So you want to be a copywriter?

Having been doing this for over 30 years, aspiring copywriters often ask me to mentor them.

Here are some of the questions they ask (including my answers, because this article would be pretty useless without them):

Q. Do you have any advice for a marketing strategy, when a new freelance copywriter has little or no budget?
A. When you have time but no money, focus on social media, including blogs, guest blogs, newsletters and guest speaking. When you have money but no time, try advertising.

Q. How did you go about meeting new contacts and potential clients, when you were first starting out?
A. Networking. In fact, I still work for a client I met at the first networking breakfast event I ever attended. Don’t hard-sell. Just be friendly and nice. Rather than targeting one-off business, aim to build joint ventures with potential introducers for ongoing work. There are plenty of people out there who need a copywriter.

Q. What are the most valuable tools (software, books, free resources) you suggest?
A. Looking at the software icons along the dock on my iMac, it shows I regularly use Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. As I dabble in design as well, I also use Adobe InDesign and PhotoShop. I’ve recently been playing with iMovie. Skype is also essential, and is taking the place of the landline. It’s hard to choose what else to recommend. One of my favourite books was The Craft of Copywriting by Alastair Crompton. I also suggest you read CopyBlogger and join the ProCopywriters Network.

Q. Do you think it is valuable to spend time pitching to publications? Or would you advise focusing more on copywriting for businesses?
A. No to the first question. Yes to the second. Businesses potentially pay more.

Q. Is it necessary to have certain qualifications to your name as a freelance copywriter?
A. No. The downside is that anyone can call themselves a copywriter (and many people do). But there’s a difference between being a copywriter – someone who has the skill to write copy that persuades – and just producing ‘content’.

Q. Do you have any advice on structuring your time as a freelancer, between finances, networking, following up, having meetings, blogging, social media, professional development and doing the writing itself?
A. I was advised to split my time in thirds. One third doing the actual writing (earning money). One third marketing (business development, meetings). One third admin (business planning, quotes, invoicing).

Q. What techniques can you suggest for writing within a time limit, and not allowing yourself to continue proofing/revising to fill the time available?
A. Ha, ha! Not sure I can help with this one. Work often expands to fill the time available. All I can say is that copywriters generally work well to a deadline. So get one or give yourself one and work backwards from there.

Q. Do you have any advice for a new copywriter who wants to offer valuable tips and advice without having years of experience behind them?
A. JFDI, as a director of the company where I used to work would say. He was nicknamed “Billy Whizz” but I think he had a point.

Q. Approximately how many clients would you expect to have in order to work full-time as a copywriter?
A. Just checked. Last year, I submitted about 150 invoices. Because I collect 50% payment in advance, that means about 75 copywriting jobs. Much of my work is repeat business, so it represents probably 30-50 clients.

Q. What are the main sources of repeat business?
A. When I write web copy, the client may not come back for two or three years. On the other hand, writing blogs, articles and newsletters is a weekly or monthly task.

Q. How important do you think it is to specialise? Is it best to put yourself forward as a generalist to begin with (i.e. to broaden your appeal as much as possible in order to get some work)?
A. When starting out, you don’t know where the business will come from. It’s supply and demand. When I started, I did the equivalent of spreading my wares on the table and calling: “Roll, up, roll up and buy some”. After a year, I realised more people were buying copywriting than any other service. Funny that. It’s what I’m best at and enjoy most. After another year, I realised they were buying my copywriting because of my ability to make complex information appear simple, and started using the Writing Without Waffle slogan that still serves me well today. All the advice says a niche specialist can charge more, because there’s less competition. So do as I say and not as I do, and specialise if possible.

Q. What have you found to be the best sources of business?
A. Word of mouth, by far. When I look at my last 30 invoices, I see that only one was from a stranger who found me on Google. The rest all came from someone I know in real life or online. First, you have to get out there, go networking, meet people face-to-face and build relationships.

Q. Are most of your clients local? Is geography relevant in the online age?
A. Most of my clients are UK-based, but I have written copy for clients in Australia, South Africa and Malta, run a training session in Vienna, and spoken in Cape Town and Marbella. I’ve worked for my clients in the UK when I was in Greece and New Zealand. Thanks to the Internet, there are no barriers (only time differences, and occasional confusion around VAT).

Q. Have you done much business through agencies (marketing, advertising)? How have you found working with them – benefits, disadvantages?
A. I’ve had longstanding partnerships with various marketing, web design and graphic design agencies. The benefit is that they find the clients and pass you ongoing business. The disadvantage is if they don’t let you liaise direct with the client, or insist you wait until the client pays them before they pay you.

Q. Have you used any of the online exchanges, e.g. Elance?
A. No. They don’t pay enough. For example, I once saw a request for a native English speaker to edit a Rough Guide to Croydon. I thought there couldn’t possibly be anyone better suited to the job, because I grew up in nearby Purley. However, they gave the work to someone in India “because they were cheaper”.

Q. How important is it to have your website optimised for search engines? Is the website a valuable source of business? What keywords have you used?
A. When *you* are what you sell, I suspect word of mouth will always be your best marketing tool, and your website acts as your portfolio. However, I have won some amazing business from my website. I won’t share all my keywords (especially because keywords are increasingly less important as a way of being found on search), but will tell you I have optimised selected landing pages for certain phrases that each win me, probably, one great client per year.

Q. How important is social media to your own marketing? What are the most valuable social media tools?
A. It’s important. I’m on Facebook and Twitter regularly, I don’t use Linkedin or YouTube as much as I should, and hardly use Pinterest or Google+ any more. I used to win a lot of copywriting business from Twitter. Once, I got three enquiries in one week, and converted two of them into clients. Now, I find Twitter is mostly useful for promoting events. These days, many people contact me via Facebook instead of email. I was recently booked for a training course and two copywriting jobs that way.

Q. Any other tips?
A. Lots! Keep reading my blog and tipsheet, attend the copywriting course I run for Journalism.co.uk, and/or contact me to discuss private mentoring.

My thanks to Hanna Gilbert and Kate Carr for allowing me to share their questions. I hope you found the answers useful. If you have any other questions, please add a comment.

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2 Responses to So you want to be a copywriter?

  1. Lucy Banwell July 13, 2016 at 3:44 pm #

    What’s the best way to send over the first draft when you’re submitting copy to a client and how best to take in amends?

    • Jackie July 13, 2016 at 3:47 pm #

      Great question.

      When people are invited for feedback, they naturally feel they have to contribute something, even if it’s just to quibble about a comma.

      Once, I was asked to edit the text ‘live’ on a big screen, as the big boss and his subordinates dictated their changes. One by one, they took out all the good bits I’d put in. When they’d finished, they asked me what I thought. I said: “Hmm, it’s all very well, but it’s now missing x and y”. One by one, they let me put all the good bits back in, slightly differently to before. Happily, that only happened once!

      I find that most creative people prefer clients to come to them with the problem, not the solution. That’s what they pay us for, after all. However, they don’t always do that, and we have to be flexible to suit them.

      It’s tricky when you can’t *present* it in person.

      I usually send my copy via email as a Word attachment.

      Sometimes I will invite a client to use Word’s ‘track changes’ feature. That way, I can see all their comments, choose to accept or ignore their suggestions, and justify my rationale to them with the revised version. I might phone/Skype them to discuss the changes before I make them.

      Often, I will send the initial Word draft with a covering email suggesting we talk it through over the phone/Skype once they’ve had a chance to read it. That way, I can explain why I’ve done what I’ve done, and they are more likely to accept it.

      Hope that helps.

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