How to become a freelance copywriter
I’m often asked for advice on how to get started as a freelance copywriter, so I’ve written this article as a guide. If you’re thinking about getting into copywriting, this post should answer many of your questions.
Please bear in mind, though, that this only reflects my own knowledge and experience, based on 10 years as a freelance copywriter in the UK. Your own experience may vary, and other copywriters might give different advice. I welcome all alternative views in the comments.
What is a freelance copywriter?
A freelance copywriter is anyone who writes words (or ‘copy’) for commercial use on a contract basis.
Freelance copywriters can work directly with clients, or through intermediaries such as agencies or online work exchanges.
The text produced by a freelance copywriter can be used in advertisements, websites and digital media, printed marketing or anywhere else, but it always has some sort of practical aim, whether it’s persuading people to buy a product or just giving them information.
In the advertising industry, ‘copywriter’ is used specifically to mean people who come up with concepts and copy for advertisements (see below). In marketing more widely, it denotes anybody who writes commercially, or produces content for online use. So there are situations where it’s important to know what someone means when they say ‘copywriter’.
Online, the rise of content marketing and native advertising has blurred the line between ‘copywriters’ and ‘journalists’. In general, journalists write editorial content and are paid by publishers (even if the content they produce is about a brand), whereas copywriters write marketing copy about a brand and are paid by the brand’s owner. Native advertising muddies the waters by incorporating paid-for mentions of a brand into editorial content (in effect, journalists acting as copywriters), or presenting paid-for coverage as editorial (copywriters acting as journalists).
Why become a freelance copywriter?
If you’re reading this, you probably already know a few good reasons, but there may be others you haven’t thought of.
- Accessibility. The barriers to entry in copywriting are practically non-existent. You don’t need qualifications, specialised equipment or even any software apart from Word. A phone and a computer and you’re good to go.
- Flexibility. Even as a free agent, you still have to do what clients say and get the money in. But the freelance life does offer a lot of scope for flexible working, allowing you to balance work, leisure and family the way you want. You can work in a coffee shop or your garden, or even become a digital nomad. Finances permitting, you don’t have to take any job you really don’t want, and if you’ve hit your target for the month, you can take off for the beach.
- Range. You can work with clients of any size, in any industry, anywhere in the world, dealing with them via email and Skype. That means you can put your writing skills at the service of non-native speakers who need quality text in English, which is a huge market.
- Impact. The copy you write can make a big difference to marketing campaigns and, for smaller clients particularly, may even affect the fate of an entire company. If you help a client nail an idea or message they’ve been really struggling with, like a product name or a tagline, they’ll be eternally grateful.
- Variety. A freelance copywriting career can include a huge range of clients, projects and styles. You might be writing about oven chips for a multinational in the morning, deep-sea diving lessons for a sole trader in the afternoon. You’ll talk to entrepreneurs, managers and marketers at all levels, each with their own unique communication problem to solve. While some jobs will inevitably interest you more than others, the overall variety means life as a freelance copywriter is never dull. And there’s always more to learn.
- Creativity. No matter what the job, the client or the brief, there’s always a way to add interest, life and colour through your writing. Finding new and memorable ways to express ideas never gets old, and is one of the most rewarding things about the freelance copywriter’s life.
What do freelance copywriters work on?
They write whatever needs writing! For example, you might be asked to write advertisements (print and broadcast), brochures, leaflets, press releases, product manuals, product packaging, online product descriptions, websites, articles, social-media content, sales letters, emails, telephone scripts, video scripts, interviews, FAQs, how-to guides and more.
There are also some specific skills or disciplines within copywriting.
- Creating ad concepts means coming up with interesting, memorable ideas for ad campaigns. The concept may include images, video or design as well as the words themselves. For some ads there may be no words at all, just an idea. Many ad copywriters link up with a designer or art director in a two-person creative team, using their complementary visual and verbal skills to develop ideas in partnership.
- Business-to-consumer (B2C) copywriting is work on materials aimed at general consumers (as opposed to businesspeople). You need to be able to get inside people’s heads and understand what makes them tick, so you can make products and services sound interesting, attractive and relevant to their lives. You also need to write in different tones of voice for different brands – for example, an ad for a chocolate bar sounds different from an ad for a car. (See How to define your brand’s tone of voice.)
- Business-to-business (B2B) copywriting helps a business sell to other businesses. You need to be able to explain product and service features clearly and effectively, and communicate the benefits they offer. But business buyers are still people, so you also need to convey the personality of the business and make an emotional connection with the reader.
- Online copywriting means writing for websites and other digital channels. It can include companies’ own corporate websites, as well as articles, white papers and anything produced under the banner of ‘content marketing’. You need to be able to hold readers’ interest in a medium that encourages skim-reading and rapid navigation. You also need to be able to structure content so it’s easy for visitors to use a site (user experience, or UX) and encourage them to take a particular action, such as buying a product (conversion optimisation).
- Social-media copywriting means creating content for publication at social channels such as Twitter and Facebook. Social content needs to be attention-grabbing, memorable, sharable and often very short. It often needs to use humour to increase its appeal without causing offence. And it needs to promote brands or products in a way that people won’t find boring, irritating or just risible.
- SEO copywriting is a specific form of online copywriting aimed at maximising the visibility of web pages at search engines. You need to understand how web pages are coded and how search engines analyse their content. Since this changes all the time, principally as Google updates its algorithm, specialising as an SEO copywriter means staying up to speed with the latest trends. Some knowledge of SEO is really a requirement for any sort of online writing, but you can partner with an SEO consultant or agency to tap into deeper knowledge. (See SEO in 5 minutes for an intro to SEO, and In defence of SEO copywriting for more on why the writer’s skills are important.)
- Content marketing is a catch-all term for material that brands produce to inform, guide or entertain customers without directly selling to them. The idea is that people read the content, find it valuable and form a positive opinion of the brand that provided it. You need skills in researching and organising information, making it relevant to readers and gently orienting it towards a brand or product without overt selling. Since content often needs to be found online, and can help to attract visitors to a site, content marketing is closely linked with SEO.
- Technical writing is any type of writing that requires knowledge of a particular area of science or technology. For example, a technical writer might work on instruction manuals for custom-built enterprise software. Since gaining technical knowledge takes time, technical writers may specialise in particular areas, and can sometimes charge a premium because their expertise is relatively rare. Technical writers need the ability to explain complex subjects clearly and concisely, and structure content for readability and navigability.
- Academic writing is similar to technical writing, and is simply working on text that relates to a specialised academic subject, whether in the humanities (literature, art history) or the sciences (physics, mathematics). If you have enough knowledge of a particular topic, and the ability to explain its finer points in writing, you could turn it into a copywriting specialisation. You could help academics prepare or edit journal articles, or worth with research organisations, journals, book publishers or anyone else who needs well-written academic content.
This list is not exhaustive. Some copywriters focus on one or more of these areas, and others are generalists who will turn their hand to anything. Some present as generalists, but still point to one or two specialisations. What work you go for depends on your own skills and temperament.
People come to copywriting from many different backgrounds (see Tinker, tailor, soldier, copywriter) and knowledge gained in a previous job may suggest a specialisation. For example, I started out in non-fiction publishing, which made me naturally suited to longform work and B2B clients; broadcast ads for B2C are further from my comfort zone. Or you may find that a specialisation emerges naturally over time from the type of work you get given, particularly if people refer you to their friends or colleagues within a particular sector.
Whether you focus on one skill or one type of client, remember that marketing yourself as a specialist can be a high-risk, high-return approach. It makes you more appealing to a certain group of clients, but completely irrelevant to others. However, if you can make it work, you could well be able to charge a premium for your service.
Who can be a freelance copywriter?
The short answer is ‘anyone’. The copywriting industry is unregulated, and you don’t need any qualifications or certification to work in it. If you call yourself a copywriter, and clients pay you for copywriting, you’re a copywriter.
However, if you want to succeed as a freelance copywriter, you’ll need the following.
- Proven writing ability. It’s good to believe in yourself, but if you want to make a living from copywriting, you need other people to agree that you’re a good writer. If your writing has been commercially published, widely circulated at work or just praised by someone independent, you may have marketable copywriting skills, or the potential to develop them.
- Business skills. Freelance copywriting isn’t just writing. You’ll need to market and promote yourself, manage your money and set the direction of your freelance business (see Strategy for freelances). This is a big change if you’re used to a salaried position, where other people manage your work and your income is stable and predictable.
- Admin skills. You’ll need to manage your workload, projects and timescales, keep financial records and stay on top of correspondence. Again, if you’re used to other people scheduling or prioritising your work, or helping you with admin, this can take some getting used to. (I’ve created a simple spreadsheet that you can use to track projects.)
- Personal qualities. Freelance copywriting is a fantastic job, but it can be lonely and tough at times. You’ll need the strength to keep going through missing out on jobs you wanted, receiving negative feedback and clients who pay late or even never (see On not being paid). You’ll need self-discipline and self-reliance to meet clients’ expectations, plus self-confidence to win business, believe in your ability and charge what you’re worth (see How to build freelance confidence). And you’ll probably need to like, or at least tolerate, independent solo working (see The joy of working alone.)
Do I need qualifications?
Not really. Although copywriting courses are available, there’s no ‘official’ qualification that allows you to become a copywriter.
If you’re going to be writing longform copy, English-language skills are obviously valuable, which you might have gained from an academic course such as an English A-level or degree, or equivalent. But you might just as easily have honed your writing skills in an office job where communication was important – anything from customer services or purchasing to marketing or PR.
If you decide to take a course, bear in mind that it’s experience, rather than paper qualifications, that will impress clients most. So evaluate potential courses in terms of the actual skills you’ll gain, rather than impressive-sounding additions to your cv.
Do I need to form a limited company?
No, you can easily operate as a sole trader. To do this, you simply keep records of everything you spend and earn, and complete a self-assessment tax return showing self-employed income at the end of the tax year (5 April).
However, being a sole trader does limit your options in some ways. As a business, you can offset capital expenditure (equipment you buy for your business, such as computers) against earnings, which usually helps with your tax bill. It can also be helpful, psychologically, to separate ‘you’ from ‘your business’, so you can make decisions in a more rational, detached way.
Should I register for VAT?
You can register for VAT as either a sole trader or a business, and you must do so if your turnover (total sales) is more than £81,000 in a year (2014 data).
Registering for VAT means you can claim back the VAT you’ve paid on purchases – which can be significant if you rent an office, or buy a lot of computer equipment.
Basically, if the VAT you’re likely to reclaim comes to more than the cost of paying an accountant to sort out your VAT, it’s probably worth registering (regardless of your turnover).
How can I gain freelance copywriting experience?
The first few months as a freelance copywriter can feel like a Catch-22: you can’t get work until you have experience, but you can’t build up experience unless people give you some work. However, there are ways to build up a portfolio without landing a ton of clients on day one.
- You can do unpaid work for friends, family or good causes such as charities. This is a great way to build up a portfolio without the hassles that go with gaining paid work. You’ll need to prevent ‘feature creep’ and also make sure the client values your work and is committed to working constructively with you, even though they’re not paying.
- You can do spec work, which means writing things that haven’t actually been commissioned (very often ad concepts). If you feature this sort of work in your portfolio, make it absolutely clear it was done on spec, or people will assume you really did work for the brand. (You can enter spec work for the Chip Shop Awards.)
- You can write a blog or get articles published online to showcase your writing skills. This isn’t the same as taking on a commercial project, but it still shows people you can write. Blogging about copywriting itself can be a good way to sharpen your thinking and demonstrate your insight to clients (see Seven reasons copywriters should blog).
- You can take assignments through ‘find a freelancer’ sites like Elance or content mills like Copify. The rate will probably be very low, making this a good way to build up a portfolio but not so good for long-term earnings potential. Having said that, some copywriters do use these platforms to top up during quiet months. (For my personal views on content mills and the service they offer to clients, see What copywriting clients won’t get from content mills and The real price of cheap content.)
How can I find freelance copywriting work?
Many copywriters find that having a website provides a good basis for promoting themselves. A site can include information on your services, writing samples, client testimonials and anything else relevant to potential clients.
Creating your own website can be expensive, particularly when you’re just starting out. The Professional Copywriters’ Network offers a Pro membership package for £48pa inc VAT that lets you create a comprehensive online profile and a portfolio with up to 12 samples of your copywriting work. (Disclosure: I am a co-founder of PCN.)
You’ll probably want to create profiles at social sites like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. These serve a triple purpose: promoting yourself to clients, showcasing your writing skills and networking with other writers.
Some freelance copywriters separate their ‘work’ and ‘home’ profiles, but many (including me) don’t bother. If you want a mix of informal work-related chat, support and messing about, one account makes sense. If you’re used to having colleagues, or just find it difficult to work on your own, interaction on social media can be a lifeline.
There are may ways to promote yourself offline too. Attending networking events can be a useful way to make contacts – just don’t expect to come home with a ton of work. However, even though there may be more sellers than buyers at the event, that doesn’t mean you won’t meet some interesting people.
Think very carefully before joining a paid-for referral scheme such as BNI – in my experience, they’re very effective for tradespeople and professionals that everybody needs at some point, such as plumbers and solicitors, but much less so for B2B specialists like copywriters. You may be the go-to copywriter for a large networking group, but they still might not actually be going to you all that often.
Don’t underestimate the power of your existing network. Put the word out among colleagues, friends and family that you’re looking for freelance copywriting work. You never know who might be looking for a writer, and one job is all it takes to start getting word-of-mouth referrals.
Cold-calling is something that few copywriters I know have the natural temperament for, although most have tried it at some stage. The problem is that when people need a copywriter, they really need one – but when they don’t, they really don’t. A better approach might be to craft a really strong sales letter or piece of creative work and send it to potential clients. That way, even if they don’t need a copywriter now, they may hang on to your letter and remember you when they do.
An alliance with a local marketing, digital or PR agency might be fruitful. Agencies often turn to freelances for help with writing. The upside is that you don’t have to deal directly with the client, which can save you time and make jobs run more smoothly. The downside is that you don’t ‘own’ the link with the client, and may even be forbidden to contact them directly. As a freelancer, relationships are your most valuable assets.
How does freelance copywriting work, day to day?
Clients usually get in touch via email or phone. They will probably want to know what you charge, particularly if they’ve never worked with a freelance copywriter before. A ballpark price will either put them at their ease, or show them they can’t afford you – in my view, either outcome is better than stringing them along and leaving it as late as possible to give a price, although some salespeople do recommend that approach. (See the next section for more on pricing.)
Prospects may also want to discuss their project with you, which is fine up to a point, but has the potential to eat up an unlimited amount of your time for no return. The trick is to display the depth of your knowledge without providing too much solid guidance that the client can take away and use for free. Try to talk about what’s involved in the project, or what’s important to get right, without saying what you would actually do. If need be, don’t be afraid to say that any further questions would be answered once the project is confirmed – politely implying ‘show me the money’.
Some clients may want to meet up before they commit to using you. Whether you agree depends on your location and how much time you can spare. Remember that all conversations and meetings have to be paid for, either as a project cost (clients pay per job) or as an overhead (cost shared between all your clients/projects). Charging for longer meetings shows your time is valuable, but if you really want the job, you may be happy to invest a few hours.
If you’re working through an agency, it’s important to clarify who will be paying your invoice – them, or the end client.
If the client uses purchase orders, that’s great, but an email explicitly confirming the scope and price is still legally binding. Some freelance copywriters ask their clients to sign an actual contract or letter of agreement that defines the scope, working process, price, payment terms, transfer of copyright (see Copyright for copywriters) and so on. It’s good practice, but it can be a bit onerous for smaller jobs. An alternative approach is to create a standard set of terms and conditions – you can publish them at your website, or attach them to your estimates – and make it clear that the client is agreeing to them by commissioning you.
One way or another, you need to get source information from the client to inform your writing. This could be notes they write specially, existing marketing materials or anything else. Interviewing the client by phone can be very productive, and if you use this method – which I do all the time – you may find that recording calls is an invaluable way to capture all the information. There’s an app for Skype called Call Recorder (Mac), or if you’re on a landline you can buy a device to record your calls, with the other person’s persmission (see Recording phone conversations makes for better copywriting).
Once the client is happy with the terms, you can start writing. Most copywriters simply work in Microsoft Word, and send the client the file for approval via email. For ad concepts, you may find it easier to hand-draw scamps (rough sketches) and scan/cameraphone them, while for online work, creating tables in Word is one way to approximate the layout of a web page.
Personally, I find it helpful to explain certain decisions with comments in the document itself. This can help to manage expectations and forestall likely questions, helping the client to stay focused on the bigger picture instead of getting caught up in details.
Copywriting drafts are most often submitted by email. Sometimes, the job sails through with no amends at all, but more often you’ll need to revise your work before it’s approved. Aim to agree up front how many rounds of changes are included in your price (two is usually enough) – if things drag on beyond that, at least you have the right to renegotiate, even if you opt not to use it.
Once the client has accepted your final draft, you can submit your invoice, either by email (as a PDF, probably) or by post. Make sure you ask who to address it to, to avoid problems later. And remember to chase it up once it’s overdue – it’s a horrible job, but invoices very often get ‘missed somehow’, so it’s one you can’t afford to skip. Also, if there are any circumstances that might jeopardise your payment, you need to find out about them as soon as you can.
How much should I charge?
Freelance copywriting fees depend on your skills and experience and the demands of the project. In general, the more experience you have, and the more prestigious the brands you’ve worked for, the more you can charge. As I’ve said, you may also be able to charge more for a specialist service.
Factors that might affect the price of a project include:
- How long the work will take
- How quickly the client wants the text delivered
- The number of revisions required
- The quantity and/or nature of feedback (for example, review comments from lots of different people)
- The value of the content to the client’s business
- The importance or prominence of the content, which affects the level of quality required and therefore how much time needs to be put into editing and rewriting
- The technical complexity of the subject
- The sensitivity of the content (for example, editing an internal document on proposed redundancies).
Some freelance copywriters offer discounts for smaller businesses or sole traders, or work at a discount (or pro bono) for charities they want to help out.
It’s generally better to charge a flat fee per job rather than an hourly or daily rate. It keeps things clear and simple, and stops you getting drawn into an awkward discussion of how long a job ‘should’ take. However, you may still want to set a daily rate, for three reasons:
- You can still use it as a rule of thumb for calculating prices, even if you then present the price to the client as a flat fee.
- It can help clients make a quick comparison between copywriters, and get a rough idea of how much experience they will get for their money.
- You can use it to quote for ‘taxi cab’ tasks, where you’re selling your time rather than delivering something tangible. For example, to attend a meeting at a remote location, you might charge for the time spent at the meeting plus travel time, plus travel expenses.
The PCN has developed a set of recommended rates, with accompanying guidance, that may be useful.
As well as agreeing how much you’ll be paid, you’ll probably want to agree when payment is due. Many freelance copywriters, including myself, simply ask for payment on completion, with terms of 30 days. Others like to get a proportion of the fee up front, particularly for new clients. It’s probably good practice, but I find it can create needless obstacles and delay – or even a feeling of distrust – when all the client wants to do is press on with the project.
Some clients may request a free or discounted sample of your work – for example, asking you to write one page of a website before commissioning you to do the rest. Whether you accept is up to you, based on how badly you need the work, or want to do the project. Since I already have a fairly big portfolio online, covering lots of different industries, I can never really see why I should do a free sample. Also, the promise of ‘lots of work in the pipeline’, in my view, is not a basis to negotiate a discount – to get a bulk price, you need to actually order in bulk.
A variation on free samples is payment on approval – in other words, the client only pays if they like what you write, or intend to actually use it. In my opinion, this simply gives them a financial incentive to reject your stuff and make you try again, instead of committing to a partnership where you work together for the best possible result. Basically, you gain nothing from the deal: the best you can hope for is a standard working process (writing, approval, payment), but if things go sideways, you can expect some very prickly discussions about whether your work is fit for purpose or not. But again, if you really want the job, you may be happy to make the deal.
Books on copywriting and freelancing
- Write to Sell by Andy Maslen. A good, concise guide to the copywriter’s craft.
- Write Copy, Make Money by Andy Maslen. Not a copywriting guide, but rather a manual to making copywriting pay. Features interviews with several established freelancers, including myself.
- Read Me by Roger Horberry and Gyles Lingwood. A readable illustrated guide to writing powerful copy from two highly respected industry veterans.
- The Copy Book by D&AD. A weighty compendium of inspiring examples and guidance from some of the greatest copywriters of the last few decades. Never fails to stimulate a new idea.
- Hey Whipple, Squeeze This by Luke Sullivan. A great guide to writing good adverts, now updated to cover online content too.
- How To Write Sales Letters That Sell by Drayton Bird. Exhaustively detailed guide to writing effective sales letters.
- Valuable Content Marketing by Sonja Jefferson and Sharon Tanton. Readable, comprehensive overview of content marketing.
- Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy. Classic but still relevant wisdom from the ‘father of modern advertising’.
- Predatory Thinking by Dave Trott. Strategies for out-thinking the competition, and very relevant for copywriters looking for a different approach to a creative brief.
- Think Like A Copywriter by Alastaire Allday. Free ebook that makes a great introduction to copywriting.
- The ABC of Copywriting. My own free ebook, which brings together the best copywriting guidance from this blog.
I hope this article has answered most of your questions about working as a freelance copywriter. If there’s anything else you want to know, ask me in the comments below and I’ll do my best to help.
Tags: Alastaire Allday, Andy Maslen, become a freelance copywriter, Dave Trott, David Ogilvy, Drayton Bird, ebooks, Gyles Lingwood, Roger Horberry, Sharon Tanton, Sonja Jefferson