How to become a Freelance Copywriter
So you want to become a freelance copywriter. Well, there’s no room for the likes of you in this profession. Now get out of here!
Copywriting is great work. It can be fun and creative. It can pay very well. It can also be a mind-numbing slog on occasion. That’s ok though, because as a freelancer you’ll soon find yourself moving on to something else. If you really don’t like the sound of a project, you can even say no. You’re the boss after all.
So how you can you become a freelance copywriter? There are many different routes into the profession, but in this post I’m going to share my own modest success story and a few tips.
Can your writing sell?
First though, let’s consider just what in Jiminy Cricketsville a copywriter is. The way I see it, a copywriter is someone who loves communication. Not words, but communication. That’s an important distinction, because a good copywriter never indulges in language for his or her own self-gratification. Successful marketing copy always conveys a powerful message and achieves a real world goal – usually to sell something.
A copywriter’s real skill, then, is in using language to sell ideas effectively.
How I became a copywriter
So all you really need to do to become a professional copywriter is prove your words can sell. Simple, right?
It is in a way. Personally I started out as a freelance copywriter, entirely in my spare time, after realising it was the ideal job for me. I had little guidance beyond what I found in books and on the Internet. I had no clients or contacts. What I did have was the guts and determination to do something that was, thinking back, very risky.
I also had a master’s degree in English, which meant I had technical language skills. But when you want to be a copywriter, technical ability is far less important than the ability to sell. As David Ogilvy put it:
“I don’t know the rules of grammar… If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.”
Good advice, although the people hiring you won’t always see it that way.
Build a portfolio
So what was my first move? I remember two things that really got my career off the ground: creating copy samples and offering pro bono services. Both are great ideas, whether you want to join an agency or you’re taking the increasingly popular freelance route.
I started by cooking up many samples. A sales letter for the company I was employed by at the time. A print ad for a non-existent bakery. A property flyer I wrote gratis for a company from Glasgow. I put them all in a portfolio folder, which I would take to the meetings I managed to arrange.
My ‘portfolio’ also went up online, on a website I built myself for almost no money. Unbelievably, it soon got me some paid work writing press releases and articles for a web design agency in Nottingham. That was the beginning of my copywriting career and my workload snowballed steadily from there.
The traditional route: join a marketing agency
The other well-trodden path to becoming a copywriter is to join a marketing agency. I have a sneaky suspicion it’s also the best option – if you can find yourself a job, that is.
Joining an agency is something I have no personal experience of. It is however something I would love to do in the future. While being your own boss is great, there’s a lot to be said for having the guidance of experienced professionals. Being part of a creative team means you have other talented people to ask questions and bounce ideas off. Start out as a freelancer and you’ll have none of these benefits.
If you have the opportunity to join an agency, I’d say “do it”. Even if your ultimate goal is to be self-employed, the experience will be worth it.
Ready to give up your day job?
Around a year and a half passed between the moment I first thought “I’m going to be a copywriter” and the day I started copywriting full time. Throughout that period I continued my job at a plant hire company and took on copywriting projects in the evenings and weekends. Slowly but surely, I was building up experience and gathering new clients. Yes it was tiring and difficult, but it was also worth it.
In the end, I didn’t leave my old office job the way I planned to. I didn’t hit the point where I could say “Yes, I now have enough copywriting clients to make a decent living” and then quit – which is what you should try to do if you’re taking the same path.
It was more like a leap of faith. I got a big writing job for Quarriers and I couldn’t do both. So I took the plunge, hoping that the extra pressure and time I’d have would help me to find more clients and flourish.
Had I failed, I would have ended up homeless – or sponging off my parents, at least.
Thankfully my gamble paid off. Today I write for agencies and marketing departments all over the UK and Europe, including a couple of famous brands. Don’t believe for a second that it was down to luck, however. My success as a copywriter was built upon dedication, hard work, the desire to keep learning and of course a semblance of writing talent. If you have similar qualities, maybe you can become a freelance copywriter too.