Interview with a freelance copywriter

Interview with a freelance copywriterLast week, I was delighted to be one of several freelance copywriters to be interviewed for an article on the IdeasTap website. IdeasTap is an arts charity that helps young, creative people break into their chosen careers; the article was about corporate copywriting. As the writer, John Nugent, was only able to use a few of the quotes, he suggested that I publish his full interview with me on my blog. So here it is.

Although it’s aimed at people breaking into copywriting, there are some helpful hints and tips for business owners too.


How did you start out as a copywriter?

I know it probably sounds like a cliché but I always knew I wanted to earn a living from writing. I completed a degree in English Studies (Language and Literature) at The University of Nottingham in 1996 but left uni with no idea what to do next.

Fortune smiled on me and I landed a job in the Duty Office (viewers’ enquiries department) for Channel 5 Television when it launched (the stories I could tell!). Although I was managing one of the teams instead of writing, this job taught me loads about research, a skill I would later need as a copywriter.

In 2001, I decided to move back to my university town of Nottingham and I saw a job going as Publications Copywriter for Nottingham Trent University. I took a chance and applied even though I didn’t have any copywriting experience. Luckily, the interview went well and I got the job.

Pretty soon, I realised that I love writing but hate working nine to five, which is why I decided to go freelance in 2003.


How do you approach companies/clients about freelance copywriting? How would you advise young writers to obtain paid freelance copywriting work?

When I started out, I sat down with a phone book and my very slow internet connection (remember, this was 2003) and identified 100 Nottingham-based marketing and design agencies, as well as corporate companies, that I wanted to work with.

I created a four-page leaflet, found a great deal on getting it printed, wrote a direct mail letter and sent them both out. The design of the leaflet was awful but something about the concept stood out. Twelve out of the hundred companies became clients and none of them asked to see a portfolio.

I used to be open about my inexperience but would ask new clients to let the work I did for them speak for itself. Fortunately, most became repeat customers.

Nowadays, I take a different approach that works well for me and I imagine would work well for anyone wanting to break into corporate copywriting. I have a popular Facebook page (it’s getting close to 1000 likes) and update this every day with copywriting hints, tips, inspirational quotes, blog posts, etc. I also use Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ and LinkedIn to engage with potential clients.

In addition, I write a weekly blog on my website offering copywriting advice. This forms the basis of my weekly newsletter, which goes out to my mailing list of people who have signed up via my website or Facebook page. I will soon be offering a free ebook on my website too.

For someone who is an inexperienced writer, creating a blog or an irresistible freebie like an ebook is a great way of showcasing their talent.


There are many different types of corporate copywriting – is there one particular discipline you specialise in, or one that seems to take precedence over others (that has the most work available, perhaps)? Or do you try to be flexible?

At the end of last year, I did a business programme with a marketing/business coach and her very sage advice was to niche. I’m still working on that but it’s great advice!

At the moment, I work with clients from a wide range of sectors. I started out writing exclusively for print but over the last five years, my business has made a massive shift towards online copywriting. These days, I spend most of my time writing website copy, ebooks and blogs.


How important is an understanding of SEO and other online factors?

I think it’s essential to have a working knowledge of SEO in 2013, post-Google Panda and Penguin. There’s a lot of outdated SEO advice out there that can get websites penalised now.

For my small business clients, who make up most of my current portfolio, it’s essential that I have an understanding of SEO because they often don’t have time to research it themselves and cannot afford to work with an SEO specialist. I have design and marketing agency clients though who like that I understand good SEO but could cope if I didn’t because they have someone in-house. Personally, I believe that SEO should underpin all good online copywriting. I’m not talking about keyword stuffing here. You have to know what vocabulary people are using to search for a company, service or product in order to get a website found. Too often, SEO is an afterthought and it shouldn’t be.

These days, SEO is about high quality content, high quality links and social media. I always write with this in mind.


How do you write about subjects you know little about? How much of your job is research?

A lot of a copywriter’s job is about doing your research. It’s something I love and realised I was very good at in my Channel 5 days. I’m a knowledge junkie and love learning about new, unfamiliar things then finding a way to make them accessible to someone else.

Personally, I like to give my clients a briefing form to work through, or work through it with them. This gets them to really focus on who their ideal customer is, the goals for their copy, their main calls to action, and key features that I then turn into benefits. My mind is constantly mulling over each project I’m working on looking for that hook, the thing that will resonate with a business’s ideal customer and make them almost self-select by thinking, “Wow, how did they know? They’re talking about me”.


What are the main things clients generally ask for in your work? How does copywriting differ from other forms of writing (i.e. journalism)?

A lot of my clients at the moment are women business owners who have been juggling everything in their business, alongside raising a young family. Copywriting is often something that they don’t enjoy or doesn’t come naturally, or it takes them away from their core business, so it either gets put to the bottom of the ‘to-do’ pile or they muddle through. They want me to find a way to connect with their customers, to create a tone of voice and content that resonates and spurs readers into action.

Larger, corporate clients want a similar thing in terms of creating words that deliver results but they may already have a strong tone of voice, a style guide and a strong marketing strategy.

I think copywriting and journalism have different rhythms and goals in many ways. Copywriting is all about that all-important call to action, of knowing why every word is on the page and compelling the reader to respond in a certain way. It’s about connecting with someone’s emotions – the ‘why’ of being in business rather than the ‘what’ and ‘how’. It helps to have a background in marketing. Of course, journalists need to create a hook and tell a story but they write more about the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’.


How do you set fees for your work?

I find setting my fees is a constant challenge because there are no industry standards.

My advice to anyone considering freelance copywriting is that you never charge by the word. Headlines, for example, may only be a few words but are crucial to getting copy read (eight out of ten people read a headline, only two out of ten read the body copy). It’s a nightmare to only be paid for the number of words on a page.

An hourly rate can be tricky too – if you work quickly, you suffer, and if you’re having a bad day, the client suffers. It’s better to agree a fixed project price in my experience.

It does help to work out how long you think a project will take you and have your minimum acceptable hourly rate in your mind. Work out your annual personal and business overheads divided by hours you plan to spend on client work each year, then add 20% for tax.

Remember though, not every hour is billable. You won’t spend all your time on client work because you have your own marketing, bookkeeping, social media, blogs, etc. to manage.


Do you have any other advice to give to writers starting out? What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

I didn’t realise how lonely life as a freelancer can be, and that it really is a case of feast and famine sometimes.

I would advise writers starting out to get out there and join networking groups (it’s a great way to foster word of mouth recommendations) and to look for online networking opportunities too. I am a member of a very large Facebook group for female entrepreneurs and the support they give me is amazing. I make sure that I arrange to see one of my ‘real life’ friends at least once a week as it keeps me sane.

I’d also tell people to be clear about their pricing. I know it’s tempting to say yes to every chance of work, especially when you’re building your portfolio, but please don’t find yourself working for content mill rates. If you can demonstrate the value of your work, people shouldn’t choose you based on price alone. If you must give your work away for free, do that in your spare time – for example, you could volunteer to write for a charity that’s close to your heart in exchange for being able to use the work in your portfolio. Alternatively, you could take to Facebook to find people who are willing to do a skills swap with you, i.e. you write a blog post for them and they take a headshot of you that you can use on LinkedIn.

While I’m on the subject of blog posts, find companies with a similar target market to yours and ask whether you could write a guest blog for them. It’s a great way of building your portfolio and getting your name in front of new people.


If you enjoyed this interview, please pop over to my Facebook page to say hello.

photo credit: LifeSupercharger via photopin cc

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