How to Become a Successful Freelance Copywriter

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.

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If you’re reading this, which you are, you can expect advice on how to:

  1. Start your freelance writing career 
  2. 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.

The thing?

Not talent.

Not contacts.

No.

It’s persistence.

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.”

Judith Charles

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. 

Flexibility

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.

Job satisfaction

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.

Professional growth

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. 

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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:

Persistence

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.

Entrepreneurial spirit

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.

Thick skin

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. 

Confidence

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.

Discipline

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
  • Networking
  • 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.

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No One Cares

Customers get angry if you don't think about them

Or the Importance of Really Thinking About Your Customers

I sell myself as a copywriter. Someone who writes copy. And that’s what I am. People need copy. I write it. Supply follows demand. It’s a relationship that works and allows me to pay my mortgage. 

But before I put pen to paper for a new client, there’s an important piece of creative, therapeutic, sometimes even painful, work that has to happen.

The first stage, let’s call it discovery, is fascinating and revealing. 

During the first stage, I’m not a copywriter. I’m a guide, a consultant (shiver), a psychologist.

I’m all of these things as I help my new client navigate the marketing wasteland they inhabit at the time. In this communication desert, there is a single reigning philosophy: 

Everything our company does is wonderful and interesting to the outside world

In my experience, this type of thinking is especially prevalent in B2B companies, but B2C companies are guilty of it too. 

It’s poppycock.

Together, hand in hand, we walk across the burning plains of self-obsession and arrive at the oasis of life-giving truth. It’s here we encounter the single most important fact about copywriting:

No-one cares.

They do not give a shit about you or your company. 

Why should they?

They have bills to pay.

Kids to raise.

A dog to walk.

A car that won’t start.

A crappy relationship.

Dreams they’re shooting for and others they’ve shelved.

In short, they have a life.

Unless your web copy, email, advert, brochure, whatever, shows how what you do improves that life, expect to be ignored.

Copywriting, commercial writing, marketing writing, business writing. Call it what you want. It’s not literature or journalism. People don’t curl up with it by the fire or read it to keep up with current affairs.

They read it because they want something.

A cure for their headache.

A refreshing alcoholic beverage (more on that in a minute).

A sophisticated annual report to help them stand out and strengthen relationships with their stakeholders.

So give them the thing they want.

What happens now?

Realising no one cares, an experience that’s both terrifying and liberating, creates two minimum requirements for the next piece of marketing you create. 

  1. It needs to be focused on the reader
  2. It needs to be good

Here’s a made-up example.

Your company makes beer. You sell the beer in cans. In shops. You’ve just invented a new widget that keeps the beer in the can colder for longer once it’s out of the fridge. Stone the crows, this is excellent. I’m already sold.

Problem is, you’re more interested in the process of creating the widget than the impact it has on your customers.

How to throw money away

You contact me to write an article all about how developing the new widget took five years and thousands of hours. You want to describe in detail the way it works by allowing the thingamajig to extract the whatchamacallit 25% faster than the old widget. You tell me you need to include bios of the team involved. Descriptions of the equipment used. And, of course, a massive pat on the back for our wonderful CEO without whom none of this would have been possible (she was actually playing golf). 

This is where one of the main benefits of hiring a freelance copywriter kicks in—the objective opinion.

This is the point at which I politely remind you that no one cares.

But cold beer for longer?

Your customers care about that. That’s something to shout about. 

Now we’ve got a ticket to the glorious world where we’re solving people’s problems and making their lives better. 

It’s an unlikely example because beer companies are among the best at marketing.

But making this shift, from inward-looking to outward-facing, from introspection to empathy, can apply to any company, any sector, anywhere. 

It drastically improves your marketing. In fact, unless you’re doing this it’s not even marketing. It’s just wallpaper. Or an internal memo.

People are wonderful but they’re also selfish (a lot of the time). They’re most interested in themselves. So empathise with them, speak to them, get into their world.

Or, if you like being ignored, keep on posting updates from the CEO.

Need an objective opinion about your next marketing project? I’d be happy to oblige. 

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Copywriter Success Stories – How I Became a Freelance Copywriter

bruce mars AndE50aaHn4 unsplash scaled - Copywriter Success Stories - How I Became a Freelance Copywriter

The Power of Saying Yes

Ever read the Yes Man by Danny Wallace? It’s a memoir documenting a year of the author’s life during which he says yes to any offers that come his way. He gets in a few scrapes, as you can imagine, but he also has some amazing experiences. Cracking book.

This is my Yes Man moment. The story of how a barbecue set me on the path to becoming a freelance writer. Sharing this tale is pure self-indulgence of course, but it’s my website so why not? I’ll go ahead and chuck this on the pile of copywriter success stories. Although it’s impossible for me to be objective here, I do think it’s a good example of how seizing an unexpected opportunity can transform your life. 

Here goes.

Almost ten years ago, my girlfriend (now wife) and I were enjoying a barbecue on a balmy summer’s evening at our home in Hackney.

The smell of lamb chops filled the air. I took a long pull on my cold beer. Bliss. Suddenly I heard a voice exclaim from the neighbouring garden:

‘He’d be perfect!’

Startled, I looked over to see a woman with red hair gesturing excitedly. She introduced herself and handed me a business card: Camilla Arthur Casting.

What follows is unusual to say the least. Especially if, like me, you’re not used to getting scouted over garden walls.

Camilla broke it down.

The brief was to play Dave, an Australian cameraman who has invented a high-performance steady cam, tested on his pet chicken, Laura. Winning the job meant starring in an LG phones campaign, with an overseas shoot and a £2,000 pay-packet. As far as carrots go, this seemed like the hand-reared biodynamic variety. I said yes.

The date of the casting coincided with a work team-building excursion, so I arrived late and flustered lugging a holdall full of camping gear. The waiting room was packed with Daves, only these were the real thing; all suntans and ‘no worries’.

One, a burly fellow wearing leather boots, looked so rugged I imagined he’d just flown in from wrestling bears blindfolded in the middle of a hurricane. To have any chance of success I would have to out Australian some Australians.

‘And…ACTION!’

It was like opening the stable door to a horny stallion. Fuelled by adrenaline, I ranted in a manic bogan brogue about an imaginary trip to Mongolia featuring my sidekick Laura the chicken and how we’d almost come a cropper in various madcap scenarios. Wild-eyed and breathless, I gushed nonsense until finally falling silent.

The next day Camilla called to explain I had made the final two. Only now the client wanted the cameraman to have an English accent, which meant a second casting. On route I rehearsed the new Pommy Dave, who for some reason sounded like Bear Grylls. I wondered if it would help my chances if I staggered into the director’s flat muttering ‘must…keep…going’ and took a bite out of his cat.

The director balanced his iPhone on a broom handle and stood on the sofa to film. He threw me a rain jacket to cover my office clothes and I bumbled through a few takes sweating heavily in the warm room. Back in the real world, I dared to dream. You can do a lot with £2,000.

Some days later, I was on a Welsh beach when Camilla rang. They chose the other guy. Shucks.

Life-changing events prompt life-changing decisions

At this point, the story intersects with another even more significant event in my life.

When my mum died from lung cancer, a year or so before the events recounted above, I signed up for a triathlon. I did this to avoid getting washed away by a tidal wave of grief and also to raise money for Cancer Research. While preparing for the triathlon I wrote a blog. Musings on life, death and training.

I shared the posts with my nearest and dearest and I got some nice comments in return. It was no big deal. Most importantly for me though, it was an opportunity to put down my thoughts and feelings and share them with the world at a time when I didn’t feel much like talking to anyone. I didn’t realise that I was laying the groundwork for a career as  a freelance writer.

Back to the casting.

Once over the disappointment, I wrote a blog post about the experience, which somehow found its way to the director who contacted me.

‘Loved your post. Ever heard of treatment writing?’

I had not, which is unsurprising because it’s a writing niche little known to anyone outside the advertising world. Treatment writing is basically the task of ghostwriting proposals for directors who are pitching to win jobs shooting TV or online commercials. Directors are busy, words are often not their forte, so they use ghostwriters.

Intrigued, it wasn’t long before I was back at the director’s flat discovering the mysteries of this trade.

Over the months that followed, while I was still working full-time, we collaborated on pitches for brands including Disneyland, L’Oréal and Mini.

I was getting paid £300 per day for interesting, creative work. This is alright, I thought. Perhaps I could make a go of it. I quit my job.

I’ll never forget the reply I got from the director when I emailed him excitedly to explain that I’d left employment and could work with him whenever he needed me.

‘That’s great Olly. But I’ve split up with my girlfriend, moved back to Amsterdam and I’m only pitching in Dutch. Do you speak Dutch?’

Oh shit. Talk about putting your eggs in one basket.

No clients, no income, next to no experience

No matter. I was a writer now and determined to make it work.

All because I said yes.

Say yes to following your dream of becoming a freelance writer.

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What is Brand Tone of Voice?

A great example of BrewDog's outspoken brand tone of voice

The Definition and Importance of Written Identity

You’ve busted a gut creating a distinctive visual identity for your brand. Now, what about the written identity (tone of voice)?

Most companies throw cash at logos and branding because they want to stand out and make the right impression on their customers. Far fewer think about their choice of words. But if you want an effective marketing strategy, words are just as important.

Because so many companies don’t make the effort to consider their tone of voice, getting your words right is potentially an easier win. The fact you’re reading this page means you’re already one step ahead of the laggards.

Talk to a Pro

What’s on this Page?

On this page, I cover tone of voice definition and benefits and share some sparkling examples. I also touch on putting your values to work as part of your brand writing and when to dial your voice up or down. Finally, you get the lowdown on tone of voice guidelines.

If you want to get your hands on a distinctive written identity, visit my page about running a tone of voice workshop.

An Easy Way to Understand Tone of Voice

Consider these two ways of answering the phone:

‘Hello, how can I help?’

Or,

‘Good morning. May I enquire as to how I can be of assistance?

Worlds apart, right? The same is true for the way your brand communicates in writing. There are myriad ways to get it both right and wrong.

Your writing can draw the reader in or it can push them away. Convey confidence or create confusion. Raise a laugh or provoke tears of frustration.

Tone of voice meaning in a nutshell: the written personality of your brand. Like actual personalities, there are many brand personality types. You’re stuck with your personality, but you can control your brand identity using voice to positively affect how your target audience feels about your organisation.

The Many Personalities of Olly Davy

Have a look at these further examples (based on me):

Olly Davy is an experienced freelance copywriter writing engaging copy for brands, agencies and entrepreneurs from all sectors.

Hi, I’m Olly Davy. I write words that work for you. I specialise in customer-focused marketing copy that persuades customers to get in touch.

Olly Davy knows people. And he knows how to use words to push their buttons. Tell him which people and he’ll find the right buttons. Simple.

They’re all true, but they’re also contrasting. Which is more likely to encourage you to pick up the phone?

Benefits of Voice

Aside from helping you put clear air between you and your rivals, one of the main benefits of using tone of voice is giving your brand message and marketing more consistency. Marketing teams strive for consistency because it’s important for creating, maintaining and growing customer relationships. 

People find consistency reassuring in people, and it’s the same with brands. If your homepage language is different from that of your emails, which is world’s apart from your Ts and Cs, people will be confused. If they’re confused, there’s no way they’re going to buy from you.

Used properly throughout your content marketing, language is a powerful tool for showing customers how you can make their lives better. Your product might be fantastic, but if you don’t write about it in a way that resonates, you’re undermining the whole project. That’s money down the toilet.

Here are some examples of brands who’ve got it right.

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Tone of Voice Examples

Dollar Shave Club know that every touchpoint is a chance to show your brand personality:

Dollar Shave Club 800x800 - What is Brand Tone of Voice?

Jack Daniels are masters of storytelling:

Jack Daniels charcoal 529x800 - What is Brand Tone of Voice?

Nest is all about home. The warm and welcoming voice matches the offer perfectly:

Nest 800x676 - What is Brand Tone of Voice?

What Makes up Tone of Voice?

To create a distinctive tone of voice, you must know your brand and its values inside out. But values on their own don’t make a tone of voice (more on putting your values to work in your writing below).

I don’t agree with the idea that you can get your top people in a room, come up with a list of words (like ‘passionate’ and ‘honest’) and hey presto you’ve got a written personality. Words are open to interpretation. A bank and a bakery could have wildly different understandings of the words ‘passionate’ and ‘honest’.

A list of brand values is a good start. But it’s just that—a start. What follows is a messy, creative process. It’s only when you apply your values to your writing that you discover what works for your brand.

This process of translation, from values to voice, involves making decisions in three key areas: register, vocabulary and grammar.

Register, Vocabulary and Grammar

Choosing the register means finding the sweet spot between extremes: for example, between formal and chatty, serious and humorous, detached and warm.

Vocabulary is, simply, your choice of words. Long, short, slang, technical—what types of words should and shouldn’t be used in your brand writing?

Grammar options are things like using contractions (it’s, you’re etc.), avoiding the passive voice and long sentences, and deciding which, if any, rules you’re happy to break. You could go into exhaustive detail here, but generally it’s best to keep it simple.

What Do You Stand For?

Tone of voice is not just how you write things, it’s what you write too. More than just a nice list to put on your website, values, and associated opinions, are a large part of what makes a written personality authentic. Knowing what you really give a damn about helps you create distinguishing features that make customers fall in love with your brand. If all your competitors sound similar it’s a great opportunity to do something else.

It takes confidence to do this. As soon as you express an opinion there’s always some keyboard warrior ready to take umbrage. But the death knell of any marketing is trying to be all things to all people.

Here are some examples of brands standing up for what they believe.

BrewDog taking the fight to Budweiser:

BrewDog 800x398 1 - What is Brand Tone of Voice?

 

Oatly have strong opinions on milk and they’re not shy about using them:

Oatly - What is Brand Tone of Voice?

 

Who Gives A Crap combine a cheeky tone with an extremely worthy cause:

Who gives a crap 800x534 - What is Brand Tone of Voice?

Varying Your Tone

Another crucial thing to consider is how and when you vary your voice. Like your personality, which, although underneath it remains the same, you reveal different aspects of depending on the situation. Your brand tone of voice will vary depending on three factors.

Who is reading it

If your brand has more than one audience. The people using the software and the people paying for it, for example. It’s worth thinking about how you talk to each group.

When they read it

At what point in the sales process the copy appears. An outbound marketing email may take a different tone to an in-depth white paper.

Where they read it

Social media is the obvious place where you can dial up your voice. Write formally on Twitter and LinkedIn and you come across like a bit of a fuddy-duddy.

Talk to a Pro

What Are Tone of Voice Guidelines?

Tone of voice guidelines are often an afterthought, buried deep in the brand guidelines or style guide among hundreds of pages on font and logo positioning. If you’re going to create guidelines don’t make this mistake.

Done well, tone of voice guidelines are incredibly useful. Rather than spend all your waking hours editing your team’s writing, give them a resource to help them stay on track. While it’s true even the best guidelines won’t turn anyone into a great writer, they do help team members writing on behalf of your brand to do so consistently.

The best brand voice guidelines include a definition of the voice as well as practical tips for applying it. And, importantly, lots of examples of your voice in action. Before-and-afters are particularly handy for demonstrating how your voice has evolved as well as pitfalls to avoid.

A set of guidelines should capture everything, or at least the most important stuff, known about a written personality. For that reason, they’re normally written at the end of a copywriting project when the new voice has been rigorously tested through application.

For great examples of tone of voice guidelines, look no further than Monzo and MailChimp

And Finally

To recap, tone of voice is your written brand personality. It’s based on your brand values, developed while creating content and involves making decisions about register, vocabulary and grammar. You can make all the decisions yourself or get a freelance writer to help.

The benefits of tone of voice include greater visibility in your sector, more consistent marketing and increased engagement with customers. Ignoring tone of voice or getting it wrong could mean confusing customers, or worse, alienating them.

If you find yourself in any of the following situations, it’s time to take action:

  • Your brand has no clear voice 
  • Your brand sounds different on different channels
  • Everyone writing for your brand has conflicting ideas about how it should sound
  • Your product or service is great but you’re not getting the response you want

I’ve helped many organisations find their voice and I can help yours too. 

Get in touch to discuss your project and get a free quote.

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