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Becoming a brilliant freelance copywriter: Part 1

7 minute read

In this mini series I shall take you through some of the dos and don’ts of working as a copywriter. The information here is for copywriters or people looking into a career in copywriting, however, anyone who wants to understand how a copywriter works and how to get the best out of them can also benefit from reading this article.

My suggestions here are based on several years’ experience working as a copywriter in the commercial and charitable sectors. I discovered much of this through bitter experience and hard won knowledge. And now, being the lovely bloke I am, I want to share these plump plums of wisdom, these sweet apples of experience and cheeky cherries of advice with you in a delicious fruit salad of wonder… I’ve possibly taken this metaphor too far. 

Let us begin by exploring the relationship between you, the copywriter, and your client…

Everyone is different

So we begin with somewhat of a copout by me telling you that every client you get will be different. There is no silver bullet that will work with everyone who wants to get a slice of your talent, in fact, avoid bullets all together if you can. What works for one client might not work for others and this can be for a range of reasons though the main one is simple, people work in different ways, some are casual, some are formal, some work strange hours, others prefer communicating exclusively via yogurt pot and string. Your job, as their talent, is to tease out the best methods of working which makes their life easier, your life easier and ensures that the work that you deliver not only meets expectations but exceeds them.

The most important thing however, is clarity. In every step of the working relationship both parties need to be on the same page, facing the same direction, up to speed or any other cliché that takes your fancy. Muddy waters and confused instructions and clarification do not make a good piece of copy. 

Managing expectations

Even before you put pen to paper, finger to key or quill to parchment, there are several things that you need to agree with your client. These will all be summed up in any contract that you form but it’s good to get it out there. 

Rate of pay

When I first began writing professionally, telling a client how much I charged was a daunting task. What if they think it is too much? I thought, or… What if I’m charging too little? I did have situations where I would wait until the piece was complete and simply invoice them like a coward. Though they all paid, eventually, many did not offer me further work. If I had been honest from the start I would have set expectations of what they would be paying and there would have been no issue.

Naturally, competent businesses with experienced editors will negotiate this with you from the start or have a set pay scale which you can take or leave. The issue is smaller businesses who are rather blurry on what a copywriter does, let alone how much they should be paid. Which takes us onto the next point…

Explain what a copywriter does

Again, when working with established businesses this will not be required, however, smaller businesses who tend to be working at the limits of their resources may have certain erroneous expectations of us. They may think that they can give us a very vague idea of what they want and then just leave it up to us which, in some ways sounds great. We lean back, crack our knuckles (disgusting habit), and let our creative juices flow. The trouble is your idea of something good will almost always differ from what your client is expecting. 

By explaining the role of a copywriter, to compose copy to achieve a goal defined by the client, and using information and parameters also defined by the client, then there is less chance of disappointment, argument, multiple redrafts and being struck off their Christmas card list.

Working schedule

It sounds kind of obvious but it’s important to say when you are available to take calls, reply to emails and are generally at your desk. If you are not in the office on Fridays because you’re working your second job as a neurosurgeon in the back room of your local pub, then say. If you don’t work mornings but can be contacted up until midnight, tell them. 

Likewise, find out when you can contact your client for any clarification. Again, this is all managing expectations and avoiding disappointment and the last thing we want as conscientious copywriters is for our clients to be disappointed… Tears in the work place are really off putting.

Share contact details

A simple thing that is often overlooked. Make sure that your client knows how to contact you, give them your mobile number, your Skype address, your email and your Myspace page (That’s still a thing right?). You need to leave it to them to decide how they want to communicate. Some of my clients work best when they are on the phone thinking out loud with me taking notes and asking questions, others prefer to communicate their thoughts via email, so it is important that you give them every option. 

Extenuating circumstances

This isn’t likely to be a thing for most people. I always let my clients know that I am blind and use a screen reader. By being up front about such things it not only avoids any embarrassment later on but also lets them know any limitations, for example, I’m not going to be much good at adding photos to any final document… Not unless you want them upside down.

Styles of working

Copywriting isn’t just about writing killer copy…well, that’s mostly it, but we also need to be able to talk to people, tease out information, build rapport so that killer copy can be crafted though, hopefully it won’t actually kill anyone.

Some clients will work in formal ways, inviting you to meet with them in their glittering glass office boxes high in the corner of a magnificent skyscraper, whilst others will be more comfortable talking to you over a pint and a pack of peanuts and, then again some will not ever speak to you directly sending you only poorly spelled emails and confusing instructions confirming their need for your copywriting skills and cementing your belief that they’re probably in a bunker somewhere, afraid of interpersonal contact. 

We have to work to our clients standard of formality though, in every case, we need to be professional and attentive. 

Both types of client, the formal and informal, have their advantages and disadvantages. Formal clients tend to be on the ball when replying to emails or answering the phone to clarify any points, whilst informal clients can be more forgiving if we’re having an issue with a deadline, on the other hand, formal clients might be breathing down our neck, wanting progress reports whilst the informal client is impossible to get hold of despite the fact that they wanted the copy three days ago.

Dealing with these sorts of issues may not be what we got into copywriting for but by setting expectations, as discussed in the previous section, we can get a feel for the client and be preemptive in our planning.

Conflict and legal resolution

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, things can go wrong, working relationships can sour, and promises can be broken. In such cases it is necessary to look at our legal standing. Should we be paid even if the client is unhappy with the work? Are we liable if we are unable to complete the work due to unforeseen circumstances? 

Is there a contract?

Spoiler alert, the answer is most probably yes. Once an exchange of services has been defined, offered and accepted, there is most likely a contract. Where this becomes muddy is in cases where there is a dispute over supposed contracts that are hard to pin down. 

For example, a conversation on the phone regarding a project, the outline, the pay and the consequential acceptance by both parties is all well and good, until you need to prove that this contract exists for without hard proof you’d be hard pressed to bring any legal action. As we’ve all experienced, we are likely to remember situations differently especially in situations where the outcome of the truth is likely to cost money, time or our scant self-esteem.

So, make sure that everything you agree, from first contact, to final delivery, is written down. Formal contracts signed before high ranking officials with good standing are best but, unless you move in circles far more affluent than I, this is impractical. Email will do in most situations so, top tip, even after that great phone call where we managed to nail down the brief and the terms of payment, write it up in an email and send it to your client for approval. This doesn’t only cover you legally but it is also good practice to make sure that you have everything agreed which avoids extra work in the future.

Formal contracts

In normal life reading terms and conditions has become something that most of us don’t bother with. We simply slap “Accept” because, to be honest, life is too short to be reading through pages and pages of legalese, but when it comes to our work life, terms and conditions are what hold our fragile little worlds together.

Sometimes we do need formal contracts. Many larger clients will have contractual terms laid out which, if we take work from them, have implied agreement too. It is important to read these through as, for one thing, we’ll find out about pay, schedules, any obligations we have to them and any they have to us. 

Things to look out for in such terms and conditions include:

  • Exclusivity: As freelancers we need to be free to work for anyone we like at any time so beware of anything that says otherwise. We are independent contractors and not employees!
  • Intellectual Property: Beware of any clause that says that all your work automatically becomes property of your client before payment. Though this probably wouldn’t have standing in the court of law due to consideration, where there needs to be an exchange for a contract to be valid, we need to make sure that all work is legally ours up until the point where we are paid, after which point the intellectual property becomes that of our client.
  • Obligations: Going back to expectations, certain aspects may be set in the clients contract that extend beyond the traditional scope of a copywriter. For example, generally formatting and editing is handled by, you guessed it, an editor however, some clients will have an expectation that your copy will be squeaky clean and ready to go live.
  • Delivery: As freelancers, we must hit deadlines, our very lives depend on it… At least, our working lives. Saying this, life, real life, can get in the way causing delays. These can include computer failure, illness, alien abduction or Armageddon… But nothing else. There should be a clause that we will tell our client as soon as possible about any delay and renegotiate a deadline… Except in the case of Armageddon where it probably doesn’t matter.

Conclusion

Working freelance as a copywriter can be convenient, interesting and lucrative… If done right. By insisting on clarity with our clients we are able to avoid confusion and catastrophe.

Aside from being good at, you know, writing, we also have to be versatile and good with people which should not be a problem as copywriters need to be good communicators no matter the audience, adaptability is key.

Oliver Kennett is an author and freelance copywriter living in Bristol. A graduate in both law and engineering, he enjoys exploring science, technology and social impact through his writing. As well as clients in the technology, tourism, legal and lifestyle sectors, he has written extensively for charity. In his spare time he writes short stories and novels for children and adults in the horror, sci-fi, fantasy and humour genres.

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