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Long and winding road: how I became a freelance

road of the future

Photo by monterd (CC on Flickr)

One of the readers of this blog (hi Petya) contacted me recently to ask how I first became a freelance writer. She was looking for advice about getting started as a freelance herself.

Becoming a freelance writer is not easy, but it is possible. The bad news is that it doesn’t really depend on how good a writer you are (and, yes, I’m the living proof).

There’s a lot of luck involved, you need to know people who can help you, and you need business skills.

In an upcoming post (warning, it’s a long one) I’m going to look at some of the things you need to be a successful freelance writer.

But first I’m going to explain how I came to be a full-time freelance writer. This might seem a little self-indulgent, but I’m hoping it may help readers like Petya with ideas they can use in their own careers.

Do I make a decent living? Yes
I have worked as freelance writer for around 12 years. In that time, I’ve never had to take any form of employment. And all my income has come from freelance writing.

I also live reasonably well. I don’t have expensive tastes, and I’m not much interested in flash cars. But I do have a mortgage to pay on a four bedroom house in the country. I also have a woman, two cats and an Airedale Terrier to support (that last item is especially expensive / destructive).

So clearly I am doing something right. I’m getting money coming in regularly. I’m self-employed, work the hours I choose, and go play tennis whenever I wish (or at least, whenever the weather allows).

1. In the beginning
After school I went to University and studied English literature for three years. You can skip this step. It doesn’t help me in the slightest when it comes to freelancing. But it probably did help me get to step 2…

2. First break
After a few years doing this and that (such as working on building sites etc), I landed a job as a copywriter in an advertising agency. What? Just like that? Well, sorta.

It was a very small recruitment advertising agency. Which means all they needed was someone who could string the odd sentence together. My degree in Eng Lit probably helped here.

It wasn’t great experience, however, and it was a lousy place to work with terrible pay. So I moved on….

3. Travel the world
You can’t get enough of this. But you probably knew that already. Now is not the time to bore you with my traveller’s tales…

4. Train as a journalist

We learnt truly useful stuff such as shorthand, the law of libel, how the criminal justice system works

I decided I wanted a craft, and that it should involve writing. I got onto a journalism training course here in the UK. It wasn’t just any old course either. It was part of a structured career path set up in collaboration with the UK newspaper industry. So it was specific vocational training.

We learnt truly useful stuff such as shorthand, the law of libel, how the criminal justice system works, and what it is elected representatives get up to all day. It was designed to lead directly to a job on a newspaper. Which it did….

5. Work as a journalist
I started out on a local newspaper as a rookie reporter. I soon became the paper’s crime reporter, then the deputy news editor, before moving to a big city paper. Here I worked as a general reporter for a while. Then I worked in a press agency gathering and writing news and feature material for national newspapers and magazines. Then I decided to run away….

6. Earning a patchwork living

It kept my head above water for a while.

I upped and left my journalism career when the place where I was working became unbearable. This is not the most steady route into freelancing and not what I recommend. But, you know, sometimes you just have to go. I had decided I didn’t want to go to London and work on the national newspapers. I wouldn’t have stuck that for long anyway. It just wasn’t for me. So I ended up in one of the UK’s major cities (but not London) wondering what on earth to do next.

I saw a job ad in the paper. They wanted someone to help edit a skiing book. It was just a bit of part-time fill-in work. But it kept my head above water for a while.

Then I saw another ad. A recruitment advertising agency needed a freelance copywriter. The money would be inconsistent and poor. But it would help for a while.

7. Bingo
Then I was told about a copywriting agency that existed locally. I had never heard of such a thing before. But I got in touch, and haven’t really looked back since.

It supplies lots of regular work, while leaving me as my own boss.

The agency does the marketing and finds the work. It then gives the writing assignments to a bank of freelance writers. Of course, the agency takes a big cut. But then it charges a lot in the first place, because it has clout, a reputation, and a string of clients who trust it to provide the right people for the task in hand.

I ended up earning more from copywriting than I had ever thought possible, even though the agency was taking a 50-60% cut. It supplies lots of regular work, while leaving me as my own boss. They do the marketing and handle the business side of things. I could just get on with the copywriting.

I was able to learn new skills as well, as the people at the agency trusted me to take on new types of copywriting I hadn’t tackled before. The clients were big too – national and international companies: banks, software companies, government agencies, major institutions. Good names to have in your portfolio.

It’s now more than ten years since I first contacted that copywriting agency. In that time, freelance writing has been my sole source of income.

8. Building a stable income
Now I work for more than just one agency. I also get a reasonable of work directly from my own clients. They find me through my website which I promote by spending a few dollars a month on Google adsense (I did a bit of SEO work on it too). If work gets quiet, I’ll turn up up the adsense spending and hopefully bring in more work.

There’s a lot more I could do on the marketing side of things. But I really, really like pull marketing (they find my website when they’re looking for a writer) rather than push marketing (sending out letters, flyers, emails to people who don’t want to be bothered. Do you like spam and direct mail?)

9. What about online writing?
Now, you’ll notice that there’s not much in here about online writing, blogging, elance, guru etc etc. Of course, when I started out the Internet was just a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. So those things weren’t an option.

And because I get by on my offline earnings, I’ve been slow to rush into the whole online freelance thing. I’m not the expert on that topic. But I will say this. I’ve looked at some of those sites that put writers in touch with clients and I’m appalled at what I see. People offering a few dollars for an article.

Which is why I would urge anyone who wants to be a freelance writer to put a lot of effort into getting offline clients.

They should expect to pay the writer a decent rate

An offline client is someone you talk to on the phone, whom you might meet, to whom you send an old fashioned invoice. It’s someone who employs you because you have professional skills. They accept that employing a copywriter means they are seeking the services of an expert. They should expect to pay the writer a decent rate, just as they would a graphic artist, a web designer or a plumber.

It clearly makes sense to try to mix online and offline writing. There seem to be plenty of people around who make a good living from blogging, for example. I’m sure most bloggers don’t make much money, but that doesn’t mean you can’t, if you put in a lot of hard work and keep at it for long enough.

As for myself, I make no money at all from my blogging,. But then I’m pretty new at it. There may be ads on this site, but that’s really just an experiment to see how well these things do. (Laughably badly so far. I’d be better off writing articles for $1 than relying on adsense).

A freelance needs many strings to their bow (if that’s not mixing a metaphor) so I’m taking the whole online income thing a bit more seriously now and seeing what it can offer. But for the foreseeable future, 99% of my income will come from offline clients.

Other options
I’ve been lucky that I’ve not had too many lean periods. This has made me a little complacent and lazy about finding other avenues for my writing. I could try writing articles for newspapers and magazines, something I did a lot in the past. This can be hard work, of course, especially when trying to re-establish some contacts and persuade people to look at your work.

I much prefer being commissioned to write something rather than having to do the work and then see if anyone wants it. The marketing and selling can take ten times as long as as the writing, if you’re not careful.

Of course, there are heaps of other freelancing writing avenues available. There are thousands of different ways to make a living as a writer. No two freelances will fit into quite the same niche.

This story of how I make a living as a freelance writer has probably left one big question in your mind:

How do I find these copywriting agencies?

Are there any such agencies where you live?

I think they are quite rare. I’m familiar only with the UK, where there are a handful of genuinely successful ones. Lots of one-man and two-man copywriting teams try to look like an agency. But they’re not really. They don’t have a team of freelancers whom they can supply with regular work.

Are there any such agencies where you live? Do they exist in the US or Australia, or Bulgaria? I doubt it, to be honest. But they probably should exist. They’re a terrific business model.

So, if being a solo freelance writer doesn’t appeal to you, perhaps you could set up a writing agency instead. When it’s thriving and successful, don’t forget to put some work my way.

In the meantime, don’t forget to check back for my next post, where I’ll look at some of the essential tools, qualities and resources you need to make it as a freelance.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Petya January 9, 2008, 10:31 am

    Thank you SO MUCH! This is a fantastic post!
    I find it very encouraging how you did different things that eventually set you up for a successful freelancing career.
    And, you are right, there are no copywriting agencies in Bulgaria…which makes me wonder whether I could do something about that.

  • Markus January 9, 2008, 2:54 pm

    The anti-spam word is blood 😉 Funny

    What I wanted to say: Thank you for this great post! It was really interesting to read!

  • Simon January 9, 2008, 3:35 pm

    Thanks Petya and Markus. Sorry, I have no control over the anti-spam words!

  • simon March 9, 2014, 5:23 pm

    I’m not too technical so doubt I can help with browser compatibility issues. The blog uses WordPress and the Thesis theme, which is a paid for theme. It’s on an older version of Thesis (1.85). I have another site at simontownley.com that uses Thesis 2.1. I found Thesis great to use, very easy, and it seems to work well across browsers. The newer versions of Thesis are excellent on smartphones too.