The Beginner's Guide to Freelance Copywriting in 2023
Updated: Jan 16
Almost seven years ago I stepped away from my last 9-5 job to become a full-time freelance copywriter.
I was scared and didn't know where to begin. I had no idea how to run my own service business, where to find clients, or even whether this sort of career was possible. I scoured bookstores for guides on entrepreneurship. I read dozens of blogs about freelancing and persuasive writing. I consumed all the information I could find about how to become a freelance copywriter.
At the heart of my curiosity was a simple moonshot question: Could I really turn my passion for writing into a long-term, high-paying career?
With hindsight, the short answer was: yes, I could. And I did.
Freelance copywriting has worked out way better than I even imagined. (Read how I went from earning minimum wage to becoming a six-figure freelancer.)
Sure, success didn't happen overnight. I endured many bumps and learning curves along the way. But with time, I slowly uncovered the foundational secret of why becoming a freelance copywriter is such a great career (especially for aspiring writers).
It all comes down to a little economics term called demand.
The secret: The demand for freelance copywriters is higher than ever
The big secret boils down to this: Most people don’t like writing. The small fraction of people who do enjoy writing tend to prefer working on novels, short stories, and poetry. They want nothing to do with writing for businesses.
Meanwhile, businesses need writers. In fact, today businesses need to publish more writing, at a higher quality, and at a faster rate than any time before in history. And frankly, there aren’t enough skilled writers in the market to meet the need.
Demand for competent writers far exceeds supply. It's not uncommon to meet writers clearing six figures each year from their writing businesses.
Despite our high demand, freelance copywriting isn't a get-rich-quick scheme. Running a successful copywriting business requires long hours of deep work as well as some marketing and business skills. It can take several years to get where you want to be.
But if you’ve ever dreamt of making a good living from your writing, I believe starting a freelance copywriting business is the most straightforward path a writer can take to achieve that dream. That's why I created this guide.
Without any further ado, here’s how to become a freelance copywriter in 2023.
What is copywriting?
The average business relies on far more writing than you would probably imagine. Copywriting is just one category of writing produced within a business.
Specifically, "copywriting" is a broad categorical term to describe most pieces of written content that are produced within a company's marketing department.
Think about it: Someone has to write the words on the company's website. Then there’s the ongoing task of writing blog posts, case studies, newsletters, and social media posts. Many companies regularly create long-form resources like ebooks, whitepapers, reports, and ultimate guides. And then there are video scripts, advertisements, and the witty one-liners you see on billboards.
Somebody has to write it all. And those somebodies are called copywriters.
Copywriters are in the persuasion business. In my opinion, it's not our job to be clever or long-winded. We are like the writing sales team, responsible for moving potential customers closer to an intended action through our words. This means writing simply and clearly, and often following certain copywriting formulas to keep readers engaged.
How to learn copywriting
Writing poetry, college essays, and novels doesn't really prepare you for copywriting. Instead of writing verbose, copywriters should use brevity and simplicity. Our North Star is comprehension. The best copy tends to be conversational so that your words don't distract from the product or service you're trying to sell.
As Arthur Brisbane put it, "Good writing is easier to read than to skip."
But what are the best resources for learning copywriting?
Fortunately, there are dozens of amazing places to learn the best practices of copywriting. You don’t need a degree to become a successful freelance copywriter, but it doesn't hurt. If you want to learn like I did—through the web and reading books—here are some of my top sources:
The Craft & Business of Writing (my newsletter!)
High-Income Business Writing podcast
The Copywriter Club podcast
Jacob McMillen blog
Everybody Writes by Ann Handley
Copywriting Course blog
Copyhackers for conversion copywriting
11 Copywriting Secrets You Can't Afford to Miss (my $14 copywriting guide)
Keep in mind: While it's great to study copywriting, no book or course can replace the value of good, old-fashioned practice. Follow the blogs, newsletters, and guides above. Then, put your fingers on a keyboard and see what formulas and tactics work for you.
Freelancers are business owners
When I first started freelancing, I imagined a future day when I would lock myself away in an office to write seven to eight hours per day, five days per week. This isn't what it's like for most freelancers. On a great day, I maybe get four solid hours of writing in.
Why? Because freelancers are business owners. There's a lot more going on than simply punching out the latest assignment.
You're a business owner now. You must generate future leads, set aside money for taxes (more on this later), invoice and send quotes to new prospects, correspond with existing clients, and handle all the other administrative tasks that keep your businesses running.
In some ways, the more successful you are as a freelance copywriter, the less you write. After several years of copywriting, businesses begin to hire you for more than just your words. They want to access your mind and how you think about copy, language, and marketing. Many copywriters gradually look more and more like consultants the longer they're in business.
Freelance copywriter rates: 2023
“I would say that I have founded companies more to remain free than to become rich.” - Niall Ferguson, The Square and the Tower
The Copywriter Club conducts an annual survey about copywriter salaries. Here is the data from their latest poll:
In their latest poll, which included over 900 copywriters, The Copywriter Club determined that full-time freelance copywriters earn a median of $60,000 per year.
Not bad. But there's something missing.
In previous years revising this article, I've used averages from companies like Glassdoor and Salary.com. These stats were hard to rely on because a median salary only paints half the picture. What about the potential salary?
Freelancing isn’t like a normal salary. It’s not about finding just one person to hire you and then determining up front how much you'll be paid over that year. There is so much variability in freelancer earnings that telling you an average or median doesn't account for earning extremes.
The Copywriter Club's data does a better job at showing the larger picture. They offer a salary range. Sure, the median freelance copywriter may earn $60,000. But notice that top earners are clearing a million dollars per year.
Let's dive a little deeper.
The range of freelancer earnings (0 to multiple six-figures)
A number like $60k seems about right for many freelancers I've met. But what isn't shown in this number is the very real (and I suspect common) scenario in which people earn a low annual income simply because they don't know how to find clients.
Freelancing has many learning curves. You might earn $30 one day and $600 the next. You might go two weeks juggling more projects than you can comfortably handle, followed by a week or two of twiddling your thumbs and waiting for the next project to hit your inbox.
In other words, it's common to earn way less than $60k and simply go out of business.
Those salary numbers also don't show the other side of the spectrum: many freelancers earn multiple times that $60k median. I know several freelance copywriters earning multiple six figures per year. As long as you have enough demand, you can continually raise your rates.
How do you begin to predict a salary with that range of variance?
To me, there’s a financial factor that matters a lot more than how much you earn your first year or two. The magic of freelance copywriting is how quickly your income can scale—and the fact that there’s literally no ceiling.
Freelance copywriter's earning potential
To me, the median salary is a distraction from the number that really matters: your business growth rate.
The rate at which your income grows year over year is more important than the exact number you earn in your first or second year.
Before I started freelancing, I worked minimum wage. Since starting freelancing, my income has grown more than 80% almost every year. That's orders of magnitude better than the average raise you'll receive working a standard 9-5.
Sure, in my first couple of years I didn't earn an impressive salary. But years three, four, five, and six? That’s when things got good.
And I think this is to be expected in freelancing.
Copywriter Jacob McMillen earned $80K in his first year. The next year? $130K. By his third year, McMillen cleared $220K. Wowza!
This brings up another good question:
How to set your rates as a freelance copywriter
My first paid writing project was an article about coffee. I was about 20 years old and earned $17 for the article.