Ep 230 How to get into real estate writing with copywriter Donna Webeck.

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In Episode 230 of So you want to be a writer: Valerie and Allison share tips on how to be prolific and why you should enter the Richell Prize. You’ll discover your chance to win movie tickets. Plus, meet copywriter Donna Webeck.

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

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Links Mentioned

6 Tips On How To Be Prolific

The 2018 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers

Writer in Residence

Donna Webeck

Lover of all things literary and passionate about prose. Freelance health, parenting, property writer, content & social media manager & real estate copywriter.

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Caption competition – WIN film double passes

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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@valeriekhoo

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Donna.

Donna

Oh, thank you very much for having me, Valerie.

Valerie

Now, I’m really excited about this chat because I remember quite some time ago where you had done no real estate writing. And that’s really what you’re known for now. You’ve really specialised in it. But at the time, not that long ago, you hadn’t done any of it. And I remember having a conversation with you, you know, this is the area that you’d really like to get into.

Donna

Yes.

Valerie

So just give our listeners, first of all, just a bit of an idea of your life right now and what kind of writing you do, and the real estate writing that you have specialised in.

Donna

Okay, so my life right now revolves about real estate, really, and writing for prestige properties on the Gold Coast and Australia wide.

I decided back in 2016 that I wanted to focus solely on real estate copywriting, because that’s my main passion, I decided. I like to be creative and I like to use words, and I found that that was an area that was crying out for that sort of writing, that really emotional picture-worthy writing.

So I decided to take the plunge and do that, and launched Prestige Property Copy. And it was a slow start, back in 2016. But by this time last year, it just seemed to take off. And now it’s all I do. I can visit eleven properties in a week and write them up. And then I might be sent three or four more properties from my remote clients and write those up as well.

So I spend my days looking at beautiful houses either in person or online and getting to write fabulous words to accompany them.

Valerie

Wow. Now this is a very specific passion. What exactly are you passionate about? Are you passionate about nice houses? Are you passionate about going into, you know, being a busy body into people’s houses? Are you passionate about the actual words? What exactly… Where did this come from?

Donna

Well, I’m passionate about every single aspect of it, to be honest. But it was back when we were selling our own home, and I was reading lots of for sale ads and I just felt that they were a bit soulless.

And I just thought, there’s really some room here to engage with your potential buyers a bit more. And I thought, I could do this. This is the sort of writing that I like to do. I like to be able to paint that picture with words and insert a person into that place. So when I’m writing copy now, that’s how I write, as if I was wanting to buy this home and how would I feel.

And so it started from there. But I had a few roadblocks along the way. A few agents that I knew, I asked them, and they all said no, we do it ourselves, it’s not worth investing in. And I thought, okay, well, I’m not going to let that deter me. I’ll just try and start small. And eventually I got one person to say yes. And then I just found from there I was able to build momentum.

So it is a combination of things. I do love being a stickybeak. I do love interiors. And I do love words. So it’s almost like the perfect storm.

Valerie

Yes, but it’s sort of like, what were you doing at the time before you started doing real estate writing? Just give us a very, very brief potted history of your career up until that point.

Donna

Okay. So in 2011, I did my first Australian Writers’ Centre course, and did the freelance writing for feature articles magazine. And I was just dabbling in that, really. I had had a child, I’d returned to work part time, but always had that urge to write. So I was dabbling in that.

But I just found that I wasn’t getting enough traction with my work there. So I really wanted to try something else. And then I did the copywriting essentials course. And that’s when it sort of sparked everything off and I thought, this is where I can make a business, out of this sector, this particular genre of writing.

Valerie

And have you made a business out of it? When did you decide, okay, this is going to be my full focus, and this is going to be the thing I’m known for, and I’m going to concentrate on it 100%?

Donna

Late 2015 I decided okay, this is what I enjoy doing the most. That’s what I need to focus on. It took a little while, though, to build up to where I am now.

It wasn’t until mid-2016 that I finally got a website built for it. I’d had a few clients by that stage, so I knew I had enough variety, not just one client, constantly showing their houses. I had a variety of clients that I could showcase their work. So by mid-2016 I was probably doing 75% copywriting, and the rest of it was freelance feature writing. But now, by 2017, I was just all completely real estate copywriting. That’s the only thing I do.

Valerie

Great. And how did you get those first clients? Were you literally cold calling people? Or how did it work?

Donna

Well, the very first person who took a chance on me was the man who sold our house where I lived. I begged him to give me a go, and he was very kind and let me do a couple of houses for him. So once I had those as an example, I could then pursue other real estate agents.

So I marketed myself on LinkedIn, actually, because I realised that’s where all the real estate agents were hanging out online. And then an agent said he was happy to give me a go. And he’s been one of my biggest supporters ever since, actually. He’s been wonderful. He has then referred me on to a lot of his fellow agents in his agency and other agents on the Gold Coast and beyond.

So he was basically… Between him and LinkedIn, that was basically what got me started.

Valerie

That is so cool. LinkedIn. That’s great. And so what did you do just put real estate writer? Or what did you put in LinkedIn?

Donna

I made a little graphic up. I can’t remember what I used. Something very basic. But just put a little graphic together, and a call to action, and a pretty picture, and a few nice words. And just advertised that on LinkedIn.

And as soon as I got my first nibble, I just kept following him up, the poor guy, until he was ready to… I was just showing him I was keen, I think. And then as soon as he gave me a try he was like, yep, I’m happy to give you all my work from now on. And oh, that was just the best day ever.

Valerie

Yeah, right. So do you mean you put it on your profile on LinkedIn? Or you put it as a post?

Donna

As a post.

Valerie

Right, okay. So you get to see all these houses, right? And now that you’re specialising in prestige property, you get to see some pretty fancy houses. But the thing is, especially if you see, I even know when I was house hunting and I saw eleven houses, say, I forgot. Like, they were all a blur. How do you…

What do you do to differentiate that fancy house with that fancy house with that fancy house? Especially when you have so many?

Donna

Yeah. Luckily, I have a very good photographic memory. So I can recall what’s in what house really easily, luckily. I’ve just been gifted with that naturally. I also take lots of notes. And if the clients don’t mind, I’ll snap a few photos while I’m there.

But I just try to seek out… Every house has its own individual angle, that something that makes it something special. So if the owner is there, I’ll talk to them and ask them three questions; about what do they love the most, what will they miss the most, what’s been their favourite time in the house.

And I can get a sense for its hook, basically. What makes it unique. So I try to do that at every house, just so I can make them all sound a little bit different.

Valerie

What do you mean by what is their favourite time?

Donna

Like, if they had a favourite memory. A lot of these places are like massive entertainers. So they might have hosted a wedding there, or there’s been a dinner there, or things like that. So I just, if they’ve got… Sometimes I’ve had houses where the mayor has hosted a party there, or something like that. So I can weave little things like that into the copy as well. Just state whether it’s been an iconic house on the Gold Coast, it’s hosted functions, things like that. Just to try and make it stand out a little bit more.

Valerie

For sure. So you’re kind of bringing in some of the elements of feature writing that you learned in feature writing, to make it more than just a list of features and benefits.

Donna

Totally. Because obviously you have to include the features and benefits, but I want to tell a story as well.

Valerie

That must have been quite… For the people that you’re working with, the real estate agents that you’re working with, when they’ve received your copy, that must have been quite different for them compared to what they were used to which was much more of a listing. What kind of reaction… I mean, did they give you feedback on that? What kind of reactions did you get from some of those real estate agents?

Donna

A lot of times, because real estate agents are so busy you might hear nothing, and you just assume no news is good news. So that’s fine. But I do have feedback from agents who just… I had one the other day, it was the first time I’d worked for her, and she wrote me an email in all caps letters and it was just love, love, love every word. So that’s good. That’s great.

Valerie

Wow.

Donna

And she said, you’re hired. So she was happy to send me work from now on. So that was wonderful.

Valerie

Wow. And so if you go… Obviously when you go to a lovely house, do you have a system? Like, check out the floorplan first? Or talk to the owner first? Or fill in these bits in my notes first? Do you have a system? Or do you just kind of see what turns up?

Donna

Yeah, it depends on whether the agent is there and the owner is there. If the agent is there, sometimes they like to lead me through and show me the house and explain all the features and benefits as we go through. Sometimes the owner prefers to do that. But if I’m left on my own to do it, I do have a little bit of a system where I sort of start at the front and do how I would walk through the home, sort of follow the floorplan, and just so I’ve got an idea in my head of where everything is for my photographic memory.

But I’m always taking notes. I’m a bit old school. I still have my old-fashioned notebook, pen and paper, as I’m taking notes. But I just find that that works for me, so I keep doing it.

Valerie

And how many words would a listing generally be? Or these days, is it kind of like you can write as long as you want? Because online, space doesn’t matter.

Donna

It varies. Some clients are still quite succinct. They really want just short sharp copy. So they might be 300 words maximum for your internet listing with all the features and benefits.

Others, when they’re multi-million dollar houses and there are just so many things to mention, 7 – 800 words. Unfortunately, I don’t charge by the word though, so they get charged the same no matter what.

Valerie

So that is so true. It really is like a feature story, because you’re doing a profile on the house?

Donna

Yeah, that’s right. And you are still trying to look for that hook, as well, too.

Valerie

Yes, for sure. That is so cool. So what are some of the hardest things? For example, you mentioned you may get some listings that are remote, where you don’t get to walk through the house, where you don’t get to exercise your photographic memory. How in the world does that work?

Donna

Yeah, they’re a little bit more tricky, but I’ve managed to get around them. The client, well, the real estate agent will send me images, all of the images that will be going online. And he’ll send me a floorplan. Then they will fill out a checklist that I send them, and it will have all the information that relates all the features and benefits. And I ask them if possible to ask the owners just a couple of questions, just so I can still get that sense of why that house is so special and what makes it unique.

It is a bit more difficult to really get that feeling across. But it still manages to work. I still have quite a few… I have clients in Perth and Melbourne and Sydney.

Valerie

Wow.

Donna

Yeah. So all over the place, really.

Valerie

That’s fantastic. And so when did you… Did you start off doing prestige property? Or did that evolve over time?

Donna

No, it’s been mostly prestige. Because I realised from when I started asking real estate agents at the start and I was getting that pushback, that only the more expensive houses, the prestige properties, have the budget to pay for a copywriter. They get it built into their marketing, I guess. So it was more, I realised quickly that it was more likely to be that market that would pay for a professional copywriter.

Valerie

But hey, you get to walk around fancy houses, so really this is fine.

Donna

Totally fine by me. I leave every house wanting to buy it and I come home with a billion ideas for my own house.

Valerie

Yes, I bet.

Donna

Yeah, I love it.

Valerie

Have you been in a house where you’ve just walked in and it’s just been beyond jaw dropping? Like, you know, it’s been so…

Donna

Yes, for good and bad.

Valerie

Sorry?

Donna

Yes, good and bad, actually.

Valerie

So tell us both. Tell us both.

Donna

Well, one of the good ones, a couple of the good ones actually, one is on the market I think for 11.9 million and the other one is 10. And they are just exquisite. You know, 2000 square metre waterfront blocks with full-sized tennis courts and 25 metre pools and Gold Coast skyline as the backdrop. And they are superb. There’s just not enough nice words to say about them.

But then sometimes you get a house which is a complete knockdown but it’s in an enviable location. So they’re always a little bit more tricky because it’s all about the old cliché, location, location, location with those.

But you still have to describe some of what’s on site, and you still have to use your imagination and try and create a picture that the potential buyer might be able to mention themselves when they go and look at this crumbling house.

Valerie

So if you have a house like that, that is a bit of a yucky house but in a good location, do you have to do extra research on the location to try and beef up the benefits of that?

Donna

I do, yeah. I’ll spend a little bit of time when I’m driving there and driving back just making mental notes about what’s close by, what parks, what shopping facilities, what restaurants. Things like that. Because I’m going to have to talk about the lifestyle and the potential, the potential of what could be.

Valerie

So apart from that situation, generally, when you’re doing your normal houses, what’s the most challenging thing about the kind of work that you’re doing now? What do you find that can be potentially difficult?

Donna

I think sometimes it’s difficult to get more clients. Because I mean I’d like to be doing this more and more, but there is still that pushback on people thinking, I can do this myself. Why would I hire someone to do something that I could do myself?

So I think there’s still a little bit of room to move there with educating real estate agents that investing their time with a copywriter would be a wise move. That’s really the biggest stumbling block that I’ve encountered.

Valerie

Do you have a list of adjectives? Or a list of descriptions that you can call on to describe a lovely kitchen, or a wardrobe? I mean, look at that wardrobe! Woohoo! Do you have some kind of ready reckoner that you’ve developed for yourself?

Donna

I do. Like, most of it is in my head. But I have this book, it’s called Words Which Sell, or Words That Sell, or something like that. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it. What’s his name? I can’t remember. But it has been a godsend. It’s like my bible. So whenever I get stuck for describing something, I’ll flick through that and I’ll get inspiration. Like, it might have a list of adjectives and synonyms for ‘superior’, and just different ways to describe things.

So I do use that when I’m feeling a bit stuck. But a lot of it just seems to flow anyway, luckily.

Valerie

You must have read a lot of real estate listings. Before you got into it, before you decided this appeals to me, it could only have appealed to you because you enjoy reading them. Were you into real estate porn?

Donna

Yes! Well that was the thing. And it was all from selling my house, I realised how much I enjoyed looking at properties online. And things like that. So I really do love what I do. Now, I’m not in the market at all to buy a house, but I still love looking to see what’s for sale in my area, and see how it’s written up. So yeah, totally.

Valerie

So let me ask you this; before you decided you wanted to do this as a career, which you’ve done very successfully, were you just, even though you weren’t in the market, looking and reading real estate listings?

Donna

Not really before I was in the market. I liked words, I was still infatuated with writing. But it wasn’t until we decided to sell our home that the whole trajectory of my career, and what I wanted to do, started, basically.

Valerie

Do you know what? There should be more people in the world like you.

Donna

Oh.

Valerie

No, seriously. Because if… I love the fact that you turn it into a sometimes a 7 or 800 word story. And when you do that, it’s something that I would read. As you say, you need to find a hook. You need to actually make it appealing to people, and therefore it’s valid to be read by anyone, even if they’re not in the market.

I reckon if there were more people in the world like you who wrote things, wrote real estate in that kind of way, people would… You’d find so many more people want to buy houses because they… And the turnover would increase significantly, because they would get sold into that idea, the story you’ve told them, or the dream that you’ve created.

Now, do you have a target reader in mind when you are writing? And how does that work? Do you actually formulate a name for them? Or an idea of them? How does that work?

Donna

Yeah, I do have a target in mind. I’ll either ask the real estate agent who they’re targeting, who their ideal buyer will be. And then I’ll write with them in mind. But if I’m at a property and the agent isn’t there, I’ve got to the point now where I can generally work out who the target might be. And if I’m not sure, I’ll just email them and ask them just to make sure I’m on the right track as well, too. Because I do like to write with the ideal buyer in mind.

Valerie

Yeah, for sure. So what’s been the most rewarding thing about… First of all, what’s the most rewarding thing about real estate writing? I’ll ask that first and then I’ll go on.

Donna

Well, for me, I think the most rewarding thing is I get to do a job that I love. I really honestly love going to work every day. Because I feel so lucky. I get to go and see beautiful homes and I get to write about them. So much better than sitting in an office and doing something that I hate. So it’s very rewarding.

Valerie

So how does this fit in with your life? Do you work from home? Do you fit it around your family? How does this actually fit in?

Donna

I do work from home. And I do fit it in around my family. This is my first year that I’ve been able to go five days a week, because my youngest is now at school. So that is a godsend. Because last year I pretty much was doing five days a week but my youngest was only in day care three days. So I was doing a lot of working around her and at night and weekends.

But now I can fit it in quite easily into my five day week. And I think there’s still potential to bring more work in. I think I could still fit more clients in as well, too.

Valerie

But presumably you have the flexibility, because your kids are at school, if you have to go pick them up or go to a school concert or something, you can work it all around that?

Donna

Yes, that’s right. I’m in control of my diary. I try to always, if a client has a specific time they want me to be at a property, I’ll do everything I can to meet that request. But if they ask me what time suits me, I can slot them into my diary however which way it fits in with my needs, and my family’s needs.

Valerie

So if you had to guess at, let’s say you’ve got that listing over there, you’ve got a listing, and you kind of might spend X number of minutes or hours at the property, X number writing it up or researching. Can you give any kind of estimated time frame per property, how much time you would spend in order to produce what you send to the real estate agent?

Donna

It varies. Because sometimes if I’m at a property, I can be in and out of that property in 15 minutes, and it might only take me… It depends on the property. If it’s a two bedroom unit, I can write that up in half an hour. But if it’s a five bedroom mansion on a 2000 square metre block with a million features, I might spend an hour and a half writing it up so I get it perfect. So it really does vary from property to property.

I do get a sense of how much time, when I get to the property, how much time it will need. But it does really vary from house to house.

Valerie

And I guess it also depends on stickybeak value.

Donna

That’s true too. And sometimes you get the most lovely vendors who want to ply you with coffee and morning tea and things like that, and have a lovely chat as well. So that can certainly eat into your time as well.

Valerie

Have there been any surprising outcomes? Or has this journey thrown up anything surprising for you that you didn’t expect when you first started it?

Donna

Good question. Not really. I felt like I had a pretty good grip on what the real estate market was like. But I do feel like I’ve learnt so much more on the job as I’ve gone along. So that’s been great.

I think I always just worry about wanting to make sure every client feels like they’re my number one. Because there is competition in real estate. They’re all, I guess they are all in competition with each other. But I always have that inner hope that I make each of them feel like they’re just as special to me as everybody else. So that’s my hope anyway.

Valerie

When you started out, did you know any real estate writers that you could ask?

Donna

No.

Valerie

Wow. This is…

Donna

No. You were my first sounding board. I asked you!

Valerie

Awesome. Well, I’m thrilled that you’ve been so successful so far. That’s just brilliant. And here’s the thing; I know, because I go through periods where, like you, I will have periods of real estate porn where I’m just reading listings. It’s very dangerous, because I do get sucked in.

Donna

Oh yes.

Valerie

So I have to pull myself away. But I know that you and I are not the only ones out there. If there’s some people who suffer from the same affliction we do and just read listings even just for fun, and they kind of go, oh, I’d like to do that, because I want to a) stickybeak into people’s houses, and b) write about something I’m passionate about – you’re clearly so passionate about this. What would your advice be to them?

Donna

Well, they do need to do a couple of courses with the Australian Writers’ Centre, that’s for sure. I started with the Copywriting Essentials, and then did the business… I can’t remember the name of it, sorry. How you build your business as a copywriter. They were both essential to this whole building of my business with the lovely Bernadette. So I would suggest doing that as a basis.

And then just trying to get a few things into your portfolio. Whether you have to do them for free – I know, I hate, I really don’t condone working for free, but if it’s the only way you can get a couple of things in your portfolio, then it’s worth it, and then you can start showing potential clients. Hey, this is what I’m capable of, this is what I could do for you. And then you might have a business born.

Valerie

Just like you!

Donna

Yes, just like me.

Valerie

Wonderful. Thank you so much for your time today, Donna. And just congratulations on building such a successful writing business.

Donna

Thank you so much for having me, and thank you Australian Writers’ Centre for helping start this dream.


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