I left Scotland on Monday. Not in a going-on-holiday sense,
but in a moving-away-forever sense. After 34 years living in the central belt, I
am now a resident of England for the first time in my adult life. G75 Media
remains a Scottish company (headquartered in a gorgeous Georgian office in Glasgow),
but I’m no longer there with it.
My extended family’s departure from Scotland has been caused
by a combination of political, professional and personal factors. And while we’re
all in a better place now, I really wish I’d known this would happen. I would
have been a less anxious person over recent years if I’d spent more time savouring
the present, and less time worrying about the future. Does that sound familiar?
Don’t look back in anger
Looking back, I wish I’d known a lot of things when I was
younger – especially things about running a business, which was never something
I intended to do until freelance work kept landing in my lap. For anyone
thinking about making the frightening yet exhilarating step of becoming an
entrepreneur (or for anyone who already has), here are ten pieces of advice the
me of 2021 would pass onto the me of 2005 if he could. Feel free to add your
own suggestions below…
Setting up a limited company beats being a sole
trader. It took me two years to register G75 Media in 2007, and I wish I’d done
it sooner. A limited company is more professional, provides greater legal
indemnity against prosecution, and simplifies mortgage applications.
Choose your accountant with care. I picked a
local guy who promptly retired and left the business to that’ll-do junior
staff. I then switched to a remote accountancy service, who invented a
director’s loan account to save me some tax one year. It took five years to
Pick a dependable web hosting firm. If you want
to switch web hosting company, your email account could be offline for days as
the server repropagates. No small business can survive that, so choose an established
UK-based firm with a 99.9 per cent SLA and rapid servers.
Build networks. I have diligently applied for
thousands of jobs over the last 15 years. Yet most new work today comes from people
I’ve worked with in the past, LinkedIn connections or word-of-mouth
recommendations. It’s not what you know…
…Except it is. I’ve met so many people trying to
bluff their way through roles they didn’t really understand. They always got
found out in the end. Your business should also be your hobby or specialist subject.
If it’s not, learn it inside out before sending out any invoices.
Say no occasionally. Constantly saying yes saw
me working myself into the ground trying to meet deadlines, or doing work I
didn’t enjoy. As a lifelong vegetarian, I still wish I’d turned down that 2011
assignment to write about an animal by-products processing factory…
Hold back before being negative. I was impetuous
in my twenties, but I learned to wait overnight before reacting. Reviewing
something with fresh eyes gives you a chance to make a message more powerful
and effective. Plus, you might change your mind the next day.
Never descend into bickering on social media.
Some people thrive on arguments, while the professionally outraged revel in self-righteous
indignation. Plus, you never know who might read your responses later on, when
topicality has passed and the context seems different.
Keep detailed records. I worked from a
drawerless desk for three years, losing paperwork I needed and tax receipts I should
have kept for six years. Box files were my saviour, and they’ll be yours as
well. File everything unless and until you’re sure it’s not relevant.
Don’t spend too much time worrying about the
future. This one comes from the heart. I had a really poor 2013, but 2014 was
lucrative. My income halved during the first lockdown, yet I ended 2020 with
record turnover. Focus on the here and now, not what might be one day.
Finally, and I felt this was too important to include in a bullet-point
list, give yourself some credit. I was quite harsh on myself in the early years
of G75 Media, constantly feeling I could be more professional or working harder.
I gradually abandoned the elusive pursuit of perfection, focusing instead on keeping
detailed records and ensuring I didn’t send out anything bearing my name until
I’d proofread it twice. Providing you act professionally at all times, maintaining
a calendar or Trello board of deadlines and appointments, clients can’t ask
more of you. And they won’t. They’re also struggling to remain professional in
an age of home working and incessant multitasking. Being good at your job makes
their lives easier, and they’ll be grateful for your competence and diligence.
If you’ve found this article through social media or a search engine, you probably want to know how to become a freelance writer. You’re not alone. A seismic event like this year’s lockdown is bound to make people question their life choices, especially since many employees will have discovered the productivity gains and stress reduction which come from working at home.
It’s entirely understandable that many working-age adults will currently be considering a career change, either through necessity or choice. And it’s equally logical that writing will figure highly on the list of alternative career paths. Writing is enjoyable, requires little in the way of specialist equipment or training, and dovetails with the modern need for flexibility. If you’ve always wanted to become a freelance writer, what better time could there be than now?
The write intentions
The sad truth is that copywriting and content production is
a ruthlessly cut-throat industry. It always has been, and the recent influx of
new entrants (bringing varying degrees of experience and professionalism) has
made it even harder for genuinely talented writers to elevate themselves above
the hordes. With this in mind, I’ve taken an in-depth look at the
practicalities and challenges you’ll face if you want to become a freelance
writer. I’ve added ten important tips to take away, alongside a few case
studies from my own career.
Let me be clear at the outset – I’m not trying to scare anyone off a potentially transformative career change. There’s a lot to love about writing, but work won’t fall into your lap. You might think you’ve got the enthusiasm to carve a niche talking about parenting, but you’d be competing with my wife and our next-door neighbour, who both have very unusual stories to tell. Maybe you’d like to be the next Jeremy Clarkson, but you’d be staggered by how many people apply for any job involving four wheels. A recent LinkedIn advert for a freelance writing gig received 268 applications after 48 hours, and that’s not exceptional these days. A freelance content writing job on a popular recruitment site attracted 439 applications within a fortnight, meaning 438 people were ultimately left to look elsewhere.
A positive spin
Let’s begin with some good news. What are the main upsides if you decide to become a freelance writer?
Getting paid for doing something you enjoy. Imagine booting up your computer every morning with enthusiasm, rather than despondency. And imagine seeing money arriving in your bank account in exchange for doing work you enjoy, rather than something you resent or dislike. Work to live, or live to work?
Make your career work around you. If you’re a night owl, you can work through the small hours and sleep in the next day. If you love being sociable, you can seek the company of fellow creatives in coffee shops and shared workspaces whenever they’re allowed to reopen. Writing about topics you’re interested in or passionate about also plays to your strengths.
Freedom. Freedom comes in many forms – the freedom to move outside a city and live in a farmhouse, or the freedom to use a MacBook where an employer might insist on Windows. You’re also free from office politics, the frustrations of commuting on public transport, and having to watch junior colleagues get promoted ahead of you.
This final point leads into the first main challenge anyone who wants to become a freelance writer faces – the high standards of your competitors. You’re not just up against me. You’re up against companies with entire teams of creatives in their employ. You’re up against media agencies, who can write dazzling copy but also construct websites and record radio ads. And you’re up against hardened journalists, who are increasingly being cast aside as print media continues its dispiriting death spiral. If you think you can wing your way to success just because you own a bookshelf full of paperbacks and love drinking coffee, please stop reading.
When I started freelancing in 2005, I was using a Yahoo email address and working from a dressing table in my living room. That was fine back then, but today, higher standards are required to stand out from the crowd. I’ve since launched a mobile-optimised WordPress website with a proprietary email account, but I also have a backup Gmail address for clients who prefer to communicate through G Suite (some do, most don’t). I’ve cultivated social media profiles, which are often necessary simply to get past the first stage of many application processes. And I have a portfolio of work available to view online. My website is updated regularly for SEO purposes, and if you don’t know what SEO means, it really is time to stop reading.
Play to your strengths
Once you’ve established a respectable online presence, the
next challenge awaiting anyone who wants to become a freelance writer is finding
specialisms which play to your strengths. If you’ve never written in
American English or taken a Transatlantic flight, don’t even try to bluff your
way through blogging for Stateside audiences, where every tenth UK English noun
has an American variant. Similarly, if your knowledge of football doesn’t allow
you to demonstrate second phase offside laws using sauce bottles on a café
table, you won’t be published by When Saturday Comes any time soon.
(If you’d like to see the standard of journalism required to
write for WSC, there’s an example on the Portfolio page of this website. If you
haven’t already checked it out, take a look when you finish this article.)
In every niche you can think of, there will be retired
journalists, redundant marketing executives and former industry insiders
competing for work. And while that doesn’t mean your hopes of freelance work
stand at zero, it means you’ll need to be passionate and knowledgeable about
any industry or niche you’re hoping to write about. Experts recognise a bluffer
when they see one.
Pro tip #1: Build a portfolio
Developing a portfolio is essential for being taken
seriously by recruiters, with most job ads asking for weblinks to three
published examples in the specific sector/s you’re applying to work for.
However, this is a chicken-and-egg situation – how do you build a portfolio
The best way is to either reference work you’ve had
published earlier in your career, or – and bear with me here – do some unpaid
writing to build a catalogue of online content. I’m not suggesting you apply
for one of those loathsome unpaid internships which callous employers use to
get free labour from desperate graduates. However, you could do worse than
reach out to websites in regular need of content and offer them a freebie. Once
your name is in print, it becomes much easier to secure more work, especially
if your output impresses the editorial team.
Pro tip #2: Never do unpaid work as part of a recruitment process
While unpaid work offers some merit in terms of getting your name out there, it’s ruthlessly exploited. Some uncharitable recruiters are now demanding unpaid trial articles as part of their application process. I recently saw a job advert which required applicants to write three bespoke articles, three Facebook posts and six tweets, just to be considered for an unremarkable-sounding freelance copywriting vacancy. This is known in industry parlance as taking the piss, and should not be indulged in any way – especially since there’s nothing to stop the recruiter uploading a pretend job vacancy simply to harvest a stockpile of free content.
A high percentage of G75 Media’s workload comes from clients
I’ve dealt with in a previous capacity, such as account managers who’ve taken
new jobs, or third parties who’ve reached out to me because they’ve seen my
work in passing and liked it enough to remember me later. I make a point of
being a single point of contact, from brief allocation to proofreading and
accounting. That dependability (allied to being available at least 48 weeks of
the year) sticks in the minds of stressed commissioning editors, who are sick
of less diligent creatives letting them down and leaving holes all over their page
Pro tip #3: Write in your natural voice
Was that last sentence too long? Nobody wants you to become
a freelance writer obsessed by achieving perfect scores in Grammarly, or someone
who sneers at the use of the Oxford comma. I’m not representing a specific
client in this article, where a predetermined house writing style might need to
be followed. Many recruiters like to hear a natural tone of voice in a
candidate’s work, even though successful applicants would obviously have to adjust
their writing style to meet that client’s requirements. A former boss of mine
hated the use of the % symbol, while another was pathological about sentences
starting with words like ‘and’. A good writer can easily work around these idiosyncrasies,
and nobody will expect you to replicate their preferred TOV before you’ve even started
working with them.
Having said that…
Pro tip #4: Spell-check and proofread everything you write
A contributor to a national newspaper recently tweeted a
request for article suggestions. Unfortunately, she didn’t bother to re-read the
tweet before posting it. The result? A request that people “make is a succinct
pith”. Any self-respecting employer or editor who found two typos in a
five-word sentence from a potential employee would dismiss them immediately. It’s
easy to overlook amateurishness, whereas professionalism tends to linger in the
Back in the late Noughties, I freelanced for one of the many content production agencies in London. Because my work was always delivered ahead of schedule and to a high standard, one of the commissioning editors remembered me years later, when she’d moved up in the world. I’m now a regular contributor to one of the UK’s leading engineering publications, even though the articles I send her today are worlds apart from the mass-produced content I used to supply in our agency days.
Pro tip #5: Record all your victories
Whenever you get something published, add a hyperlink to a
Word or Google Docs file, with a one-sentence summary of what the article’s
about. If you’re covering multiple industries, it’s also beneficial to note the
sectors each link relates to. When you’re looking for work, you can instantly
find examples of published online content to cite and include in your
If you don’t have any demonstrable experience in the
specific areas the employer is asking for, don’t waste your time (or theirs) by
applying anyway. They’ll have dozens of high-quality writers getting in touch,
and they’ll have no interest in someone with no expertise “but a lot of
enthusiasm” or someone who’s “keen to learn”. Such clichéd platitudes cut little
ice in today’s ferociously competitive freelance marketplace.
Pro tip #6: Establish yourself in directories
A better way to showcase your availability is to create
profiles on media directories and bulletin boards. Many of these are still
free, though an increasing number charge either a monthly or annual membership
fee. In the style of service provider platforms like Rated People, some are
free to sign up to but charge you for every position you apply for. It can cost
up to £10 just to make a proposal to a client looking for copywriting work.
While most free listings give you a chance to create an
external link back to your website (with attendant SEO benefits), I would
strongly advise against spending money through pay-to-bid platforms. They’re fine
for tradespeople, where only three professionals in the client’s local area are
allowed to respond. On an international copywriting site with no limit on how
many people can bid on the same job, they’re basically exploiting people’s
desperation. Some don’t even indicate whether you’re the first or the tenth person
to get in touch, while I was once quoted a fee of £10.20 to bid on a
vaguely-worded editorial project of “up to £120” in value. You’d make more
profit buying scratchcards.
Penny wise, pound foolish
The thorny topic of paying for the chance to become a
freelance writer brings us onto the main reason you’ve probably read this far.
If you’re planning a career change, you’re not going to be writing for
philanthropy or out of sheer passion. You want to earn enough to enjoy a
comfortable standard of living. And yes, there are clients out there willing
to pay generously. But they’re usually looking for many years of
industry-specific expertise, and writing a 1,000-word article at ten pence per
word once every two months is not going to pay your mortgage. It’d barely cover
your broadband bill.
Pro tip #7: Be flexible about income
When I first started freelancing, I put a very ambitious
per-word fee on my website. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get any work. It took a
while to realise I couldn’t apply the same expectations to a 500-word listicle
about interior design trends as I could to an in-depth review of CNC machines. Today,
some of my clients pay three times more than others, but that’s fine because
the lower-paid content is far easier to produce. You’ll naturally evolve a sliding
scale of costs (per word, per hour, per project) based on how long assignments
take and how straightforward you find them.
There’s a spectrum of payment rates across copywriting and
journalism, but most entry-level work tends to be at the disappointing end. Two
or three cents per word will regularly be quoted by clients and agencies whose
desire for quantity outweighs their desire for quality. Negotiating with a
client you’ve never worked with before is unlikely to endear you to them,
though you might be able to up your per-word price once you’ve proven yourself
to be dependable and original. Originality is critically important in the age
of Copyscape plagiarism checkers, and any attempt to repurpose existing
content will be spotted and censured.
Pro tip #8 Build a blog
If you’re unable to get work because you’re unable to get
work published, a personal blog gives you a way to become a freelance writer under
your own steam. More importantly, it gives you something to post in the
Portfolio section of a job advert.
I had a fairly lean year in 2013, and I spent the year blogging about whatever took my fancy. I then referenced specific blog articles in relevant job applications, until I was able to replace them with more heavyweight content. Although these blogs were personal rather than corporate in nature, they accurately represented my tone of voice and writing style.
Pro tip #9 Set yourself up with all the hardware you’ll need
My blog was rather over-engineered – written on a custom-built PC using the latest versions of Office and Windows. I didn’t need an HD webcam or a combined printer and scanner to produce foresighted articles about poor grammar, working from home and self-repairing lampposts. However, when I started attending Zoom meetings with clients (long before Boris tried to make it fashionable), having high-speed broadband and Bose speakers made the process much easier.
It’s very embarrassing to have to tell a prospective client
you can’t sign and scan the Non-Disclosure Agreement they’ve just emailed you
because you don’t have a scanner. Similarly, being unable to provide a landline
number becomes an issue if your mobile phone is faulty or needs replacing, your
network experiences issues, or your signal strength fluctuates.
Decisions about whether or not to invest in dedicated workstations and full spectrum lighting speak volumes about whether you really do want to become a freelance writer. Professionalism is easy to identify, just as amateurishness tends to betray itself in the unmodified ‘Sent from my mobile’ signatures on webmail accounts, and the typos which slip through the net without a proper spell-check. I’m not suggesting you need to invest in thousands of pounds worth of technology to make it in this industry, but at the minimum, you’ll need:
A laptop you can take to meetings, events and presentations, once they resume (as they inevitably will)
A large monitor and full-size keyboard at home, connected to a docking station
A printer and scanner – it’s surprising how often you need to sign things, even in 2020
High-speed wired internet connectivity, which is crucial for uploading media files and accessing cloud-sharing platforms like Dropbox.
So can I become a freelance writer?
The short answer is yes. But you’ll need to commit to it for
many years to really get anywhere. I started freelancing in 2005, went
full-time freelance in 2010 and won a national freelancing award shortly
afterwards (for a client I still work with today), but it was 2012 before my
career as a freelancer really took off. Copywriting and journalism are
industries where – and I hate typing these words as much as you’ll hate reading
them – the cream really does rise to the top.
You won’t get anywhere if you approach freelance writing as either:
(a) A short-term fix, while you plan for bigger and better things
(b) An evenings-and-weekends way of supplementing your day job
Or, worst of all:
(c) Something you try for a few months until the rejections get too much.
It’s no exaggeration to say I have had thousands of rejections
over the last fifteen years. I once sent 300 personalised letters to marketing
and PR agencies, offering my services for holiday cover and overflow work. It
cost well over £100, back in the days when that would get you a night in a
five-star hotel, and took countless hours of letter editing, mail merging and
Acknowledgements: 0. Work: 0.
It turned out that the world didn’t want or need yet
another writer. And this was a decade ago. If you tried a similar exercise
today, the postman would probably return your envelopes out of pity.
So if you’ve read this far and you still want to become a freelance writer, you know where to start. Set up a dedicated working environment, build a portfolio, register on directories, quality-check everything you put your name to, and…
Pro tip #10 Remember it’ll be years before your labours bear fruit
As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so you will be. You’re
welcome to join me in this uniquely exciting industry, and the very best of
luck to you.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t finish this article with what marketing professionals refer to as the CTA – the call to arms. If you’re looking to recruit rather than be recruited, and you like what you’ve just read, I am available for copywriting jobs, freelance journalism and all forms of print and online content production. Get in touch if you’d like to receive a competitive quote for copywriting services. A typo-free reply will arrive in your inbox shortly.