I’m guessing most copywriting careers don’t start with you sat on your drive in your wellies. But, just over a month ago, that’s where I began.
Half an hour before that, I was told that the pub I was assistant manager of – and whose cellar I’d got up at six o’clock that morning to clean – had shut down. The bailiffs were at the door so could I help myself to any stock I wanted and make myself scarce?
So there I was, sat on my drive in my wellies staring into space thinking ‘well, what do I do now?’ It seemed as good a time as any to look further into the vague idea I’d had of being a freelance writer.
Fifteen years of pub work had left my back and wrists in poor shape, so maybe this could be a way to make money without any more wear and tear? No more slurred threats from swaying drunks would also be welcome.
From that moment I became a freelance copywriter. It felt official a couple of weeks later when the business cards arrived. I’ve learned a lot in the last month or so and here’s some of it:
1. No-one knows what a copywriter is
Tell people you’re going to set yourself up as copywriter and the first thing they’ll say is, ‘what’s a copywriter?’ Even I had to look it up when I’d decided to be one. The fact is that, even after a month, I’m still learning about all the areas a copywriter can work in and the kinds of things they can write.
I’ve written blog articles about Swedish gaming laws, educational courses in counselling and technical brochures about computer data management – none of which I had any idea about before I started writing.
2. LinkedIn isn’t rubbish
At some point in the past, I seem to have set up a LinkedIn profile. I do have some writing experience – a couple of years ago I self-published a book I’d written about The Jam – and I’m guessing I set it up then. All I’d known of it after that was what I considered spam emails asking me to connect etc.
When I asked a few friends about copywriting and freelancing, they immediately pointed to LinkedIn, so I spent a couple of hours sorting out my profile and making it look professional.
The next morning I got a message on there from a friend of a friend who I hadn’t seen for a few years. It turned out his regular copywriter was on holiday and could I cover an urgent job. Lo and behold, I had my first freelance commission!
3. Content mills aren’t useless
When I first started Googling how to become a freelance copywriter, one constant piece of advice was ‘avoid content mills’ (websites that offer copywriting jobs but pay very poorly).
Then I spoke to someone a mutual friend recommended who went freelance a few years ago. He recommended content mills, specifically Copify, as a good place to start.
As I had almost no portfolio outside of a book and a few press releases I’d written for my band, I figured a content mill would be a good way to build said portfolio and get experience so I registered with Copify.
I’m not going to lie, the money isn’t great at first and the deadlines can be short, but I’m starting to get a decent portfolio of articles.
The feedback from the moderators has also been helpful in refining my writing (short sentences, keywords, writing in the appropriate tense etc). I also took on one job which led to a direct offer from a client – the same amount of words for twice the money.
I’d say content mills are definitely worth looking at if you’re just starting out.
4. Product descriptions are hard
‘A product description for beard oil, how hard can that be?!’ I thought as I accepted a job on Copify, just to dip my toe in the copywriting waters.
Two drafts and an hour later, I was struggling. How many adjectives are there to fill 150 words about a small pot of scented facial hair oil? Not surprisingly, my first submission got sent back.
I’ve learned that I write best when I can stretch out a little: Courses, blogs, things I can get my teeth into. I suppose a comparison might be an aspiring theatre actor imagining doing adverts to be easy, then finding it’s a much tighter discipline than they thought.
5. I’m more self-disciplined than I thought
Despite the temptation to have a lie-in, play my guitar, watch crap on YouTube or have a nap, I’ve found that I can also make myself do things that aren’t that creatively stimulating.
For example, I’ve sat and worked my way through a free course on Online Networking (which gave me the idea for this post). I’ve also sat and written blogs on subjects I don’t find all that interesting.
The good thing is that I find the very art of writing interesting and therapeutic, so I can still sit and enjoy it even if it’s on something that hardly fills me with wonder.
6. Working from home isn’t easy
I’m sat at home and haven’t had to commute. I can get a cup of tea whenever I want, play records in the background, put my dressing gown on. I also have the luxury of my own bathroom (you’ve used pub toilets, right?) One thing I didn’t vouch for was guilt.
Guilt? What have I got to be guilty about? Well, my wife has recently gone on maternity leave so, for the first time ever, we’re both at home almost all the time (I’m still working part-time in a pub and as a DJ to keep the money coming in).
The problem is that she can be sat bored on the sofa whilst I’m sat typing away, feeling guilty that we’re both at home and I’m no fun. I can’t say ‘oh sod this, let’s go out’ or ‘let’s watch a film’ because I still have deadlines to meet and work to find.
I’ve learned that, even working from home, you still need boundaries that separate work and home life. I’ve moved my writing away from the dining table downstairs up to the spare room, which has become my office of sorts. This has made it easier for me to keep things separate and concentrate on my work.
7. It’s like an exam
I accepted one brief a couple of weeks ago. It was something I didn’t really know much about and it was a short deadline. When I first saw the brief, I had a mini-panic like you did back in school when you sat in an exam, read the first question and thought ‘Aaargh! What does that mean?!’
After a while though, assuming you’ve done your revision, you relax and begin to get into the stride of it. Copywriting can feel like that sometimes.
So there you go. I’ve learned a lot and had some naïve assumptions shattered. I’ve also found that I can freelance, something I always wanted to do but didn’t think I’d be able to.
Not only that, but there’s actual real bill-paying money in it! Not enough to live off yet, but enough to help me keep faith that at some point there will be.