10 Tips for Aspiring Freelance Copywriters
September 5, 2006 • Glenn Murray
Every week I receive a couple of emails from people seeking advice on how to get into freelance copywriting. While there’s no simple answer, and no answer which applies to everyone, there are a few tips which I believe will help most people make the move into freelance copywriting, and survive the first few months at least.
1) Invest in a website
The best place for any freelance advertising copywriter or website copywriter to start is to fork out for a website. A website is invaluable because when you cold call and email prospects, you’ll need to direct them somewhere that gives them more information. Keep your website simple, include a portfolio page, add any samples of any sort of copywriting you’ve done, talk about the places you’ve worked, the clients you’ve written for, and include any testimonials you’ve received. Make sure you include your address and contact details as well, so people don’t think you’re a fly-by-night operation. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to include a photo either. If you can’t say much about your experience, don’t say much. It doesn’t even really matter if you don’t say anything. Remember, just like any other form of advertising copywriting, writing about yourself requires the art of subtlety. If you lack experience, but you’re confident you can do the job, you can be very clever in what you don’t say, and most people will read it the way you intended.
2) Don’t target agencies
If you’ve never worked as an advertising copywriter or website copywriter before, don’t target advertising agencies and web design agencies. They know exactly what they’re after, so if you don’t have a portfolio, you won’t stand a chance. Managing an inexperienced copywriter and controlling quality takes a lot of time and introduces risk. Most agencies are too busy to give unproven copywriters a break, even if you’re prepared to do the work on spec. Target end-clients directly.
3) Cold call, cold call, cold call
One of the best ways of generating business in the early days is to cold call potential end-clients. It’s hard work and very time consuming, but you can generate some very qualified leads.
4) Use a contacts & jobs database
No matter where you’re at in your freelance copywriting career, you NEED a database of contacts and jobs. Kind of a scaled down CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tool. Use it to record everything! Particularly names, phone numbers, and the details of any correspondence (especially phone calls). I created my own database using Microsoft Access.
5) Write a few samples
If you’re targeting specific clients or industries, don’t be afraid to write a few samples and send them through. You can offer the pieces free of charge (everyone likes something for nothing) or at a discount, or you can use it as an incentive to sign them up for future work. It all depends on the type of work and the type of client. The important thing to remember is that samples are virtually as good as a portfolio to most prospective clients.
6) Invest in an accounts package
Don’t be fooled into thinking you can handle your accounts manually (or with Microsoft Excel). Even if you only have a few clients, you NEED a proper accounts package like MYOB or Quicken (they both offer small business versions). You’ll understand why the first time you do your GST reports or annual taxes. In fact, you’ll understand why whenever you need to chase down outstanding invoices
7) Give great service
This may seem like an obvious one, but it’s important to remember that “great service” means different things to different clients. Most of the time you’ll be working with direct clients (quite often startup businesses) and agencies. Both appreciate great service, but define it entirely differently. Agencies rely on their freelance copywriters to meet strict requirements (get the work done well, get it done on time, don’t exceed the budget). They have end-clients breathing down their necks, so reliability is as important as writing quality. End-clients, on the other hand, need an advertising copywriter or website copywriter who sees their business the way they do, and can convey that vision. They’ll probably need a lot of guidance as well, particularly if they’re just starting out themselves. If you can, help them understand that copywriting isn’t just about telling people what products and services the business offers; it’s about conveying the benefits of those products and services. A good advertising copywriter or website copywriter will be able to help their client think in terms of benefits instead of products and services.
8) Expect hard times
The first year or two as a freelance advertising copywriter or website copywriter will be difficult. It takes a while to generate momentum and during that time, you’ll probably find yourself wondering if you’ve made the right career choice. While it’s possible to earn six-figures each year, you have to be patient (so it’s not ideal for new or intending parents or anyone with huge mortgage commitments).
Don’t spend too much on training Invest in a copywriting course that delivers results, not just promises
Update – August 16, 2011: Here’s what I used to say on the matter: “In my humble opinion, no money spent learning is wasted. However, you have to weigh up the return on investment. I don’t know much about what copywriting courses are available, but if they’re expensive, I’d think twice. In my experience, most clients (be they agencies or end-clients) value copywriting ability over training.”
But that was until I discovered what I believe is the best copywriting course in the world: Damn Fine Words, with James Chartrand (who is one of my 2 favourite copywriters). You should definitely check it out. It’s written for people who want results from their writing, not praise. Now that I know about this course, I say it’s money well spent.
10) Know you can do it
Confidence in your copywriting abilities is a must. If you’re not adamant you can produce the results the client is after, you’ll never be able to convince the client. Remember that everyone feels daunted at the start of a new copywriting job. There’s always a steep learning curve in copywriting, and generally quite a bit of time-consuming labour. Don’t fall into the trap of focussing on what you don’t know and what you haven’t done.
Good luck, and happy writing!