18 MAR

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!

Just kidding.

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.

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Written by Neil Wheatley

Neil Wheatley is a Sheffield-based freelance copywriter who writes for agencies and marketing depts across the UK. He isn’t this grumpy in person. Neil can be hired via his website. Read more posts by Neil Wheatley

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38 Comments

  1. Yui

    March 18, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    This is a very helpful article and I love articles that use some humour as well. Great Job!

    • Neil Wheatley

      March 21, 2011 at 2:01 pm

      Thanks Yui, glad to be of some help!

  2. 45 Giraffes

    March 18, 2011 at 11:06 pm

    Excellent piece with some very good points. I’d think very, very carefully about becoming employed after having been sucessfully self-employed though.

    If you need to be part of a creative team and have other talented people to bounce ideas off then grow your business and start your own agency

    • Neil Wheatley

      March 21, 2011 at 2:12 pm

      I like your thinking – I know people who have managed to grow their freelance careers into larger businesses very successfully. I’m sure it’s not easy though!

  3. John Medd

    April 04, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    I’m going down the Neal Wheatley route at the moment. I’m based in York and am trying to convince Design Agencies in York, Leeds, Hull etc that they should use me.

    It’s all about getting that first foothold, I guess. Feel free to throw any scraps from the top table my way!

    John

    • Neil Wheatley

      April 08, 2011 at 10:14 am

      In my experience, most design agencies use copywriters only now and again. Try full service marketing agencies and copywriting agencies – you might have more luck.

  4. Cal

    July 12, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    I’m really keen to “do a Neil” (!) and go into freelance copywriting but have zero experience. Is an online course a useful thing to do – even if just to show a potential first client that I have completed one and to give me an extra bit of confidence? I’m trying to weigh up cost v usefulness. Your thoughts appreciated. Thanks.

    • Neil Wheatley

      July 27, 2011 at 10:46 am

      I’m a bit distrustful of online courses myself, so I don’t know of any to recommend. As you say though, an accredited course is probably the way to go, especially if it gives you something impressive to put on your CV.

      • Laurence Blume

        September 20, 2013 at 7:11 pm

        Nice post, Neil. Just worth saying that courses (online or off) are fine if you feel that the actual course is giving you knowledge or confidence that are of value to you, but should absolutely not be taken for any qualification that they might offer. There’s no qualification that will help any aspiring freelance copywriter to land work: no-one who will hire you, directly or via an agency, will do so because of any certificate you might gain from such a course.

  5. Stawiki

    July 19, 2011 at 12:41 am

    How did your initially approach the companies or organizations that became your clients?

    • Neil Wheatley

      July 27, 2011 at 10:49 am

      Initially, I wrote to a few small companies offering to work for free. Once I put my portfolio up online, I was lucky enough to have clients approach me through that. The important thing is to have good writing samples to show to potential clients that will convince them to hire you.

  6. miss A

    July 24, 2011 at 5:47 am

    hi Neil,
    By chance I know this interesting article. Thanks for your writing. I hope that you can share your exp to me. I am a Vietnamese copywriter for 2 months. Now, I wanna work as a freelancer. can you give me some advice? you can see my mail: vananhcopywriter@gmail.com. im looking forward to hearing you. :) thanks for your consideration

    • Neil Wheatley

      July 27, 2011 at 10:52 am

      If you already have a paid job as a copywriter, I’d suggest sticking with it for a year or two. I’m sure you’ll get lots of good experience that way, which you can eventually use to turn freelance successfully.

  7. Scott Brant

    October 17, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Hi Neil,

    Stumbled on to this piece – great article and all so true.

    Currently on my own journey and just as you say, it can be very scary at times but also quite rewarding and satisfying too.

    All the best,

    Scott

  8. Fernando Cordeiro

    November 22, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    Hey, Neil,

    Awesome article. Even though it’s been awhile since you wrote it, I felt the need to tell you that you enlightened me in a few ways. I never even thought about copywriting.

    I work with marketing, but I’m more of a “jack-of-all-trades”, mainly designing websites, newsletters, ads and other documents that I strive to make better-looking, more comprehensible and more effective.

    The knowledge of the whole copywriting concept gave me a new perspective, I think it is an amazing set of skills and I think more people should understand and study this.

    Thank you for this awesome post, and may you suceed even more from now on.

    Sincerely,
    Fernando.

  9. Sharon

    March 23, 2012 at 8:29 pm

    Hi Neil,

    Just came across your article when researching ‘freelance copywriter’, I got a mail from writing magazine advertising a course and, like you don’t really trust them. However, I have just completed a a booklet for the dept that I work in – and loved every minute of it (more than my ‘real’ job).
    I just want to write…I don’t mind what or how; my ambition is to get a screen play commissioned – well, we need to keep dreaming :)
    Any way, I know very little about copy writing and didn’t realise that’s what I had done when I did the booklet…this sounds like something I know I could do, if it is just the writing part.
    Do you ever get asked to do more of the designing – like the web pages etc? I did a good enough job of the design of the booklet, good enough for Children Services of a county council, I just wondered if there is occasion when more than writing and layout are required?

    Many thanks,

    Sharon.

    • Neil Wheatley

      March 29, 2012 at 11:29 am

      Personally, I only write words and never get too involved in design (except on my own marketing materials and website). I might suggest ideas for images and layout, but that’s as far as it goes. I prefer to specialise in one discipline and try to be the best I can be at that. Also, it’s better to leave design to people who have real skills in that area – they need a job too!

      The great thing about writing is that you can do it in your spare time, it’s fun and it doesn’t cost anything. I’d suggest you give screenplay writing a go and let us know how you get on :)

  10. Laura

    April 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    Hi Neil, Thanks for this article which is very helpful. I currently run the sales side of the business where I am employed which involves writing a lot of copy which I really enjoy.
    I am now going to attempt to take on a bit of freelance work in evenings and weekends and hopefully, like you, I can ultimately make this my main career.
    Thanks again, Laura.

    • Neil Wheatley

      April 11, 2012 at 2:24 pm

      Good luck Laura :)

  11. Slobodan

    April 13, 2012 at 2:39 am

    Can copywriting influence badly on other types of writing? For example, if someone writes fiction, can he do a copywriting job too? Do these jobs get along?

    • Neil Wheatley

      April 18, 2012 at 9:49 am

      That’s a really interesting question. I have a copywriter friend who is currently working on a TV drama and has published a (non-fiction) book. Beyond that I don’t know of any fiction writers who are also copywriters. I’m sure there are plenty, but whether they’re any good or not I can’t say!

      Personally, I think being a copywriter has changed how I write and what I consider to be a good sentence. Marketing copy and fiction writing definitely have different aims, so I’d say there’s a chance of conflict there, yes.

  12. audra

    May 09, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    Hi Neal, great article! I am in the process of reading ‘What Color is Your Parachute?’ and the ideal job for me seems to be a copywriter of some sort. I’ve been reading up on it ever since.

    I’ve always loved writing, and after reading more about it, copywriting as a professional does sound like a dream. I just don’t know if I have the confidence to put my work out there. Please tell me that you had a few moments of self doubt before becoming so successful…

    • Neil Wheatley

      May 14, 2012 at 8:31 pm

      Hi Audra. I can honestly tell you that I still have moments of self doubt every day. I’m still on my journey to becoming a really good copywriter. Besides, I reckon anyone under 60 who believes they’ve mastered every part of their job has probably lost the plot!

      If you’ve written something that you think is good then you should definitely show it to somebody. Even if they don’t like it, they might at least give you some ideas on how to become a better writer. Good luck :)

  13. Matthew

    October 03, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Hi Neil,

    This is pretty inspirational stuff – I’m currently considering a career change and have, just about, realised writing is what I enjoy. Hey, I’ve even negotiated shorter working fortnights to make space every other fortnight to see whether I’ve actually got a snowball’s chance of success. But it’s one thing writing and another thing getting it out there…

    I guess my main question is simple: how did you go about arranging meetings to either present your portfolio or offer pro bono services? Was it a case of sitting on their doorsteps until they let you in or something else a little less stalkery? I’m also in London where I’m guessing copywriters are two a penny, which may make it even more challenging. Any advice very gratefully received…

    Matthew

    • Neil Wheatley

      March 05, 2013 at 4:23 pm

      Hi Matthew

      I’m sorry, I missed this comment until now. To answer your question, I used to write letters, send emails and cold call people. You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to give you a try if you show the right attitude. Good luck!

  14. abutazeed

    November 02, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Amazing article!

    Neil helped me to move on with my career as an Arabic copywriter!

    Thanks

  15. Ideaswise Copywriting

    November 06, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    Good article. My first ever job was via the Media & Marketing jobs page in the Guardian, several donkeys’ years ago. No idea if that Guardian section even still exists. But I agree, a full time job in a decent agency is the best way to start, and it’s worth spending serious time on getting a proper portfolio together.

    Peter

  16. Nondu

    December 27, 2012 at 6:21 am

    Hi Neil
    Im in Johannesburg and i want to start building up my portfolio. The stuff im proud of in my portfolio are my print ads which i have thought of from scratch on products which already exist in the market. How do i protcect my intellectual property once i put my stuff on the net for agencies and companies to see?

  17. Gareth Parkin

    January 01, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    There are many companies out there that seek highly skilled copywriters for a whole raft of projects which can be on an adhoc basis but could lead to a full time role. I am currently seeking a highly educated person, potentially a student to do some writing for my range of international websites, I can’t affoard a full time role at present but if I can find the right person as the business is rapidly growing then this could lead to a full time role with great prospects. So if there is anyone out there interested in a tentative role to start with, maybe a couple of high quality pieces of content a week then please contact me to discuss further.

  18. Dave Freeman

    April 15, 2013 at 2:28 am

    Thanks Neil,

    I appreciate the honesty. Finally, an intelligent perspective, without trying to sell me a $5,000.00 course on “Becoming a successful Copywriter in 90 days”.

    I like the Pro Bono suggestion. I was working on a way to sell that approach, this afternoon.

    The adventure continues. I’ll stay tuned. Thanks again.

    Dave

  19. Agnostinia

    April 17, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    Just right what I need to know about being a freelance copywriter! Very inspiring. Love your writing, Neil!

  20. Alexa Oliphant

    May 19, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    So glad I stumbled upon this site! I’ve recently become disabled (car accident) and can no longer commute to work.

    My position was in communications (journalism; managing editor of employee newsletter; researching and writing Minister’s, Deputy Minister’s speeches; press releases, news capsules, backgrounders, speaking notes; work description writing and more.

    My writing skills and my creative flare may provide me the opportunity to enter the field of copywriting, wherein I could work from home.

    Thank you Neil, for your generous advice on the subject of copywriting!

    Alexa

  21. Josh Leone

    May 21, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    Thanks for the article. I’m at the very beginning of a copywriting career and am surfing through information to find out how. This was one of the few truly helpful articles I’ve found. Thanks again.

  22. Herman Sudrajat

    June 13, 2013 at 8:47 am

    What a useful article. Most of the time, in writing we are trapped in the grammar circle, then we can’t develop. grammar is important, though, but being communicative is more important.. Thanks Neil for the article.

  23. Elizabeth Ray

    June 19, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Great article Neil – very inspiring. I am considering venturing into copywriting and am keen to do my research first. Are there any particular books that you would recommend for a complete beginner?

    • Neil Wheatley

      July 16, 2013 at 9:12 am

      When I was starting out, I read one called The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman. It was actually pretty good!

  24. Jamie Thomson

    July 10, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    Great article Neil. I’ve read a lot of articles recently about copywriting but this has easily been the most useful yet.

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