Survivial Skills for Freelancers

Website copywriting for a talented fine artist

The client: Melanie Cormack-Hicks

In 2017, Melanie Cormack-Hicks walked away from the school where she’d taught GCSE art for 20 years and stepped into the role of fine artist – something she’d dreamt about for years but never believed she’d have the confidence to pursue.

Today, she creates evocative paintings of the landscapes she loves – from magical English woodlands to sparkling Scottish rivers and rugged Devon shorelines.

After kicking off her new career with a solo exhibition at Chapel Arts in Cheltenham, she’s now represented by galleries in Devon and Monmouth, and has exhibited and sold paintings in London, Singapore and Hong Kong.

The need

Melanie’s first website was hastily pulled together to give her an online presence but was never properly thought through.

Without a budget for marketing, Melanie had written the site herself – as many sole traders do – and was first to admit that it was too wordy, lacked clarity, and needed improvements to the structure and flow.

With little thought to SEO, the site had failed to attract the new customers Mel hoped would book her workshops and enquire about buying her paintings

Since meeting Melanie at a local networking event over a year ago I had watched her confidence in her art – and, most importantly, the potential it offered as a full-time business – grow. When we first met to talk about her website, she explained that several of her paintings were in the process of being shipped to Singapore, to be exhibited at a prestigious art fair.

Melanie was ready to make her art available to a wider audience by offering high-quality prints for sale online, and to raise awareness of her Cotswold painting workshops.

The solution

Melanie’s career as a fine artist had taken off more rapidly than she could possibly have anticipated, but her website hadn’t kept up.

She had concerns about the process of creating a website that represented her as a professional artist without losing site of her personality. I explained that, rather than using their own voice, a good copywriter provides a better, clearer and more articulate version of the client’s own voice.

I started the copywriting process by providing a website briefing form that I had designed to encourage my clients to think about their customers and their value proposition – the skills and qualities that make them stand out from the competition.

Once I had Melanie’s answers, we met to discuss her aims for her new website and to allay any concerns she had about the process.

The resulting website copy has a clear message about the power of Melanie’s art and what it represents to her customers. It showcases her work for anyone looking for evocative landscapes and seascapes as high-quality prints for their home, and promotes her popular workshops to artists of all abilities.

It reflects the customer journey from initial awareness of Melanie’s art to fulfilling the dream of having one of her paintings displayed in their home – and helps them to achieve that goal.

My work with Melanie is a perfect example of how investing in professional copywriting can help talented individuals take their business to the next level.

In the client’s words…

“Since working with Sarah my brand is much better defined. She’s written my story for magazine articles and took away all the pain of writing my new website.

“Sarah’s caring nature is pivotal to her practice. Her superpower lies within her ability to see you with total clarity. She asks the right questions and listens carefully to understand your business and the needs of your customers, then gives you a clear voice that makes you feel and sound like the best version of yourself.

“It’s always such a relief having Sarah working on my copy. Her ability to understand your customers and what you do for them is superb. She steers your thoughts towards your client’s needs and gives them your voice in return.

“I highly recommend Sarah as a copywriter. She removes all obstacles, making her support second to none. She can do so much more for your business than you realise.”

Melanie Cormack-Hicks
www.melaniecormackhicks.com

Environmental policy? Behave – I’m a freelancer!

Does your business have an environmental policy?

I don’t mean some going-through-the-motions greenwash document that you write and then forget about. I mean a proper commitment to reducing your impact on the planet.

“I’m a freelancer. What’s the point? I can’t make a difference on my own!”

Tell me about it.

Truth be told, I’m a bit of an eco worrier. And no, that’s not a typo.

I find David Attenborough docs almost too hard to bear these days, let alone some of the hardcore stuff shared by environmental activists such as Extinction Rebellion.

It’s so easy to decide there’s no point trying.

But just the process of thinking about the things you do each day can lead to positive changes.

Me, myself and I

I wrote my own one-page environmental policy a few years ago. And while these things are embedded in my day-to-day routine, the summary itself has never seen the light of day.

The idea of sharing it made me feel a bit cringey and uncomfortable.

Isn’t it a bit… worthy?

But then I heard a talk at a local networking event, and it got me thinking.

If I can get over myself and share the steps I’m taking to be more sustainable, maybe it’ll encourage others to do the same.

So here’s my utterly-imperfect-but-it’s-a-start commitment to treading lightly.

(Even if it does still make me cringe just a little bit.)

Sarah Townsend Editorial Limited

Environmental policy

I am committed to operating my business in a way that is mindful of the environment and to taking action to keep my impact on the earth’s resources to a minimum.

To help me do this, I promise…

  • to buy 100% renewable electricity from Good Energy*
  • to generate my own electricity using solar panels
  • to make my next lease car 100% electric (it’s on order!)
  • to use public transport to attend meetings and events wherever possible
  • to work from public spaces rather than heat my home
  • to recycle all paper, ink cartridges and other recyclable materials
  • to make a monthly donation to UK environmental charity, the Woodland Trust
  • to minimise the amount of paper waste I produce by only printing documents when necessary, and always using both sides of the paper
  • to always stick on an extra layer before putting on the heating (I’m a big advocate of double tights and double socks!)
  • to use recycled paper for the printing of any business stationery
  • to minimise my use of water and energy, to reduce my carbon footprint
  • to ensure coffee, tea and the other important things that get me through the day are Rainforest Alliance Certified
  • to have video meetings where possible, to avoid the carbon cost of travel
  • to work with suppliers who share these values, where possible

I know there’s more that I can do – there’s always more that we can do – but it’s a step in the right direction. I hope it inspires you to make small changes to lessen the environmental impact of your freelance business.

*If anyone is thinking of switching to Good Energy and you use this link to sign up, we’ll both get £50. And if you let me know you’ve signed up as a result of reading this post, I’ll donate £25 to the Woodland Trust.

Two become one: compound words and how to use them

In the process of writing a brochure for a financial services client, I found myself with a dilemma. Do I write healthcare, health-care or health care?

Ahh, those tricky compound words… are they one word, two words or hyphenated?

Let’s start at the beginning.

What is a compound word?

A compound word occurs when two or more words are joined to create a new or combined meaning.

There are three types of compound word:

  • open compounds
  • closed compounds
  • hyphenated compounds

Open compounds, closed compounds and hyphenated compounds: what’s the difference?

What is an open compound word?

Open compounds are written as two separate words. Here are some examples:

  • ice cream
  • door frame
  • full moon
  • dining table
  • coffee mug
  • phone call
  • test tube
  • first aid

What is a closed compound word?

Closed compounds are written as one word, like this:

  • sunflower
  • toothbrush
  • moonlight
  • fireplace
  • notebook
  • flowerpot
  • redhead
  • teacup

What is a hyphenated compound word?

A hyphenated compound occurs when two or more words are joined by one or more hyphens. Here are some examples:

  • self-confidence
  • mother-in-law
  • check-up
  • train-spotter
  • half-mast
  • pre-dinner
  • non-starter
  • ex-husband

The tale of the incredible disappearing hyphen…

Many words that begin as hyphenated compounds become so commonplace that the hyphen ends up being dropped – it’s a natural part of the evolution of the English language.

For example, all these words started off with a hyphen (and some dictionaries still use one):

  • online
  • mindset
  • proofreader
  • secondhand

According to a 2007 article published by Reuters, the OED dropped 16,000 hyphens in its sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Some hyphens disappeared from compound nouns, which became a single word (for instance, pigeon-hole became pigeonhole, chick-pea became chickpea and bumble-bee became bumblebee) while other compounds, such as ice cream and test tube lost their hyphen and became two words.

In the article, the dictionary’s editor, Angus Stevenson, explains that the hyphen’s demise reflects current usage: “We have been tracking this for some time and we’ve been finding the hyphen is used less and less.”

Care to make any predictions on what could be next? With the growth of online shopping, I predict that next-day – in the context of next-day delivery – will become nextday. Sure, it looks wrong now, but give it five years

Using hyphens in compound adjectives

When two words are joined to modify a noun (forming a compound adjective) and are placed before the noun, they’re usually hyphenated, but take care – when the same two words are placed after the noun, they don’t need a hyphen.

For example:

  • “Benefit from a tax-free lump sum” BUT “the proceeds are tax free
  • “Fresh from our in-store bakery” BUT “you’ll find bread in store
  • “She has a long-term illness” BUT “her symptoms will improve in the long term

Advanced tip

An exception to this rule applies when the compound adjective is formed using an adjective that ends -ly, in which case it’s always written as two separate words with no hyphen.

Here are some examples:

… a successfully applied formula

…a newly formed group

…a widely used tool

Compound words vs portmanteau words

So, is a compound word the same as a portmanteau*?

Nope. Here’s why.

Sometimes called a blend, a portmanteau is a new word that’s formed from part of one word and part of another, like this:

Brunch = breakfast + lunch

Sitcom = situation + comedy

Smog = smoke + fog

*According to the OED, Lewis Carroll was the first to use the term portmanteau in this way in Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Here, Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice the portmanteau word, in which “two meanings are packed up into one word”. (His description comes from portmanteau – a large bag – which is itself a blend of the words porter and mantle.)

Compound words in British English vs US English

In the process of researching this article, I came across many words spelled differently in different dictionaries. Generally speaking, British English dictionaries tend to be more cautious – clinging on to the hyphen (mouth-watering) when US English has dropped it (mouthwatering).

So, if you’re not sure of the current recommended spelling of a compound word, check your favourite online dictionary. Just don’t be surprised if they don’t always agree…

Specialist or generalist: which type of copywriter is right for your business?

A tweet from Alasdair Murray – who describes himself as ‘the recruitment copywriter’ – got me thinking.

Specialist copywriter vs generalist copywriter: which is best?

To niche or not to niche. It’s one of the biggest considerations for anyone getting started in copywriting – and equally important for any business choosing the right marketing copywriter to work with.

“Do I specialise in one area or industry?” asks the aspiring copywriter.

“Do I need a specialist in my industry?” asks the business owner.

In the 19 years that I’ve worked as a freelance copywriter, two questions crop up with predictable regularity: “How did you get started?” and “Do you specialise?”.

My answer to the latter is yes. I specialise in writing clever copy that helps businesses become more successful.

Cheating, right?

You were expecting me to say, “Yes. I specialise in travel/engineering/unicorn maintenance*” *delete as appropriate

To answer the first question… (stay tuned – it’s relevant)

I started my career in financial services marketing. I wrote shiny brochures for new investment products, leaflets about mortality and morbidity to help advisers sell more life assurance, and pension marketing messages about the cost of delay.

Did this early career choice make me want to specialise as a financial services copywriter?

Did it heck.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved my job. Really. Bloody. Loved it.

Nothing to do with swanky lunches in Canary Wharf with Ogilvy & Mather (as they were back then) or the glamour *cough* of art directing photo shoots for those investment brochures.

(Okay, maybe a smidge. I mourn those days. Today’s corporate entertaining is a one-shot skinny latté at my gym.)

That job was just about the best start I could have had to my copywriting career. In my opinion, real-world, earn-your-stripes commercial experience backed up by on-the-job training beats the pants off academic study – but each to their own.

To the matter in hand…

If you’re an aspiring freelance copywriter…

(Business owner looking to hire the right copywriter? You can skip this bit.)

There’s no right or wrong answer to the question of whether or not you should specialise.

If you’ve spent your career working in a particular industry and you still enjoy it, you may well want to stay there.

It’s where you’ve made connections, where you’ve built up your experience, and where you really know your stuff.

For you, writing about your specialism is second nature. You know it all already.

Decision made.

But wait…

For me, the best thing about working across a wide range of industries is the variety.

No two jobs are the same.

I don’t spend my days trying to come up with ingenious new ways to sell the same product or service.

Every project is a fresh opportunity to understand a new market’s challenges, audience and opportunities. Every job is as exciting and different as the last. It’s often a steep learning curve, but my god it’s rewarding.

Nineteen years into my freelance career and I love this job even more than when I started.

Would I be saying that if I’d specialised? I don’t know.

If you’re struggling to decide, trust your gut instinct and try not to overthink it.

What’s the worst that can happen? You set yourself up as a specialist cupcake copywriter, or the authority on orthopaedics and it doesn’t work? Onwards and upwards.

Don’t wait to perfect your idea – start from where you are, and give it your best shot. You can always revisit and refine later. (That’s a whole other blog post…)

Let me know how you get on.

If you’re a business owner choosing a copywriter…

One of the best things about working with someone who doesn’t specialise in your industry is that they don’t specialise in your industry.

Sorry?

It’s simple. Writing copy that sells involves understanding what makes your business special, and what makes your customers tick.

A specialist already knows this. They’ve written this stuff many times – heck, they may even work for your biggest competitor.

A non-specialist makes no assumptions. They see things with fresh eyes and the same curiosity your potential customer has when they first stumble across your business.

They ask the right questions to find out how your business works, the problems you solve for your customers, and what makes your product or service better than the competition.

I may not be familiar with your industry. I may not have written a website for one of your competitors. But you bet your life that what I write for you will be fresh, and relevant, and incisive.

And at the end of the day, isn’t that what all businesses want?

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In the interests of fairness and balance, here’s the view from the other side of the fence, written by the aforementioned recruitment copywriter, Alasdair Murray.

Copywriting myths debunked: time to stop making excuses!

You know exactly why you need a copywriter.

You know a copywriter can help get your business noticed for all the right reasons.

That they’ll help you identify the special essence that’s unique to your company – the things that make you stand out from the crowd.

And that they’ll help you articulate the spirit of your business in a way that convinces your target market to choose your business, buy your products, and hire your services.

The reason you haven’t hired a copywriter isn’t because you don’t know you need one.

It’s because you’re making excuses.

You’ve begun to believe those myths you churn out to justify why you keep writing your own copy. Those same myths that stop you taking the plunge and choosing a copywriter who can take away the pain, save you time and help you get a head start on your marketing.

Here are four of the most common barriers to using a copywriter.

Which do you identify with?

Copywriting myths

Myth 1: It’s only words

“Surely, I can write the copy myself – why do I need a copywriter?”

Whether you consider yourself a reasonably capable writer or you have an English degree, there’s a big difference between everyday writing and writing to sell.

A copywriter will get inside the head of your customers. They’ll help you identify the things that make your business different – special, even – and articulate those things in a clear, concise and compelling way.

However confident you are about writing your own marketing materials, writing for the web is a different skill.

A copywriter knows how to write in a way that speaks to your customers and to Google – and their words help your business get noticed online by your target audience.

Myth 2: It’s all in your head

“No one knows my business as well as I do!”

That’s true. But a good copywriter knows the questions to ask about your products and services, the problems they solve for the people who buy them, and the sort of customers you want to attract.

They’ll talk to you about your marketing goals and the reasons why you’re in business. And they’ll work their magic to transform that information into words that work hard to promote your company.

Myth 3: It’ll cost too much

“I can’t afford a professional copywriter – it’s too expensive!”

Like anything that works, good copywriting doesn’t come cheap. But your time is money – and if you’re spending that time trying to write your own website or brochure when your skills lie elsewhere, you’re not saving money – you’re wasting it.

The most effective marketing is a collaboration between hardworking, clever copy and great-looking, functional design.

Designers just love working on projects that are being professionally written – it makes them look good. So remember: if you blow your marketing budget on graphic or web design and have no money left to spend on copy, you’re missing a trick.

Pay a professional to do a proper job, and focus on the superpowers that make you money. Chances are that’s the reason you went into business, after all.

Important note: any time you’re tempted to cut corners and buy on price alone, remember this mantra: you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

Myth 4: It’ll take too long

“I don’t have time to brief a copywriter – it’ll be quicker to write it myself.”

Earlier this month, I had a meeting with a website designer, who told me that seven of the beautiful websites he’d designed had stalled, simply because the client had decided to write their own copy.

In the time you spend agonising over the best way to promote your business – not to mention the stress and headspace involved in doing it yourself – a professional copywriter could have written your website copy ten times over.

That’s valuable time your shiny new site could be live and doing what a good website should do – getting your brand out there, promoting your business, building trust, and selling your products.

Time that your competitors are out there doing just that… and pinching your customers while they’re at it.

If any of those excuses sound familiar, have a quiet word with yourself and make this the year you leave your copywriting to the professionals.