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April 19, 2015Don’t become a freelance copywriter

“Give up. You’ll never make it.”

That was the advice offered to me a decade ago, on the first day of my creative writing MA. Actually, it was the advice offered to the entire class.

And while a couple of my classmates did, eventually, have books published, they didn’t make any money out of them, let alone become household names.

These days, I sometimes check my inbox to find an email from a well meaning student or first year copywriter asking me to tell them how to crack the business.

Well, I don’t want to put you off, but ‘give up, you’ll never make it’ is actually good advice.

Because most of you won’t.

The few who do will be so incensed by being told to give up that it’ll make them try so hard they do — eventually — make it.

But most of you won’t.

There’s a number of reasons why you won’t succeed as a freelance copywriter:

  • Firstly, the market is infinitely different now to how it was a decade ago when most of the people with the famous blogs and consistently top-ranked sites started work.
  • It’s a mature market now, there are far more freelancers than there were before, all looking to sell their services direct to client.
  • You also have intermediaries, your freelancer.com, your people per hour, even your bottom of the barrel copy mills pumping out text at a penny a word. Pitch to write web copy direct to client and you are pitching against them. They can undercut you and because they have such a large pool of freelancers working for them, they can guarantee delivery and provide a degree of security for their clients that you, as a freelancer, simply can’t.
  • Then you have agencies. Small design companies and even smaller studios and creative agencies used to hire freelance copywriters by the drove — they didn’t understand or want the burden of a full time hire. These days, most of those agencies have either brought someone in-house or they’ll hire out to a dedicated copywriting agency (some of whom I won’t mention by name farm it out to freelancers – but established ones). That, or they’ve been bought out by a bigger agency. Either way, they’re not hiring you any more.
  • Finally there’s the wonderful world of advertising. If you want to get a role as a conceptual copywriter, rather than a content writer or commercial writer, these days you’re competing against people who’ve not only studied advertising at uni, chances are they went to portfolio school as well. Most of the people I know in their thirties did not study advertising. They studied English Lit, History of Art, Journalism… I even know a few people who never went to school and were joiners or bin men. Pretty much everything except advertising. But these days, you’ve about as much chance of getting a first job in advertising without portfolio school as you do walking into your nearest hospital and asking if you can perform the next open heart surgery.
So you might ask yourself, why the heck should I do it?

Well, do it for the same reason I took a creative writing course. Because someone told me not to. They told me I’d never make it. And they were right.

Because as John Lennon famously put it, “life is what happens while you’re making other plans.”

When I applied for that course, I was working as a journalist, making a pittance, or lurching from internship to internship, not being paid at all.

I didn’t make it as a journalist or as a writer of fiction. But it did lead me to a place and time where there was a gap in the copywriting market for self-taught lunatics. People with a lot of drive and determination — a lot of frustration — who were hungry to succeed. Somewhere.

For me, copywriting was a third choice career. It wasn’t something I planned. It was just somewhere pursuing my interests led me to. Once I got there, I found out I enjoyed it.

The important thing is to do something. If you want to be a copywriter, chances are you won’t make it. But the skills you learn — from writing to setting prices to client handling to managing the last of your money while you wait for an overdue invoice to come in — will hold you in good stead somewhere else.

Or maybe you’ll make it. Who knows. But I don’t envy anyone starting out today.

My advice to you? Give up. You’ll never make it.

Only you can decide where that advice will take you.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, April 19th, 2015 at 1:31 pm and is filed under Blog, Me and my business. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

2 comments

  1. I think you can make it as a copywriter today (I started at the beginning of 2014 and my business is growing steadily), but the trick is to find a niche that you are qualified in and become an expert in that field. There is no way People per Hour or content farms can compete with a qualified legal, scientific or medical copywriter (just to give a few examples). You can also charge far more if you focus on one sector and become the ‘go to’ person for it. Just my thoughts…

  2. Paul says:

    I agree that copywriting has gotten much harder over the years with the maturity of the internet. But that maturity leads to new opportunity – if you know where to look and what type of writing is still in demand. Quality work pays – the people paying pennies per word won’t be around in 6 months – but those who know what they need and will pay for quality – they will be around forever.

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