How do I become a freelance copywriter?
The question came from a woman who wanted to start a freelance copywriting business, but had no idea where to begin. She was miserable in her current career, she said, and thought copywriting might be a good fit. Could I help?
I’m occasionally approached for this kind of advice, which makes me feel like I must be doing a pretty good job (or at least a good job at looking like I’m doing a good job, which is just as good, if not more impressive.)
I never usually feel qualified to offer much guidance to people at the beginning of their copywriting careers, but this message arrived at a moment where I was successfully working with five great new clients, turning in work that was meeting brief first time and generally feeling pretty good about my business, with accounts up to date and website finally starting to rank welk, after months of sustained SEO work (if I’d received this request in February, it would have been an entirely different story my friends, a different story entirely.)
So, I took the time to send this very nice lady a few practical suggestions to get the ball rolling on her new career (the fact that’s her message was well-written, friendly and polite went a long way, incidentally, take note would be freelance copywriters.)
It felt so good to help someone who was setting off down the freelance copywriting road that I decided to write another article about starting out as a copywriter (you can read my first post on the topic here) in the hope that I can inspire a few people who are sitting on the fence, contemplating a copywriting career, to jump onto the freelance copywriting rollercoaster and white knuckle it to a six figure salary, complete career fulfilment and a one day working week (disclaimer: none of those things are going to happen.)
I’ve decided to post this information in the form of a question and answer session, as this will allow me to pretend I’m important enough to be interviewed (disclaimer: I’m not.)
Do I need any formal training to become a freelance copywriter?
Nope. I don’t have any, and the vast majority of working freelance copywriters that I know don’t either.
If you’re thinking of starting out as a freelance copywriter, experience is a much better teacher than embarking on months or years of professional training (plus you can get paid on the job, even if it’s at a low rate, while you hone your craft.)
Of course, there is a wide range of copywriting training out there, and some of it is absolutely fantastic. I’m willing to bet that some of it is utterly shit, though. And who can tell the difference until it’s too late?
If you have the time, the budget and the inclination, by all means take some copywriting courses – particularly if there’s a niche you’d like to explore. Read some books on copywriting too. And the internet is a hive of free copywriting advice (not least my own, rather wonderful blog on the topic.)
But above all this, write some stuff. If you don’t have any clients yet, start a personal blog. Write cold emails to prospective customers. Write copy for your new website. Write freebies for friends and family, if you have to. Definitely write for fun.
Write lots and lots of different stuff, challenge yourself, stretch yourself and take some risks.
As you progress, you’ll develop and hone your skills and will grow in confidence, raising your rates as you do.
What sort of person becomes a copywriter?
Masochistic. Naïve. Mental. Deranged. Misguided. Stupid.
All some of my favourite words!
But what sort of person becomes a freelance copywriter, you ask?
If you’ve always been utterly terrible with words, unable to string a sentence together, can’t spell, don’t have a basic grasp on grammar and have never pursued any kind of writing for fun, or within a previous career, then you may want to question why you want to be a copywriter in the first place. It’s a hard-enough job to get into as it is, without having NOTHING going for you at the outset.
Some freelance copywriters come from an agency background, and these writers may also have some formal training. But many of us find copywriting through other avenues, as it’s a good fit for our skills and the flexibility of freelance working also suits our lifestyles (I’m referring to having kids as a lifestyle here, which makes it sound way more glamorous than it is – it’s not glamorous at all, what’s the opposite of glamorous, covered in shit perhaps?)
After a lifetime of loving books and words and aceing all possible English exams, I made the odd decision to study drama at University and to work as a charity fundraiser after graduating in 2004. After becoming the ‘go to’ person for all things writing in all of my jobs, I decided that I should write for a living, but on my own terms, and for a range of clients, rather than being pigeonholed into one type of writing, for one company or publication.
Freelance copywriting is a good fit for me, as I can write for an eclectic mixture of clients. I get bored easily, and not knowing what will be on my desk from week to week (or whether food will be in my fridge, ha ha) keeps it fresh for me. I like to live on the edge, I do.
What qualities should a freelance copywriter have?
There are many different types of freelance copywriter: technical copywriters, fin-tech copywriters, B2B copywriters, B2C copywriters, advertising copywriters, conversion copywriters, niche copywriters and generalist copywriters like me (who write for a wide range of clients, on a wide range of subjects, via a range of mediums like print copy, web copy, email copy, UX copy and more.
I can’t tell you what specific qualities would best suit each type of writing gig (ask some of them yourself if you fancy specialising in a certain area), but I can tell you the qualities I believe work well for me as a freelance copywriter. You may possess some of these, and that’s great. But you’ll also bring your own unique set of skills and qualities to the table.
- A deep love of and connection with words (and an obsession with getting them in the right rider)
- A love of reading (I don’t just love reading books, I read everything from the back of a cereal packet to another copywriter’s “about me” webpage out of sheer nosiness.)
- Natural writing ability – that’s a given, some raw talent is required.
- Adaptability – I have to be able to switch up my writing style to suit a range of audiences.
- Optimism – I need to believe the next great job is just around the corner, and that I’m the best person to do it. I also need to believe that I add value to my client’s businesses, and that I’m worth my rates. This can be the hardest part of the job, but an optimistic outlook is a must (for a natural Eeyore like me, that’s a tough gig at times.)
- People skills – A huge part of my job is interpreting what my client wants. Half the time, they don’t know. The other half, I have to drag it out of them by any means necessary. What people say they want and what they actually want are often very different, too. Much as I’d like to sit and play with my beloved words all day, I have to talk to my clients, get to know them, get to know their businesses and make connections that will help me give voice to what makes them unique.
- Self-belief – There’s no exam you can take to qualify as a freelance copywriter. There’s no pass or fail at the end of each job. Sometimes you get it stonkingly right and you know it. Other times you crash and burn, and the client tells you you’re crap. Imposter syndrome is real, and it’s hard not to compare yourself to other freelance copywriters (who always look like they’re fending clients off with a shitty stick.) But if you don’t believe you’rnm going to do a good job, why should the client? You’re asking people to part with their hard-earned cash for your services, so have some faith in what you can offer.
- Organization – Pa ha ha. As a freelance copywriter, I should be highly organised, keeping my books in order and my files neatly, erm, filed. I do my best with this, and I use an accounting programme that does the donkey work with my finances, but it doesn’t come naturally. I’m good at the words, the rest, I plough through because it has to be done.
What’s life as a copywriter like?
Working as a freelance copywriter isn’t all about writing. Surprisingly little of it is about writing, in fact. I run my own small business, marketing my services, networking with potential clients, building relationships with existing clients, handling my accounts, endlessly faffing with my website, pretending to understand SEO and, occasionally, writing some copy for a client (and sending an invoice, then waiting, and waiting, and crying a bit into a hankie.)
For me, writing copy is the easy part. Sure, there are a few minutes at the beginning of every job where I’m filled with an overwhelming sense of doom that the copy won’t get written, that this is the one I’m going to fuck up in an extraordinary manner, exposing me as a total fraud. Every time I sit down in front of a blank page, I panic and become weirdly into doing my washing or clearing out my kids’ toy box.
But every time, the words come, and then the editing starts, the process gets underway and the copy gets written – you can’t argue with deadlines, not if you want to get paid.
So much of a freelance copywriter’s time is spent in-between jobs, looking for more jobs, wondering where all the jobs are and hoping you won’t have to resort to taking crappy jobs via hideous content mills like Upwork and People Per Hour (£5 for a 500-word article anyone?)
Freelance copywriting, for me, is about juggling plates. While I’m on a writing job, I also have to make time to market myself, tweak my website, keep in touch with regular clients, network with other writers online, pen cold emails that I hardly ever send and scour sites like Pro Blogger that occasionally have proper paying jobs for actual clients (screw you, content mills.)
Some of the time, clients come to me via my website or through referrals, and that’s fantastic. But an enquiry doesn’t always mean a sale – there are quotes to be put together and nail-biting waits, wondering if I’ve over or under charged. I win some and I lose some. But when I secure a new client or a particularly well-paid job, it’s all down to my hard work, so I take the time to stir my cauldron, finger my beard and indulge in a spot of gloating. Try it some time.
The hardest part of freelance copywriting life can be the unpredictable cash flow. One month, you’re giving away work, sending out invoices so fast your keyboard is steaming and laughing all the way to the bank. But it only takes a dry spell, or a slow paying and you can be standing in Aldi going crimson as your debit card is declined.
I like to think that when I’m a grown-up freelance copywriter, I’ll never have to face any of these issues. But I suspect that even well-established writers have shitty clients, dry months and get their AMEX declined in John Lewis every now and then.
How do I get my first copywriting client?
When looking for my first copywriting client, I imagined that if I was a good enough writer, and I published my portfolio on a website, the magic of the internet would quickly bring me recognition in the form of my first client, closely followed by a steady stream of well-pain, interesting work.
I’ve always had faith in my writing abilities. But as for marketing them, I’m pretty shit. So I’ve had to learn some brand new marketing skills, as a freelancer, and I’ve had to learn them fast. Selling my writing skills has been a steep learning curve, and one that has pushed me so far out of my comfort zone, I cant see my comfort zone anymore (I miss my comfort zone.)
You can be the best writer in the world, but if you can’t sell your skills to real-life clients, you’ll also be a starving writer (though you’ll probably be shivering in a terraced house in Pontefract, rather than a garret in Paris.)
Get out there and hustle. Stick your finger in as many pies as humanly possible.
It’s also vital to sell the benefits of your freelance copywriting services, rather than the services themselves. Don’t just tell potential clients what you can do for them, tell them what impact this will have on their business. Writing a great blog post is great. Writing a great blog post that improves traffic to a client’s website by 25% is a reason to get hired.
Want some more tips on how to nab those first few clients? Here goes…
Be prepared. Set up a basic website and have some business cards printed before you officially go freelance. You don’t have to spend a fortune – I put together a basic WordPress site myself, with a little help from tutorials on You Tube. Your website should include a portfolio (even if this is a small one to start with) along with a few testimonials from happy clients, even if one of them is your Mum and the other’s your Gran. If you need to do some unpaid or low paid work to get all of this together, then go for it – it’s important stuff.
Tell EVERYONE you’ll soon be working as a freelance copywriter. No matter what background you’re coming to copywriting from, you already know people who might need your services, or at least know people who know people…. If you’re coming from an agency background, you may already have a few clients in mind. If not, tell anyone who’ll listen what you offer. I sent an email to every contact I had, along with putting posts on all my personal social media accounts. I asked friends and family to spread the word at work and within their circle of acquaintances. I even handed a business card to the DJ at a kid’s party and told him that his flyer copy needed work.
Track down your ideal clients. If you have a perfect client in mind, get in touch with them to let them know what you offer. I went into copywriting without a niche, happy to take work from anyone and everyone who would pay me for my writing. I didn’t have an ideal customer, but I’d enjoyed writing for charities in the past, so I made a long list of local ones, rang each one and let them know I could offer them a 10% discount. I also found out the full name of the person responsible for hiring and firing freelancers, and sent a friendly, informative email after our phone conversation, putting it all down in writing and giving them 90 days to access their special discount.
This only led to a few offers of work, but one of these brought in over £2k, a small fortune at this stage, that allowed me to pay off my existing debts and to invest more heavily in my website.
Your approaches don’t have to be highly sophisticated –though there’s a ton of free advice out there on the web for writing cold emails that actually work – as long as they’re genuine, and you’ve given some thought as to how you can benefit the people you approach rather than using a one size fits all method . It always pays to have the name of the right person to approach, and doing a bit of research on that person, whether via Google or social media, really helps you to warm up the conversation.
Speaking of social media… When I first set up a business account on LinkedIn and Twitter, I expected to post a few witty and hilarious updates and be fending off followers with rabbit traps. It’s actually taken several years for me to build up a decent professional presence on Twitter and LinkedIn. I have yet to mount my charm offensive on Facebook.
Set up a professional looking profile (with a decent headshot as your profile image – don’t try to be quirky or clever) and start to post regularly. Make connections both with other copywriters (who are a valuable resource as we’ll discuss in a moment) and with businesses you’d like to work with.
Initially, I used Twitter to target marketing agencies and web designers, letting them know I was available for copywriting work, should any of their clients need a quote. I also joined in with general freelance and copywriting chat, immersing myself in the industry and making some great contacts (and friends.)
Network with other copywriters. This post begins with a story about how a completely inexperienced lady contacted me for advice on how to get into copywriting. I was able to offer her a paid job, possibly her first, along with a testimonial after she delivered the work (which was great.) All she had to do was send a DM. Other copywriters have helped me to price my quotes, edit my copy, deal with difficult clients and have passed on their surplus work – but I’ve made myself available for all of this – if nobody knows you, nobody will think of you when they’re mad busy and need help with some articles or are approached by a client that’s not in their niche.
On Twitter, #copywritersunite is great to use if you’re looking for some friendly advice from other pros.
Finally, I scratched my head and though about little tips and tricks that I’d gathered over my time as a freelance copywriter.
I thought about these things, then I decided not to share them with you.
These are my discoveries, the things that helped me out of some tight spots along the way.
Part of the fun (and some of it is fun, I promise) is finding some of this stuff out yourself so that, in a few years time, you can write a blog post like this one, sharing your experiences.
I can’t wait to read it.