Freelance Copywriter Career: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started
As a freelance copywriter, I’m often asked by would-be writers:
What do freelance copywriters really do?
How does it differ from creative writing – novels, poetry and so on?
What is the upside, and what is the downside?
How much realistically could I make?
What is the most profitable kind of writing?
How do I find projects?
So, that’s what I’m going to share with you right now – and I’m going to be brutally honest.
1. What do we do?
We ‘write to order’. When companies want to create a web page, a sales brochure, a corporate video, write a press release, a trade magazine article or a White Paper (more on these later) – they come to people like me.
2. What are the upsides and the downsides?
I am my own boss, working from home with almost no overheads. I serve my clients electronically, so I never meet them – no commuting. But they do become a community of friends, online, around the world.
I can work as much or as little as I like and when I like – ideal for parents of young children. In fact, because all I need is a PC and internet connection, I could choose to have a month in the sun anytime and take my work with me. Some freelancers, like me, write full-time, others do it for pin money or to supplement their lifestyle.
And I can decline projects that don’t interest me.
For those people aiming to be creative writers, it’s a great way to learn the essential mechanics of writing – the self-discipline, the daily word count and so on – generating income while the novel comes along.
Working from home takes a lot of self-motivation. There can be distractions. That’s why I have a study, fully kitted out to do my writing. None of this trying to write on a laptop on the dining room table.
Some people miss the physical social interaction of going to the office, socializing.
It might be well paid but, hey, it’s still just a job!
3. How much can you earn – and how do you work out what to charge?
Don’t believe the hype. Sure, there are advertising copywriters making many hundreds of thousands, but you will never be a successful ‘ad writer’ working alone. You need the creative buzz, the account team and everything that goes with working in an agency.
Experienced freelancers working from home typically quote rates of $750 a day. No, don’t try multiplying that by the number of days in the year. Less experienced writers quote $450 a day. Not exactly a get rich quick formula, but a respectable income.
The easiest way to arrive at a cost for a project is to agree to a word-count with the client. I work on the basis of 75 cents per word, so a 200 word web page is $150, a 2,000 word article is $1,000, an 8,000 word white paper $4,000.
To put ‘word-count’ into perspective, this blog is 2,088 words long.
By the way, never express your fees in terms of cents per word. That’s just a convenient way to arrive at a fee. Once I have done the sums, I always express my quote on the basis of cost-per-project.
4. What’s the difference between creative writing and copywriting?
Unlike authors, copywriters don’t choose the subject matter. We don’t even decide the length. The client does.
We can’t sit around waiting for inspiration – we work to deadlines.
At least we know we will get paid for everything we write because the work has been commissioned. Nothing is speculative.
As I have already said, copywriting really tones up your writing productivity.
5. What’s the most profitable type of copywriting? It’s expert writing.
For the jobbing copywriter, White Papers are wonderful ‘meaty’ projects that can pay well. If you are lucky enough to have specialist expertise (accountancy, financial services, information technology, pharmaceuticals, logistics, engineering etc.) then you should be able to move into the White Paper arena straight away. If you don’t have such expertise, provided you have nerve (I have no expertise, but plenty of nerve), you can still write white papers. In a moment I’m going to let you into the secret of how to write ‘expert copy’ without being an expert. I do it all the time. And the only equipment I need, other than my PC, cost me just a few bucks.
What are White Papers?
Essentially, they are management briefing-documents on topical business issues. Your clients will be in the B2B arena (selling their products or services to other businesses). For a freelance copywriter, B2B clients can be much more profitable and less hassle than B2C clients (companies selling to consumers).
What do White Papers look like?
There’s no formal structure, no set length. I have written papers that are just four pages long, others that are forty pages long. Sometimes they begin with an ‘abstract’ – a paragraph summarizing what the paper will cover. Whether you title it ‘abstract’ or ‘management summary’, this is a good principle.
You will often face a dilemma with clients who are publishing their first paper. They will want you to focus on their product, their solution, their company. This is a mistake – the paper then becomes little more than a sales brochure. A white paper should be a more subtle ‘sell’. It should simply describe the issues or problems the product will overcome, together with a strategy for solving those issues – not mentioning the product itself. By appearing to be unbiased, white papers become much more effective than any sales brochure. They add value. Readers of white papers want to be educated, not sold to.
When clients are really determined to feature their own product, I recommend that they do so as an appendix, keeping the main body of the document sales-free. It is your role to try to steer the client in the right direction.
To get a feel for what a white paper may look like, use this link to download samples.
Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs)
Because white papers go much deeper than sales literature, clients will often have to reveal commercially-sensitive information. To protect themselves, they may ask you to sign a Non Disclosure Agreement – a legally binding document in which you agree not to disclose anything you learn, except within the paper itself. This is fairly standard practice.
6. How to write ‘expert copy’ without being an expert?
If, as freelance copywriters, we stick only to the things we know about, our opportunities would be sorely restricted – and over time the challenge and the fun would be lost. Working from home, you will need the adrenaline of new challenges. Don’t worry. Once you have mastered the art of writing within your comfort zone, it really is possible to extend into new areas – often highly complex – in which you have no previous expertise. After all, your expertise is in writing. Your clients provide the content.
The secret is to interview your client or the expert by phone. Face-to-face, experts often ramble and find it difficult getting to the point. The second secret is to never take notes – record the conversation. You will never be able to keep up, taking notes, when talking to an expert. You are so busy writing that you could lose control of the conversation.
When interviewing industry experts, it can be useful to ask if the interviewee has a PowerPoint presentation on the topic (usually they do). Once emailed to me, they are able to talk me through the topic, over the phone, while we both view on-screen.
Over the phone, people are less likely to digress. And because you are recording rather than note taking, you don’t have to hold up their flow while you get things down. You also have more time (and a clearer mind) to be preparing your next question. Taping an interview makes it so much easier to listen. And if you really have a problem with a particular point, it’s so easy to say “Sorry, this is a bad line – could you possibly expand on that a little more slowly?”
Once you have transcribed your interview, any jargon can be looked up on the web! What’s more, by listening to a recording, it’s possible to pick up those areas where the expert is getting excited – the real meat – which is impossible when reviewing handwritten notes.
Interviews with celebrities or high-profile business people are a great way to gain credibility as a copywriter.
For journalists in the national press, or editors in the trade press, it’s not too difficult to get through to experts, VIPs, opinion makers, big names, celebrities, authorities. But what about the new, unknown writer?
A million years ago, when I was on a course at London Business School, one of the young students pulled off an amazing coup. She managed to engineer an interview with a very high profile cabinet minister who was playing a prominent role on the world stage at that time. When fellow students begged the secret of how she had pulled off such a feat, the answer was… “I just phoned him up and asked.”
If you don’t ask, you don’t get. I apply the principle and have even managed to interview Bill Gates.
8. What’s the essential equipment?
Clearly you are going to need some way of recording your interviews, getting the recording onto your PC, and then transcribing it.
You could use any old cassette recorder, but you can now get reasonably priced digital voice recorders with USB connection to your PC. I just looked at Amazon, and Olympus does one for $29, RCA does one for $28.
You will also need a way of capturing the call and I use a piece of kit from Olympus, their TP-8 telephone pickup microphone that costs just $14 from Amazon. It gives fantastic quality recording.
Finally, you need some way of transcribing the recording. The transcription software I use is completely free of charge. Download it from http://www.nch.com.au/scribe/. It is meant for heavy-duty typing, so in their description they talk about using foot pedals. Don’t worry, you don’t need them – it can all be done using your keyboard. I use it every day. If your recorder uses an incompatible file format to the transcription software, you can download a free program that converts sound files with a single click. Download Switch Sound Converter. Don’t go for the paid version, the free option does everything you need.
9. How to find projects?
There are ‘auction’ sites for freelancers, with a sort of reverse-bidding. Potential clients post their requirements and freelancers bid for the work. THIS IS SLAVE LABOR and you should only ever consider using them when you are starting out and desperate to build a quick portfolio. Examples are: www.odesk.com, an established auction site that had 304 general copywriting projects, 963 web-page writing projects and 402 technical writing projects last time I looked. All being auctioned, with closing dates in the very near future. Other sites include www.elance.com and www.getafreelancer.com.
Much better, and this is how I get all my own copywriting work, is to create a dedicated website and optimize it hard for your chosen search terms. It took about 12 months for my site to get top rankings. As a test, I have just done a search and came position number one on Google for ‘White Paper Copywriter’, position number one for ‘Pharmaceutical Copywriter’ and second for ‘Logistics Copywriter’. Optimizing can be achieved without any HTML, website or technical experience. It just takes time.
I do hope that was useful.
For the past 20 odd years Len has run his own business, Copywriting-On-Demand. He works from home, writing copy for organizations around the world – and lots of them have become personal friends.
His biggest market is the USA, followed by the UK, the Arab states and the Netherlands. His business comes via the web and his website attracts more than 1,000 visits a day.
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