Surviving and Thriving as a Freelance Copywriter
My freelance career started when I was working as a wage slave churning out low-quality link-building content for an SEO company in Idaho, in the US. It was a soul-crushing job, and like most of my co-workers, I grumbled over me coffee about it. What was the point of this? Are we even really helping clients? There had to be a better way.
Like many freelancers, I left corporate work behind because I became convinced that I could do more rewarding, more gainful, and higher quality work on my own. The decision to do that, and the practical reality of actually making it happen, however, turned out to be quite different. In the intervening years, I learned a lot about what it takes to survive and thrive as a freelance writer both where I started in the US, and now in Germany. Not only are there the technical aspects of registration, taxes, and contract negotiation to tackle, but, more importantly in the long term, the developmental issues of motivating yourself, developing your skillset, and managing your resources.
Finding Work as a Brand new Baby Freelancer
“Copy” is a deliberately vague term, because copywriters produce a wide spectrum of written content that requires a variety of competencies. My previous work prepared me mainly for writing fast and cheap blog content for businesses that were more focused on keyword density than readability. That gave me a lot of practice with expository writing, but that’s just no way to live. I needed to expand my skillset.
It’s tough to find work early on, and being flexible in terms of where you look for work, as well as the type of work you’ll do, can help drive your professional development by expanding your horizons. In large part, that just means you shouldn’t be shy about what you do, and who you offer to do it for.
You can (and should) use readily available platforms like Upwork, Fiverr, or ConstantContent to find work on the internet, but clients exist everywhere. Your barber and your electrician probably don’t have the time or the skills needed to maintain their blog, or to coherently organize and describe their services and pricing on their website. They might need someone to write promotional emails, or just to update their Facebook page. If a writing task is new to you, it’s an opportunity to expand your skillset, and ultimately to find your specialized niche.
What Specialization Means for a Copywriter
Specialization doesn’t necessarily mean permanently pigeonholing yourself into a single niche. Instead, it means focusing your efforts on improving a specific skill. For a copywriter, that might be a type of writing, a specific industry, or even a type of client. For me, that focus is on blog and industry magazine articles for small and medium sized businesses. I enjoy learning about different industries, figuring out what makes them tick, and breaking down information and analysis for readers.
In Germany, and Berlin specifically, the highly active startup sector provides a lot of opportunities for this type of content as new businesses try to reach out and raise their profile within their markets and their industries. That doesn’t mean that I won’t touch sales content, product descriptions, or translations if a project falls into my lap. Using and maintaining those less-emphasized skills is a good way to stay flexible, and offers additional options that could prove useful whenever there is a dearth of available work.
What Should an Inexperienced Writer Charge?
In my first year, when I was still in the US, I tried to charge between 6 and 8 cents per word for all types of content. That seemed like a decent rate to me at the time, considering I wrote quickly. Also, plenty of other writers that I could find online seemed to charge similar rates, and I assumed I needed to be competitive to catch the interest of any prospective clients. This kind of thinking is a trap that many inexperienced writers lure themselves and each other into. It’s a universal problem that’s as common in Germany as it was in the US, and every other country I’ve worked in in the intervening time.
After all. It’s just a blog article, right? Could it be worth a hundred euros? Two hundred? More?
Yes, of course it can.
Besides that irrational self doubt, I also undercharged in large part because I imagined that this made it easier to find work. I discovered the hard way what every other writer I’ve spoken to since has confirmed to me. It simply doesn’t work.
Lower prices do not make it easier to find work.
It’s difficult to close a deal with a client who doesn’t respect you, and money talks. Low prices might be a budgeting convenience to a prospective client, but it also sends a signal that your work isn’t worth much. Paradoxically, this has meant that I’ve had to deal with clients attempting to haggle down my prices far more often when I was already undercharging.
Lessons I learned the Hard Way So You don’t Have To
Besides the simple issues of determining pricing and finding work, new freelancers face a lot of challenges. Most often, those revolve around managing client relationships. To help you avoid some of the worst of these issues, here are a few pointers based on painful mistakes that I’ve made in the past:
Lend meaningful feedback to clients
Clients don’t (and shouldn’t) respect people who never see any problems, never have questions, and never disagree. If you don’t take charge of your professional domain and act like a real expert, then you aren’t one. The best clients are ones who hire you because they trust you to know what you’re talking about. Clients who are too insecure to let you do your job well won’t stay in business long, and aren’t worth your time.
Put every cent you want to keep under contract
New freelancers are often intimidated by contracts. When I started I worried that the hassle of negotiating a contract would put businesses off. This was a huge mistake. Contracts set the tone of your business relationship, and are a necessary part of any successful arrangement. The only situation where you don’t really need a contract is one where you don’t really need the payment.
Undercharging leads to bad work and angry customers
You can’t develop your skills if you’re rushing out cheap content all day every day. Revision and editing is also a skill, and you need to practice it. Charging more doesn’t just help you earn more, it’s a necessary precondition for improving your writing. Worse, clients don’t want bad content, even if they explicitly claim that they’re willing to sacrifice quality for quantity. That means low pay, low quality, and short, disappointing client relationships.
Never wait to follow up on late payments
Late payments are a fact of life for freelancers all over the world. In my experience, German clients have proven to be more responsible than businesses in other parts of the world, but in all cases, those clients who don’t pay on time always need repeated and dogged encouragement. Keep an up-to-date spreadsheet tracking exactly when payments are due, and react instantly when there is a problem. Not doing so can be interpreted as complacency and often means being deprioritized whenever that client runs into cash flow problems in the future.
Building a career as a freelance writer is hard work, but it does pay off. The first few months and years are tough, and in my case, moving to new countries while working with a variety of international clients only added complexity. Today, I’m free to do work that I can stand behind and that tangibly benefits my clients. Learning from the experiences of existing freelancers that have dealt with these challenges can make it much easier to succeed, and we’re here to provide that perspective to you.
Want to learn more about becoming a freelancer? Check out our Community Manager’s post on getting a leg up on your taxes as a freelancer .