How to become a freelance copywriter
Looking for a low-cost start-up opportunity? If you’ve got a way with words and business nous, find out how to start a copywriting business here…
When starting out as a copywriter, important things to think about are:
What is a copywriting business and who is it suited to?
Whether in the form of direct mail, a web page or even a jingle, the copywriter’s job is to use persuasive language to sell or raise awareness of a product, idea or service – a skill that is very much in demand by some of the biggest brands in the world.
Intelligent, powerful copy can convince the casual consumer to switch brand allegiance, generate leads and supercharge sales – the success of a campaign hinges on the quality of its written content.
Requiring only an internet connection and a laptop, as you will see from our section on costs, copywriting represents a very affordable start-up opportunity for someone with a good grasp of grammar and a way with words.
Helen Dibble, founder of Incredible Copy, describes the copywriter’s job as one that “helps you explore and understand your brand narrative, telling your story in a way that appeals to your target audience, and finding a tone of voice that fits.”
A comprehensive understanding of the English language is a must – a major marketing campaign could become a laughing stock at the mercy of a stray apostrophe – but not just any willing wordsmith can make it as a copywriter; as Laurence Blume explains, a freelance copywriter with 20 years of experience in the trade:
“Copywriting is a business skill, involving an interest in and understanding of business […] along with a facility for sifting and organising information, communicating clearly and persuading by a variety of more or less overt means. It’s not like being a novelist, poet, playwright, essayist […] or even a journalist,” he states.
In fact, “people with experience in business and marketing often make better copywriters than those who come from a writing background.
Of course “you’ll need to love language”, claims Howard Smith, founder of No Sloppy Copy, who defines his role as providing “a professional writing service to support a client’s advertising, marketing, branding and public relations.” But as well as adhering to good writing practice, professional copywriters need to “use techniques that make their copy arresting, engaging, credible and persuasive.”
“You’ll also need to be a quick learner as you’ll come up against new concepts, products and services all the time – some of them technical,” continues Smith. But there’s one more essential tool in the consummate copywriter’s toolkit: “Most importantly […] you’ll need to understand people – their concerns, priorities and the language they respond to.”
Dibble thinks the right mindset is essential: “There is agony to writing, the struggle to find the perfect fit, the perfect words. Sometimes that’s crucial, sometimes not so much. It depends on the output. But a mind that can adapt to the demands of the piece – its purpose – is essential.”
Blume has one final warning for the aspiring copywriter: “Do not harbour any misapprehensions that you are an artist”.
If you’re happy sacrificing art for salary, consider yourself a competent writer and have a solid understanding of business and marketing then read on to find out how to set yourself up as a copywriter.
Creating a copywriting business plan
Although it’s relatively hassle free and low cost to set yourself up as a copywriter, this lends itself to creating a very competitive space and writing a business plan will ensure you stay focused on where you’re going and what you’re trying to achieve.
Going in trigger happy and willing to take on any work for any price is a surefire way to burn out and get bogged down under a flood of disparate projects. As with many services, it helps to find a niche to enable you to hone your craft and target customers.
London-based copywriter Blume says a business plan should “focus your own thinking” if you’re writing it for a one-man copywriting venture. But you should “still go through the usual business plan stages of considering the competitive landscape, what your strengths are, what your biggest vulnerabilities are, who your potential customers are and how you plan to reach them, as well as through the pragmatic step of drawing up some financial projections.”
“You should know before you begin, on paper, how it’s meant to work and why you believe it will succeed,” he adds.
If you don’t possess a great deal of numerical or financial savvy you should get in touch with a good local accountant to help you keep your affairs in check and above board. You’ll also need to register as self-employed with HM Revenue and Customs to ensure you pay the correct tax.
Though admitting that he “never made one”, Smith agrees that the “most important thing to decide is how you want to work. Some copywriters work directly for end clients, while others work as outsourced freelance help for advertising, PR, design and digital agencies. Some work on a contract basis, taking on fixed term contracts for one client at a time, while others work on an ad hoc basis for a range of clients every day.”
While you can try different ways of working to see which you prefer, “deciding how you want to work will help you determine what business structure is best for you. Options include setting up your own limited company, working through an umbrella company or operating as a sole trader.”
Dibble warns that when deciding what kind of work to do you shouldn’t “spread yourself too thin – it’s best to go ‘deep’ into a few organisations or projects than do a little bit for lots of organisations here and there.”
On the contrary, Smith thinks you shouldn’t “box yourself in by trying to specialise from the outset – try everything, build your portfolio and then decide if there’s an area you want to concentrate on.”
On a similar note, Dibble advises any aspiring copywriter not to attempt to “be a master of all trades – most copywriters have a preference for a certain style of writing.” This is where it helps to have a team of professionals who have different skills or knowledge of specific industries: “Find others who can fill the gaps and don’t be afraid to collaborate with other writers.”
When a copywriting business starts to take on professional copywriters and provide them with work it can become more of a copywriting agency. An agency can employ staff or freelance copywriters to provide services to businesses on a for-hire or per-project basis.
Starting a copywriting business: Rules and regulations
Another advantage of setting up a copywriting business is the lack of red tape involved, meaning you can get up and running without any qualifications and very little hassle.
However, you do need to follow copyright rules – Dibble explains: “From an integrity point of view, any copywriter would want all work to be original and to cite references as appropriate. From an SEO point of view, content must be at least 35% original to not impact on SEO rankings, so being original is all the more vital.”
Additionally, “it’s important to stipulate who owns the work once the project is complete (in almost every case this is the client, but it’s important to clarify).”
Blume says there is “virtually none. It’s a curiously unregulated profession. You don’t have to be registered or certificated by anyone at all.”
Smith agrees but says that “you’ll need a good working knowledge of the UK Advertising Codes” as “some industries are subject to specific guidelines that regulate the promotion of their products and services” such as tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceuticals and financial services.
“Very often, clients will ask you to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) before hiring you”, he adds, “Always respect these.”
How much does it cost to start your own copywriting business?
There are very few overheads to take into account when starting a copywriting business – as long as “you have the ability and a desire to write, a phone, a laptop, an internet connection,” you can set yourself up as a freelance copywriter, asserts Dibble.
“Almost nothing,” Smith agrees, “you can get started with a laptop, a mobile phone and a broadband connection. In time, you’ll probably want a website (more on website costs here), maybe a dedicated office and, who knows, staff!”
If you’re going to use a dedicated space in your home as an office then a “quiet, clear, well lit […] space in which to work, a nice large screen to work on and a variety of other comforts” is conducive to a good work ethic and mood, suggests Blume. Having an office that’s separate from your living space will help you separate your home and working life and help you avoid distractions.
If you do choose to set up an office in your own house, our guide to creating the ultimate home office will help you create a space that encourages good working habits.
Alternatively, if you feel you can afford it, you could choose a co-workspace so you still benefit from the advantages of a social environment. There are a huge variety of spaces available with options ranging from pay-per day hot-desking to longer-term desk rental. Have a look at our guide to co-working spaces in London and around the UK to decide what might be right for you.
Or, as Blume points out, you could just work in a café: “If you have a laptop with MS Word (or Pages, these days) running on it, can find an empty table in a café and can run to the cost of putting up a simple website, you’re basically in business. You don’t need to set up a Limited company if you don’t want to. You can be a sole trader copywriting business from today.”
As Incredible Copy has scaled it’s begun to incur more overheads, explains Dibble: “My time is spent facilitating strategy sessions with clients before developing content plans and briefs, and then briefing and managing a team of copywriters. It used to just be me, so the process is now more complex.”
Also, it’s wise to remember that time spent on general upkeep and administration equates to cost as well: “Project and resource planning, marketing and business development, the right level of insurance plus all the things that are important to Incredible’s values – making sure the team are writing about things they’re interested in; providing a virtual support network and resources; developing and sustaining a culture of creativity, experimentation and learning – all take time and investment.”
How much can you earn running your own copywriting business?
This will depend on how much work you’re prepared to take on, what kind of work you do and how much you charge.
While some forms of copywriting are more lucrative, they can also be more competitive and harder to find work in.
“As an experienced freelance writer working alone, you can earn a healthy six-figure salary”, reveals Blume, but “as a beginner, available full-time, you might expect to sell maybe 30% – 50% of your available days and so earn somewhere between say £15,000 and £25,000.”
Despite having a reputation for being poorly paid, Dibble claims that “it doesn’t have to be that way.” Her advice: “Don’t play small. If you’re a talented writer, there are people and organisations out there willing to pay for it.”
The real money is in “project work – especially from organisations who recognise the need for good copy,” she continues, “an entire website plus sales or marketing collateral, leading on to ongoing content creation (i.e. blogs, email marketing etc.) is a good example. The relationship is built early on, along with trust, leading to retained work month-on-month.”
Dibble suggests finding work from creative or marketing agencies to “deliver enough volume and variety of work to make things profitable and interesting,” but adds that, “a direct relationship with a client builds your reputation in other ways and can be just, if not more, rewarding.”
Smith also thinks it’s important to build lasting relationships: “In the long term, your most profitable clients will be those you develop the best relationships with. It’s far more lucrative to be immersed in fee-earning work with clients you know and enjoy working with than spending money applying for new contracts, travelling to meetings and pitching for new clients.”
Smith advises ignoring the “‘I wrote a sales letter and made $27,000 in one afternoon’ emails – very few copywriters make that sort of money” – rather “the better (and faster) you get, the more you can earn.”
In his opinion, writing copy for a niche is the best way to pull in regular money: “Pharmaceuticals, IT, finance etc., you can earn up to £600 per day.” However, “specialising gets harder over the longer term because you miss the wider commercial insights and exposure to writing styles that working with a diverse client base gives you.”
Blume concludes that: “for most people, the most lucrative path will be to work with the clients they can attract, do good work, build relationships and be persistent. Ultimately you can do very nicely as a copywriter, but if ‘maximum lucrativeness’ is a driver for you, there may be better professions to consider.”
Can you work with clients who live in different countries?
One of the benefits of freelance copywriting is you have the freedom to work with clients all around the world. One of the considerations is figuring out the best way to get paid by a client in a foreign country.
It’s important to remember to take into account exchange rates when you quote or accept projects. Also remember there may be international fees charged by whatever service you use to get paid.
Keep in mind the costs could change depending on what providers you choose.
Even if you think getting paid via your bank or PayPal is convenient, they’re not always the most cost effective. If your client pays you in their currency, banks and the likes of PayPal will typically convert the money at an inflated exchange rate. This means you’ll end up receiving less money in your account. You may even get charged an international payment receiving fee.
Other providers can be cheaper. Try TransferWise – it’s a multi-currency account that comes with bank account details for the US, Eurozone, UK, and Australia, so your clients can pay you in USD, EUR, GBP, and AUD. This helps you avoid bad exchange rates and receiving fees. It’s easy to convert the money back to your home currency within your account. You also can hold over 40 currencies in the account.
And, if your client wants to pay you in a different currency, they can still pay you with TransferWise and get the mid-market exchange rate. All they’ll pay is a small, upfront fee which they can see before they make the payment. They’ll get a better exchange rate on their payment, and you’ll end up receiving more of your money.
Tips and useful contacts
- It’s not enough to be a good writer – take the time to learn about business and marketing
- Make sure you thoroughly research the topic you’re going to be writing about
- Don’t spread yourself too thin and try and be a jack of all trades
- BUT: don’t box yourself in too specifically from the outset
- Make sure you stipulate who owns the work upon its completion – you or the client
- The Professional Copywriters’ Network: An online community of UK copywriters
- The Professional Copywriters Association: Association to help members build a scalable and profitable copywriting business
- Copyblogger: A US-based blog with a back catalogue of e-books and guides
- Writers’ Copyright Association: Offering help to protect the work of writers globally
- Society for Editors and Proofreaders: Professional organization for UK editors and proofreaders