In a world of willing slaves, how do real copywriters compete?

27 June, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from a school teacher who’d had an unpleasant experience.

Miss Chen, as we’ll call her, had fancied doing some freelance copywriting in her spare time. As she wrote in her message, “I just saw it as a way to make some top-up income for doing something I enjoy”.

Working for a well-established copy agency based in the UK, this top-up income amounted to $1.90 USD per 250 words of editing, and $3.30 for the same amount of original writing. Or to put it another way, ten times less than what the average professional copywriter charges.

To put it still another way, Miss Chen was happy to work for what are basically sweat shop rates. And apparently, this was not the unpleasant part of her experience.

The market for copy, it is a-changing

In 2011, this is what professional copywriters are up against.

It’s not just rip-off agencies – it’s freelancing sites like People Per Hour and Guru too. The only reason any company has for posting projects on these sites is because they want to pay as little as possible for their copy. The whole process is set up to encourage copywriters (and other creatives) to undercut each other, and the least incompetent professional with the cheapest bid usually wins.

Some of these projects could only be of interest to amateurs and desperados. Take this excerpt from a typical project on, for example:

“Project Type: Article writing/rewriting. Project Payment: $3 per article of 500-600 words
“It is expected that the articles will be in top quality US English.
“When the articles have spelling and punctuation mistakes, then I will send these failed articles back for correction and will not pay until the articles are quality enough [sic].”

$3 for a 600 word article? Working at McDonald’s pays better than this – and you get free milkshakes.

Amateur hour

Unfortunately, real copywriting projects also get posted on freelancing sites. Start-ups use them to get website copy for cheap. Small-time advertisers post on them too.

So these jobs, which would once have been won by professionals, are now being done by amateurs for much less money.

The effect of this has not only been to take away sources of income from real copywriters. I believe it has also pushed down the overall value of copywriting and other creative services.

How does a real copywriter compete?

Well, there isn’t much point in quoting for the same jobs as Miss Chen.

The best answer is to say: “I write outstanding copy that makes lots of money for my clients and is worth every penny of my fee” – and then show potential clients you mean it. My own approach is as follows:

  • Compete with brilliant writing, not on price. Give clients fair quotes and then show them why your fee is good value. Demonstrate, with samples and testimonies, that you get results. Show them brilliant service. Show you can make them more money than any amateur could.
  • Work towards becoming a specialist. Specialists are experts in a particular type of copy or subject area, like video games or law. Specialists use their skills and knowledge to give more value to their clients – and they get to charge more for it too. If you aren’t working towards a specialisation, you’re ignoring the chance to make more money from writing about your favourite topics.
  • Shun cut-price projects altogether. They won’t make you any money, they won’t enhance your portfolio and the lack of a real incentive means you won’t do your best work either.

The sad ending

There’s another reason to avoid those bottom-of-the-barrel writing jobs from freelance sites and agencies:

They’re an unscrupulous bunch of bastards.

You see, the reason Miss Chen emailed me was not to complain about rates of pay. It was to complain that she hadn’t been paid at all.

Upon completing her first batch of articles, the agency she worked for told her she had plagiarised her work. They then took the copy she had spent hours writing, and paid her nothing.

To be completely honest, I have little sympathy for ‘Miss Chen’. I mean, what did she expect from a company that so clearly announced it was out to exploit her from the very beginning?

Maybe if more freelance writers held on to their self-respect and insisted on always working to their own high standards, the value of copy would be higher. Wishful thinking in today’s economy no doubt, but it’s something we should all keep in mind.

Written by Neil Wheatley

Neil Wheatley is a Manchester-based freelance copywriter who writes for agencies and marketing depts across the UK. He isn’t this grumpy in person.

Up next…
Wireframes are not enough
14 June, 2011


16th October 2017 at 9:16am

Excellent article and all very true.

Unfortunately, there is a pretty serious recession going on and the standard response of capitalists to such events is to force down labour costs and make people desperate enough to work for peanuts. It's not just in copywriting, it's everywhere and it's getting worse.

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16th October 2017 at 9:16am

I love the article:) I guess some people need to learn the hard way of not selling yourself short.

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16th October 2017 at 9:16am

I have experienced this from both sides of the fence, as a marketer and freelancer. It is just as bad of a problem as "free" websites, or "free" anything mentality. NOTHING is free, there is ALWAYS a price, you just might not be aware of what it is.

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16th October 2017 at 9:16am

Wow, very depressing in so many ways.

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Leif Kendall
16th October 2017 at 9:16am

It's true; there's a big market for crap content, where the buyer doesn't care if the writer can write.

SEOs often advocate content for the sake of content, so they want cheap filler written by amateurs.

Copywriters can either pander to this market or they can ignore it and look for proper work.

The web is a vast space, and there are hundreds, thousands, millions of businesses and organisations that need great content for genuine reasons. The smart copywriter is already working for them.

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