July 17, 2012Five things I have learned in five years as a freelance copywriter

I didn’t decide to become a freelance copywriter. I lost my job as a journalist and very quickly decided that being on benefits wasn’t for me so I set up on my own. Two weeks after turning out my last review for a magazine I accepted my first commission writing a blog article. And five years later, here I am. Here’s what I’ve learned —

1. Self-promotion is everything

I became a freelance copywriter five years ago. Yet this site isn’t quite four years old. I’m not going to show you the site I had before. It’s embarrassing. But it’s hard to believe for my first year of work I was pointing people towards a poorly edited collection of articles and links.

Particularly if you write web copy, you have to prove you understand the web. Having a great website does that. Copywriting can’t be viewed as a discipline on its own — you need to see where your work fits in with other creatives or marketing people. But more importantly, words alone won’t help you rise to the top. You have to be socially active and promote yourself a lot, too. It’s no use being the best copywriter in the world if you’re languishing on page 5 for your desired keywords. Up your game.

2. Just because you’re tired of it, doesn’t mean your clients are

I had no formal training when I started out as a freelance copywriter. I had been a journalist, and I had studied creative writing at university. Effectively, I learned on the job. During my first year — maybe even my first two years, I tried out a variety of techniques and experimented a great deal. These days, because I know what works, I find myself writing the same thing a great deal more often. Take the “Two words. Two words.” style headline, for example. I use this all the time. Clients love it. It converts.

You don’t get paid to experiment — if it works, stick to it. But if you have a better idea, offer it to the client. You could be about to make a breakthrough — but don’t expect the work to be varied all the time.

3. Getting the price right is the most important part of the job

Before I became well known as a freelance copywriter, my rates were ludicrously cheap. I knew this, of course. But it was the strategy I adopted and it worked. I see far too many copywriters setting up shop and expecting to charge a decent rate overnight, with barely a scrap or two in their portfolio. It won’t work.

On the other hand, it’s hard to up your prices once you’re known for being cheap. I was only able to raise my prices once I was able to point to my wealth of experience as a freelance copywriter working across a range of brands.

Ultimately, though, you have to decide how much your time is worth. If you price yourself too low, you end up hating the work and resenting the client. If you price yourself too high, you actually end up earning less in the long run because you don’t build up as wide a base of clients. Choose your pricing strategy wisely.

4. You will fall out with some of your clients

When you first go freelance, sometimes it can be hard to say no — particularly if there isn’t much work to choose from. You may find yourself working a 16 hour day. Or doing a redraft for a client 11 times. For free. You may feel your arm being twisted into giving a discount or signing a dodgy invoice. Speaking of invoices, the client may pay you late. Or not at all. And still expect you to do more work.

Eventually you may snap and tell the client to piss off. Particularly if they do stupid stuff like start calling you at 11pm to ask you to teach them how to use The Pirate Bay (no, really — this happened). The first couple of times I blamed myself for losing the client — then I realised that clients are just ordinary people and you get good and bad ones. Some of them take advantage and some of them are out and out pains in the arse. You have to learn how, when, and why to say no  — before it becomes a problem.

The more you freelance, the easier it is to spot these potential problems before you sign a contract to do the work.

Speaking of which, you are getting your clients to sign a contract before you start work, right?

5. If you’re not enjoying the freelance lifestyle, stop.

Naturally it’s important to put some cash away for a rainy day — you may have some months where you don’t get a single enquiry. It’s often impossible to store clients up for a rainy day (they always want you to start “yesterday, if possible!!” – extra exclamation mark theirs, of course) so it’s important to store up some money. If you can’t manage your money, you can’t be a freelancer.

There have been times when I felt like throwing in the towel. Then I remembered how much I hated commuting. Or being up at seven in the morning. Or those days when you earn more in a single day than most desk jockeys earn in a month. These things keep you going. Whatever you do, don’t save all your money. Treat yourself to a new pair of speakers. Or a holiday. Or whatever makes you happy. Freelance because it’s a better option — not because it’s your only option.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 17th, 2012 at 1:10 pm and is filed under Blog, Copywriting, 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.


  1. Thanks for the great post. Keep focused, keep organised and keep marketing (yourself!) Your tips are so right.

  2. magma says:

    Read this at just the right time. Much needed post about pricing as I take on my first client after a year of post-redundancy freelancing and retraining as a journalist.

    Enjoyed content mill post too. Next task is to start or find network in Manchester (for writers who value themselves)!!

  3. Peter Wise says:

    Very good article as usual…bet you’re glad you’re no longer a journalist – it seems to be particularly tough for them these days.

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