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When did freelance copywriters get so whiny? or how to get out from under and start earning a decent living.

“Clients say stupid things.”

“They don’t pay enough.”

“They don’t pay on time.”

“Other people are setting the wrong prices in the profession.”

“They aren’t playing by the rules.”

Sometimes it can seem that freelance copywriting is dominated by whiners, moaners and the glass-half-empty brigade. Which is a shame, because it’s a fantastic way to earn a living. And there’s the rub. What if you’re not earning a living? Or you are, but only just? Then the temptation to moan becomes stronger.

The problem has its roots in a misunderstanding of the role in which many freelance copywriters find themselves.

Is copywriting a profession?

Cast around on blogs and websites for not too long and you will come across the P-word. But is copywriting really a profession? This has a simple answer.

No. It is not.

Wikipedia defines a profession as, “a vocation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain”. [I have left in the US spelling.]

How can you tell whether a job is a professional one or not? Well, it must meet seven strict criteria:

  1. It became a full-time occupation.
  2. The first training school was established.
  3. The first university school was established.
  4. The first local association was established.
  5. The first national association was established.
  6. The codes of professional ethics were introduced.
  7. State licensing laws were established.

So, taking copywriting as an example, it gets a yes for 1, a maybe for 2, a no for 3, a maybe for 4 and 5, and a no for both 6 and 7.

“Oh, you’re in trade”

Copywriting is, in fact, a trade.

It’s a skilled trade, a white-collar trade, but trade it is. Practitioners use a particular skill to solve problems for others in exchange for money. Like bricklayers, welders, surfing instructors and Reiki healers.

Welcome to the Wild West

And copywriting is on the fringes of recognisable trades by virtue of being completely unregulated. There are laws you must not break, such as being in breach of a contract, or trading fraudulently, but these apply to everyone in business.

That means a person might be a hairdresser one day and a freelance copywriter the next. They might not be very good at it, but that’s a separate point.

Not only is freelance copywriting a trade, it is a trade without a union, or a trade body, though the Professional Copywriters’ Network is a nascent trade association.

Clients, in my experience, neither know nor care about whether freelance copywriters are members of trade associations or anything else, and would no doubt be horrified if it turned out there was a union involved.

You can’t get a prescription for copywriting

Which brings me onto another point about the nature of our trade. It is 100% private-sector. You can’t get a freelance copywriter on the National Health or through Social Services. If you want one you have to hire one. Privately. It is an incredibly fragmented trade, too. I would guess that more than 95% of copywriting businesses are either sole traders or one-person limited companies.

One of the consequences of this fragmented structure is that freelance copywriters can feel isolated. Twitter and Facebook appear to offer solace, but in reality give the illusion of solidarity and support while actually providing very little of substance.

Let’s move on to consider the number one gripe of freelance copywriters – indeed, of freelance writers generally – money. I have had the privilege to spend some time in the company of Drayton Bird, and one of his favourite quotes is that of Dr Johnson, who said, and I am paraphrasing, “when two writers get together, you can be sure they will talk about money”.

Money, money, money…must be funny

Interestingly enough, I have never had – or heard – a conversation with another copywriter where too much money was the subject. Invariably, it is the lack of it. Or the slowness of its arrival.

I have spent much of the last three or four years thinking, writing and teaching on the subject of money. Freelance copywriters are bad at it. They’re bad at figuring out how much they need. They’re bad at asking for it. And they’re bad at thinking about it.

I suspect this inability stems from the routes many take into the trade. It is rare, I think, perhaps even unheard of, for somebody to leave school – or university – with the career goal of becoming a freelance copywriter.

We fall into it. We drift. We switch careers. We are sacked or made redundant. Our backgrounds tend to be either editorial (looking further back, we find many graduates with English degrees), advertising and marketing, or business generally. Occasionally there is a bright spark who’s realised this is an interesting and rewarding life, but they are in the minority.

Having woken up on a Monday morning with the stark realisation we are both a freelance copywriter and operating with no visible means of support, we cast around for help with the big issue. How much shall we charge?

Peanuts

There are three approaches to pricing in the copywriting trade. Each has its adherents. The first approach is favoured by those whose principal goal is to call themselves, and work as, a writer. Money is secondary. I will call it “will work for food”. I am at a loss to explain otherwise how a supposedly talented creative person could write a 200-word piece and see £2.00 as fair recompense. This may be my problem, of course

For this reason you will often find them bidding for projects on websites like eLance and working through intermediaries like Copify, a firm I shall return to shortly.

Peanut bushes

The second approach we might call “the going rate”. Here you will find the majority of freelance copywriters. In the absence of published data or industry tables, pay scales or anything else, they ask around. I did some research myself for my last book and I discovered the going rate. It’s £300/day. Incidentally, it has been that for at least ten years.

There are roughly 220 working days in the year. Were our going-rate freelance copywriter to charge £300 a day for every single one of those days, they would make £66,000. As a base salary, that’s not too shabby. But it isn’t a salary, it’s turnover. Out of which must be paid all the expenses of the business.

I am being generous, in any case, since I doubt there is a freelance copywriter on the planet who sells every single day they can. A more realistic expectation would be that they manage to sell one day in three. That cuts their turnover to a slightly alarming £22,000. But all this back-of-an-envelope accountancy really establishes is the upper (but not, note, the lower) bound of a freelance copywriting business’s turnover. If they’re charging the going rate.

Peanut plantations

The third and final approach to pricing is harder to define. But we’ll call it “what the market will bear”. The approach takes a very different starting point to the other two. It assumes that what buyers are paying for is value, not time. It assumes also that buyers assign value to services based on outcomes, not inputs.

In other words, what happens, rather than how long things take. That frees the copywriter to set his or her prices independently of the time it takes them to complete a job. They price by the project instead. Those freelance copywriters following this approach to pricing are not limited in their earnings power by a multiple of days worked and price per day. In fact it benefits them to achieve more in less time.

Can you see any horns?

Having mentioned Copify earlier in this piece, I want to return briefly to discuss their impact on the copywriting trade. To read the posts and tweets about them, a visitor from Mars would form the impression they were a cross between Machiavelli, Rasputin and Svengali, manipulating hapless freelance copywriters into working for peanuts. I don’t buy this argument.

What Copify have done is to spot a gap in the market and filled it, we assume profitably. That is a clever thing to do. It is what underpins capitalism. Interestingly, the people who moan the loudest about the company’s fees policy don’t work for it themselves.

Is this some sort of vicarious complaint on behalf of the downtrodden? Or a gripe about professional standards? Either way it doesn’t stack up. Nobody is forced to work for Copify; their rates are clearly publicised, thanks, in part, to their detractors; and they are still in business, which implies there are plenty of freelancers out there willing to take what’s on offer.

As to the second complaint, as I pointed out at the beginning of this article, freelance copywriting is not a profession. You may want to act professionally, but this loose use of language won’t wash. Especially in our trade.

Be a small investor

So what’s to be done? How are freelance copywriters (or at least that portion of the trade who are dissatisfied) to achieve their goals, their dreams, even? Clearly, the answer has to be by making more money. Which brings us to a thorny little issue.

Most copywriters appear unwilling to invest in their skills. A shelf with a few books on it is typical. But let’s look at a couple of other trades/professions and see what they cost. To train as a doctor in the US you are looking at somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 . The amount is a little lower in the UK, but not much.

To train as a plumber will set you back around £4,000-5,000. Copywriting training courses vary in quality and price, as does everything, but they average out somewhere around £500 for a day. That’s not much for someone aiming to make between £22,000 and £66,000 a year.

I have to declare an interest here. I run training courses. But they’re not mandatory. You can work as a freelance copywriter without attending. That’s not the case for doctors or plumbers. But they see the cost of the training as an investment. This is a critical mindset that freelance copywriters have to make if they are to achieve their business goals.

My top three picks

We’ll assume that somehow this perceptual shift takes place and freelance copywriters the world over are hunting furiously for help. But what do they need help with? There are three broad aspects of the trade that they need to integrate.

First, copywriting skills themselves. You can’t charge a lot if you aren’t much good. So you’re going to have to sharpen up your writing skills.

Second, selling skills. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the next David Ogilvy. If you can’t sell, you will die poor.

Third, the confidence to apply the second to the first.

Where should they look? There are three tiers of information. Free, cheap and expensive.

You can search the web for nothing, reading blogs, downloading e-books and joining forums. What you will get is a lot of recycled ideas.

You can lash out a few quid on a book. Books are actually undervalued as sources of information. And, again, full disclosure here, I’ve a few listed on Amazon myself.

Or you can invest in training, coaching and mentoring. Like bricklayers and airline pilots do.

In conclusion

Freelance copywriters (and every other kind as well, come to that), must stop focusing on their real or imaginary grievances and must also stop worrying about their ‘profession’.

Instead, they should focus on acquiring or sharpening their trade and commercial skills and then get out there in the real world and hustle.

Categories: Freelance life and Selling.

2 Responses to When did freelance copywriters get so whiny? or how to get out from under and start earning a decent living.

  • Alfred Opare Saforo
    April 18, 2014

    Get out into the real world and hustle ! Loved it. After reading this I remain convinced that my freelance writing business will thrive one day.

  • Michelle Knight
    September 22, 2015

    I got the point. It is a matter on how well do you trust your work and your client as well. In this case, this goes to the monetary discussion or payment. It’s a good topic though.

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