Updated: Jun 4
Author's note: Since I published this freelance copywriting guide, it has been read by more than 35,000 people. Thank you to everyone who has read or shared this article. I've heard from many of you about how this article has impacted your freelance careers. I read every email and am inspired by the incredible stories. Cheers! - Alex
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, allowing me to earn a good living doing work that I love. 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.
At the time, it didn’t matter that my rate came out to less than $5 per hour. I had just been paid to write! It was the best money I’d ever earned.
Fortunately, you don’t have to start as low as I did. In fact, you shouldn't charge anywhere near that low. You're a business, remember? And businesses charge more than the individuals they employ. That means it's time for you to destroy any current full-time hourly rate you may have in your head.
When you transition from full-time employment to freelance, you can't simply take your previous hourly compensation and tack on a small raise. You'll go out of business so fast because you won't be able to afford rent. If you earned $15 dollars per hour at your last job, bumping your rate to $20 or even $25 per hour won't get you far.
You must charge as a business. Every time you invoice, your rate should reflect the cost of running your business: advertising, software, rent, health insurance, retirement planning, vacation days, and even a premium for bearing the risk that comes with running your own business.
None of those things will show up on a client invoice. But those are the costs you must consider as you decide your freelance rates. What you earned per hour as an employee is almost completely irrelevant to how you charge as a business.
It's better to start backwards from your monthly expenses. Try this formula:
The income you need to reach your monthly goals / the number of clients you can handle per month = the rate you must command per project.
And your rates should go up over time. As your business grows, what you can charge as a writer comes down to just two factors:
Demand for your writing services
How much value your writing provides clients
1. Demand for your writing services
To start, look at supply and demand. If you only have capacity for one new client, but three clients are knocking down your door to work with you, then you can choose to work with whoever is willing to pay the most.
Rates rise with demand.
This is why for a long time I've argued that being a good marketer might be more important than being a good writer. Obviously, you want to be good at both. But from what I've seen, it's easier for a decent writer who's good at marketing themselves to thrive as a freelancer than it is for a stellar writer who doesn't know how to generate leads. Whoever garners the most leads stays in business.
The good news is, I believe it's much easier to teach a great writer to be a good marketer than it is to turn a great marketer into a competent writer.
2. How much value your writing provides clients
When you first start writing for businesses, your value will likely be tied to time. A business needs something written. You have the time to write it.
While saving a business time is valuable, it’s on the lower end of value you can leverage as a copywriter. See it as the foundation, the starting point. As you continue learning techniques within copywriting, you'll see new ways to tie your writing value to larger business objectives. The bigger the problems you solve, the more you can charge for your writing. Here are a few examples of writing that achieves larger business goals:
SEO copywriters / content writers: These copywriters specialize in writing articles and web pages that rank high on Google for competitive search terms. When they help a company rank at the top of Google for a relevant keyword, it can mean thousands of monthly visitors to a website, which can translate into many sales.
Conversion copywriters: Sarabeth and I fit into this group. Essentially, we specialize in helping businesses improve the number of sales that happen on a company's website. We combine a mix of persuasive writing techniques, copywriting formulas, and customer research to increase the number of conversions for a company.
PR writers: These writers have a skill for getting their clients published in reputable blogs and magazines. When you see businesses being featured in places like Forbes, Harvard Business Review, or The New York Times, often it's the result of the strategic work of a writer’s pitch or guest post.
Find a niche
“Sometimes, the prospect of multiple outcomes is so tantalizing that we resist actually making decisions, preferring to live in a world of possibilities.” - Mihir A. Desai, The Wisdom of Finance
Starting out, it makes sense to begin as a generalist, writing for anyone who is willing to pay you for your work. This helps you pay rent when you still don't have dozens of clients approaching you every month, but also gives you broad writing experience. Writing broadly enables you to see what you’re good at, which projects you love, and the types of companies, people, or departments you like working with.
But you shouldn’t remain a generalist forever. Specialization commands higher fees and enables you to market yourself more clearly. As the saying goes, the riches are in the niches.
There are two primary ways to niche down: by service or by industry. Niching down by services means only offering certain writing projects to clients. Sarabeth and I only offer website copy, lead magnets, and content design, for example.
We also niche down by industry, writing almost exclusively for SaaS companies. None of these niches were chosen overnight. We arrived at them gradually through the slow cutting away of certain offerings. But every time Sarabeth and I have niched further down, our leads have increased substantially within just a month or two. In a way, specialization is magnetic.
Where to find freelance copywriting clients
No post about how to become a freelance copywriter is complete without a few ideas for finding your first clients. Let's investigate some of the most common approaches:
Tell your network
Your first clients will likely be people you already know. Start by directly contacting anyone within your network who owns businesses, has a position in marketing, or works at a design/marketing/advertising agency.
When I started freelancing, I sent Facebook messages to two friends who run small agencies. One friend hired me for a project immediately. The other referred me to someone who ended up hiring me for several projects within my first couple months of freelancing.
Once you’ve contacted people directly, it’s time to post on social media. Announce to the world that you’re now accepting freelance copywriting clients. You can even list a few projects you’re interested in working on, like writing blog posts, website copy, or case studies.
LinkedIn is one of the go-to places for sourcing talent. When someone needs to hire, they often create a post for their connections requesting recommendations.
The good news is, these posts aren’t hard to find.
Go to the LinkedIn search bar. Type a phrase you might expect someone to use for connecting with a copywriter. Something like:
Looking for a freelance copywriter
Hiring a contract ebook writer
Need a website copywriter
Recommendations for a blog writer
And so on.
Once you search one of these phrases, sort the results by Posts and then by Latest (as opposed to Top Match).
You’ll see a list of people who have recently posted with an interest in hiring (or being hired) as a copywriter.
Love it or hate it, Facebook is among the most commonly-visited websites in the world. If you use it right (without wasting hours mindlessly scrolling), you can use Facebook to form great relationships that move your business forward.
In 2023, I think many of these relationships will be formed in Facebook groups, where like-minded people gather around certain ideas, events, or industries. To find future clients, you'll want to join two types of groups: freelance and industry.
You'll want to join freelance groups for referrals. Many Facebook groups exist around topics like marketing, copywriting, design, etc. Very few people from these groups will hire you directly, but may refer work to you that doesn't match their business.
The industry Facebook groups are where the real money is found. You're literally looking for Facebook groups where your ideal customers spend time online. In our case, that means joining groups where startup founders, SaaS owners, and developers spend their time. By becoming an active member in these groups, I can form relationships with people who may one day hire or refer me.
(In 2021, I took a year-long break from social media. Read about how I grew my freelance business without Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.)
Write, write, write
To steal a line from the world of fiction, show don’t tell.
The wonderful thing about writing is that it is a marketing tool unto itself. If you want people to know you’re a good writer, then you should start writing and publishing articles today on your blog or social media accounts.
Put a blurb at the bottom of each blog (and in your profiles) that you’re a freelance copywriter. As people read your articles, some may contact you with writing projects.
The key here is to write about the subjects you want to be hired for. For example, if you click over to our blog, there are many posts about website copywriting tips for SaaS companies. I am writing specifically for the types of clients I want to attract to Lewis Commercial Writing.
This is a numbers game. If you send enough tailored pitches to enough businesses, some of them will inevitably need your services.
The thing to remember is that a lot of people hate writing, don’t have time for it, or simply believe that copywriting is best left for the experts. All of these reasons are enough for someone to hire a complete stranger who shows up at the right time, with a tailored pitch, in their inbox.
I haven't used cold pitching much in my own business, but from conversations I've had with other copywriters, I'm in the minority here. Successful freelance copywriters like Ed Gandia and Jacob McMillen swear by it.
If you’ve researched freelancing for even a few minutes, you’ve probably already read opinions about websites like Upwork, Thumbtack, or Freelancer.com.
Freelancers are very divided about these websites, and for good reason. They are literally marketplaces where businesses can post jobs to easily connect with freelancers. The problem is, these websites are so popular among freelancers that it’s hard to command market rates for your work. Competition drives everyone's prices down.
My take: Upwork is a great place to get your feet wet. If you want to quickly build a portfolio, this is the place to do it. As soon as you have a foundation, try to wean yourself off Upwork by using other tactics on this list to connect with clients.
Freelance copywriting is in high demand. There's no reason to create unnecessary competition.
Prepare for tax season
Tax season hits many freelancers by surprise their first year. If you’re used to an employer withholding taxes for you, then your jaw might hit the floor when—come April—you realize the government expects you to pay them thousands of dollars.
The best advice I can give: set aside money from every paycheck into a savings account designated for tax season. How much? That’s a question for a CPA.
For me—moderately high income, married, S-Corp, maxing out retirement accounts, living in Texas—setting aside 25% of every paycheck has been a safe number so far. But as the saying goes, mileage may vary.
Many freelancers (including us!) must also pay estimated taxes on a quarterly basis. Speak to your CPA to learn more.
The best part: The snowball
"Solid work, steadily applied, gets you surprisingly far." - Dr. Richard W. Hamming, You and Your Research
The truth is, freelancing gets better the longer you're in it.
The pay gets better. The work gets more interesting. Clients trust you more. New work comes to you instead of the other way around. And of course, most of the early insecurities are eventually replaced by confidence.
The biggest reason for these changes is that your work and reputation start working for you. Past clients begin referring you to new ones. Some of the articles you wrote months ago are beginning to pay their dues, ranking in Google or noodling their way through social media via shares.
Meanwhile, your portfolio is more well rounded and you’ve learned how to sell your services. Your business acumen and writing have improved. In this way, freelance copywriting is a lot like compound interest in investing.
Consistent investment + time = exponential returns.
What I'm saying is, don't lose heart in the first year or two. If you're going to learn how to become a freelance copywriter, it's worth sticking around past the first couple of years. That's when you'll start to see the real power and joy of running your own writing business.
(If this is you, I'd love to hear from you in the comments: How's it going so far? What have you learned to date?)
Take the leap
Like most things, freelance copywriting can appear intimidating from the outside looking in. It feels like a lot to take in.
But after you've freelanced for a while, you realize that even the best copywriters are still learning as they go. We're all just using our words to help businesses achieve their goals. Writing is an in-demand skill in the world of business. The sooner you jump in, the sooner you can turn this craft into a creatively fulfilling (and often lucrative) career.
If you only take one piece of advice from this article, I hope it's this: Successful freelance copywriters know how to keep leads coming to their business. Market your services to garner more work than you can possibly handle. That's when you can command the highest rates, choose who you work with, and have a say in the projects you take on.
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