How to get rich on copywriting

This is the gussied-up version of a talk I did with my copybuddies in May 2016. We wanted to welcome new copywriters (which is why we called it ‘Welcome to Copywriting’) and help them feel part of the community.

I’m not here to tell you how to get yacht rich. I’m talking about living rich. The kind of rich where you can have a car and still eat; the kind of rich where your mum doesn’t keep suggesting maybe you do an accountancy course instead.

It’s the only rich I have so far, so that’s all I can really talk about.

Our craft is worth money

Get it into your head that you are worth money. You can do something other people can’t and no business can function without one of you.

When you are a copywriter, you are both a builder and a poet. People expect you to fulfil functional instructions but also delight the senses with your prose. It’s a big job but the expansiveness is what makes us something a bit special. We have word magic — and that is a thing usually attached to a brain capable of a lot more than ‘just’ writing.

The copywriter is there at the birth of a brand. They’re usually the one responsible for establishing what the brand stands for; whether it’s dream or zingcrescendo or dog.

The copywriter is there when more people come along, grubbing around in the brand with ignorant fingers. They write the guidelines telling people to stop using American spellings or to please remember that the brand doesn’t associate with the word ‘solutions.’

The copywriter is there when the company dips its toe in the world of radio advertising, when it launches its first national billboard campaign, when it sponsors the London Marathon.

And the copywriter is there when the CEO needs an email typed up real quick. Hey, no one said it would be all glamour, all the time.

What else do we do that makes us worth bucks?

Whatever stage of your career you’re at, you’ll probably be aware that when you get hired as a writer, that’s not the end. Sure, you’ll write — here and there.

But you may find that the job description didn’t mention — the person writing it didn’t GRASP — that you’ll be doing a whole lot more than that. In fact, 95% of copywriters, including me, told ProCopywriters that they do other marketing stuff as well as writing.

Because we’re good thinkers, because we store a lot of information and we get things done quickly and accurately, we’re naturally relied on by others. That can be a really good thing, because you should be aiming to get to a position where your company or clients CANNOT DO WITHOUT YOU. CANNOT. Like, they cry when you go on holiday.

It is up to you to decide what you won’t do. Personally, I don’t do typing up JPEGs (get me the original file or I am not playing this game with you) and I don’t do tea rounds.

Apart from that, I have tried to take on as many ridiculous tasks as possible because each time I do something that ‘isn’t my job,’ I level up and someone in my company is aware I’m a fucking boss. Writing really gets you all over a business, whether you’re in-house or freelance.

In my opinion, these are the things you need to be able to do:

  • basic code will mean you can build amazing posts in a CMS like WordPress, making your process faster and making you very cool.
  • editing images — same thing. You do not want to be waiting two hours for a designer to remove some bloody red eye when a journalist is on deadline.
  • wireframing is SO important if you care at all about content architecture — and you should because it can really affect your message. Where your copy goes on a page is intrinsic to its meaning and power. If you can wireframe, you can make sure that power isn’t diminished.

These first three make it MUCH easier to communicate with designers, developers and so on. Having basic knowledge means a slick process and no one thinks anyone else is an idiot.

Then come your product add-ons. Say you’re writing a website for a client who’s just starting up and wants to do everything by the book. Trouble is, he’s only heard about the book — never read it. Offer to annotate the copy for the designer. Offer to write the metadata. Offer to do him a monthly site review. *Riches* and an account you’re ALL over.

Making copywriting pay takes a while and isn’t easy

Do more than your day job

If you want more than you currently have, you can’t expect to be working nine to five. There’s all this noise around employers needing to give their people a flexible working culture and free ice cream on Fridays but when it comes down to it, that stuff isn’t what helps you grow. You have to find you own value in every situation and exploit it.

Get a regular gig you can rely on and do in your sleep

The bread and butter that keeps the wolves from the door. Hungry, hungry wolves that come in the night to eat your dreams. Something like a weekly blog for a local design agency or product description writing — quick, dependable and something you can do easily once you’re in the swing.

Find yourself an elder to get work overflow from

Established copywriters (or lazy ones — hey) will often have more work than they want to do. If you can get yourself into a position where they know your work and they’ve met you and know you’re not a dick, you are well-placed to take the work they don’t want. The added pressure of your work reflecting on them will be beyond valuable.

Be the best at what you do

Simple, right? But I don’t even mean be the best copywriter there ever was. I mean try harder. Be THERE, volunteer for things, take out the trash. I got ahead when I was in my early-early 20s because I was prepared to go beyond what my peers would. I used to call our office the youth club because it was filled with new grads biding time until they could go somewhere more worthy of them. I, on the other hand, was a dropout who was just grateful not to be a team leader at Wetherspoon’s anymore.

Be easy to work with — make everyone’s life easier

That means anything from formatting your work so it’s clear for a designer to labelling files consistently to picking up emails in good time.

Stay attractive to potential clients. Don’t relax

Don’t leave your CV and portfolio to fester and don’t stop thinking about how you look to future employers. You don’t want a year-long gap in your online profile while you have a nice time at your current job. That shit is damaging. Keep writing a blog, keep entering competitions, keep emailing people.

Make friends

Together, your knowledge is unstoppable and your network wide. They pass on work, they help you with clients, they are your squad.

Level up your (self) worth

There are differentiators that you might not get told about, that make you stand out. Stuff most of us have picked up here and there over the years from reading everything, from stealing ideas and — more often than not — being put in our place by more experienced copywriters,

Cadence, meter, verisimilitude and delivery are what make your copy sound like a real human said it; what makes a piece sound finished and trigger emotional responses. (Cadence can also do fun things like make your copy sound like a train.) I personally don’t think you can teach cadence — it comes from your own personal sense of rhythm. And to work on yours, you should read…dun dun duhhhhh, poetry! Yes, and write it too. I really quite hate most poetry but that doesn’t matter. Read yourself some poetry and short stories, and collect snippets that sound RIGHT for your swipe file. You know, RIGHT, deep in your soul.

Oh, books!

No, not the latest Stephen King. Stuff you can put on your expenses without your accountant getting uneasy. Get yourself a style book you live and die by (except when you disagree, obviously) so you have a solid base to return to when you’re trying to set a rule for something, like DO WE BLOODY CAPITALISE JOB TITLES? DO WE?!

My personal ride or die is the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors because it has lots of useful things…like how to pluralise eucalyptus. But not whether Beyoncé needs an accent on the e (of course it does), which pissed me off recently.

Do free courses

There are so many online; you have only to look. I just completed Google’s online marketing certification, which is through their platform The Digital Garage. It was a pretty good approximation of the basic knowledge you should have of digital — stuff like display advertising, social media, e-commerce and so on. An hour later, another line on my CV.

Go to events

Go to things that are nothing to do with your industry or what you do. It’s all great inspiration and mind-buffing, but it’s more than that. Meeting people from all walks of life is an opportunity. People are so jaded towards the recruitment industry that in creative fields, word of mouth and just having conversations is how this stuff gets done. Recruitment is bloody expensive and from a hiring manager’s point of view, very frustrating. On the other hand, if you get a recommendation or you see a person’s work or you’re introduced by someone you like and trust, that’s the guy. People judge you on the connections you have in common, so get out there.

These things form your secret arsenal. But with these few power-ups, you’re above most of the competition. Musical delivery, quick concepts and the rules that govern your voice and promise beautiful, blessed, sainted CONSISTENCY. Done.

Buy what you need, use your deductible expenses, get out to meet people and see things outside of your usual day — it’s an investment in your business.

What to charge

I recently emailed my copyfather, Chris Miller, panicking about something I’d written on the gender pay gap in copywriting — with the subject “Daaaaadddyyyyyyyy, help meeeeeeee.” His reply included the words:

“With a freelance job I didn’t get last week — a rare case of my pitching against other copywriters — I found I’d put in the lowest quote by miles. And I’d AGONISED over that figure.”

The long and short of it is — none of us knows what the fuck we’re doing and we’re often undercharging. People are so private about money that no one has a benchmark; we’re all just making it up and being grateful for what we can get. For two years, I based my freelance rates on the shite money I’d been given by the first PR agency I odd jobbed for. Idiot.

Once I’d started getting into the copywriting community and actually talking to other writers, I was much more able to weigh up what I should charge. Less because I knew what they were earning and more because they rationalised for me what our skills are worth. If I write a product description that sells 10 products in a day, my work is paid for. Always think about what your writing does for your client when you’re judging what you should charge.

I now charge around £70 an hour for freelance work (that’s my starting point for quoting a project) but if I know a job is going to be really difficult or the client’s going to need lots of non-writing support, I’ll adjust it — and I’ll certainly add to a project cost by the hour if we start straying beyond the brief.

Your first consideration should be “What’s the minimum I can earn for it to be worth it to me?” And never, ever dip below it unless it’s a mate or some pro bono work that makes you look good. You could spend that hour finding something better or even just going for a run, rather than scrabbling around for peanuts.

In my experience, I have undercharged. The only way I’ve found the figure I’m happy with is by testing out rates on projects I didn’t want to do. That way, if they go for it, I know I wasn’t being unrealistic, and I actually get the money. If they don’t go for it, good — I didn’t want the bloody work anyway.

You are worth money. Your skills are invaluable. We’re in a place right now where people are rightly obsessed with content and ‘storytelling,’ — things that ad copywriters in the 50s knew were the way to go.

Talk to people about money. We’re trying to get past the taboo so everyone feels empowered to get what they’re worth. If you’re ever in any doubt, ask one of us. We will force you to get what you’re worth. Sometimes all you need is permission to ask.

First published on Medium.


13th August 2018

Dan Poulton

Thanks, that was an awesome read! I feel like I have most of the things you cover down, apart from the underselling aspect. I set up a copywriting business in March 2016 and since then have written over 100,000 words, mostly in the form of marketing blogs (you can find out more at The most I’ve ever charged is the equivalent of £30 per hour. The idea of (at least) doubling my rates is scary, but I really need to do it if I am to make this my actually job. Any thoughts on how to go about this would be greatly appreciated 🙂

16th August 2018

Honor Clement-Hayes

Hey Dan,

Existing clients you can inform about your X% increase before the next piece you do for them (you should be raising your rates at least annually or you’ll start struggling to keep up with milk prices).

For new clients, scare yourself with your pitch. I’ve never experienced a client saying “No and GOOD DAY SIR.” They might admit they were expecting less but then the educating and bartering begins, and you either reach an agreement or you don’t. I’ve had clients agree to amounts I felt SICK suggesting, and I was probably still undercharging.

Good luck. Get your monies.

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