Freelance life

Q. Andy, should I become a freelance copywriter? A. Do you have a hide like a rhinoceros?

White Rhino headshot
A thick skin can be very helpful for freelance copywriters.

Should you become a copywriter?

Here’s the good news.

Copywriters get to spend their days writing.

Copywriters can make good money.

Copywriters generally enjoy what they do.

And here’s the bad news.

Copywriters have to deal with people who think they can do it better.

Copywriters can end up working for a pittance.

Copywriters can feel lonely, isolated and bored.

So what’s the difference, and how can you tell whether you are cut out for the copywriting life?

First of all, we need to focus a little bit on defining what we mean by ‘copywriter’.

There are, essentially, four types of copywriter.

First of all, the agency copywriter. She works within an advertising or marketing agency, writing campaigns for the agency’s clients.

Second, the freelance copywriter. He works for whoever hires him. Some freelance copywriters work for agencies. Others work directly for the people selling the product.

Third, the marketing executive. She does all sorts of things as part of her job, and one of them is writing copy.

Fourth, the entrepreneur or solopreneur.  He is building a business, often on the web, and writes his own copy.

Most people, when they think “should I become a copywriter” are thinking about the first two categories.

So. What do you need in the way of skills and attributes to be an agency copywriter or a freelance copywriter?

This might sound obvious, but you do need to be good at WRITING.

If you are great on the phone or face-to-face but struggle to communicate  your thoughts and ideas in writing, copywriting is always going to be a struggle.

Sure, you can learn the basics, but it will always  feel like hard work.

But there’s more to copywriting, much more, than being good at spelling, grammar and punctuation. They are what you might call ‘hygiene factors’ – necessary but boring.

The real skill you need to have as a copywriter is the ability to figure out what’s troubling your reader and tune into that.

Typically, you’re trying to sell something that solves a problem. Understanding how a person with that problem feels is critical.

That means you need to have EMPATHY.

Now, in order not to sound dull and boring, like any other hack churning out emails, web copy, advertising or direct mail, you need to be curious about the world.

To you, a delayed train or an over-running dentist is a golden opportunity to catch up on your READING.

What do you read? Everything.

You read:

Newspapers. Tabloids as well as broadsheets.

Magazines. Women’s glossies. Men’s lifestyle. Specialist interest. Business.  Science. Technology. Leisure.

Books. Thrillers. Biographies. Literary fiction. Factual books. Poetry. Essays. Art books.

Philosophy. Advertising, sales, marketing and copywriting.

Marketing stuff. Ads, mailers, emails, landing pages, banner ads, packaging.

Reading is where we get ideas. The more we read, the more ideas we have.

Now, how about some sector-specific attributes?

If you want to work in an agency (which, incidentally, is fiendishly difficult to break into thanks to the law of supply and demand) you are going to need to be able to work as a part of a TEAM.

Sure you can be the quirky maverick, in fact that’s probably a very good idea.

But at some level you have to be comfortable working with a range of other people who have an interest in how the campaign you’re writing turns out. They will include account handlers, art directors and planners.

Getting a full-time agency gig is probably only going to happen straight from college or university. You will  probably end up interning. Don’t worry if you don’t have a degree in advertising or marketing or even English.

Agencies are far more interested in your ability to think creatively. That could mean a degree in molecular biology or aerodynamics.

Freelancing for agencies is an easier proposition, though by no means a walk in the park.

Let’s turn our attention to freelancing.

Today you’re a student. Or a garage mechanic. Or an accountant.

Tomorrow you could be a freelance copywriter.

Here’s what you need to do.

One, get out of bed.

Two, announce “I am a freelance copywriter”.

Three, er, that’s it.

You see, freelance copywriting is a totally unregulated, unstructured industry.

There are no minimum entry requirements. No code of practice. No accreditation. No exams. Nothing.

Of course, being something and succeeding at it are two completely separate things.

I just want to make the point that anyone can set themselves up as a freelance copywriter. A bit like being a psychotherapist. Or spiritual healer.

To be a successful freelance copywriter you will need a few extra attributes apart from your ability to write, read and empathies.

Team-working is less important, though not completely. You will, still, be working with, or, occasionally, through other people.

You will definitely need the ability to SELL.

Unless you have the sort of magnetic personality and movie-star looks that make people fall over themselves to be associated with you, you will need to get out there and hustle.

By all means have a Twitter account, blog, website and LinkedIn profile.

But don’t, for a minute, think that this is enough.

Whether you only deal with inbound calls and emails or go out into the real world, you will have to be able to persuade people (potential clients, I mean) that they should hire you rather than somebody else.

You will also need the HIDE OF A RHINOCEROS.

Can you cope with rejection? Criticism? Rudeness? Ignorance?

From time to time, every freelance copywriter comes up against these reactions to their work.

The mantra they repeat (if they have any sense) is: It’s business, not personal.

This is not your poetry, diary, or precious first novel they don’t like, it’s copy. They are paying for it and may, on that basis alone, decide it’s not right.

You can argue your case, indeed, you should argue your case, but in the end, it’s the old story about pipers, pay and tunes.

Let’s wrap this up then.

Would I advise you to take up copywriting as a career? Absolutely!

For me, it’s been well paid, enjoyable and socially and intellectually stimulating.

So give it a go. What have you got to lose?

1 Comment(s)

  1. Ben Lloyd

    I can identify with all the points raised here as they echo my personal experience. It is hard to emphasise just how important hustle is if freelancing is to become a viable gig though!

    29th April 2013 at 10:10 am | Reply

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