As long as there are businesses out there needing words to promote themselves, there will be a need for copywriters. PR companies, digital agencies, graphic design studios, online service companies, retailers – and many more – regularly outsource writing work to freelancers. It makes sense when you think about it for more than half a second. The amount of writing business writing that is needed every day is simply enormous. Somebody needs to do it. Granted, some firms have their own in-house copywriting capability, but many more depend on the relationships they develop with freelancers.
Freelance Copywriter: could it be me?
So could you be a success in this field?The most important question for you is this: do I consider myself a good writer? To work in this game you don’t have to be Shakespeare, or anything like. But you do need to be a reasonably decent writer (silk purses, sow’s ears, etc). If your answer to this is yes, you should certainly think about this field as a potentially lucrative way to make a living, provided you are prepared to learn quickly.
If you’ve never done commercial writing before, the learning curve will be steep, make no bones about it. Climbing that learning hill requires a thick skin and sheer bloody-minded determination. If you’re prepared for all that, and you feel, like I did, a thrill of excitement about the prospect of being paid well to write, you must believe that you will get there, because – you will.
The kind of work you will be creating is very different from other forms of writing, journalism for instance. At its heart, business copy is functional, rather than aesthetic. Your writing has to achieve a purpose for your client, and that purpose by and large, is to promote, persuade, sell. Which means you must be well schooled in the art of writing persuasive copy and you must therefore be fully conversant with the fundamentals of marketing.
Freelance copywriter: an aspirational lifestyle
Picture it. It’s a Friday afternoon. You’ve just sent an invoice for a meaty project which occupied all of the past week. You glance through your recently invoiced work and it’s evident that your application and dedication are beginning to bear fruit. A trickle of clients is becoming a steady stream. Last week in fact, you actually turned down one potential project in favour of another. You’re starting to look to the future witha new sense of security.
So now it’s the end of the week and you’ve decided to take the rest of the afternoon off. Then phone rings. One of your regulars needs a small job done quickly. You calculate you can turn this round by close of play Monday. Perfect, says the client, as you glance through your work schedule for the coming week.
You have deadlines coming up, but how you meet them is now totally up to you; you have no boss to hassle you. But you’ve also learnt that your week is made up of a great deal more than billable hours. And you’re realising some other downsides too.
The freelancing life is not for the faint-hearted. The safety-nets that come with paid employment are now removed. Holidays, pension funds, sick days – you must allow for all of this yourself. And you’ve also realised that this life is about far more than ‘just doing the work’.
Three hats – and you have to wear them all
The freelance copywriter’s life can seem idyllic – and there are times when the dream measures up in reality. But the reality is that it involves a great deal more than tapping away at a keyboard. If you’re a ‘one-man-band’ business, you are the sole boss. All the decision-making, the successes, the failures – they’re all down to you. Which means, by implication, you don’t just wear a writer’s hat. You also wear a manager’s hat.
And what about that writing work? Where is that coming from? How are you going to get it in? What are your plans to expand or grow the business? How are you going to implement those plans? All those aspects of business development are also down to you – and that’s your other hat. Business development manager, or entrepreneur. Michael Gerber’s excellent book The E-Myth is an excellent read for anyone embarking on the freelance life. I found it incredibly useful and informative when I was starting out.
Essential reading for the beginning copywriter
I can’t possibly cover all the advice I have to offer aspiring writers in an article of this length, but I can recommend a couple of books which I think are required reading. The first is Peter Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Writer which is, in his words – a ‘soup to nuts roadmap for launching your commercial writing business’. This book is more than a copywriter’s guide, it’s a kind of business plan for those starting out. In the early days of my career, Peter was not only a useful contact, he was also a mentor and guide. He was kind enough to include a short piece about me in one of the editions of TWFW.
The second book I’d recommend is Bob Bly’s The Copywriter’s Handbook first published way back in 1985 but an eduring classic, demonstrating that the essentials of good copy will always remain, despite the dizzying pace of technological change.
Bob Bly’s freelancing pros and cons
- Freedom to set your own hours – no 9 to 5 routine
- Freedom to work from home – dress as you please, no office politics, etc
- Independence – your work does not depend on what others do
- Autonomy – you make decisions faster on your own
- Creative freedom – others don’t need to approve before you submit work
- Pride of authorship – you and your client know the work is yours alone
- Money – you’ll probably make more of it than if you were in a agency
- Variety – many clients, not just 3 or 4 accounts
- Control of workload – you are as busy as you want to be
- Freedom to walk away – if you don’t like the work, you’re not tied to the client
- Respect – most clients treat their freelancers better than their staff writers
- Cash flow is uneven – it’s often a feast or a famine
- Work flow is uneven – you can get depressed if work dries up
- Clients don’t pay on time – paying outside vendors can be last on the list of priorities
- Prospects waste your time – ask you to send samples, keep you waiting, not return calls
- Prospects want stuff for nothing – demanding hours on the phone and free advice
- Sleazes – fly-by-nighters making nebulous promises ‘if the business grows’
- No comrades – it’s a lonely business without fun people to bounce ideas off
- You’re not part of the big picture – you just supply the copy
- Harder to build a portfolio – clients rarely send you copies of your brochures etc.
Your freelance fee rates (£) – don’t sell yourself short
Fees are such a thorny topic, and one which many freelance copywriters tell me is the single trickiest issue. There is so much to consider here and there is so much advice to give. But the single biggest thing to bear in mind is this. Don’t sell yourself short.
If work is not coming in and you start scratching around various online supplier market sites (understandable to do it, but I say it’s a no-no) you’ll be offered work for ‘peanuts’ pay. It’s a negative spiral once you start accepting this kind of work, you can start to kiss goodbye to your freelancing career. So charge what you are worth. And how do you do that?
First, and most important. Identify an hourly rate. Sit down and work out how much you need to clear in a year. Break that down to a month, factor in all your expenses, and work on the basis of being able to operate around 15-20 billable hours per week. When you quote to a prospective client, never tell them what your hourly rate is, because that could become an albatross around your neck, i.e. client says: ‘Well this will take a day, so at your hourly rate that would be x£’. Stay in charge of your charging by keeping your hourly rate to yourself, and calculate projects accordingly.
How much do other freelance copywriters charge? The range is enormous, depending on experience, niche and the level of client you are servicing.When I started out, back in 2005, I hit upon an hourly rate of £30. After speaking with other copywriters I felt reluctant to raise the rate – I had no experience – but I did. To £40, soon after to £60 then £70, £80 nad £90. Did the work drop off because I’d raised my rates over time? No, because it was never about the money. It was always about the value. And if you sell the value, you don’t have to worry so much about the fee or whether you’re charging too much.
On occasions where you have to charge by time as opposed to a whole-project fee, I would offer a whole-day rate or half-day rate. These days, I never charge below a half-day. That’s a lesson learned through long experience. Because things ALWAYS take longer than you think. It very rarely, if ever, goes the other way. So, bottom line – have a good sense of your worth, and, I say it again, charge what you are worth.
How do I get the work?
You’ve set yourself up in business and you’re ready to go. So where is the work? You’ve got to to and get it. People are not going to come knocking on your door so you absolutely can’t be a shy, retiring violet. You’ve actually got to have a bit of a brass neck. Cold calling? Yes, for sure. Hang on, you cry, everybody hates cold callers. Well, yes – when they’re shysters trying to con you at home. But I am talking about business-to-business calling, a very different beast.
When you make a business cold call, you’re doing something perfectly valid. Don’t expect much in the way of instant gratification (oh, thanks for calling, here’s a piece of work for you) but you also needn’t expect to be shouted at or given the bum’s rush. Keep the call short and sweet. Once you’re through to the marketing or finance manager or director, say who you are and offer to send through your web details or online portfolio. Don’t have a portfolio yet? See below for more on that.
Mud and walls. You remember the saying? Throw enough mud at the wall, and some of it will stick.That’s a bit of a truism when it comes to business-to-business cold calling. Make 100 calls a day, do that for a week and you will get something back. It’s the way it seems to work.
Don’t yet have a freelance copywriting portfolio?
We all have to start somewhere. In pre-internet days, building a copywriting portfolio was all about getting print samples into a fancy folder, to put across a prospect’s desk. It doesn’t work like that very much any more, but you still need to show examples of your work. If you don’t have any, I suggest two courses of action.
First, make some samples up. Hit upon a fictional business name, identify what copy they might need, and produce a piece of writing to fulfil that need. You can be quite open with prospects when they ask you about it. They almost certainly won’t be too bothered about who the target client was. They’ll be much more interested in the writing and what it shows you can do.
Second, offer your services pro-bono – i.e. unpaid – to a local charity or community group. You’ll be doing them a massive service and you’ll have another piece for your portfolio – print or online. This might also take the form blog-post writing.
I hope that everything I’ve said here has encouraged you, rather than putting you off. Yes, there’s so much to consider and so much to do, but the rewards are worth it, take it from me. And bear this in mind. Your background, whatever that is, gives you a unique advantage. Identify all that your previous experience gives you. In my case, I’d been an English teacher and my background was solely in education. I remember thinking about all the disadvantages of this. I knew nothing about marketing, for instance, or about this type of writing. That was true. But being a specialist in language also gave me a huge advantage. Having taught others about good writing had made me a better writer. And in a short period of time I learned a great deal about marketing.
So be prepared to learn, like I did, but also be prepared to leverage your existing contacts or sector background. It will stand you in good stead. And keep believing. If you can’t jump over the hurdles, barge through them. Don’t be put off. If you want this thing badly enough, you will do it.
If you’d like to work with me as your copywriting mentor, I’d love to talk to you. Teaching copywriting has been a genuine career highlight for me.
Good luck in your freelance copywriting career. I’m right behind you!