How to Become a Freelance Copywriter in 2021
Updated: Dec 10, 2020
Almost five years ago I stepped away from my last 9-5 job and started freelancing.
I was scared, with every reason to be. I had no idea what I was doing. I scoured bookstores and the web, searching for any resource I could find about starting my own writing business. And slowly—with many bumps along the way—I started to get it.
What I learned boils down to this: Most people don’t like writing. The small fraction who do enjoy it prefer working on novels, short stories, and poetry. They want nothing to do with writing for businesses. This leaves a massive opportunity for those writers who can master the commercial side of writing.
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, this should not be confused for a get-rich-quick scheme. Running a thriving freelance 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 this is the most straightforward path a writer can take to achieving that dream.
Without any further ado, here’s how to become a freelance copywriter in 2021.
What is copywriting?
Every business needs to publish a lot more writing than you think.
"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 longform 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. It's not our job to be clever or longwinded. 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.
Where to learn copywriting
Writing college essays, poetry, and novels doesn't really prepare you for copywriting. Instead of writing verbose, copywriters are encouraged to use brevity and simplicity. The best copy tends to be conversational so that your words don't distract from the product or service you're trying to sell.
Making the style transition from college essay writing to copywriting requires some practice and learning. Where do you go to learn persuasive copywriting? The usual suspects: college, books, the internet, practice.
You don’t need a degree to write copy, but you can learn to write copy in marketing classes. If you want to learn like I did—through the web and reading books—here are some of my top sources:
High-Income Business Writing podcast
The Copywriter Club podcast
Jacob McMillen blog
Everybody Writes by Ann Handley
The Craft & Business of Writing (my newsletter!)
Kopywriting Kourse blog
Copyhackers for conversion copywriting
At the end of the day, good copywriting is the result of practice. While it's good to learn from newsletters, books, and blogs, eventually you need to put your fingers to a keyboard and see what works.
Freelancers are business owners
When I first started freelancing, I imagined a future day when I would simply 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.
As business owners, we are responsible for a lot more than simply writing. We 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 handling all the other administrative tasks that keep our 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 words. Many copywriters gradually look more and more like consultants the longer they're in business.
How much can freelance copywriters make?
“I would say that I have founded companies more to remain free than to become rich.” - Niall Ferguson, The Square and the Tower
There isn’t much data I trust about freelance copywriting salaries. We’re a distributed, hard-to-reach bunch, apparently. According to Glassdoor, freelance copywriters earn about $81k per year.
But it’s worth knowing that averages like this are hard to rely on. 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.
A number like $81K seems too high to be the real average. It discounts 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.
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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.
How do you begin to predict a salary with that level of variance?
To me, there’s a financial factor that matters a lot more than how much you earn your first year or two. It’s how quickly your income can scale—and the fact that there’s literally no ceiling.
The rate at which your income grows year over year is more important than the exact number you earn your first year.
Before I started freelancing, I worked minimum wage. Since starting freelancing, my income has grown more than 80% year over year. Sure, the first couple years were nothing to write home about. But by year three, four, and five? That’s when things got good.
And I think this is common.
Copywriter Jacob McMillen earned $80K his first year. The next year? $130K. By his third year McMillen cleared $220K. Wowza!
This bring 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 into 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 baring 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 over night. 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 2021, I think most 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.
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 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 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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