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Part One: A Kick Up the Backside
This article is Part One of my guide on how to become a successful freelance copywriter, based on my personal experience. Define success how you like: creative fulfilment, work-life balance, earning plenty of money. All of these things are possible with a freelance writing career. You can download the whole guide for free. It contains an extra 4,500 words of advice based on my (almost) ten years as a professional writer.
If you’re reading this, which you are, you can expect advice on how to:
- Start your freelance writing career
- Make it successful
If you get paid for a piece of business writing, you’re a copywriter. So the second point is important.
This article is really a motivational pep talk (everyone needs a kick up the backside now and then). Part Two, the nuts and bolts of how to become a successful freelance copywriter, is in the guide. I honestly wish something like this existed online when I started out.
Find work and get paid for writing
I make one big assumption when giving this advice: that you have proven writing ability or, at the very least, a passion for writing that can be developed over time into a marketable skill.
I decided to become a freelance copywriter aged 30 with no experience writing commercially. I’ve now been in steady freelance work for the best part of a decade. (Read the amusing and totally unexpected story about how I became a freelance copywriter).
I’ve had some great personal successes including working for household names like Facebook and Rolls-Royce, helping businesses find new customers and smash sales targets, and being flown to Colombia to interview and write about coffee farmers. Most importantly, I’ve never looked back.
Before we get into the meat, I’ll go ahead and state what I think, or rather has proven to be (for me), the number one most important thing when building a freelance writing career. This thing applies to all fields, probably, but as writing is my experience I won’t overextend myself.
Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, put it like this:
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not: unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
Set your mind to becoming a freelance copywriter, keep going and you’ll get there, wherever ‘there’ is. Just remember to enjoy the ride.
What does a copywriter do?
Let’s start with a quick definition. Copywriting in a traditional Mad-Men sense means ‘above-the-line’ copywriting for ad agencies. Think TV, billboard and press campaigns, as well as slogans and tag lines, for big brands. But now copywriting has a much broader definition. A copywriter is anyone who gets paid to write copy ie, commercial or business writing.
“A copywriter is a salesperson behind a typewriter.”
I agree with this. Apart from, these days, the ‘typewriter’ part. Although you won’t always be selling directly, copywriting also involves sharing useful information to move customers along a sales journey, this quote helps you to remember that someone has invested in your services and they expect a return. The funny thing about this is it means you need to put the reader first, not the client, so you can write something that will motivate them.
A copywriter writes anything that exists solely for commercial reasons. So it’s distinct from journalism and literature, which exist for their own sake.
Commercial writing—content marketing, SEO, ads, direct response, web copy, email, social media, brochures, voiceover scripts, white papers, packaging, you name it—is a means to an end. Its purpose is to inform, engage and persuade the reader to do something. Often, but not always, to buy a product or service.
People don’t curl up with commercial writing and read it like a best-selling novel. They read it because they want something. They’ve got other things they’d rather be doing, so it’d better be good.
Huge online opportunity
Whatever type of writing you’re most interested in, these days the biggest demand for copy is online.
Siteefy, a web design agency, reckons 547,200 new websites are created every day. That’s 380 a minute. While most of those will be created without the help of a professional writer, you can see that the opportunity is huge.
Where are your clients?
As a freelance copywriter, your clients might be big, small, down the road or on the other side of the world. The joy of copywriting in the digital age is that you can work with people anywhere. There’s no need to stop with local companies. Set your eyes on global horizons.
You’re unlikely to be writing campaigns for multinational brands. That tends to be the job of agency copywriters. But as your experience grows, you’ll be surprised by how many high-profile, highly respected companies need freelance writers.
Why become a freelance copywriter?
Freelance copywriting is honestly the best job I’ve ever done. It’s allowed me to support my family, do interesting work, feel challenged, learn constantly and choose the path of my own career. I think the notion that freelance work is insecure compared to employment is a myth. I can’t be fired or made redundant. The work is out there. I just have to go and get it.
For me, this is the most important benefit. You can work whatever hours you like, wherever you like. Start early and finish at lunch. Or get up late and work all night. Take the summer off. Live abroad. Have more time for your hobbies or children. Of course, enjoying this kind of flexibility depends on having enough clients and income. All the time in the world and no cash doesn’t feel so great.
When you work directly with business owners you can make a real difference to their company. If you help them solve a challenge, get more sales or find new and better ways of communicating with customers, they’re extremely grateful and happy to give you a testimonial. If you’re needy and sensitive (like me) this is great for both the ego and marketing.
There are always new clients, sectors, subjects and tones of voice so you keep learning and never get bored. You might move from writing to running workshops, consulting and even public speaking.
Freelance copywriter salary
Writing copy is unlikely to make you rich but you can certainly make a comfortable living.
A six-figure income is entirely possible if that’s your priority and you’re willing to put in the hours.
Full disclosure—I earn about £60,000 a year and find that plenty for my relatively lowkey lifestyle (married with two children, ex-Londoner living in Somerset). I work normal office hours but often start late or finish early when I want to. If I’m done for the day or not feeling productive I can leave the studio and go for a run or get in the paddling pool with my kids. That’s what I mean by success taking different forms.
Qualities you need to become a successful freelance copywriter
There are lots of great writers with no work. Why do I have work while they don’t? Undoubtedly luck and timing play a part but the main thing, I think, is that I’ve been willing to sell myself. So, if you want to become a successful freelance copywriter, put yourself out there. Copywriting is a service people need.
Here are some other important qualities you need to have or develop:
As mentioned at the top of this article. In my opinion, this is the most important personal quality you need to succeed as a freelance copywriter. Tap into what motivates you—ambition, love of writing, fear of getting evicted—and keep plugging away.
Say ‘yes’ then find a way. Growing as a writer and a businessperson is about getting out of your comfort zone. Until recently I’d never written a white paper, but I wanted to have a go. It can be an interesting and lucrative area of content marketing. I was honest about my lack of experience, but I had a relationship with the client and they liked my stuff so were happy to use me. It was hard and involved lots of research but now I’ve levelled up and feel more confident about taking on such work in the future.
An enquiring mind
Why. This little word is the root of all creativity. If you refuse to take things at face value but instead ask why—why is it done like that? Why can’t we do this instead?—you’re on the road to finding creative and effective solutions to your clients’ problems. The road won’t necessarily be smooth, you’re likely to encounter resistance, but your job is to get results and that means questioning the status quo.
You need to be able to handle rejection and hear ‘no’ a thousand times without crumbling or raging. You need to be able to take critical feedback without taking it personally. It’s hard. You slave away on a piece of copy, think you’ve done a good job, then the client tears it apart. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen. Remember you’re providing a service and the important thing is how you respond.
Explaining what you do and how you can help businesses—in person, on the phone, or by email—takes confidence. Confidence can be put on initially (fake it till you make it) but ideally you want to build the real thing over time. It will come naturally as you get more experienced, but just as your copy helps your clients sell it’s important to think about how you sell yourself.
No boss. No set working hours. No colleagues expecting you in. Sounds like a recipe for disaster. Pour yourself a large gin and get back into bed. Although you’re beholden to your clients, no one is forcing you to do anything. A strong work ethic is important and, for most people, so is some kind of routine. This is easier when the paid work is flowing in. Putting the hours in to find work is harder. But it feels sweet when your efforts pay off.
Ready to become a successful freelance copywriter?
There’s only one thing left to do
Download the guide on how to become a successful freelance copywriter. You can expect practical, tested advice on:
- Changing career
- Building a portfolio
- Finding work
- Finding partners
- Writing persuasive proposals
- How to charge
- Winning the job
- Doing the job
- Managing feedback
The guide contains nearly 5,000 words of advice based on my personal experience. I had to learn the hard way. You don’t need to. Download it now and discover how to become a successful freelance copywriter.