Hi, I’m Susan Greene, a freelance copywriter based in Orlando, Florida. I’ve been in business for myself for more than 25 years. As someone with longevity in the field, I’ve been interviewed on many occasions by reporters and bloggers writing stories about copywriters.
I’ve also been tapped for advice by fellow copywriters who were either just starting out or perhaps had some experience but needed guidance on a particular situation.
The following report is a compilation of questions asked of me by these various individuals. My answers aren’t meant to be the final word on any issue; they speak to my personal experience.
I’ve also included many of the stories and bits of advice that I’ve accumulated over the years. You can learn from my mistakes and avoid a few pitfalls yourself.
I hope you find my responses helpful as you travel on your journey to become a happy and successful freelance copywriter.
January 1, 2021
Copywriters write advertising and marketing copy, such as websites, brochures, ads, blog posts and more. The words we write (our “copy”) sell products and services, convince people to take an action, or persuade them to think of a company or brand in a certain light.
No, not necessarily, although it helps. There are online copywriting courses, YouTube videos, and plenty of books and mentoring programs that can take the place of college if you’re self-disciplined enough to follow through.
I have a BS in journalism from Syracuse University. And I have an MBA from New Hampshire College (now called Southern New Hampshire University). I went the traditional route for my education but nothing says you have to follow the same path.
Look for every opportunity to write. Draft an article for your church’s monthly newsletter. Help a neighbor compose a letter. Create a flyer for your child’s dog-walking service. Send a guest post to your favorite blog and ask if they’ll publish it.
Self-education and practice will help you learn the basics. At some point, you may want to consider working one-on-one with a copywriting coach, someone who can help you accelerate your growth.
To land paying clients as a freelance copywriter, you can get by with a website and portfolio to show off your work. That’s what clients will want to see, much more so than a specific college degree.
Just be sure you don’t use studying as an excuse to procrastinate doing the work. I can’t emphasize this enough.
You won’t accomplish your goals as a perpetual student. At some point, you need to put what you’ve learned into practice. Take that leap and start learning from doing instead of studying. This is theme you’ll hear me mention frequently, as it’s a common pitfall for many aspiring copywriters.
During college I worked as a news intern for the NBC affiliate in Miami Beach, my hometown, for two summers. I learned a lot from the television reporters I shadowed.
My first real job after graduation was with an advertising agency, and I soon realized that writing marketing copy more closely fit my interests and my entrepreneurial spirit than broadcast journalism, so that’s the direction I decided to pursue.
I was an avid reader as a kid. The written word fascinated me. I began writing poems and short stories. I dreamed of writing books. I knew early on that I would work in some field that required reading and writing.
One situation stands out in my mind as one that made me aware of my interest in writing. It was a comic book contest.
A $3 Contest Win Started My Writing Career
I knew I wanted to be a writer from a young age. An Archie’s comic book played a pivotal role in that decision. Every Archie’s comic book featured a spread in the middle with three submissions from readers. The submissions were awarded first, second and third prizes of $5, $3, and $2 respectively.
When I was 9-years-old, I sent in a poem I wrote about the Archies (don’t judge) and won second prize, $3, making it my first paid writing job and first time being published. I was thrilled, but that wasn’t what made me decide to become a writer.
Archie comics were widely circulated around the world. Once my poem was published, along with my full name and address, I began receiving letters from all over the world. They were from kids, most around my age, seeking an American pen pal. Keep in mind this was pre-internet, pre-email.
I soon had pen pals in the Philippines, India, Australia and dozens of other countries. The letters trickled in, a few every month, for several years, as the comic books were circulated and traded long after the original publication date.
I responded to every letter I received, and I maintained a correspondence with anyone who continued to write me. Composing those many letters was how I realized I loved to write.
* * *
In terms of equipment, you only need a phone, computer and internet access. If we’re talking about personal resources, essentials include: self-motivation, self-confidence, an excellent work ethic, resilience, optimism, curiosity and salesmanship.
No, not that I know of. I’ve never had one. However, I did at one point go to my city’s government offices and ask. One person there seemed unsure and told me I “probably” did need a professional license and it would cost in the neighborhood of $100 per year. However, I would also need to run an ad in the daily newspaper to announce the service I was providing. That would cost another $100+ per year.
Because it seemed like a gray area, I asked a few other copywriters in my area if they had professional licenses or had ever been asked to show one to any official, and they said no. That settled it for me. I opted to not pursue it further. If that makes you uncomfortable, feel free to contact your own city clerk or tax office and find out what, if anything, they require.
The need for writing skills is obvious, but beyond that you should know how to run a business, albeit a small one. You’ll want a basic understanding of bookkeeping so you can track your accounts receivable and payable.
You’ll need to understand how and when you pay taxes if you’re self-employed. The U.S. government is not going to wait for you to settle up at the end of the year. You’ll need to pay quarterly taxes meant to cover Social Security, Medicare and your income tax.
You also should have a desire to learn along with research and listening skills. So much of copywriting involves understanding your clients, their business model and their industry. If you’re not naturally curious, you’ll have a hard time gathering the information you need on a particular subject to be able to write about it.
Obviously, you want to continue improving your writing skills. If you plan on doing copywriting for websites, you’ll want to learn about search engine optimization (SEO), which is critical to ranking on Google.
You’ll also want to understand what is meant by the user experience, which online marketer Neil Patel describes as “how someone interacts with and uses your website. It describes the overall interaction between human and website. User experience has a lot of ramifications. It impacts content, design, conversions, search, and everything in between.”
If mastery of all those skills sounds like an overwhelming endeavor, know that you don’t have to be an instant expert. You can learn as you go along. And the more you knowledge and experience you gain, the better you’ll become at creating effective copy.
Absolutely. I still read blogs and ebooks about copywriting all the time. I occasionally attend webinars. I’d like to think that I’m an expert, but in truth I’m often humbled by other writers’ work.
I don’t think you ever get to a point where you “know it all” but you can strive to always be learning and improving.
Talent is overrated. Albert Einstein once wrote, ““I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent. Curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas.”
As with any skill, you have to work at it. Even if you’re fortunate to have natural writing talent, you still have to learn the craft and practice if you want to excel.
I’d like to believe the more I write, the better I get in my profession. When you invest 30-40 hours a week using your skills, you have to be improving, right?
Additionally, I do a lot of professional reading. I’m continually searching for new approaches, new trends, new concepts. I learn from other great copywriters and then try to apply whatever new ideas I pick up.
I also learn from my clients. They teach about what is effective in their industry. They review my work and made suggestions. Their feedback helps me improve.
Every day is different, based on the projects and the clients. I typically work on multiple projects at once, all with different deadlines, so my days can look a bit fragmented. As an example, here’s a quick list of the items I’ve been working on the past few weeks:
It varies, of course. I just checked my project spreadsheet, and I currently have 22 projects in various stages of production, although many of them are in some sort of holding pattern. They fall into one of four categories:
I try to keep all the projects moving along, especially since I can’t send a final bill for the work until the project has been completed and approved.
As I mentioned, I use a spreadsheet to track all projects and progress. I used to keep much of that information in my head but that was risky, as things occasionally fell through the cracks. I credit my husband with persuading me to “act like a real business” and track all jobs in a professional, organized and well-documented manner.
You have several options. You can:
Each of those options has its downside, particularly the last one. If the client finds another resource, you can’t be sure they’ll ever come back to you for future projects.
I like variety and new challenges, so it’s hard to choose one or two that are my favorites. I do enjoy writing web copy for About Us pages and FAQs. Those pages allow me to learn about my client’s business and what makes them unique. I’m fascinated by how entrepreneurs get started and how they position their business in a competitive marketplace.
I also enjoy writing landing pages because they’re tightly focused. I get to write in-depth on a particular subject and incorporate lots of marketing strategies such as clever headlines, graphics and persuasive calls-to-action.
That’s up to you once you figure out where your interests lie. B2B copywriting has historically paid better. The subject matter is often more complicated and you’re writing for a more sophisticated customers.
As I mentioned previously, I enjoy variety so I’ve written for both B2B and B2C clients but my more lucrative accounts have been B2B.
My knowledge regarding my clients usually comes from a combination of online research and talking with people from the company, their subject matter experts.
At a basic level, you need to understand how your client’s business operates. Here are the 10 questions I pull from to ask a new client:
Your client’s answers to these questions will inform your copywriting for their business.
They try to sound smart in their copy. They use multi-syllabic words when simple ones are sufficient. They write long, complicated sentences and paragraphs.
I’m a fan of conversational copywriting. I’m also big on simplicity and using active voice, not passive voice. Good writing conveys its point concisely, in as few words as possible. Don’t make the reader work to get through your copy.
In fact, the writing should be “invisible.” Then the reader can focus on the point you’re making, not how you said it. Or, as the great author Elmore Leonard once said, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”
Yes, that happened when I was just starting out and it still occasionally happens today, decades later, if you can believe it!
I can easily lose sleep over questions like:
If I allow myself, I can come up with dozens of potential problems and go into hyper-stress mode. So I don’t allow myself that freedom. I change my self-talk because in the end, I know I will find a way to get the project done and done well, as I have so many times before.
Now that I’ve been at this for many years, most new writing projects are similar to something I’ve done in the past. So I tell myself that the new project isn’t scary; it’s just like others I’ve completed successfully.
Then I push myself to open up a new Word document and begin writing. I usually start with the smallest, easiest, least intimidating section. Once I break the project down into parts, it no longer seems so daunting. Soon I gain momentum and the pieces start to fall into place.
It’s like that old riddle, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” The best way to accomplish something big is to approach it in smaller pieces.
Let me add one more thought to the idea of self-confidence. I used to think I was the only one who had doubts but I had a conversation once with another writer, someone who has published books and regularly writes for world-class magazines like Time and The Economist.
She told me she still occasionally goes into a tailspin when she gets a tough writing assignment, even now after 20+ years as a professional. She is certain she can’t do it. She doesn’t know where to begin. She’s sure everything she writes will be garbage. When she told me this, all I could think was, “I have those days too!”
So what’s the difference between someone like me or my writer friend with our thoughts of self-doubt and some other aspiring copywriter? We say yes to the assignment, despite the self-doubt. We ignore the little voice in our head that says we can’t and then get to work proving we can.
We don’t wait to be inspired or think of excuses to get out of doing the assignment. Maybe we procrastinate a bit, check emails and Facebook. But soon we buckle down and start writing, just as we have hundreds of times before.
We keep working at it until the copy is complete. We soldier on. We don’t give ourselves a pass until we’re satisfied with what we’ve created. The assignment is non-negotiable. We get the job done as though that’s the only option. And with every accomplishment, every achievement no matter how small, we build a little more self-confidence.
That’s an individual decision. For me, I much prefer self-employment. Consider your own mindset and personality. Ask yourself questions such as:
How important is it to you to have a steady paycheck?
What are your current financial circumstances? Will you be able to sleep at night if you don’t know how much money you’ll have coming in?
Are you fiscally responsible?
Self-employment can mean an income that varies from week to week. If you don’t save during the good times, you’ll starve during the bad.
Are you self-disciplined?
Can you be productive without a boss or coworkers looking over your shoulder? Are you a chronic procrastinator?
Would you rather limit your work hours to Monday through Friday, 9 to 5?
If you’re self-employed, you may find yourself working nights and weekends to keep up.
How will you pay for your own health insurance and retirement?
For some people, not having benefits — like health insurance, a retirement plan, and paid vacation days – is sufficiently scary to make them shy away from self-employment. (I’ll have more to say on the complicated subject of health insurance a little later.)
Do you enjoy selling?
If selling is distasteful to you, you won’t be able to get clients. Unlike working for an employer in a well-established business with a sales staff, the assignments don’t come in on their own. You’ll be the one solely responsible for dredging up business.
Knowing how to sell is extremely important. Unless you already have a few large clients who know you and will give you ongoing work, you’re probably going to have to do some selling in order to grow your business.
Fortunately, selling skills can be learned. Read books and blogs on the subject and then implement the techniques they teach.
You can be the best copywriter in the world, but if you aren’t good at prospecting and closing deals, you won’t be successful. Without clients you have no business.
Too many copywriters say they hate selling. Either they’re afraid of rejection or they feel it’s a bit sleazy to hustle for business. It’s not. It’s called business.
Stop avoiding selling or you’ll always struggle to get clients. Accept that promoting your abilities to others is critical to your success and get busy doing the work to generate leads and sales.
Plan your future and make the transition gradual. Work on building the skills you’ll need. In addition to copywriting skills, you’ll need to know how to run a business. That means getting informed about bookkeeping, taxes, risk management/insurance, local regulations and more.
You’ll want to have some savings socked away so that you don’t fall behind in your bills if your business doesn’t take off right away. That may mean living on a tight budget. Be sure you’re comfortable with that situation, especially if it could mean lifestyle changes for you and your family, i.e. finding cheaper housing, cutting back on subscription services like Netflix, eating home instead of in restaurants, giving up your daily visit to Starbucks, and relinquishing your gym membership to work out at home, etc.
Lastly, you should be doing some networking and freelancing before you leave your full-time job. That way you’ll already have a portfolio of samples, some clients and hopefully, some potential work lined up.
Yes and no. I think I always knew I would eventually be self-employed. I come from a long line of entrepreneurs. My father, brother and grandparents all owned businesses. They weren’t wildly successful but they made enough to raise their families and be self-employed their entire careers. Most important, they loved their work and building their own companies.
I knew I would be the same way. I always figured self-employment was where I was headed once I got some experience under my belt. The fact that I disliked my boss at the ad agency where I worked made the decision even easier.
Nonetheless, going from a sure thing – a full time job with benefits – to something unknown was uncomfortable but not unimaginable. I’d been planning it for a while, had a little bit of savings and also had already begun doing some freelance work on the side while employed full time.
I made sure I had some opportunities lined up before giving my notice. And I had confidence that if things didn’t work out, I would be able to find another job.
I’ve been writing my whole life. My love affair with words started as soon as I learned to read at about age 6.
By the time I was a teenager, I kept a personal journal, had about a dozen pen pals with whom I corresponded regularly, and wrote poetry for fun. Weird, I know.
In high school, my senior year I worked part time for The Miami Herald writing classified ads for people looking to sell their car, furniture or house. This was long before Craig’s List and eBay existed.
During summers in college, I interned at a Miami TV station, the NBC affiliate, working in the News Department, doing research and some copywriting.
My first job after college was with an advertising agency. I started out as an account coordinator and then eventually moved up to a copywriting position. At the same time, I was doing freelance writing on the side for clients I found on my own.
After three years at that ad agency, I decided to strike out on my own as a freelance copywriter. I never looked back. Other than a few small bumps in the road, I’ve pretty much stayed on that course my whole career and feel incredibly fortunate to be self-employed doing work I greatly enjoy.
These tips are applicable for any entrepreneur. I actually copied them from a blog post by Damon John of Shark Tank fame.
That’s something that a lot of copywriters struggle with, myself included. If you have a specialty – finance, real estate, technology, e-commerce, etc. – you can focus on which clients to pursue, and you’ll be more appealing to them because you’re an expert in that field.
On the other hand, you have to decide whether you want to only write about that topic. I’m fortunate to have had good success being a generalist. I enjoy the diversity of my clientele. I like learning about different businesses and industries. Or, stated another way, I’m a specialist but in dozens of subject areas.
If you have a few specialties, maybe related to a personal interest or hobby, then use that expertise to attract new clients. You likely can charge higher rates because you already understand their industry and vocabulary. Specialists in any industry cost more.
You may also be able to specialize in a certain kind of writing, such as ads or landing pages. However, I want to encourage you to look for opportunities to take on projects that are outside your comfort zone. That’s how you’ll grow your capabilities. Here’s a quick example of the time I learned that lesson.
Be Confident in Your Skills. You Got This!
I once had a movie producer contact me for help in improving the copy in a screenplay. I told him I didn’t have any experience with screenplays, didn’t feel comfortable taking on the job, but I’d try to get back to him with a quality referral.
I called up a colleague, Jake, who said he too didn’t have experience with screenplays but thought he could probably handle the project, no big deal. Because I couldn’t find anyone else to refer, I passed Jake’s name along to the producer.
About a year later, I was chatting with Jake and he mentioned that he’d mostly been working on screenplays of late. I expressed surprise and he said, “It’s all thanks to you. That screenplay project you referred to me turned into two projects, and then I actively began marketing my services as a screenplay writer. It opened up a whole new niche for me!”
The moral of the story is: Be bold like Jake; not timid like Susan!
* * *
They focus on the wrong things. They set up their office. They order business cards. They analyze the market to determine their positioning. They write a business plan.
They launch a website. But the one thing they don’t have is a plan for getting customers, and without customers, none of those other items count for anything.
Many people who’ve worked for an established business think customers just magically appear. They assume that once they launch their website, the clients will find them.
But that’s not reality for a new business. You can be the most talented copywriter in the world, but you’ll starve if nobody knows it. So figure out how you’re going to get your name out there and begin attracting clients and work. Customer acquisition should be your #1 priority.
To grow a business, you need to develop repeatable processes. That’s how you streamline your workflow. If you have to keep re-inventing the wheel, you’ll be investing too much time and energy.
Having to stop and think every time you perform a task will slow you down. Conversely, once you’ve set procedures in place, you’ll be able to get things done right every time, with fewer roadblocks to halt your progress.
Here’s a quick example. I frequently write landing pages for clients. For a long time, I treated every landing page individually. I’d start from scratch in coming up with concepts, subheads and layout.
At some point, I picked up a web design agency client that specialized in designing landing pages. They asked me to write landing pages for some of their clients using a format that they’d developed, and they gave me a template to follow.
I was no longer to start from scratch. I followed their formula, which told me exactly where copy was needed and what type of copy to write – headline, subhead, bullets or body copy. They even provided word counts, further eliminating many of the decisions I otherwise would have made on the fly.
With a little practice, a landing page that used to take me 6-8 hours to write took me 3-5 hours. And the end result was a landing page that was more likely to be effective because its format had been tried and tested numerous times.
Once I saw how to apply a process to writing landing pages, I soon developed similar processes for other types of writing projects, which helped streamline my workload. I was able to take on more work and provide clients with faster turnarounds while increasing my revenue.
One last comment regarding processes. If you want to grow your business, you have to be able to delegate work. You can’t do everything yourself. Having repeatable processes that you can teach to your employees or freelancers/sub-contractors – much as the landing page agency taught me – will help ensure they produce work that’s consistent with your style and standards.
We all have to start somewhere. Look for opportunities to do sample-worthy work. Think of friends, relatives, neighbors or coworkers who may have a business and could use some copywriting work. Go to local businesses where you know or can meet the owners and see if they have an needs. Offer to write a guest post for a blog in a subject area that interests you.
When I was starting out, I joined the local Chamber of Commerce and attended their monthly meetings where I had a chance to network with local business owners who occasionally needed copywriting services.
I also joined a Women in Business networking group where I got to know women in my area who had their own companies and were happy to support other women in business. They gave me some of my first projects. I volunteered to write the organization’s monthly newsletter. That gave me visibility to the members and also helped me gain published samples of my work.
If you’ve chosen a specific niche in which you’re an expert as a specialty, such as artificial intelligence or fashion, find businesses in that space that you can contact with a well-targeted pitch. You might even consider starting your own blog on the subject. Then, when you pitch companies in that niche, you can direct them to your blog as examples of your work and your knowledge of the industry.
Join online networks and online forums and become an active participant. Over time, you’ll get to know other members and they’ll get to know you. They can become sources of new business or referrals to others seeking copywriting services.
Public speaking is a good way to gain clients. I had a friend who was a college professor. She asked me to visit her class one day to talk about copywriting and answer questions about my career. My presentation went reasonably well so I offered to speak to another teacher’s class, refining my skills and gaining confidence.
Eventually, I reached out to some small business groups in my community and was able to land some real speaking engagements. Most paid little or nothing, but invariably after the presentation, a few people would approach me about possibly doing some copywriting work for their company. Today, you don’t even have to go out to do presentations. Just do a webinar or be a guest on a podcast.
Look for start-up businesses. Often they need help with their marketing and can’t afford an experienced copywriter. The same goes for charities and nonprofit organizations. Find one that champions a cause you support and volunteer your writing services.
I volunteered with my local YMCA to help the organization attract members. I wrote the copy for their press releases and ads. And for my local United Way organization, I wrote fundraising letters to help them attract donations.
With any of these ideas, you may initially need to provide your services for free or at a discount so you can get some published samples. I know no one likes to work for free but think of it as an investment in your education and a means to begin building your portfolio and your business.
Finally, consider joining an online freelance copywriters group. Check LinkedIn and Facebook. You can ask others in the group how they got their start. You’ll find everyone has a unique history. Learn from their experiences and mistakes. Then start designing your own path.
One of my first gigs was writing a newsletter for my father’s real estate business. He’d been writing the quarterly newsletter himself and didn’t feel it was the best use of his time. So I began writing the first drafts and he would then review them and make any necessary changes based on his knowledge of the industry. I ended up with some published samples and the confidence to contact other realtors to pitch my services.
Here’s another example. One of my neighbors decided to make a little extra money at Christmas by playing Santa. I helped him create flyers (essentially ads) which he posted in local communities, some of which then hired him for their holiday parties.
My hairdresser was moving from one salon to another. I helped her write a letter to send to her customers so they would follow her to her new salon.
A neighbor was starting a landscape business. He needed help writing a simple 4-page website and a sales letter introducing his business.
When my son was in middle school, he came up with the idea of being a dog walker to make some pocket change. We lived in a large subdivision where many people had dogs. I helped him create a flyer that he put into every home’s mailbox. Within days he had several customers and I had another sample for my portfolio, not to mention more first-hand experience and a bit more swagger in my step.
There were some local weekly newspapers that circulated where I lived pre-internet. I would occasionally write feature articles about community events and profiles of local businesses. The newspapers welcomed reader submissions and paid a small amount for those that were published. More importantly, they included your byline, so I was able to add more published samples to my portfolio. Nowadays, I think you could use the same tactic with blogs and ezines, as many welcome guest posts.
Get the idea? Look for any opportunity to practice your writing skills, build a portfolio and gain confidence in your ability.
Start with your existing clients. Can you make some recommendations to them for additional marketing pieces? Maybe you wrote a sales letter for them about their new product. Suggest creating a web page for that product or a blog post. Or maybe you wrote their website and they could use a lead magnet like a free report to offer to prospects.
It’s always easier to get more work from someone who already knows and trusts you than it is to land new prospects. And don’t hesitate to ask those existing clients for referrals. They may know other business owners who have a need for your services.
At the same, you should be doing your usual marketing outreach — networking, participation in groups (online or in person), cold-calling, cold emailing, etc.
My website is my main means of marketing, and I’ve made sure it’s optimized for search engines. That means when someone goes on Google and searches for a professional copywriter or a website copywriter, my site often comes up in search results. That’s probably how you found this page!
Now before you go thinking that all you have to do is create a website and clients will find you, let me tell you that my website has been in existence for about 15 years. It has over 300 pages – I’ve long since lost count – and numerous inbound links from other websites.
Google ranks my site high for hundreds of keywords. If you build a new site with 5-10 pages, there’s no way you’re going to outrank me or my nearest competitors, so you’ll need to come up with a different strategy or recognize that this is a long-term strategy not likely to pay off for a while.
No, but that’s a significant contributor. I have the benefit of having been a freelance copywriter for 25+ years. Over that time, I’ve built up a strong base of clients, some of whom have been with me for many years. Ongoing accounts and repeat customers are a beautiful thing. My longevity in business also means I’ve crossed paths with many people who send me referrals.
Summarizing, my current workload comes from the following 5 main sources:
By combining all of those sources, I keep pretty busy and also pass along a lot of work to other freelance copywriters on my team.
My approach has always been to offer useful information. I have a website/blog with over 200 articles I’ve authored on copywriting and marketing. In initial contacts with prospective clients, I don’t use a pushy approach. I don’t sell; I tell.
When I speak with prospective clients, I give information and guidance. I ask a lot of questions about their business and then provide some direction on how I’d approach their marketing or copywriting project.
It doesn’t take long before clients realize I know what I’m talking about. They recognize the value I bring and ask if I would consider working on their project. While their initial focus may have been on getting a price, now their priority is getting me to agree to take on their work.
I developed that selling process over time, but the seeds for it were planted many years ago when I was a college student on a backpacking trip through Europe one summer. Here’s a quick story from that experience.
How to Sell Anything to Anyone without Being the Least Bit Pushy
I often think back to the first place I learned the subtle selling technique of educating your client. Many years ago I traveled to Istanbul, Turkey. The country is well known for its beautiful woven rugs.
Any tourist in Istanbul visiting the sights is likely to be approached by rug salesmen who try to persuade you to visit their rug shop. And that’s exactly what happened to my traveling partner and me. Even though we had no intention of buying a rug, we allowed ourselves to be led to one of these shops.
What we found there were salesmen who were nothing like the American salesmen we knew. Instead, these Turkish shopkeepers were willing to spend hours getting to know us.
They told us about their business, introduced us to their workers, let us touch the raw materials, explained the history of their craft, showed us the process of creating the rugs, and even treated us to a nice lunch and unlimited rounds of tea.
Not once did they say, “So, would you like to buy a rug?” Not once did they try to close the sale or pressure us to leave. They treated us like friends, sharing their knowledge and hospitality with us.
The whole experience was so pleasant that eventually we began to like and trust these shopkeepers. As we slowly let down our guard, we did exactly what nearly every tourist there ultimately does: we asked if it would be possible for us to each buy a rug.
It was only days later as my traveling partner and I, lugging our heavy backpacks with small rugs tied to them, realized the brilliance of the Turkish rug sales process. And oddly enough, even then, knowing their game, we still liked the shopkeepers and were pleased with our purchases.
The shopkeepers hadn’t fooled us. They’d simply educated us about their products. They gave us an appreciation for their true value, and from that new knowledge grew our desire to buy our own rugs.
My visit to Turkey was more than 25 years ago. The small rug I carted around on top of my backpack for three weeks of travel still has a place in my bedroom, but it’s the lesson I learned the day I purchased it that I value the most – tell, don’t sell.
* * *
Fortunately, because I have several bread-and-butter clients with ongoing needs, I rarely hit dry spells. When I do, they don’t last long (knock wood). I use the time when business is slow to catch up on administrative work. I also write blog posts for my own site and update old posts.
On occasion, I go back to doing grassroots networking and cold calling to get work. I touch base with old and inactive clients. I follow-up on jobs that I quoted but didn’t come through. I email some companies that would be a good fit for me and introduce myself. And I look for opportunities to make myself more visible on social media.
I have had that happen more than once. A client can be an expert in a certain area but that doesn’t mean there’s demand for his service or product. If you can’t get someone to pay you for whatever it is you’re selling, sorry but your business isn’t going to succeed. Several examples come to mind but let me tell you about one situation.
The Medical Travel Agency Going Nowhere
I had someone contact me about writing his website so he could launch his new business. The business was to be a medical transport service, which I’ll call MTS for the purpose of this story.
MTS would make all of the travel arrangements for someone who was too sick or injured to fly commercially but needed to get somewhere for treatment or to be with family. They’d book a specially-equipped medical plane, provide a qualified nurse to fly with the patient, arrange ground transportation to a hospital when they landed, and take care of any other specific medical needs for the safe transport of the patient.
The client explained that 25+ years ago he’d worked for a company, no longer in business, that provided this exact service. He was an expert at coordinating the logistics.
I looked online and saw MTS would have significant competition. Plenty of other companies were offering the same services, and most of those companies were large and well-established. Some even had their own medical planes and affiliations with ambulance companies. They not only had impressive websites but were also running costly online advertising campaigns.
I asked my client how he planned to get customers, especially since it would be hard for him to compete online. He said, “I’m going to follow the example of the medical transport business I worked for years ago. I’ll send out letters to travel agencies describing my services and ask them to refer to me any medical clients. I’m going to include magnets with my company name and phone number.”
That was his entire marketing plan – free magnets!
Can you see the huge flaw in his thinking? When is the last time you worked with a travel agent to book a flight? Do travel agencies even still exist? And if so, would you as a business owner feel comfortable relying on them to refer customers to you?
I told the client that while I was capable of writing his website as requested, I thought he needed a better plan for getting clients. Otherwise, building a website would be a waste, and I didn’t feel comfortable taking his money.
Maybe he went and found another copywriter. Or maybe he opted to put more thought into developing a business plan. All I knew was that I couldn’t in good conscience take on his project.
As nicely as I could, I told him not to quit his day job. And I’d say the same to you if you told me you were starting a freelance copywriting business but had no practical plan for how to attract clients.
* * *
My freelance copywriting business is set up as an LLC (limited liability corporation) taxed like an S-corp, per the recommendation of my accountant. This particular form of corporation helps limit my personal liability for business debts.
With an LLC, only the assets owned in the name of the LLC are subject to the claims of business creditors, including lawsuits against the business. I also receive some tax advantages with this type of organization.
But don’t assume that what I do is what you should do. Every person’s financial situation is different, and state laws and registration fees can differ as well.
An LLC is only one of several ways to organize a business. Other possibilities include sole proprietorship, general partnership, limited partnership and corporation. You’ll want to speak with an accountant to determine what designation is right for your business.
An accountant can also advise you regarding sales tax. It’s a bit of a gray area for copywriters and has to do with whether your state sees the copywriting you produce as a product or service. The former usually requires you to pay a sales tax while the latter does not. For what it’s worth, most copywriters I know don’t charge their clients sales tax.
Like any business, I track my costs and my revenue and hope that the latter is greater than the former. I pay quarterly taxes on my revenue in accordance with U.S. tax code.
I track all jobs in progress and billings on various spreadsheets. At any moment, I can get a snapshot of my workload, how my business is doing, who owes me money, what I will need to pay in taxes for the quarter, etc.
The systems I’ve set up help me to ensure nothing falls through the cracks and also provide me with the data to make good decisions for my business.
Scope creep – A client has you quote a job but midway the parameters start to change. You may have quoted writing two web pages and suddenly the client needs four. Before doing the additional work, explain to the client that it exceeds the work quoted and the additional cost will be X. Proceed?
Project cancellation – Sometimes you do all the work on a project and then the client decides not to use it for whatever reason. I’ve had this happen a number of times.
Once the client was selling a vitamin supplement and didn’t get the FDA approval it was counting on and therefore couldn’t bring his product to market.
Another time I wrote copy for a client that suddenly was going to be merging with another company, which would make everything I’d written obsolete. If the work is done, the client still owes you. If the work is partially done, the client owes you a partial fee.
Finally, one time I wrote copy for a woman who owned a fitness equipment company. I was waiting for her final approval when she suddenly become non-responsive.
After a few weeks I’d learned she’d had a stroke and her adult children were caring for her and the business best that they could. They were struggling and had no intention of proceeding with the project I’d done. I was fortunate to have received a deposit of 50%. The balance was a loss, which I didn’t pursue because of the sad circumstances.
Time management – Track your hours working on a project even if you’re not charging the client an hourly rate. Why? It helps you to gage how long a project takes so you can monitor your profitability. You may be surprised at how many extra hours a job ends up taking. In that case, learn from your mistake and quote similar projects in the future at a higher price.
Track accounts receivable – Sorry to say that not every client pays just because you send an invoice. Often, you have to give the client a friendly reminder. This happens for a number of reasons.
Sometimes the client just doesn’t want to part with their money until they’re pressured. Other times, they’re experiencing a cash flow problem and therefore dragging out their payment. And sometimes a client makes an honest mistake.
Maybe you emailed your invoice, and they saw it when they were away from their desk. They then forgot about it; it’s that selective memory thing. So keep track of what monies you’re owed. That’s part of running a successful business.
Pay quarterly taxes – I mentioned this briefly before but it bears repeating. You’ll need to understand how and when you pay taxes if you’re self-employed.
The U.S. government is not going to wait for you to settle up at the end of the year. They’ll penalize you, and it won’t be cheap. Instead, you’ll need to pay quarterly taxes meant to cover Social Security, Medicare and your income tax.
When talking with a prospective client for your copywriting business, keep your eyes open for signs that the client may be problematic such as:
Very carefully. Because a freelancer’s business can easily fluctuate from feast to famine, I make sure to live beneath my means. I’ve always been a saver, planning for that rainy day. I avoid taking on monthly overhead and unnecessary debt. As a career-long entrepreneur, I am conservative in my spending habits.
It helps that I work out of my home (no office rent) and hire freelancers myself when I have more work than I can do, as opposed to hiring employees.
When times are good, I save, so that when times are bad, I don’t freak out and do something crazy – like get a 9-5 job with an employer.
My freedom is too important to me. I value it way more than driving an expensive car or owning fancy jewelry. I’m not into “stuff.” Keeping up with others in terms of material things is never my goal.
I make a good living, I enjoy my work. I have time to spend with my family. I love my life. There’s nothing wrong with being satisfied with what you have and being fiscally responsible.
Yes, definitely. You need to be comfortable living with uncertainty. Unlike working for an employer, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a paycheck at the end of the week. If your sales efforts lag, so will your income. If your clients are late in paying their bills, you may have to do some juggling in order to pay your bills. You’ll likely have good months and bad months; get used to it.
There’s also no such thing as paid vacation days. If you’re not working, you’re probably not earning. One way to get around this is to find ways to set up some passive revenue streams, such as creating ebooks or courses you can sell or becoming an affiliate marketer to sell other people’s products to your customers.
You should know too, if you’re not saving for your retirement, you’d better plan on working until the day you die because there’s no 401K with employer match. Saving is all up to you. You’ve got to be smart about it and start early.
I do, and it costs me a fortune. The biggest downside to self-employment isn’t the uncertainty or having to fund my own retirement. I’m cool with all that. The real challenge is paying for health insurance. I see it as the biggest obstacle to becoming a full-time, freelance copywriter. And it’s actually a huge obstacle for other entrepreneurs as well.
Health insurance is ungodly expensive and the coverage isn’t good if you’re self-employed. As you leave your 20s behind, the monthly premium is likely to be on par with your monthly rent or home mortgage payment. And that’s if you’re healthy!
Also, if you have children, you need to make sure you have coverage for them. And even if you have coverage, you may still need to pay for all doctor visits and prescriptions until you meet your deductible, which can be in the neighborhood of $8,000 per year, per person in your family. Crazy, right?
The ideal situation if you are a freelancer is if your spouse is employed in a full-time position. Look into buying health insurance through his or her employer. The costs will be far less and the benefits far better.
Unfortunately, here in the U.S. the healthcare cards are unfairly stacked against the self-employed. Be sure to give this point careful consideration and do your research before you quit your job, especially if your health, or the health of someone in your immediate family, isn’t good.
Yes, all the time. But that feedback isn’t about me personally. It’s commentary on the copywriting work I do for them.
When I write copy for clients, they review my work and determine if they like it, need any revisions, want to add or detract anything, etc. I revise the copy until they’re fully satisfied before sending my final invoice.
Do you ever have clients who disagree with or criticize the copywriting work you’ve done for them?
I do. It goes with the territory so you need to develop a tough skin. Clients can be harsh when they’re not pleased. Often they expect you to be a mind reader and to come up with what they were envisioning even though they didn’t communicate their ideas to you.
Sometimes you run into difficult clients who simply can’t be pleased. No matter how much you do, they’re never going to be satisfied.
You shouldn’t internalize their critiques. If a client says they don’t like what you wrote, you can’t jump to the conclusion that you’re a horrible writer. Just work toward creating what they want.
Most of the time, clients provide valuable feedback. They know their business better than you do. Their input is based on industry experience. I will make whatever revisions they want.
However, if I feel they are making a mistake from a marketing or copywriting perspective, I’ll tell them my thoughts in a diplomatic manner. Then they can decide how they want to proceed. In the end, they are the paying customer, and so the decision is theirs. My bruised ego can’t play a role in that process.
If I think a customer is being overly critical, making ridiculous demands or simply can’t be pleased, I will complete the project in question in whatever manner they want and then, in a nice way, decline to take on further work from them. Here’s a quick story of one time I took that approach.
The Elephant in the Room
I was once contacted by a man who owned a financial planning company and wanted me to help write his company’s brochure. He gave me text he’d already written and asked me to edit it.
He’d come up with a theme based on a huge painting in his office of an elephant. Throughout the copy, he referenced how his company’s financial planners were like elephants because in ancient African folklore they’re thought to have wisdom and also, everyone knows they never forget anything. I couldn’t help rolling my eyes.
I read through the copy, and it was pathetic. It was way too long, about eight pages of text when only three would fit in the brochure template he’d chosen. Every sentence was a lengthy paragraph. The copy rambled on and on. It journeyed off onto tangents from which it never returned. It repeated each point in three or four different ways.
Not only was it tedious to read, it was nearly impossible to comprehend. And the absurd elephant theme reared its big, ugly trunk about every other paragraph.
I made the (wrong) assumption that the client probably knew the copy wasn’t very good but had done the best he could. I decided to be a hero and rewrite all the copy from scratch, even though I’d quoted only editing. I’d even find a way to make the crazy elephant analogy work, “We help you think big…”
When done, I knew the copy I’d written was far more effective than the client’s original. It was much shorter, clearly made its key points and included that @%$#& elephant. I proudly sent him the new, improved draft, even though it was Friday and the copy wasn’t due until the following week. I’m an over-achiever, what can I say?
A few hours later, instead of the praise and appreciation I expected, I received a scathing email from the client. He told me he hated the copy. Not only was it all wrong, it was clear I didn’t understand the elephant analogy. He went on to call me a “terrible writer” and ended the email with, “Keep the deposit. I don’t care. I just don’t want to work with you anymore.”
As you can imagine, I was upset, even though I knew the client was off-base and evidently also had an anger management problem. To top it off, this was Friday night so I had all weekend to stew about the situation.
On Monday I put on my big-girl pants and wrote the client a pleasant note saying that I was sorry he was disappointed. I said I realized that I shouldn’t have ignored his instructions, and I’d like the opportunity to make it right. I would redo the copy his way and then he could decide if he wanted it or a refund of his deposit. He agreed to let me try. (Gee, thanks.)
A few hours later, I submitted the new copy. This time, instead of a rewrite of his original draft, I kept all his original wording and only cleaned up the grammar, spelling and punctuation. I kept the length and all the nonsensical, pointless prose about the elephant.
It was probably the single worst example of copywriting I’ve ever submitted to a client. I certainly wouldn’t be including this brochure in my portfolio. And a part of me still believed that when the client read it, he would realize how awful it was and revert to the first draft I’d submitted as the one to publish.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The client loved draft #2. He called and thanked me profusely. He even apologized for his previous note. Explained he’d been having a bad day. He was now my most zealous supporter. No one was more surprised than me.
When the client submitted the draft to his designer/printer, he was told it had too much copy, exactly as I’d warned. So he had the designer make the type extremely small and add another four pages to the brochure. He didn’t want to cut a single word. And that’s exactly how it went to print!
What did I learn from this puzzling experience? Don’t try to save the client from himself. Offer your best advice and suggestions. Then let him make the final call. He who writes the check gets to decide, even if the brochure or website as he envisions it is not likely to accomplish his goals.
* * *
Getting a “no” is just part of sales and marketing. It comes with the territory of running a business. You’re not going to hit home runs every day. Frankly, if you aren’t booked solid, and you aren’t getting a “no” on a regular basis, then you aren’t trying hard enough.
Keep in mind too that a “no” today isn’t necessarily a “no” forever. Circle back to that prospect every now and then to show your interest and persistence. Over time, they very well may change that “no” to a “yes.”
Ed Gandia, a copywriter coach I admire, recently wrote a blog post about failure. He said, “Most people consider failure a bad thing. It’s something to be avoided. That’s how I viewed it until just a few years ago. But then I discovered that when you realize failure is a necessary ingredient for success, you view it differently.”
He suggests viewing failure as feedback and a necessary step in the process. Think of it as marking the beginning, not the end. He adds, “It’s the reason why many venture capitalists won’t invest in startups where the founder has never had a failed company. They know that failure is the best teacher. And without failing, the founder hasn’t learned important lessons.”
Interesting perspective, right?
Like anyone, I’ve had my share of people who told me I wasn’t good enough and didn’t have what it takes to be successful. My boss at the advertising agency, my first real job, delighted in put-downs and insults. Many times I had to fight to hold back the tears.
You can’t let people like that crush your spirit. Who says they know more than you about yourself? Use their words as motivation to learn more and work harder. Prove them wrong. Or, even better, prove your supporters right!
I’m reminded of an author-friend who has written more than a dozen books. He once told me a story about rejection he experienced early on in his career.
Don’t Let Rejection Stop You from Succeeding
I have a friend who writes children’s books, mostly for middle schoolers. About 5 years ago, he wrote his first book for high schoolers and he shared the premise and a few chapters with his writers’ group, about 8 friends who’d had varying levels of success as authors. They tore it apart. They told him the premise was stupid and the writing was amateurish. He was depressed for months.
Well, about a year later, he gathered up his courage and nervously submitted the manuscript to his agent. He felt he needed to go through the motions to get closure before setting the manuscript aside for good.
You can probably guess the end of the story. The agent loved it. She sold it. It’s been published, and he’s made good money from it. It’s even won some literary awards. Turns out he knew a whole lot more about writing than those so-called experts in his writers’ group.
* * *
My advice is to accept comments from critics (many of whom are probably jerks), with a grain of salt. If they offer constructive advice, and you think their points are valid, then take the necessary action. If they’re only being critical, then ignore their negativity and don’t let it get you down.
I am constantly learning about new products, new industries, new marketing strategies, etc. I’m fascinated by all the different ways people and businesses make money.
I love working for myself. The few companies I worked for in the early days of my career were owned by truly awful people. I could tell you stories. I realize that not every employer is bad, and maybe a psychiatrist would say I have a problem with authority, but I much prefer self-employment.
As far as copywriting, I’m enamored with the idea of creating something from nothing. And, when done, that something I’ve created is now a useful, tangible object that will serve a purpose: to sell my client’s product.
The other aspect of being a freelance copywriter that appeals to me is the tremendous feeling of accomplishment when I successfully complete a writing project, especially if it was particularly challenging.
Writing is hard, even for experienced professionals. Someone much more clever than me once said, “I hate writing, but I love having written.” I thought that was right on point.
The financial aspects are my least favorite part of my business. It’s not that I don’t like money. Who doesn’t, right? It’s that even after so many years in business, I still feel apprehensive when quoting projects, as though I expect the client to ask me to justify my price. That sometimes leads me to undervalue my services.
My husband often reminds me, “You’re not asking someone for a favor. You’re running a business and providing a quality service so don’t feel apologetic when you quote and bill for your work.”
He’s right, too. If you sound hesitant when giving your prices, the client will sense your discomfort and be more likely to ask, “Can you do any better on price?” Much better to say, “My rate is x,” as though that’s the price that’s been set, and it’s non-negotiable.
I’m sure I’m not the only freelance copywriter who feels that way. Over the years, I’ve gotten much better about it, but there’s still room for improvement.
One of my goals was to land a large client with ongoing work. I wanted a bread-and- butter client that assured me the ability to pay my bills but allowed me to maintain my independence. For a long time I had many clients who were repeat customers, but none that had a sizable budget and monthly, or perhaps weekly, needs.
About four years ago, I did find that client. They send me steady work, and it’s varied, as they have lots of different products and departments. The projects are varied as well — web pages, case studies, brochures, sales sheets and email campaigns. I spend zero time doing any selling, which means I’m wholly focused on copywriting and able to maximize my revenue.
They take up anywhere from 10-30 hours per week and pay me well, although I’m not eligible for health insurance or any other benefits from them. And while I work with them frequently, I’m still independent. I set my own hours and schedule. I work out of my own office (in my home). All meetings are via Zoom or conference call.
As long as I get the job done they’re happy. And so am I. I fill in with other types of clients to have the variety that keeps me engaged and learning about other businesses.
Once you’ve been working as a freelance copywriter for a while, you get a sense of what the market will bear. You also can estimate approximately how long a job will take, which is one of the factors I consider when coming up with a quote.
With regard to writing websites, my most frequent request, I offer a per-page rate. For purposes of illustration, let’s say that rate is $100 per web page, up to 500 words. Then writing a Home, About Us and FAQ page would be 3 x $100 = $300. Once you think of pricing in those terms, it’s easy to come up with a quote. And it’s also easy for the client to understand.
Even after you’ve been in the industry for years, know that you will run into situations in which the client balks at your price or the client accepts your price but the job ends up taking much longer than you planned. In those cases, learn from the experience and move on.
Some questions you may want to ask yourself and factor into the pricing equation are:
That situation occurs more often than you think, especially with new clients. There’s a client or a project I really want. I don’t want to blow this opportunity by quoting a price that’s too high and causes the client to shop around for a cheaper copywriter. But I also don’t want to leave money on the table, especially if the project is substantial and will have me tied up for weeks. After all, that’s time I won’t be available to other clients who perhaps are more lucrative.
In that instance, I’ll usually hedge my bets by offering the client two options. One will be a top-of-the-line, all-the-bells-and-whistles, full-service option and priced accordingly. The other option will be barebones, adequate but scaled down, and may even involve having the client do some of the work himself but is therefore much more affordable.
On rare occasions, I’ve even offered a third option, one that’s a happy medium between the first two. I don’t suggest ever offering more than three options. The clients get overwhelmed and put off making a decision indefinitely.
In my proposal, I make sure to explain exactly what each option includes and does not include. The client needs to see a clear differentiation so he can make an informed choice.
Yes, unfortunately. I offered a client two prices to write his 8-page brochure. The cheaper option was what he chose, and it involved him doing the research and providing me with all the information I’d need to write the brochure.
Well, it’s been three years and I’m still waiting on that research. I didn’t get roped into doing a difficult project at a too-low rate but I also didn’t make anything at all on the project that never came to fruition.
The problem with charging an hourly rate is that as you gain skills and become more efficient, you end up doing more work and earning less. Trust me, that’s the opposite of what you want. With experience, you should be able to do less work and earn more.
You’re better off pricing projects individually. You shouldn’t get penalized for being knowledgeable and efficient in your work. Quote what the work is truly worth. Think in terms of value, not just how long the job will take. Factor in your years of education, experience and specialized expertise, similar to a doctor, lawyer or accountant.
The price you quote should be enough that you’re happy when you win the project. Quote too low and you’ll resent having to do the work if the project comes through.
Have you ever heard the story of the retired printer?
Stop Working by the Hour
The massive printing presses at a major Chicago newspaper stopped working on the Saturday before Christmas. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue were at risk if the pressmen couldn’t get the Sunday paper printed.
No one could figure out what was causing the problem. Finally, they placed a frantic call to the retired printer who had worked with their presses for over 40 years. They offered to pay any amount he wanted if he would come in immediately and fix them.
When the retired printer arrived, he walked around for a few minutes, looking at the presses. Then he opened one of the control panels. He removed a dime from his pocket, turned a screw 1/4 of a turn, and said, “The presses will now work correctly.” And they did. After he was profusely thanked, he was told to submit a bill for his work.
The bill arrived a few days later, for $10,000! Because of the large cost for what amounted to a few minutes of work, the printer was asked to itemize his charges, with the hope that he would reduce the amount once he had to identify his services. The revised bill arrived: $1.00 for turning the screw; $9,999.00 for knowing which screw to turn.
So, don’t calculate your rates based on how long a project takes you but rather the accumulation of your many years of writing education and experience that allow you to get the job done, and done well.
* * *
Yes, that happens. I’ve had clients say, “Susan, I need you to write this web page. It should only take you a few minutes, so what’s the charge?”
Whoa! That’s way too presumptive. Sorry, but the client doesn’t get to dictate how long a job will take me and what it will cost. That’s up to me. Tell me the project parameters and I’ll tell you my price. If you don’t like my answer, don’t book the work.
By the way, I’ve had clients “confuse” typing speed with writing speed. Just because a page only has 2 short paragraphs and would take only a few minutes to type doesn’t mean you can compose the actual sentences for those paragraphs that fast.
As my mentioned earlier, you want to avoid setting rates based strictly on amount of time to do the work. Otherwise, as you get more proficient and faster in doing the work, you’ll be making less on each job than when you were starting out.
Yes, that happens, but fortunately, it’s rare. Most people are honest and pay their bills. But there are a few things you can do to protect yourself.
If the client is new, require a 50% deposit up front.
The balance will be due upon project completion. That way, you and the client split the risk. You have some risk in that they may not pay the remaining 50% and they have some risk in that you might take the deposit and not produce the work.
Quote jobs up front, especially with new clients, and in writing.
Estimating what a job is worth and how long it will take is difficult but you need to provide a quote. If you don’t, the amount in the client’s mind is likely much less than the quote in your mind. That means you’ll end up in conflict when you send the bill.
Be careful about providing a range.
Let’s say you quote a client $1,000 – $1,500, you can be sure that the client expects to pay $1,000 while you probably are thinking you’ll charge a lot closer to the $1,500 figure. So before quoting a range, be certain that you can live with the lowest number because that might be how it ends up.
Yes, you have to assume most businesses and people are law-abiding and fair-minded. If you’re suspicious of everyone, you’ll have trouble landing clients.
Most people know they’re asking for a professional service and should expect to pay professional rates. However, occasionally you run into a client who leaves you totally bewildered with their idea of what’s fair.
What’s Fair Can Be Up for Debate
To save a buck, some clients will try anything. Consider the following conversation I had with a client who owned an online furniture store. It went something like this:
Susan: Hi John, just following up to see what you thought of the copy I sent over last week.
Client: Susan, it’s great, exactly what we were looking for. No revisions needed. Perfect as is. It goes up on the website today.
Susan: Glad to hear it. Is there anything else I can do for you?
Client: No, we’re good for now. So go ahead and send your invoice. Oh, and I assume there’ll be an adjustment to the price?
Susan: An adjustment? Why? You just told me the copy was perfect and you were pleased.
Client: Right. But your proposal gave a quote that included the copy and revisions. Since the copy was perfect, and we didn’t ask for any revisions, I think we’re entitled to a discount.
I did not give him the discount. And that was my first and last job for that company.
* * *
I can’t say that I have a set schedule, but I do consider increases at the beginning of each new year and also when I have consistently had an abundance of work for several months.
Over time, raising my rates has resulted in my losing some of my smaller clients with limited budgets and replacing them with better, bigger clients, which has been a positive step in my business’s growth.
It depends on the client and the project, as well as whether I’m buried in other jobs or business is slow. If I really want the project, I may offer to work within the client’s budget but will reduce the scope of the work accordingly.
For example, if they want me to write 10 pages for their website but have a limited budget, I might offer to write their 5 most important pages and let them handle the other pages on their own. Or if they want a 1,000-word article, I might suggest we keep the article to 600 words to stay within their budget.
Someone once told me, “If you land every job you quote, then you’re charging too little.” I think that’s true. You don’t want every client. You want the right clients. So don’t feel bad when you lose a job over price. That client wasn’t right for you.
Those websites and others like them do put pricing pressure on freelance copywriters who operate independently. It’s so easy to shop around online that clients don’t hesitate to solicit pricing from multiple sources.
To compete against those contracting sites as well as other competitors, offer better quality and service. You don’t want clients who are focused only on cost. You want to work with companies that appreciate your expertise and the level of commitment you bring to their work.
Also, you want your clients to know you take risk out of the equation. Once you have experience and a portfolio, you can demonstrate to clients that they will be working with a pro. They can have full confidence that you’ll steer them right and produce copy that will be effective in meeting their objectives.
Those contracting sites do no vetting of their freelancers. Many of their writers are inexperienced, treat copywriting as a hobby or side gig, or live outside the U.S. and only speak or write English as a second language.
The True Story I Tell Clients When They Compare My Prices to Sites Like Fiverr
When my daughter was 12, she once asked me for my bank’s name and my account number. It was an odd request, as I always bought her whatever she needed.
After a bit of probing, I found out she had set up a profile and had been selling copywriting services (a mini me) on Fiverr. She’d been writing for all types of clients and had all this money in Fiverr but no way to get it out without a bank account or PayPal account to which Fiverr could transfer the funds.
I wasn’t keen that this was going on without my knowledge, but the point of the story is, my daughter was 12! The clients hiring her certainly didn’t know that. She didn’t understand marketing or business. Heck, she didn’t even know how bank accounts worked.
She knew just enough to string together coherent sentences in English. While the copy she managed to write was adequate, had the clients hired someone with experience for a few more dollars, they probably would have gotten a better product that would have been more effective in generating sales for their business.
I share this true story about my daughter with prospective clients when they say they’re considering trying to save a few dollars by using a site like Fiverr or Upwork.
* * *
That’s an interesting question. The answer keeps changing as new payment types and methods become available. When I started in this business, all payments were by check, typically sent via the U.S. mail. Nowadays, I get very few checks.
I accept PayPal, Zelle, Venmo, and Western Union. I also accept direct transfers to my bank account and international wires. On the plus side, using any of these payment methods, you get your money much more quickly than waiting for a check to arrive and then clear once deposited.
But there is a downside. Some of these payment methods aren’t free. Be sure you know the fees associated with each payment type. Otherwise, you might be disappointed once you see the final amount.
For example, PayPal charges approximately 3% for domestic payments, 6% for international payments (including currency exchange). Those fees add up quickly, so you might want to consider building them into your prices.
Clients with whom I have ongoing relationships and who make frequent payments to me typically opt for direct transfer or Zelle, both of which are free, no fees. And here’s a quick, little-known tip regarding PayPal. If your client clicks the “Friends and Family” button on PayPal, you don’t get charged a fee. But that’s something you’ll need to work out with them in advance, and may not be appropriate depending on your relationship with the client.
One more tip. If you’re ever asked to do work for a company or individual located in Africa, find out how they plan to pay you. Because of high rates of fraud, payment service providers like PayPal don’t service some of the countries there such as Nigeria. I have had to turn away legitimate Nigerian clients because there was no way to receive payments from them.
Spec work is a non-starter. If you can show the client samples of prior work that reflect your capabilities, then he or she will just have to take a leap of faith that you can do for him what you’ve successfully done for others. I can’t think of any service provider who does work and gives the client the option of whether to pay for it.
Be sure you’re clear up front, so there’s no misinterpretation. When you quote a job, include your payment terms, i.e. 50% deposit; balance due upon completion. I recently had a situation crop up when I didn’t properly iron out the estimated costs of a job prior to doing the work and ended up at odds with the client.
Quote Prices Up Front and Avoid Spec Work Situations
I had a client in the food industry. My contact was the marketing director and he didn’t want to pay for a project because he ultimately didn’t use the copy I wrote.
He requested some ad concepts at about 5pm for a meeting where he’d present them the next morning at 9am. I didn’t request a deposit because it was such a rush job. And I didn’t even give a quote because I was anxious to get started if I was going to get the job done in time. I just did the work. That was a mistake.
I’ll share the correspondence between the client and me below. Maybe it will help you to avoid ending up in this type situation.
Thanks so much for the ad concepts you sent. I presented them at the meeting. We ended up brainstorming and coming up with something completely different. Thanks anyway.
I responded to Adam with a note that said:
“Adam, I’m glad you were able to get your ads done. I know you were super rushed on them. Attached is an invoice for the concepts I submitted.
Ohhhh, I didn’t realize you’d be invoicing for this. We didn’t even use one of your concepts.
And here’s my reply:
“Are you serious, Adam? Why wouldn’t I invoice for the work? When you do work at your company, don’t you expect to be compensated for your time and expertise?
Writing is how I make my living, not a hobby. I don’t do it for fun. I do it to put food on my table. Even if you went through a low-end provider for copy like Upwork or Fiverr, would you assume they’d provide work for free? Of course not.
You asked for ad concepts at 5pm due the following morning, obligating me to cancel plans, work after hours and provide a rush turnaround. I accommodated your needs on extremely short notice, and without complaining I might add.
I realize you didn’t use my concepts but I don’t write on speculation. If you request work, and I do the work, I expect to be paid. If I do work and you’re not pleased with it, let me know and I will revise the copy.
I’m not new to the business and trying to create a portfolio. I am a skilled professional with 25+ years of experience, not to mention a BS in journalism and an MBA in business marketing. That’s why I’m able to give you quality work and fast turnarounds. And because I go out of my way to be helpful, I’ve also given you excellent service. I would hope you agree.
Lastly, your organization is a business, not a charity or nonprofit. Why would a business expect its vendors to provide services for free?
I sincerely hope getting paid on this and the other projects we have in progress is not going to be a problem.”
Could you picture the steam coming out of my ears? The client did not respond to my last email, but about one week later, I received payment for that job and the others. I never worked with Adam or his company again.
* * *
As is true for most industries, the internet has changed the way almost everyone lives and does business. I started in the field before the internet was invented.
That means websites, e-commerce and tools like Google didn’t yet exist. My early years were spent writing print copy for brochures, magazine ads, direct mail and newsletters.
Not only have the types of projects I do changed; so has the way I conduct business. I used to meet with most of my prospects and clients in person. We’d talk about their projects and marketing plans.
Today, I can’t even remember the last time I met with a client. It’s probably been 10 years, maybe more. I don’t even have business cards.
Meeting with most of my clients these days wouldn’t be practical. Most aren’t local, which is a change from my early days in the business. My current clients are located all over the U.S. and the world, including faraway places like China and Australia. Most of our interactions take place via email, phone and Zoom. Even though the relationship isn’t physically close, we’re able to get to know each other fairly well.
The efficiency of not having to travel to and participate in in-person meetings means I have more time to spend writing. My clients benefit from faster turnarounds and my ability to handle higher volume. For me, it means increased revenue. So a pretty good deal all around!
Another change is that it’s become more acceptable to work out of your home. I now don’t hesitate to mention that, especially post-COVID because so many people have begun doing the same.
Beyond that, my clientele has changed over the years as my business and my copywriting skills have matured. I work less with small, startup businesses and more with mid-sized to large businesses that have substantial marketing budgets.
I’ve certainly become more proficient at my job. I write faster and better. And I also have years of experience that I can call on when approaching a project. Not everything is new and scary, so I can take on projects with total confidence I’ll be successful in doing the work.
I read a variety of copywriting blogs and books by industry leaders, successful business owners and marketing gurus. I also belong to various industry-related online groups and follow various copywriters on social media.
I have a son and daughter who are now grown. When they were little, it was challenging working full-time. I appreciated having scheduling flexibility and not having to ask an employer for time off if they were sick. But there were many late nights and weekends where I had to make up for shortened weekday hours due to kid responsibilities. Even though I didn’t punch a time clock, I had deadlines and productivity commitments I had to meet.
I should add that my husband, who worked full time for an employer, did his best to help out. As a television news director he had less scheduling flexibility than me – daily newscasts at 5pm, 6pm and 11pm – but was still very much a hands-on parent. We were a team trying to be good parents while maintaining our careers. It wasn’t easy. But it was certainly worth it!
I’m very proud of my children. They’re kind, they’re smart, they’re successful, independent and happy. What else could any parent want?
I typically work 45-55 hours per week. I have to admit that with my children grown, I’m able to indulge my workaholic tendencies. At least 40 of those hours are dedicated to client work. The other 5 to 10 hours are spent on my own projects, which can be adding posts to my blog, writing reports like the one you’re reading now, or doing other activities designed to drive traffic to my website.
I’ve had freelance copywriters ask if they can shadow me for a few days to see how a real copywriter operates. I’ve always said no because I think they’d be bored in a matter of minutes. I work alone, so there’s none of the commotion of a busy office and no chitchatting with coworkers who stop by my cubicle to check on the status of some deadline project.
Most of my time is spent typing on a keyboard, working on various projects, answering emails, and interrupted only occasionally by a phone call or Zoom meeting. That’s not exactly the makings of a hit TV show.
I keep a running to-do list and a detailed spreadsheet of all projects and their status. The more work I get done, the more money I make. I love that I’m in control of my income. That’s all the incentive I need.
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about how many samples. I probably have too many in my portfolio. I add new projects to it all the time. Having a variety of jobs represented shows your versatility. Also, if you’ve done any work for name brands or companies that are recognizable, those are worth including, as they’ll lend credibility to your credentials.
I used to only include links for any online samples. But I soon found that to be problematic. Companies can go out of business, change their name, change their focus and redo their website. Some of the links then didn’t work or the copy on their sites was no longer mine. Therefore, I now include screenshots of my copy in my portfolio. Visitors can see the work I did, even if it is no longer visible on the client’s website.
That has happened, but it’s rare. And occasionally, I can prevent the theft. Below is a quick example.
Final Score: Susan – 1; Client – 0
A client called me and said, “I was looking at your online portfolio and saw the brochure you wrote for that insurance company. I have an insurance company too, and I’d like to have that exact brochure for my business. How much is it for you to recreate the copy and graphic design but with my name and logo?”
I explained to the client that every product I create is custom and belongs to the client who paid for it. I offered to create an original brochure for his insurance company that would be equally as nice but unique.
The client said, “No thanks. That existing brochure is exactly what I need. I see no reason to reinvent the wheel. That would cost more. If you won’t help me, I’ll find someone else to do it.”
After I hung up the phone, I immediately removed the brochure from my online portfolio. When the client returned to my online portfolio to show his new vendor exactly what he wanted, the brochure had magically disappeared.
* * *
That happened to me once. Someone from another country not only stole my samples but also my name and photo. I happened to find their profile with all my information on eLance.com, now Upwork.com. They were using my credentials to land jobs. You can read the story here, “Freelancers Beware, Your Identity & Reputation Can Be Stolen,” Fortunately, a quick email to eLance.com got the phony copywriter booted off their site and all information relating to me was removed.
So yes, you do take a risk posting your portfolio online, unless you password-protect them. But to me it’s worth the risk, as my samples help land me new clients.
That’s an interesting question. I don’t often get perks but I have received some. I’ll share one story.
My Short Career as a Restaurant Critic
One of my first freelance jobs was writing about restaurants for a magazine in Orlando, Florida where I live. Each month a different restaurant was featured on the cover. The articles were supposed to look like restaurant reviews but in actuality were paid ads.
The restaurant would purchase the space in the publication and in return a professional copywriter would write a positive story about their food that landed them on the cover.
Even though I was not a foodie and my culinary skills were limited to frying an egg and microwaving frozen Lean Cuisine entrées, I somehow convinced the publisher I could write these positive reviews.
One time I was asked to write a review for a restaurant at Disney World. Most people think Disney is just fast food, but the company actually has many high-end restaurants in their hotels, resorts and shopping areas. Most of them are amazing with talented chefs cherry-picked from around the world.
I was assigned to cover the California Grill, serving the finest in Californian cooking, with large windows that overlook the Magic Kingdom theme park. Time it right and you can even watch the nightly Disney fireworks show while you’re eating.
The California Grill was a fine-dining restaurant and the chef was told that “a reporter” would be coming and they should treat her well so she’d write a positive review. In reality, Disney was paying for the article, so yeah, it was going to be favorable.
When my husband and I arrived, the chef came out and introduced himself. He asked for permission to select some appetizers and entrees for my husband and me. We acquiesced figuring we probably wouldn’t have known what to choose on our own anyway. This restaurant was way more hoity-toity than any place we’d ever eaten before.
Within a few minutes, food started arriving at our table. And it just kept coming! The chef chose at least half a dozen appetizers, followed by a bunch of entrees, and then literally every single dessert on the menu.
The table was covered with plates. It was way more food than we could ever eat. We could see people staring at us. California Grill was a really expensive restaurant so no doubt these other patrons were surprised at how much food we’d ordered.
Finally, one woman who’d been staring at us for a while, worked up the nerve to come over. She introduced herself and said, “I just have to ask. How do you two stay so thin when you eat so much?”
We still laugh about that today. The lady left before us or she would have seen how much food we took home in doggy bags. It was at least a week’s worth of good eating.
So that’s one of the fun perks I received as a freelance copywriter. It also was good for my career, as even though writing those restaurant magazine articles didn’t pay well, I made a few good contacts. In fact, Disney later hired me to do some freelance writing for its Food and Beverage division (the folks who run the theme park restaurants).
* * *
You can do some speculative (spec) writing. Create samples for fake sample assignments to gain experience and eventually to show potential clients your skills.
Also, consider starting your own business, even if it’s just a side hustle. Maybe it’s mowing the lawn for people in your neighborhood or shoveling snow during winter. Or a dog-walking service. Or maybe it’s selling handmade crafts on Etsy or reselling used products on eBay, as my son did (be sure to look at the photos) when he was in college.
Do the marketing for that business. Create a website, a brochure, a flyer or online ads, whatever you need to do to attract customers. You’ll learn a lot, create some samples for your portfolio and maybe even make a few dollars.
It’s certainly been my primary source of income but I’ve also sought out opportunities to create multiple revenue streams. For example, early on in my freelancing career, as a side hustle, I taught an adult Career Training class. It covered subjects such as how to write your resume and cover letter, how to interview, etc. The materials I found to teach that class were limited and of poor quality. So I made my own.
At some point, I met another instructor who taught the same class in another school. She too had created her own teaching materials. We pooled our work and turned our self-created teaching materials into a published textbook, The Ultimate Job Hunter’s Guidebook.
We filled a void in the market, and our book soon became a leading Career text adopted by colleges around the country. That book is now in its seventh edition. It’s been 25+ years, and we still receive royalty checks every six months. What started out as a side hustle teaching a class became a decades-long revenue generator.
Another opportunity came to me through a family business. My father and brother started a niche real estate business selling condo-hotel units. They asked me for help writing their website.
Four web pages soon turned into 10, and then dozens of web pages featuring condo hotel properties all over the world. The website content mushroomed into daily assignments and work on other marketing projects as well.
Recognizing a unique, exciting business opportunity, I began working 60-70 hours per week. I was able to continue to service my existing clients while also putting in hours on the fast-growing real estate business, which quickly became my biggest account.
Rather than pay me as a startup, my father and brother soon made me a partner. I received a percentage of every sales commission made. And an added bonus was that I learned a lot about SEO and marketing that I was then able to apply to my other copywriting clients. That business still operates today and generates revenue although not as much as it once did, thanks to market changes and significant competition from much bigger players than us.
No, lol. I wish that were the case. I’ve had my share of disappointments in my attempts to generate additional revenue streams. I spent months writing and marketing an e-book that sold fewer than 10 copies.
I also partnered with a startup, online company that was selling artwork with custom framing. I wrote the website (200+ pages) and other marketing materials in return for a percentage of sales.
After a year, the company was showing signs of growth but still had a long way to go to become profitable. With well-funded competitors moving into the market, the CEO made the decision to pull the plug.
I get upset when I think about the time and effort I put into those ventures and others that flopped, but the ones that that were successful more than even the score. Plus, the experience garnered with each opportunity, not to mention the confidence I gained in my skills, was significant. Not every situation can be evaluated in dollars and cents.
I’m married, so over the years my husband has also contributed revenue to our household, of course.
As I mentioned earlier, we’ve also always strived to live beneath our means and be good savers. We’ve invested much of those savings in growth-oriented mutual funds that include holdings in the stock market. We’ve been fortunate to be invested in years when the stock market has done well, and therefore generated additional revenue for us. It’s the ultimate in passive revenue.
None of this is relevant to my freelance writing business other than to say that you don’t have to be 100% reliant on copywriting. Working other angles, and also putting your money to work for you like in stocks and mutual funds, can have financial and personal benefits.
I recently watched an episode of the news show “60 Minutes.” The story was about Paul McCartney. After citing how wealthy he is (over a billion dollars!) and all that he’s accomplished in his 76 years (32 Billboard #1 songs, 21 Grammys, sales of over 200 million singles and albums), the reporter asked him, “Why are you still working so hard?” And he replied “I’m trying to get better.”
The reporter said, “But you’re a Beatle!” McCartney replied “Just like anyone else, you have insecurities, no matter how high and great and wonderful you get, there’s always something that makes you worried.”
The reporter asked who he was trying to impress. He said, “Everyone, I suppose. It’s impossible but it doesn’t stop me from trying.” And then he added, “I quite like thinking I’ve not done good enough yet.”
So, what’s my point? If Sir Paul McCartney isn’t yet good enough at his profession, then how can mere mortals like you and me say we’ve ever reached our peak?
You’ve heard the expression “analysis paralysis?” Don’t spend so much time trying to figure out the perfect approach. Instead, think like Nike, “Just do it.”
Often when I start on a project, I don’t have a clear idea of the points I’m going to make or how to organize the information. So I often begin with what I do know to get the ball rolling.
I write the sections of the copy that I feel comfortable with at first. Maybe that’s the call-to-action at the end or a paragraph in the middle addressing one specific point that I know is important. Writing the first paragraph and headline is often what I do last.
Once I get started with the copy, I know I’ll figure it out. I’ve found this writing method gets me to the finish line faster than spending excessive amounts of time up front analyzing the material, organizing my thoughts or waiting for inspiration.
Think of a jigsaw puzzle. You have hundreds of random pieces that you need to assemble into place to create a single, cohesive image. The easiest part of the puzzle is usually separating out and assembling the edges. So start there. Then maybe you can tackle the pieces that all have a specific color or recognizable image on them.
Once that’s done, you’ll probably be able to see one or two other areas you can complete. As the picture takes shape, you gain momentum, completing more areas and finally tackling the most difficult sections to complete the puzzle.
Did you need to where every piece goes before you started working on the puzzle? No, so apply that same technique to writing projects. Start with the easy parts and you’ll soon pick up steam. Less thinking and more doing.
I tend to be self-disciplined. That’s my personality. I have a strong work ethic; I’m driven. Some might even say I’m a bit of a workaholic. I get things done. I make things happen. I like the feeling of accomplishing something, of completing what I start and perfecting my work down to the last detail.
Many people think that when you’re self-employed, you get to sleep in and take days off whenever you want. The truth is you’ll probably work more hours than for an employer. But you’ll do so happily because it’s helping you increase your income.
Having said that, whether you’re a copywriter or in some other profession and want to going into business for yourself, you must be self-disciplined and self-motivated or you won’t be successful.
Be sure you love to write. Just because you received an “A” in Freshman English or your grandma raved about the letters you sent her from summer camp when you were 10 doesn’t mean you should be a copywriter. And editing someone else’s copy doesn’t make you a good copywriter.
Writing is hard work. There are many times when I’ve struggled with an assignment and thought, “Ugh! My life would be so much easier if I just sold widgets!”
Writing is about making something out of nothing. Creating isn’t everyone’s calling. If it feels overwhelming to you, a chore you find ways to avoid, then you might want to go in another direction career-wise.
For me, writing is what I’ve always loved and excelled at. In fact, I can’t think of anything else that even comes close in terms of my skills.
I’ve been having a love affair with words since I learned to read at age 5. I like the idea of creating something out of nothing. I write every day, whether on client work or some personal writing task. And nothing makes me feel more confident and accomplished than successfully completing a writing assignment.
The writer Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing; I love having written.” I totally get that.
The prolific author Isaac Asimov was once asked in an interview with Barbara Walters, “What would you do if you only had a year to live?” He said, “Type faster.”
If you’re nodding your head “yes” because that sounds like you, then I’d say you’ve got a good start on a successful writing career. Just remember, a true entrepreneur is a doer, not a dreamer. So get to work!
I alluded to this earlier. Have the guts to take risks. Say “yes” even when you’re unsure of yourself.
I remember turning down some writing jobs because I had limited experience and lacked confidence. They were outside my comfort zone. I was afraid of failing.
Later I’d see the finished project, handled by another freelance writer, and think, “I could have done that.” I stopped saying no just because something was unfamiliar to me. Read the story below and you’ll see how to approach new types of work and overcome your fear of failure.
Say Yes Now, Figure It Out Later
One of the copywriters to whom I refer my overflow does a lot of writing in the beauty industry, mostly for skincare products. One of the first gigs I sent her was a skincare company that wanted us to write copy for its label. She panicked and asked me to please refer the client to someone else because even though she’d written websites and brochures for skincare companies, she’d never written label copy.
I said, “Go to your bathroom and get a bottle of moisturizer right now. Then come back. I’ll wait.”
She returned a minute later. I asked, “Did you get the bottle of moisturizer?”
She said, “Yes.”
I said, “Now read it. I’ll wait.”
After about a minute she said, “Done.”
I said, “Good, now you know how a label should read. I’m referring the client to you.”
Ever since then, I’ve probably sent her 30+ clients requesting label copy. She loves those gigs because they’re small, easy jobs with a decent profit margin. Forcing herself to go outside her comfort zone and learn something new opened a door to new kinds of projects she could accept and therefore new sources of revenue.
Get the picture? Whatever the client wants, say “yes” and then figure it out.
I come from a long line of entrepreneurs/small business owners. From the time I was little, my goal was to work for myself. In my early jobs for employers, I didn’t like that someone else controlled my time, my activities and my salary. So for me, success as a freelance copywriter meant making enough money to never have to go back to working for an employer.
I wish I’d hired a copywriting coach in the early days. I tried figuring out everything on my own – how to get clients, what to charge, how to position myself competitively, what business model to use, how to be a better writer, etc. It was a slow process and I made plenty of mistakes.
A coach, someone who’s already traveled that path, could have helped me shorten that learning curve. I could have been more successful sooner.
Two coaches come to mind. I’ve followed their careers online, read their books and subscribed to their blogs. If you’d like their names and contact information, email me and I’ll provide it.
If you were to give one piece of advice to a freelance copywriter just starting out, what would it be?
A popular Chinese proverb says: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”