How I became a freelance copywriter
People often ask me how I got into copywriting, and still more ask me how they can become a freelance copywriter themselves. It’s not easy to give a quick answer to either question, so today I thought it might be interesting to write a bit about the route I took to become a freelance copywriter. I’m sure that there must be lots of other possible ways of doing it, but here’s my own copywriting journey.
I had always known I wanted to work for myself. Although I feel I work well in a team, I prefer being independent – I’ve never liked either managing people or being managed by someone else. So I put a plan into action that unfolded over several years and ultimately got me to where I am today. (If you want a shorter version of this, check out my career timeline.)
It all started when I discovered copywriting while working for a holiday home advertising company after I graduated from Oxford. I’d never heard of copywriting before; like many people, I thought vaguely that it might be something to do with copyright law. Once I discovered what it actually was, it seemed right up my street; I’ve always loved writing, but I’ve always felt at my most comfortable writing factual stuff rather than fiction. I’m not sure how or when it happened, but I’ve also become a bit of a grammar pedant, so proofreading seemed the perfect outlet for that tendency.
Anyway, I digress. At the holiday home advertising company I had quite a few different opportunities to write, and I took on as many as I could. Working on the advert performance team, I helped holiday home owners improve the copy on their adverts with the aim of helping them get more bookings. Gradually, more writing-related duties got added to my remit, presumably because my employers realised that I was good at it. I used to proofread the newsletters that would go out to hundreds of thousands of holiday home owners and holidaymakers. I wrote optimised copy about the holiday home locations to help the site perform better in search engines. I wrote travel news stories and events for the main website. I even wrote updates for the Facebook page. Basically, any bits of writing I could get my hands on.
I took on extra tasks in my spare time, too. I wrote and recorded scripts for video tutorials explaining to holiday home owners how to use the site. I wrote and edited an informal monthly staff newsletter. I wrote guest posts for a website called BuyAssociation, which were for link building for my employer, but they had my name on them and it was great experience. Off the back of that, I was asked to co-ordinate a little team of people writing 25 travel guides for Skyscanner, again for link building. I wrote 13 of them myself and sub-edited the rest so that they sounded as though they’d all been written by the same person. If anything cemented my interest in copywriting, it was definitely that. I loved it, and really hoped I might be able to do that kind of thing full time one day.
Through these early writing experiences, I also discovered the concept of search engine optimisation, which seemed to me to have a strong link with copywriting. When it felt time to make a career move, it was an SEO agency that I moved to. They threw me straight in at the deep end; my first SEO audit was for Tetley Tea. It wasn’t long before I asked to have ‘Copywriter’ added to my job title and I started taking on bits and pieces of copywriting for any SEO clients who needed it. Through that, I got to write blog posts for a major travel company, website copy for a big commercial real estate client and lots more besides.
The experience of working for an agency also taught me a heck of a lot about working ‘B2B’ with corporate clients. I had my own list of client accounts to manage, so my project management skills came on in leaps and bounds. I regularly had to go to London for meetings, and learned how to conduct myself in corporate environments. Through work, I went to quite a few SEO conferences and did a fair bit of networking at them, building contacts I’m still in touch with and work with to this day. Outside work, I also started challenging myself to do extra things to further my career. I put a lot of time into building up my Twitter following. I overcame my fear of public speaking to give a talk on SEO to a local digital marketing network. I studied for a Diploma in Copywriting (funded by work as part of my personal development programme), aiming to fill any blanks in my experience and gain a concrete qualification that proved I knew what I was doing.
It was at this time that I also started doing bits of freelance copywriting and proofreading work in my spare time. I’d get back home from work and immediately start on more work or studying. It filled up my evenings and weekends, but I was single back then, so it didn’t really matter. It was tiring, but I was motivated by the thought that it would one day pay off. I proofread a book for a colleague, which led to more book proofreading work. I signed up to be a writer for an online copywriting agency, which wasn’t paid at all well, but I got to write for a variety of quite well-known clients. I put some work into my own website, advertising my freelance copywriting services, and through that I was contacted by a wedding photographer whose website I went on to write. (Years later, he would photograph my own wedding!)
I worked for a while in another digital agency before returning to the original one, but I found that wherever I was, I just wasn’t happy. More and more, I found myself yearning to be free, counting down the minutes until the end of the day, feeling a huge sense of euphoria each time I left the office and absolutely dreading Monday mornings, meetings and – worst of all – “appraisals”. I kept trying to rationalise the situation, telling myself that I needed to save up some money before taking the plunge and going freelance, but I was running quite an expensive rental house and wasn’t managing to save much. At work, I felt my career was being pushed in a direction I didn’t want it to go; I wanted to be writing full-time, and I didn’t want to be a manager. I decided to give it until the New Year (it was about September at the time), but eventually, a particular set of circumstances led to me cracking and I decided then and there to hand in my notice.
I had no money in the bank and it felt like a risky move – because it was. But boy, am I glad I did it. The insecurity of having nothing in the bank forced me to make a success of it. We moved into a much smaller house to save money, and also set up another business (Air Experiences) so that I’d have more than one possible income stream in case freelancing didn’t work out. But my copywriting schedule got busy very quickly after going freelance, and I now have very little time to devote to the other business, so my husband takes care of the day-to-day running of that. The work I’d done to lay the foundations for my freelance career paid dividends in the form of word-of-mouth referrals, and I’d put in so much work over the years that I had a good portfolio to start me off.
I’m now two-and-a-half years into my freelancing journey, and I’ve never looked back. I never look at the clock anymore – except with astonishment when I realise it’s 6pm and another day has whizzed by (it’s true what they say about time flying when you’re having fun). I love the variety of work I do, I love working for myself, and I love the freedom freelancing has given me. As you’ll have gathered in this post, I’ve put in a heck of a lot of work to reach this point, but it was so worth it. I can’t recommend self-employment highly enough.