Survivial Skills for Freelancers

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.

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.

The secret confessions of a successful freelance copywriter

Let’s be honest: we’re all fundamentally nosy. And if we see someone with something we want, we need to know how they got it.

So why do I remain surprised that people want to know how I got to where I am today? I say this without arrogance. I’m not the highest earning copywriter. I don’t have the most awards (best new editor way back when is as good as it gets). I don’t work for Apple, or Innocent, or Nike.

But I make a good living from a job I love. I’m consistently busy. I have a waiting list (usually a pretty healthy one).

I don’t advertise. My clients find me, rather than the other way around. What’s more, I get to choose whether I want to work with them or not.

It’s all pretty damn good.

So, given the number of emails and conversations I’ve had asking for tips, I thought I’d share a few things that might surprise you.

“You’ve been freelance for 20 years? How have you done it? What’s your secret?!”

You want secrets? Oh… I’ve got secrets.

I’m not talking the kind of secrets you’ll find if you type ‘great business advice’ into Google. Surround yourself with good people. Be tenacious. Work hard. Oh no. I’m talking about the stuff inside my head. The personal stuff, that hopefully you’ll read and identify with, rather than slowly backing away from the crazy word girl in the corner.

I still suffer from imposter syndrome

Chances are, you do too. Everyone gets self-doubt from time to time.

Sometimes it’s crippling. I feel like I’ve been winging it – that one day someone will call me out as a fraud. In my head, it’s usually Jafar, from the Disney movie Aladdin.

And it’ll go a little something like this:

“You? YOU? You think you can make a success as a writer? WHO ARE YOU KIDDING?”

(Cue evil Disney-villain-style laughter.)

Most of the time I know I’ve got this.

Jeez, I have over 180 online testimonials from people who love working with me, because I increase their sales, bring in more customers, or just make their job easier.

Yet still the doubt creeps in occasionally. It’s all part of the process.

The idea of networking used to bring me out in a rash

Yeah, okay… not an *actual* rash, but seriously, I can’t think of anything I dreaded more. So much so, that for the first 14 years as a freelance copywriter I did no networking whatsoever.

Having to sell myself to complete strangers? No way José. Standing in front of a room full of people, talking about my business until the two-minute timer busted me for rambling?

Or worse – drying up. Can you imagine the sniggers? “She’s a copywriter and she ran out of words!” It’s happened. Not often, but enough to stop me getting blasé.

And that’s a good thing, right?

When I did decide to start networking I realised it’s a case of finding the right groups to fit both your business and your personality. I prefer the more informal groups that don’t involve pressure to refer or the dreaded elevator pitch.

Now I network as much for the social aspect (working for yourself can be isolating as hell) and the food (shh – don’t tell) as anything else. And it’s more about meeting like-minded people than indulging pushy sales pitches.

I hate public speaking

If you follow me on social media you may remember this time last year I took a giant freakin’ leap outside my comfort zone. Yes, I stood up – okay, there was a bar stool involved, but you get the picture – in front of 80 local business owners and talked about copywriting.

And do you know what? I bloody loved it.

At the time… yeah, it was pretty good.

Immediately after – oh my days was I buzzing. I was in my element, in fact.

So perhaps secret number three should be that I hate the idea of public speaking, but in reality, it gives me an enormous energy boost and I should probably do it more often.

I can talk for England

When I write copy for my clients it’s clear and concise. I write tight, using the minimum of words. There’s no waste. No sagging at the edges. No siree.

When I talk… oh man. Different story.

If you’ve met me, or we’ve spoken on the phone, you’ll know.

I talk lots. And I talk fast.

I blame my brain. It gets excited. It fires ideas at tangents and my mouth can’t keep up. In fairness, it shouldn’t even try. In reality, it tries. Boy does it try.

So, meetings with me can be high energy affairs. Particularly if we’re talking about a subject that really interests me. (You’d like help marketing your chocolate business, you say?)

I struggle with distractions

We all do it. Sometimes it’s easier to put things off than bite the bullet and get started. In my case, if I need to work on something for my own business, rather than for a client, I’ll often make excuses. Distractions glint at me like glitter in the tiles at the airport duty-free shop.

  • “Ooh look! The trailer for the new Marvel movie is out!”
  • “I’ll should just post on Instagram…”
  • “I should probably hang the washing.”
  • “Where shall we go on holiday this year?”

Displacement activity. Avoid it at all costs. (Pun very definitely intended.)

Which neatly leads on to…

I need accountability

In 20 years as a freelance copywriter, I’ve never missed a deadline. When it comes to client work, I’m as focused as a sniper with a 50-yard target.

When it comes to working on my own business, I need serious accountability. It took me two years from deciding I wanted to start a monthly newsletter to sending out the first issue. Two years!

(You can sign up here, incidentally.)

Distractions aside, if I’ve told someone I’m going to do something, you bet your life I’m gonna do it. It’s a matter of pride.

Having close relationships with other freelancers helps me. But choose wisely. Pick the ones who lift your energy with their positivity and ideas, not the energy vampires who flatten you with their gripes about how hard it is to be your own boss. No one needs that.

The energy boost I get from an hour of shared inspiration and support makes me more positive, more productive, and more profitable.

I have a fundamental inability to ask for help

I’m not sure being a perfectionist control freak is essential when it comes to making a success of your freelance career, but giddy me does it keep you on your toes.

I’m my own biggest critic, my own worst enemy, yada yada. I should cut myself some slack, occasionally, but I’m too busy beating myself up about my imperfections.

I go to an event and come away fired up and inspired by new ideas, then get frustrated and feisty that I can’t do everything at once, or that things take longer than expected.

They say delegation is the key to running a successful business. That’s not easy when you’re standing where I’m standing, but I’m getting better. I now have a virtual assistant, an IT support company, and an accountant (my ex-husband, but that’s a story for another day).

My secret’s safe… right?

So, there we have it. A cheeky peek into some of the guilty secrets of a freelance copywriter. If this post has gone some way to make you feel more normal, I’d love to know. If you’re pulling a face and judging me for my weirdness, do me a favour… keep it to yourself.