Advice from experienced copywriters on how to get started as an independent writer
How do I get started in freelance copywriting? What are the challenges? What are the dos and don’ts? What sort of learning should I do? How do I market myself?
These are the sorts of question I get a lot from people new to copywriting and technical writing.
In December 2018, freelance copywriter Helena Baker and I surveyed more than two dozen copywriters for their thoughts on how to get started as a freelance copywriter.
Here’s some of their wisdom.
- Feedback from our copywriting survey
- The things copywriters would have changed about their first year
- The best thing copywriters learned in their first year
- Top tips for new freelance copywriters
- How do I find freelance copywriting work?
- Let’s wrap up
Feedback from our copywriting survey
The biggest challenges reported were finding high-paying work and managing time. Check out my summary of the PCN’s pay survey to see the going rates for copywriting.
Whatever rates you charge, don’t accept low fees for long. If you’re offering to write blog posts for tens of dollars, you’d be much better off investing that time in writing marketing materials to promote your business to clients who will pay you better rates.
Also, I’d suggest having a buffer of several months’ salary in the bank before you make the leap to freelance life (unless you’ve been forced into the freelance life, as I was in 2009 when I was made redundant and couldn’t get a job).
Back to the survey results: the average first-year investment on courses and books was around £800 (roughly $1000). Some copywriters spent nothing while others spent a few thousand pounds.
I read about 30 books a year and I’m part of several memberships. I find that being in memberships or having 1-to-1 coaching on specific topics works best for me.
Here are some interesting themes from the feedback.
Cold approaches can work – or not
When I started I cold-emailed aggressively – 20 emails a day, 5 days a week. I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not laid that groundwork. A single cold email was responsible for £10k of my income. Cold emailing done right works.
But cold approaches are not for everyone:
Always get on your target client’s radar before diving in with a cold pitch. Stop cold pitching! Focus on relationship-building, instead.
I prefer the warm approach – getting to know a person through in person or social interaction. If they recognise your name from previous interactions when they see it pop up in their inbox, they’re more likely to give you their time.
I recommend that new copywriters look to move beyond the door-knocking stage and start attracting people to their front door. That means creating a website and content that generates inbound leads.
This is a long-term approach that probably won’t produce good results in the first year, but it should still be part of your business plan. I’ve been creating content for years and it’s made a huge difference to my business.
Treat your business as a business
I’m not a “freelancer”, I’m a business owner. Once you change that mindset, everything else changes.
Stay focused, never stop learning and create a website.
Saying no can be good
Not every lead is a good fit. Sometimes (quite often, actually) it’s best to say no.
I learned not to be afraid to charge more and to say no to clients that aren’t a good fit.
Don’t think of networking as sales
I had the completely wrong idea about networking when I started. It’s not about closing sales. It’s about building genuine relationships. Making friends and having fun.
What goes around, comes around. The more helpful you are and the more you give, the more people will try to help you. Applies to competitors too.
Collaboration > Competition. Building networks with other copywriters is the best way to build and scale your business fast.
Don’t pitch too low even if you’re new
There’s always someone getting paid more and less for the job you’re about to do. There’s no prize for getting paid less for it.
The first year will be tough
Being freelance was a huge culture shock and the kick up the backside I so desperately needed. It gives you a much wider scope of jobs to tackle, but it requires much more effort.
Freelancing is neither free nor a casual job.
The things copywriters would have changed about their first year
I’d have been more disciplined after month 2. I should have realised earlier how important research is (I knew it was but didn’t give my best at the beginning).
Use a contract in the beginning and ask for a deposit up front. Don’t lower your prices. People will pay you what you’re worth.
I would’ve started a blog and email newsletter earlier, in order to build my list. I also would’ve developed packages early on.
I’d change the way I treated myself. I deserved more respect and confidence. We can’t succeed in our business unless we believe in the investment we made.
I would have started using social media sooner, and I would have started a blog right at the beginning of my independent writing career, in 2009, instead of waiting until 2014.
The best thing copywriters learned in their first year
Just get going. There’s only so much you can read/study, the real learning comes from doing.
Can I have two? Tenacity and self-belief!
Don’t write a word until you are 100% clear on what you are supposed to be writing. If the brief is unclear, ask questions and send over an outline to make sure you get it before you spend hours working on it.
Tell everyone what you do.
Don’t compare yourself to others. Also, ask for help when you need it.
Top tips for new freelance copywriters
Freelance copywriter Helena Baker helped to gather data for the survey.
Here’s her best advice on how to get started as an independent copywriter:
Having started my own freelance copywriting business at the tender age of 23, I can honestly say I had absolutely no clue what I was getting myself into. For me, with few contacts and little support I lunged myself head first into networking – joining any and all groups in the hope of gaining some business.
Over the years, I have refined that process and, I feel, now network with groups that are most likely to bring me in business.
Whilst combining this with a range of other marketing channels including: LinkedIn, Pay Per Click & SEO. As a business owner, for me the most important takeaway has been to never stop learning and growing.
Whether that’s through podcasts, books, groups or simply keeping my eyes and ears open for new opportunities.
Alongside that I have also sought to consistently be authentic in my approach, working to build genuine relationships, help where I can and, when I can’t, to be engaged and present both in person and on social media.
In doing so I have built myself a network who are happy to pass me leads and have confidence in my writing ability.
In short, my most important recommendation is to be true to yourself and to never stop developing your business and process. Ensuring you have success in 2019 and beyond.
How do I find freelance copywriting work?
My best advice is always to think in the long term and to create content that brings inbound leads into your copywriting business.
As a copywriter, you have the freedom to craft a message to your own brief. The goal is to get clients to hire you to write for them. This could be your first and most important project as a freelance copywriter: to write a compelling website that prompts people to take action.
But earning inbound leads isn’t going to happen overnight, and if you’ve just jumped into freelance copywriting (perhaps through choice, perhaps through redundancy or some other reason) then you need to make money now.
I’d start by looking at opportunities on LinkedIn. Search for ‘looking for a copywriter’ or ‘recommend a copywriter’ and you’ll find plenty of options.
The pay for projects on LinkedIn seems to be better than what’s offered on job boards such as Upwork and Fiverr. Then again, that isn’t the case for everyone:
My Upwork profile has worked wonders. I’ve found five 5-figure contracts from there.
I won’t say that you should never turn to job boards, but I’d suggest you treat them as a temporary crutch at best.
You can also think about pitching the companies you want to write for directly. These cold approaches can work but do expect a lot of rejections.
Check out my best advice on how to find freelance copywriting work.
Let’s wrap up
As the feedback from our survey respondents shows, the freelance copywriting life isn’t a walk in the park. But there’s still space in the market for you to earn an income from writing content for those who want to stand out.
Most businesses and organisations could do with the help of a good copywriter – perhaps that could be you.
What questions do you have about starting a freelance copywriting career? Leave a comment and let’s get you the answers you need.
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Who wrote this?
John Espirian – the relentlessly helpful technical copywriter
I write B2B web content, blogs, user guides and case studies – all aimed at explaining how your products, services and processes work. I also offer LinkedIn profile critiquing and rewriting.
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