No fewer three people have asked me this week what it’s like to be a freelance copywriter. Assuming this is a New Year potential-change-of-career-and-direction thing, here’s the answer I should have given. (In real life, I was awfully waffly. Apologies.)
Here are a few things to mull over if you’re considering freelance writing.
Think about the money
It’s likely that you’re used to a regular income. Can you make the leap from monthly pay cheques to an as-and-when income? Are you prepared to live off savings/partner/family initially?
You can help make the transition by having some contacts and potential clients set up already. Have a website ready to go. Build a network. Gather together a portfolio of relevant work . Think about social media. My early work was through agencies – see what’s out there. In short, as they taught me in the Brownies, Be Prepared, and hopefully the gap between salary and freelance income won’t be a massive, scary void.
In these days of pushing web content, there is definitely work out there…
Managing the money
Then of course, you have to manage your income, ongoing. No company accountant here. Keep a clear spreadsheet of what you’re earning and of every stage of invoicing.
You need to be able to quote, negotiate, and re-quote. I’ll be honest – it’s a real finger-in-the-air job sometimes to come up with a realistic price for a job. That’s why I prefer to charge an hourly rate and give a rougher estimate at the start – fairer for both parties.
Chasing clients for late payments is one of the least pleasant aspects of the job. It’s unlikely they are deliberately not paying you, so it’s important not to sound defensive or accusatory. I used to be terribly British about this: “I’m so sorry, I haven’t been paid. Please if you have a spare minute could you check to see if everything’s OK, and I am sooooo sorry to trouble you.” These days I’m more direct. “Please can you check the progress of my invoice dated x? I attach a copy FYI. Thanks.” Still polite, but putting the ball firmly in their court.
And you too will spend early January putting off your tax return.
Beware of distractions
Today, I cleaned the hallway because I didn’t want to do my tax return. This wasn’t ideal: tomorrow I now have a deadline plus the tax return, and a cobweb-free hallway will be small consolation.
Self-discipline is really important. It’s very easy to get distracted, especially if you’re working in your own home. If you think this really will be a problem for you, consider renting a desk in one of those fabulous rent-a-workspace places (with the added benefit of networking).
A spot of pottering in the garden or making some lunch can really help if you’re stuck on something, but on the whole you have to be as focussed as you would be if you had the boss breathing down your neck. If you don’t work, you don’t earn – that’s a powerful motivator for the self-employed.
At least you won’t have the massive distraction that is Other People.
Freelancers work alone
A mixed blessing. There are worse things than being alone, as anyone who’s ever worked in an open-plan office will tell you. However, if you’re the type that thrives on workplace politics, gossip, or informal culture, maybe think twice.
In reality, you’re rarely completely alone, even if you’re sitting by yourself. Aside from the clients, I work with other writers, content experts, designers, programmers… Sometimes, I even meet them. This is good. As well as being a really productive way to move a project along, it reminds me of the need to brush my hair occasionally.
Networks of other freelancers can be helpful. Where I live in West Cornwall many people are self-employed, so I get the benefit of several informal networks (that sounds better than “I meet friends in Costa”). I also have a self-employed husband across the room. We don’t chat much during the day, but we do make each other coffee.
Social media can be a dangerous time sink if you’re feeling a bit short on company. Pop there for the odd watercooler moment, then shut it down.
You won’t have a boss
No, you’ll have several. And as a good freelancer, you treat each client as if they’re your number one priority.
I actually love this variation, and having a good mix of clients is part of the joy of the job. Cliché alert – no two clients are the same. Some like you to just get on with the work, while other projects have more drafts than an old castle. If you are writing a regular blog with a client, you usually develop a great working relationship with them.
To be a freelance copywriter, first put away your ego. Sometimes people won’t like your work. Sometimes they go against all your wise advice and do some really quite awful things to your beloved copy (and you’ll really sympathise with Sarah Beeney here). Sometimes they send drafts back with Track Changes scribbled all over it. Don’t take it personally. Just crack on with the next iteration, and deliver what the client has asked for. Of course, in your role as expert, you’re there to advise and guide them; but ultimately, it’s their decision.
Clients return to freelancers who are good to work with. Deliver your work on time and on budget, or give plenty of advance notice if this isn’t possible. Respond promptly. Be helpful. Be nice. Sorry if this sounds like egg-sucking training (but you’d be surprised by how unprofessional some freelancers can be).
Freelancing is wonderfully flexible
This is the great bit. If you know you can meet your deadlines, freelancing can really suit your lifestyle.
I have two small kids. I am always at the school gates for them. That’s a real privilege. Washing machine repairs, deliveries, dentist appointments, poorly children, poorly pets – all these little, everyday logistics are far easier without a workplace involved.
If you are good at managing your time, you can also fit in nice things – swim, gym, cafe, solo shopping… This is the reward for the tougher times when either you’re batting away at deadlines like a plague of mozzies, or when you’ve been hitting send and receive for hours and nothing comes in.
You also get to have full control of your timescales and prioritising. It’s like being a proper grown-up. (Even if you are working in your pjs and eating Kit Kats for breakfast, because you can.)
You’ll be writing for a living
And this is the even better bit. Doing what you love for a living, (mostly) on your own terms. And in the end, that’s what tipped the balance for me, seven years ago.
If you want to chat through any of this, please get in touch. (And no, it’s not because I’m desperate for human contact…)