from scratch and getting a website up and going and all the other things associated with starting a business. But I welcome the challenge.

Copywriting plays a huge role. It’s a huge advantage. Obviously we’ll be able to write our own marketing materials, and it will help us in writing ebooks or books or anything else that we want to create because we’ve been trained to write persuasively.

Of course, we won’t have to – we may at some point hire other writers if we get busy – but starting out that’s just one expense we don’t have to worry about.

CI: I think it’s important for our readers to hear how many possibilities copywriting actually opens up for them …

KJ: I firmly believe copywriting is a great foundation for almost anything you can do. I think about how many different things it has helped me with. It has absolutely changed my life, no question about it.

Writing for companies like AWAI and Nightingale-Conant has been a big thrill for me. And being a copywriter has given me the confidence to start my own business in something that I really, really want to do – as opposed to just getting a good job in a high-paying industry.

CI: Let’s switch gears and talk about self-promotion. What advice would you give to copywriters who want to break into the self-help market?

KJ: Well, I would say, start with getting a list of self-help companies. I read the article AWAI published on getting paid to market your services in the self-help industry, and I agree with it. I tell my mentoring students to build a list however they want to do it. I’ve had people who’ve searched on the Internet and found 50 or 100 self-help companies online.

Then, obviously, start marketing to them. Don’t rely on just one marketing method. Do some direct mail, do some email, make some phone calls, and just mix it up a little bit.

If it’s a niche you really want to break into, don’t hesitate to do some work on spec just to show people what you can do.

There are other opportunities, too. For instance, if you’re shy about making calls or sending emails, then going to AWAI’s Bootcamp and doing the spec assignments is a good idea. I know Nightingale-Conant’s going to be at Job Fair this year, and I’m sure other self-help companies will be there, as well.

I’d do every single self-help spec that’s out there. It’s just a great way to get exposure and to have samples to use on your website or to send to prospective clients.

CI: What advice do you have for copywriters who feel rejected when they don’t get a response to a marketing effort?

KJ: To me rejection is like getting negative feedback on a project. You don’t have to have a tough skin when you start, but you have to grow it as you go. Rejection is not personal. There are many reasons why someone wouldn’t call you. They might be busy, or they might not hire freelancers, or they might not need your services at that time. So you have to learn not to take it personally and just keep going. Keep putting yourself out there.

CI: Is there any final advice you’d like to give aspiring self-help copywriters?

KJ: Be a student of the market. Read self-help books. Seed yourself on the lists of self-help companies. Study things on the Web. Listen to some audio programs. Just get a feel for what’s going on in the market. Then study other promotions – that’s a big thing. It also helps keep you excited about what you’re doing because you’re constantly involved.

Once you do get a client or project, push as much as you can to speak with the author or creator of the product. You can get incredible insight from that person … why they did it and how they did. You might get a funny story or some incredible piece of information that your client doesn’t even know about. I know that when I get a chance to speak to the author, the package I create is usually more successful.

The War of Art

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Published: September 16, 2008

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