How to (kick)start your freelance copywriting career
I’ve been running copywriting workshops for over 25 years now.
There are two common follow-up questions.
One: ‘can you send me examples of briefing templates?’.
I like this. You see, I’m a stickler for paperwork. In my workshops, I often bang on about ‘Good creative work is not possible without a good brief’. And I’m serious.
(If you’re interested, I’ve got an article about the importance of a creative brief. In fact, I called it ‘You’re naked without briefs‘.)
So it’s great when people take me seriously and ask for examples of briefing formats.
This request usually comes the day after the workshop, and from their work email.
Then there’s the second request. Comes from their Gmail address, and the night after.
‘I was interested in what you said about there never being a better time to be a freelance copywriter. How does that work?’
The birth of content marketing
When Google introduced their Hummingbird algorithm update in August 2013 (not telling us until September, please note), it triggered the birth of content marketing.
You can see the impact on Google Trends. Here’s the result when I search for ‘copywriter’ for 2013:
Yep: Hummingbird launched, and people scratched their heads for a couple of months. What did it mean? Then:
‘Oh, hang on. You mean keywords no longer matter? It’s about conversational search terms, traffic to your site, how long they stay and where they come from? A trusted quality site? How do we do that?!’
(With apologies to the SEOs out there: I know it’s a little more complicated than that.)
But, basically, you had to get people to your site and keep them there. With links from quality sites.
‘Holy CRAP,’ everyone went. ‘We need good content! We need a copywriter…’
Which explains that spike around mid-December.
As if it wasn’t enough that we all have to write emails, social, business documents and presentations. Now we have to write good content, too.
Many organisations reached out for copywriters. And continue to do so.
Great time to be a freelance copywriter.
So: how do you (kick)start your career?
First of all, don’t give up your day job.
I know. You’re all excited. You want to throw in your current job. Get cracking as a freelancer.
I did a quick search for ‘copywriting careers’ on the Big G.
‘Launch a Lucrative Career in Copywriting for Less Than $20’.
‘Become a Freelance Copywriter In 7 Days’.
‘How to Become a Copywriter (NO Experience, Portfolio or Degree)’.
Hmmm. I wish.
As a freelance (anything, really), you’re selling yourself. And your skills.
The way to do that is to show proof. Examples of work.
That’s not going to happen in 7 days.
So, here’s what you do.
Keep your day job. Keep the money coming in. Keep your powder dry.
You don’t want to be building a portfolio of work at the same time as you’re trying to find the rent money.
It’s an awful feeling pitching for work when you’re desperate to put petrol in the car, or money in the meter (been there, done that). People buy confidence. Pitch as though you don’t need the work (even if you do).
Juggle the day job with the future job.
Every organisation has stuff they need writing.
A blog, an ad, a sales poster, a newsletter. Does HR need a snappy intranet page for its latest health and safety initiative?
Put your hand up. Do it for free.
Build examples of real work that you’ve written. Commercial work. Work written on behalf of someone, or something, else.
Yes, they won’t be the most exciting examples. But they’ll be real.
As a creative director (many times in my career), I’ve looked at hundreds of portfolios.
I’m looking because I have a problem. It could be that I’m swamped – I need an extra pair of hands. Or I want to broaden the thinking. Or I/we don’t currently have the right skillset.
I need to get someone in quick. And – most importantly – I don’t want to have to hold their hand. Can I give them a piece of copy to write, and leave them to get on with it?
Your portfolio needs to show that.
‘Here’s a piece of copy that was needed in a hurry. And here it is live online.’
As I say, it might not be hugely exciting. But you can be trusted to produce stuff.
That’s what professional copywriters do, 90% of the time. Produce stuff that’s clear, effective, and punchy. Addresses an issue.
But there’s a second side to your portfolio. On top of being able to do stuff, a prospective client needs to see ideas.
Brave and bold
Why does someone need a freelance copywriter?
Well, as an extra pair of hands of course. Can you step in and fix a pressing problem?
But there’s another reason.
Stuck saying the same thing over and over again. Stuck seeing the wood for the trees. Stuck getting fresh thoughts. Stuck in a rut.
This is where the ideas side of your portfolio comes in.
A client wants to see that you can find a fresh way to position (or communicate) a product/service/message.
Ideas. That’s what they want to see.
Brave. Bold. Surprising.
Now, you’re (probably) not going to get those out of the practical copy that you produce at work. You might, of course – and that’s great. But rare.
So, you need to build an ideas side to your work samples.
Again, ask around.
Friends of friends of friends
Do your family or friends have a business?
Do you have a favourite café or shop? ‘I love you guys: why don’t more people know about you?…’
Do the friends of your friends or family have a business?
Ask them. Would they like some ideas? Some copy written? Some posts? A tweet?
Keep asking. Someone’s bound to have a home-business, a hobby, a project.
You’re looking for something small, different, niche.
This gives you the chance to be bold.
Offer to come up with campaigns and ideas for free. If they use them, they pay.
Remember to go about the briefing process in a professional way. Apply the disciplines.
Read up about the importance of the brief, and the key elements.
Then, it’s up to you.
Produce interesting, engaging, on-brief work.
Even if they don’t use your ideas, you can show them to prospective clients. And, importantly, talk about why and how you came up with them.
You’ll have a portfolio of examples that balances practical, problem-solving work. And crazy, out-there, exciting ideas.
That’s where you need to get to.
How long should you allow to get to this point?
From my experience of helping others, it’ll take you around 18 months.
Yep, a year and a half to get to the point where you have the wares to show. The material to (kick)start your career.
That’s why you don’t want to give up your day job. Straight away, at least.
Pace yourself. Plan it. Take it cautiously.
One final piece of advice.
A final tip
Never go into a client with a re-written example of their work.
I’ve seen agencies do this a lot.
To show the prospective client how good they are, they re-work one of their ads. Re-write a webpage. Re-design a brochure.
Why’s that an issue?
Well, first of all, they don’t have access to the original brief. So they don’t know what problem it was trying to solve. They’re going in blind.
Second, they don’t know the approval process. Getting anything produced in marketing is a huge achievement. Was the original idea or copy watered down through the process?
But most importantly: third. They’re no doubt presenting the re-worked idea to the person who wrote it, or approved it.
You’re insulting their work.
Don’t do it.
I’ve been running workshops for a long time.
I still get nervous. I worry about getting it right. About everyone getting what they need out of the day, or hour.
The whole process is incredibly draining.
So, why do I do it?
Because I can point to dozens of people I’ve helped become professional copywriters.
That’s such a privilege. And honour.
If you’re thinking about a life as a freelance (or even full-time) copywriter, I hope this article helps.
Remember to take it slow. Build examples of your work. Select the very best over an 18-month period. Don’t be rushed.
You can do it. Trust me. And trust the process.
Once you start, you’ll never look back.
What a kick.
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Jon is a multi-award winning copywriter. For over 30 years, he’s helped clients – large and small – develop engaging concepts, content and copy. For 25 of those years, he’s been teaching people how to do it themselves. His courses on copywriting, ideation and presentation skills are highly sought-after and highly effective. Jon lives in Sydney, Australia: but is often found on a plane, heading to where he’s most needed.
More blogs and articles:
• Instant ideas: 30 concepts in 30 minutes
• Speed bumps, traffic lights and punctuation
• 10 quick tips for powerful copy
• Sell vs tell: two powerful structures for your copy
• Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia – a fear of big words
• Don’t start your writing by writing
• Find the angel in the marble
• You’re naked without briefs
• Pssst: 5 secrets professional copywriters won’t tell you
Image sources: Pixabay