Making a Living as a Copywriter; Freelancing Versus Agency
So You Want To be A Copywriter?
Wannabe copywriters often check out my site for information relating to my services and fees. And quite right too! I still give my competitor's websites a 'gander' every now and then, in case they're doing something that I should be doing.
I receive many emails from students working towards their marketing or other media degrees, asking for a few tips about securing work in the 'Copywriting Industry' I didn't realise we had an industry! If we have, it's surely a cottage industry because most copywriters are freelancers who work on their own and usually from home.
"Well what about advertising and marketing agencies?", They enquire. "Well what about them?", I ask. And so it goes on and on until they realise that a copywriter who works for a structured and institutional organisation, is a totally different animal to that of the freelancer.
Institutional versus Freelance
So what are the differences between them? There are many. Let's look at the agency writer. He or she is likely a talented person with creative skills and a good command of the English language. They will have learned, from their course work, the psychology of selling, aspects of communication and how to write in a flowing and interesting style.
Each day, at the agency office, they will work on their assignments, which have been delegated to them by their manager. Their work will be scrutinised by their manager or team leader, who, in the interests of their company, will decide whether it's worthy of publication.
After a couple of years, doing similar 'run of the mill' stuff, they may be offered the opportunity of coming up with something completely original. All by themselves, with no guidance, un-tethered by their mentor. And, in the interests of the company, not to mention their job security, they will produce something as institutional as they have been doing previously. They'll play it safe. Well wouldn't you?
Eventually, their creative awareness and talent may break through the institutional membrane and they'll want to move on. They'll want to do something for themselves. They may even become a freelancer.
A freelancer is just about anyone with a passion and a flair for writing. Some have started out on their career path by working for agencies, some have graduated in English and just feel 'qualified' to do the job, whilst others come into the 'industry' from a variety of other routes.
By whichever means, once they become a freelancer, they quickly learn to survive. To survive and prosper as a freelancer you must have the ability to adapt, diversify and develop the skill of writing in any and every style humanly possible. But there's more! You will have to meet deadlines, sometimes work for less than the lower national wage limit and learn to turn your brain inside out. Sounds painful!
What does it all amount to? What's the bottom line?
Let's summarise thus far.
A copywriter working for an agency will work in a nice warm office with nice friendly colleagues, writing simple institutional letters, brochures, ads and information packs. They'll be paid somewhere between 18K to 26K, get 4 to 5 weeks annual paid holiday and get to slag off the boss at the office Christmas party.
Sounds pretty good to me. If you want to be a copywriter, I recommend you go down this path. It offers a good salary and a steady secure position.
The freelancer's life is not so clear cut. They mostly work on their own, write all kinds of stuff about everything and wonder where their next packet of fags is going come from. They only take short breaks, get stressed and slag everyone off at any party.
They're self-employed, so have to keep accounts. They have to buy all their own stationery, stuff their own letters and post off their mailings. They have to advertise or even worse, they have to compete to sell their services for a pittance to unknown clients through some online freelance website. The pits! Sounds terrible doesn't it? Then why do we do it?
The uncovered truth about freelancing
Well, obviously I can't speak for everyone so I'll tell you why I do it and how I do it. "Listen up"
The main reason I write for a living is because I love it. I've always been a creative person so writing comes as second nature. And let's face it, it's not very difficult to do.
I love the challenge that each assignment brings. I have ghost-written several books for clients and each has been on a completely different subject. The downside of ghost-writing is having to sign away all rights to the work, which means you can't showcase it or put it in your portfolio. The client gets all the credit for your masterpiece.
I've written many articles for websites, emails and sales letters. I write poetry, humour and boring stuff like FAQ's and product information. But I'm never bored because the work can be so varied.
Then there's the money of course. A good freelancer should be able to make around 50K a year. Some make less but some can make over 100K a year. There really is no limit. Make a name for yourself and not only will you be earning a good living, you could possibly find yourself in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose the work you do.
Still want to be a copywriter?
Good! Now let's dispel a few myths by answering a few questions that I get asked all the time.
The 6 Most Frequently Asked Questions
1. Do you need a formal education and a degree? No way! Although most agencies will only employ graduates, there's no reason why a freelancer needs anything other than a good command of the English language, creativity and a flare for writing. There are many copywriting courses available, if you're a little unsure or want to hone your skills, but make sure the course work is set by an experienced and reputable copywriter.
2. Can previous work experience help? Yes! Sales and marketing experience is very useful if you intend to make a living as a sales copywriter. At the very least, you should understand the sales process and the customer service aspect.
3. I don't have a portfolio. How can I get work? Create one! Write some articles, write a small book, write some sales letters, brochures and emails. Show what you can do. Write for free. Write for charities, magazines or newspaper letter pages. Use your imagination and write about anything.
4. Where are the best places to get work? You could try contacting marketing agencies by way of a letter of introduction, but don't hold your breath. Magazines are always looking for fillers, so this would be a good place to start. Local small businesses might be interested in having some leaflets written for door to door delivery. Contact them by letter, listing your services and your rates.
When you have gained a little experience, go online and subscribe to some of the freelance websites. Elance, Freelance Work Exchange and Getafreelancer are quite good, but be prepared to compete with other bidders from all over the world. Some Indian freelancers will work for as little #3 an hour, so you're up against it. Still, I think it's worth the experience. I get some of my assignments this way.
Build a website or have someone do it for you. I'm of the opinion that all businesses should have a website if they want to stay in business.
Create a mail shot and work your way through your local Yellow Pages. Sell yourself. It's what you will have to do anyway, so get used to it.
5. What should I charge for my services? This is just a guide. You'll instinctively know when you've become established.
A one page letter consists of around 500 words and should take no more than 2 hours to write, revise and finalise. If you want #10 an hour, that'll be #20 for the job. Don't bother quoting a price per word as you'll find yourself writing a load of drivel in order to fill the pages.
Again, once you're established you can charge what you think your work is worth. It's not uncommon to charge #400 for a 6 page sales letter, if you're good.
6. What do you think is the most essential skill of a successful copywriter? If you can't do this, you won't be very successful.
"Write as you talk"
That's it! You must be able to communicate with your reader right off the page. Your words must be conversational. You must be able to 'speak' to your reader and stir their interest, their emotions, their desires.
If you're trying to sell them something, you must be convincing. Your letter has to be compelling and attention-grabbing. Finally, your letter has to make them take some action. This could be filling in a form, making a phone call or writing a cheque. It's a call to action.
Still think you have what it takes? Then go forth and return with the bountiful harvest of your creative genius!
Good luck and warm regards,
(# denotes GBP or US Dollars)
Bill Knight is a professional International Copywriter based in the UK. To learn more visit: knight-writer.co.uk
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