The many hats of the freelance copywriter

by Tom Albrighton 17 August 2015 Freelancing

To hear some people talk, you’d think the life of a freelance copywriter was just writing, writing, writing – but there’s so much more to it. That Breaking Bad boxset won’t watch itself, there’s some leftover dansaak in the fridge with your name on it and you still haven’t alphabeticised your CDs. And when all that’s finished, there a few other roles you need to fill to keep your freelance copywriting business going strong.

Creative director

In an agency, the creative director helps the copywriter improve their work through guidance, criticism and idea selection. It’s similar to the commissioning editor role in publishing, the world I came from: the author writes a draft, the editor feeds back, and the author goes away to rework. Since the author can easily get too close to their work to be objective about it, the editor brings distance, balance and reflection to the creative process.

Image by mejones

Image by mejones

But what about freelance copywriters? If you’re working for an agency, you might get some useful feedback there. Working direct for clients, you’ll obviously get feedback from them, but that’s different – what you really want to know is whether your stuff is good enough for them to even see in the first place. If you work on your own, you have to be your own creative coach.

It’s essential to remember this point when looking at copywriters’ portfolios. Someone who’s worked with or in agencies may have developed their work with invaluable input from a CD and/or art director, then had it sold in by an account handler (see below). But a lone freelancer may have had to create, critique and defend their work without any outside help at all – a creative army of one. That’s a big difference, and one that may not be apparent at first glance.

Because of my background as an editor, I’ve always found this role one of the easier ones to play. I think I’m much better at analysing ads than actually writing them, and while I often struggle to conquer the blank page, I plunge eagerly into editing once I have.

For me, the key is to separate the roles. To stop myself fiddling and fussing, I have to force myself to splurge out my ideas before trying to optimise them. If you’re naturally more creative, you might have to make an effort to come down from the blue sky and put on your analytical hat.

The famous aphorism ‘kill your darlings’ is very relevant. Often, the ideas you feel most personally excited about are the ones you need to reject – while the initially unpromising ones, with a little but of work, often turn out to be winners.

Time and space help. Whether you think an idea’s brilliant or pathetic, it’s always worth leaving it overnight. Hearing the words out loud helps objectivity too – see this post for a way to get your Mac to read your words back to you.

Account handler

This is the job of presenting your text to the client, receiving their feedback and deciding how to respond to it.

Unless you send your work attached to the briefest, bluntest email possible, there will always be some sort of accompanying explanation of what you’ve done and perhaps why you’ve done it. You might think this is just admin, but small details can be crucial in managing expectations. For example, how are you going to position your work? Will you assertively describe it as ‘the copy’, or be more tentative with a ‘first version’ or ‘draft’? Are you going to ask for their ‘feedback’, which could include an ecstatic signoff with no amends, or more humbly solicit their ‘changes’?

You also have to decide how to position, describe or justify your work. When working on slogans or taglines, rather than submitting them ‘naked’, I provide accompanying notes: the strategy behind each one and its pros and cons. Sometimes, I set them up in simple layouts based on the brand identity, which makes them feel more real, more deserving of consideration. For really crucial projects, you might even want to commission a designer to create a more professional setting for your words.

For longer-form work, I’ll often add comments in Word explaining the decisions I’ve taken. Some might see this as defensive – getting your excuses in early and implicitly conceding that your text can’t stand on its own. In my view, it’s more about answering likely queries or objections so they don’t distract the client from the bigger picture.

Waiting for feedback can be nailbiting. Even though I’ve learned from long experience that the lack of a response is almost always due to practical issues rather than dismay at the quality of my work, I still freak out when feedback is delayed. A little email to ‘make sure the text arrived’ often elicits much-needed reassurance.

When feedback comes, responding to it can be a challenge too. I’ve written a fairly long post about dealing with copywriting feedback, so I won’t go into huge detail here. However, a key point is that (as with the actual writing) time and space are invaluable. When I re-read the email next morning, I often find the ‘bad’ feedback isn’t as bad as I thought. You have to get to grips with what the client is really saying – and if you really can’t work it out, ask them.

Managing director

As well as working in your freelance copywriting business, you also need to work on it. As MD of a one-person business, you have several responsibilities – some tactical and day-to-day, others strategic and far-reaching.

Most immediately, you have to divide your time between hands-on work, drumming up new business, acquiring skills (including soft skills like confidence) and leisure. You’ll also have to handle all the admin, and decide how you respond to challenges like not being paid.

However, those pressing and time-consuming issues shouldn’t obscure the big picture of your freelance strategy: the future you want, and how you’ll achieve it. The value of considering this can hardly be overstated – if you’re not working for your own aims, you’re probably working for someone else’s. Think about everything you want, write it down and don’t be too surprised when it starts coming true.

At the very least, you need a sense of the sort of work and clients you want, and those you don’t want. Even if you have to compromise sometimes, it will help you climb on top of day-to-day issues like pricing and feel more in control.

New business manager

As the new business manager of your freelance firm, your job is to make sure the work keeps coming in. This is a tricky subject for many creative freelancers, because the discipline of sales is so different from their own work – they just don’t see themselves as salespeople.

Instead of laying down the law about what you should and shouldn’t do, I’m going to make just one suggestion: do what you enjoy. If you’re naturally sociable, you’ll probably like networking. (I don’t.) If you write ads, do PPC. If you prefer longform, write a blog. Basically, find a way to combine something you already like with the need to generate new business. Because otherwise, you’ll never keep it up.

One of the best salespeople I ever met was a print rep. Unlike some reps, he understood the whole production process, from scanning, DTP and prepress to finishing and delivery. As a result, he could answer any question I had, right off the cuff. This was so valuable and reaassuring that I ‘followed’ him from print firm to print firm, regardless of the prices or press setups they offered. The lesson I learned was to share my knowledge and advice freely, without worrying too much about reward. Yes, you’ll get a few timewasters – but as time goes by, you get better at spotting them.

HR manager

As a freelancer, you have to look after yourself, because no-one else is going to do it. Assuming you get enough work, you have to make the very personal call over how much is enough – i.e. manage the work-life balance. You also have to schedule holidays around unpredictable client schedules, which can be a major challenge. If you’re part of a double-income family, the challenge is exponentially harder.

Recent research suggests that, for busy women in particular, work can be less stressful than home. Without going into the rights and wrongs of that, I would say that if this is the case for you, go with it. Make your workplace more of a sanctuary than a cell, and consciously maximise its therapeutic effects.

Try to make time for developing your skills too. It doesn’t have to mean formal training. For creatives, it can just mean absorbing something new and different – a film, an exhibition, a festival. When more work equals more money, the temptation to turn up the machine is strong, but you can end up blunting the abilities you depend on.

Office manager

In this role, you have to keep your work on track, manage your time and make sure you meet your deadlines – possibly on several projects at the same time.

This always seems to be the part of freelancing that salarybods are most intrigued by. Maybe it’s because the absence of an immediate, individual boss is the most salient difference between their working lives and yours. ‘Don’t you find it hard to motivate yourself?’ they ask, or, ‘Don’t you get distracted?’ They never ask about much more pressing concerns like price-setting or finding work – presumably because those things don’t really feature in paid employment.

Personally, the fact that my family depends on what I earn is all the motivation I need. Time management, though, is a perennial headache. A full week, viewed from the foothills of Monday morning, can look insurmountable. Even though I know from experience that I can blaze through a surprising amount if I can just stay off Twitter, I still fear that I’m not going to make it. And that’s stressful.

Organisation is the antidote. I use a simple Excel spreadsheet to track my projects and BusyCal to manage day-to-day scheduling. I’ve given up trying to plan more than a week in advance – with more than three clients in the mix, the schedules are just too fluid to work with. Instead, I focus on locking down the next few days and beating my own deadlines, if I can.

It’s easy to fret about setting timescales, but in my experience people are usually fairly understanding. And a lot of deadlines aren’t actually as ‘hard’ as they might initially appear. My approach is to over-promise and under-deliver. The timescales I give are worst-case and, even though I regularly beat them, people mercifully haven’t started assuming that I always will.

So there you have it – a few of the hats that freelance copywriters have to wear when they’re not writing. I’m sure I’ve missed a few out, so feel free to add your own in the comments.

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