Survivial Skills for Freelancers

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.

Why you should think twice about going freelance

I love my job. Let’s face it – I wouldn’t have stuck at freelance life for 17 years if I didn’t. But if you’re thinking of making the leap from a regular monthly income to the uncertainty of going solo, there are a few important things to consider.

Not the obvious, like what to charge, how to attract the right clients, or how to market your business. While they’re all vital questions, I’m talking about the dirty, gritty, soul-searching stuff. The “am I really cut out for this?” delving you need to do before you start.

Though I only have experience of life as a freelance copywriter, the same issues apply to any freelance career – freelance graphic designer, freelance illustrator, freelance rocket scientist (is that even a thing?).

The benefits of being your own boss

I’m sure you know all about the benefits of a successful freelance career. Chances are, these are some of the reasons you’re considering working for yourself:

  • The freedom to manage your own time
  • The flexibility to work where you want, how you want, when you want
  • The chance to choose who you work with, and what you work on
  • The potential to earn a good income
  • The ability to choose your own hours

Yet many of those benefits can only be unlocked by years of hard graft, reputation building and solid experience. It’s a fortunate freelancer who gets to pick and choose their pet projects from day one.

Consider this:

Being good at your job doesn’t mean you’ll make a good freelancer

So you’re a great writer/illustrator/photographer* – excellent. But being good at what you do, day in, day out, with the security of a full-time job and the stability of a regular income isn’t enough to guarantee you a successful freelance career.

*insert your chosen discipline here

Yes, it’s a great start – but there’s a lot more to it. Can you hack these hurdles?

All by myself

Freelance life can be hella lonely. I spent the first 15 years of freelance life stuck in my office, home alone, with only my cats for company. By the weekend, I was climbing the walls and chewing the ears off anyone who’d listen.

When I started my freelance career in 1999, email was new, and today’s popular social media platforms were a mere twinkle in the eye of a Harvard drop out. Hell – there was barely an internet. (Ever wish you hadn’t started something? Man I feel old!)

Only recently did I discover the support that’s available through social media, networking and events… and the joys of working in a decent coffee shop.

The café-bar at my gym has become my second office (thanks, Virgin Active!). Good coffee, free wifi, free heating, and the buzz of other people without the constant interruptions of working in an office. Yet it’s not unusual to meet freelancers who need complete silence to work. You’ll need to experiment to discover the working environment that ticks your boxes.

The thriving community of freelance writers on Twitter (search #copywritersunite) has kept me going on many a tough day. It’s great to have trusted colleagues-come-competitors to bounce ideas off – and for the necessary office banter. And nothing beats networking events for that “I’m a freelancer – get me out of here!” lifeline. It takes time to discover the type of event that works for you. Personally I loathe the “let’s all stand up and talk about our business for two minutes!” approach, though most involve a necessary element of shameless self-promotion.

Distraction, distraction, distraction

I know freelancers who can’t work without the buzz of daytime television in the background. Are you freakin’ kidding me? I can’t even listen to a song with lyrics without getting distracted. I suggest you keep the TV firmly switched off, but only you know what works for you (and who am I to criticise – Judge Rinder?).

If you need to focus – and believe me, you need to focus – create a work playlist. Mine consists of electronic trance, but who knows? Classical may be more your thing.

As for loading the dishwasher, hanging the washing, polishing the cat** you can look at these in two ways: as distracting household chores that remain untouched until you’ve clocked off for the day, or as valuable thinking/stretching/stepping-away-from-the-laptop time.

Above all, stay off social media, switch off pop-up notifications (annoying, distracting little mosquitoes that they are) and discipline yourself to check your email three times a day rather than once every five minutes (you know you do it).

Finally, be prepared for insecurity, rejection and self-doubt in spades. If you’re a sensitive soul who can’t take criticism or knock backs, do yourself a favour and cultivate that full-time, steady income role.

Freelance life is not for the faint-hearted. But if you’re organised, tenacious, thick-skinned, self-motivated, ambitious, driven and disciplined, it might just work for you.

The last word

There are numerous books about freelance life; I haven’t read any of them. I’m no expert on running a business, but having built up a successful freelance career over the past 17 years I do know what’s worked for me… and what hasn’t.

If my advice helps you to do the same, I’ll be happy.

As someone once told me: “There are two types of freelancers: those who freelance because they want to, and those who freelance because they can’t get a job.”

Make sure you’re taking the plunge for all the right reasons.

**not a typo