Top ten tips for freelance copywriters

by Tom Albrighton 16 November 2009 Freelancing

Once, I commissioned freelances. Then, in a Sméagol-to-Gollum style transformation, I got made redundant and had to scrape together a living in the hand-to-mouth, twilight scavenger world of the freelance copywriter. I could have been a contender. But more to the point, here are the top ten things I’ve learned in five years as a wandering content-ronin.

1.    Believe in abundance. If you’re short of work, it’s easy to fall into anxiety. Instead of focusing on scarcity, switch your attention to the many opportunities around – online, in your local area, around the world. If local competitors spring up, that’s great – it means there’s work around! We get what we expect in life, so start expecting that opportunities – and cash money – will be coming your way.

2.    Hold on tightly, let go lightly. In other words, focus on the copywriting jobs you get, not the ones you don’t. It doesn’t matter why your quote wasn’t chosen, or why that client stopped using you. What matters is serving the clients you have today.

3.    Accept blame. In fact, actively seek out blame. If things go wrong, claim responsibility, even if it’s not your mistake. Failures of communication, missed deadlines – whatever. Blame rarely sticks to those outside an organisation, but your contact or client will be flattered at the implication that they’ve done nothing wrong.

If some copywriting work didn't come in soon, he might have to consider becoming a social-media guru

If some copywriting work didn't come in soon, he might have to consider becoming a social-media guru

4.    Pricing is a game without rules. I don’t mean ‘rip off your clients’. I mean that people’s expectations on price vary so wildly that it’s almost impossible to find a consistent approach. Get used to pricing job by job. If the client proposes a price, be thankful you don’t have to. Love clients who will negotiate instead of never contacting you again if your price doesn’t stack up.

5.    Networking takes time. With social media, anyone can rustle up a big network in weeks. Unfortunately, its power to deliver freelance copywriting work will be limited. What actually works is referrals from friend to friend, and they happen when your contacts’ contacts realise they need a copywriter – which can take years. But as long as you keep meeting expectations, referrals will come. 

6.    Learn to listen. Forget impressing the client. Learn to listen, not speak. First and foremost, you’ll do better work because you’ll learn more. On a human level, people love the chance to chat with an impartial outsider – so give them it. It’s a big part of the value you offer.

7.    Cultivate detachment. I’ve found I can handle freelance copywriting much better if I’m not emotionally involved. I try not to get excited about new opportunities so I’m not disappointed when they don’t pan out. I don’t pat myself on the back for a good month, in case the next one is awful. Becoming a company is a good way to create distance between you and your work, and worthwhile for this reason alone.

8.    Don’t flatter yourself. Clients do not spend that much time thinking about you and your copywriting, so don’t waste time and effort over-thinking about what they might want, or what a particular reaction (or lack of reaction) might mean. They have a job that needs doing, and you’re a tool to get it done – end of story.

9.    Under-promise and over-deliver. Tell the client the worst-case timescale, then beat it by four or five days. Maybe even reduce your price because you did the work quickly. Sounds like a cheap trick? Believe me, your customers will have dealt with too many flaky suppliers to feel that way. They will absolutely love it.

10. Be in the moment. Because the future is always uncertain for freelance copywriters, some worry is always present. Try to let go of it and enjoy the work you’ve got today. Remember, no-one really has any security in today’s working world, so let tomorrow take care of itself.

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  • http://www.christykelly.tumblr.com Christy Kelly

    Tip Number 9 reminds me of this little piece of gold from Star Trek Next Generation:

    “La Forge: Look, Mr. Scott, I’d love to explain everything to you. But the captain wants this spectrographic analysis done by 1300 hours.

    Scotty: [thinks about it some time] You mind a little advice? Starfleet captains are like children. They want everything right now and they want it their way. But the secret is to give them only what they need, not what they want.

    La Forge: Yeah. Well, I told the captain I’d have this analysis done in an hour.

    Scotty: How long would it really take?

    La Forge: [annoyed] An hour!

    Scotty: [looks unbelieving] Oh. You didn’t tell him how long it would REALLY take, did you?

    La Forge: Of course I did.

    Scotty: Oh, laddie. You’ve got a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker.”

  • http://clearcopywriting.com/ Aaron

    I’ve read this post a couple of times now. Absolutely spot on advice. I think any self-conscious freelance copywriter should read this.

  • http://www.abccopywriting.com/blog Tom Albrighton

    Hi Aaron

    Thanks for the positive feedback. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
    .-= Tom Albrighton´s last blog ..How to exploit irrational decision-making =-.

  • http://www.tribepr.com Patrick Peal

    All these points are exactly why we exist as a PR agency – and why we have discovered the benefits of working with Tom!

  • http://eddieportfolio.wordpress.com/ Eddie Haydock

    Cheers Tom. Needed that.

  • http://www.bigstarcopywriting.com Derryck

    Great article Tom. I missed this one before and just picked it up on Twitter. I’d also recommend finding collaborators. There are some big projects out there, particularly with SEO copywriting or batches of product descriptions it’s often more than one freelance copywriter can handle on their own. Finding other writers you can trust expands your capacity and can lead to a nice symbiosis. Also, good advice if you want to take a holiday and don’t want to let clients down – I really suffered from that “always on call” mode in my early days as a freelance copywriter.

  • http://www.traceyjefferies.co.uk Tracey Jefferies

    Very good and sound advice, thank you for posting! Thanks also to Christie Kelly for posting a comment, made me smile which is always a good thing!

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  • http://www.butterflycopywriting.com Lucy Smith

    One thing I’ve learned is not to get hung up on turning in the most amazing piece of work ever. Obviously, you want to do your best, and give what the client asks for in the stated timeframe, but let it go when you know it’s good and will do what it’s supposed to do.

    All most clients want is something that’s better than what they could do themselves, and if you can give them that, there’s no point in driving yourself crazy wondering if ‘that’ sentence is perfect or not.

  • http://waynegeyer.com Wayne Geyer

    #7a (and possibly #11 — or even #1): Stop calling yourself, thinking of yourself and treating yourself like a “freelance copywriter.” That’s the end of the advice, because I can’t for the life of me figure out what to call myself or think of myself instead. What I do know is that we’re more valuable than what we do or even how we do it.

    Great stuff as always, Tom. And please keep me posted on that two-fisted HobNob project. We do get them over here in Texas, you know.

  • http://rowwrites.blog.co.uk Rowena

    I love the listening part. Clients who can’t stop talking are my favourite – usually means they really love what they do, too, which makes the job a lot easier.