Category: Advice

What Should Freelance Copywriters Charge?: Questions From a Copywriter, Part 1

I received an email from a guy who’s interested in applying his business education to copywriting. He asked me seven questions about copywriting that I didn’t answer. My reasons for that here. Assuming his questions are the questions of other getting-started freelance copywriters, I thought I would copy his questions from the email, paste them into this blog post, and answer them here so more people could benefit from the answers. The questions will be answered across two posts for the sake of length and readability (and let’s be honest, the SEO on these is going to be amazing).

The first few questions basically asked “What should freelance copywriters charge?,” so I’ve answered those few here.

  1. What is the average rate that your successful copywriters demand?
  2. Averages for everything vary widely, and for all kinds of copywriting-related services, so instead, I’ll give you some qualified numbers for what freelance copywriters should charge.

    • Just starting out: $50/hour.
    • Absolutely no less. That number also assumes you have basic, good quality writing ability. If you’re not a good writer (you don’t have to be a great writer to do this kind of work, just good), then this occupation will be very hard for you because you’ll have to learn how to write well first.

    • Experienced: $60-75/hour.
    • After I’d been copywriting for a couple years with increasing success, I gave myself a raise from $50 to $75. If you’re wondering when it’s time for a raise, this post might help.

    • Executive-level: $100+/hour.
    • If you’re good at what you do (and I mean good), and/or you’ve got the portfolio to back it up, charge $100+. I know a few freelance copywriters who charge over $100/hour as a regular rate, or have done so for certain services such as consulting. Depending on your experience and the kinds of clients you want to work with, you may or may not be able to charge that rate. The trick is to find clients who believe you’re worth that much, and have the money to pay. More on that.

    • Creative Staffing Agencies: $25-45/hour.
    • If you’re going to be working through a creative staffing agency (something I quite enjoy doing), you’re going to be paid less than you would if you’re working directly with the client. As the middleman, the staffing agency will take a cut of the hourly rate they bill you out at. They’re a business, after all, and they all have overhead to cover. I know some freelancers who refuse to work with them, and others who get all their work from them. The kinds of clients you want and the point you’re at in your career will determine if this is a good place for you to invest your time.

  3. What is a rate that acknowledges that I am new to the business, but indicates that I am still capable and qualified, and doesn’t drive down the rates of others who are capable and qualified?
  4. $50/hour.

  5. Can you recommend any good literature or blogs to help me understand the copywriting market in the Portland area?
  6. As far as I know, the Copywriter Conclave of Portland blog is the best (and only?) resource for freelance copywriters in Portland. THE book I recommend for all things freelance copywriting is The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman. I also recommend the Well-Fed Writer blog, the Ed Gandia podcast, and Seanwes podcast/blog.

Why I Won’t Meet You For Coffee: How Self-Education and Mentorship Lead to Success

I was compelled to write this post because I’ve recently received quite a few requests for meetings from people who aren’t freelance copywriters and want to become freelance copywriters. Now, I’m happy to share what I know, but at this point in my career, I can’t/won’t do it on an individual basis. It’s just too time-consuming: my own business would suffer if I said yes to every request, and that’s not okay with me. It might come across as a little bitchy, but one thing I’ve learned from being a freelancer (write this down): you have to be stone-cold when it comes to protecting your time. I hope I can explain my reasons why in this post.

Why I Won’t Meet You For Coffee

It’s important to have mentors, elders in the industry who can help get you on track, keep you on track, and always help you grow. It’s equally important for each of us to be active participants in our own lives and work our asses off to achieve our goals.

In short, before you ask someone (me) to help you, do your damnedest to help yourself first–educate yourself before you ask someone to do it for you. Read books on your topic of interest, read blogs (like this one), follow Twitter hashtags, go to meet-ups. Learn as much as you can on your own, or with your peers, before you walk up to someone more experienced and say: teach me all that you know.

That’s not fair. We more experienced folk have busted our asses to learn what we’ve learned. We’ve done the hard work: we’ve read and researched, we’ve gone beyond our comfort zones to learn about our boundaries and interests, we’ve gained enormous amounts of insight, philosophy, and confidence by putting ourselves through this career-building fire. And guess what? That’s the only way we would have been able to achieve all that we’ve achieved, and it’s the only way you’ll be able to achieve as well. You can’t ask anyone to just give you all of that. It’s non-transferable. You have to earn it on your own. Build it from scratch for yourself. You might not want to hear this, but it’s the only way you’ll be successful.

You might think meeting with me is your ‘Easy’ button to success. Reality check: all I’m going to do is give you more work.

Why I Started This Blog

Whenever these requests come up, it puts me in mind of a college freshman asking their professor: “I want to become successful. How do I do that?” A fair number of interested-in-becoming-a-freelance-copywriter people have asked me that question. For awhile I was meeting with them at endless one-on-one coffee meetings that took up a lot of my time. Time that I would have otherwise spent on my business.

I believe mentorship is important and I didn’t want these people to flounder, or fall through the cracks, on their way to copywriting success, so I started this blog. In an effort to answer all freelance copywriting questions, basic or complex, I and several other Conclave members have contributed to this knowledgebase so others may benefit from our collective experience…and so I don’t have to have coffee with everyone in Portland who wants to become a freelance copywriter. I love you all and fully support your inquisitiveness and bright-eyed enthusiasm for this career path, but if I met you all for coffee I couldn’t remain in business and then I wouldn’t be the person from whom you would seek knowledge. Thus, this blog and the Conclave’s twice-monthly gatherings are where I’m willing to share all that I know with you.

The Answer to the Question

The answer to that college freshman question mentioned above is also the answer to “How do I become a freelance copywriter?” It’s the answer to how do you become/do anything. Write this down and put it somewhere prominent so you never forget:

Do the work.
Build the relationships.
Build your unique knowledgebase.
Success will follow.

That’s your anchor. Everything else you and your business/career become is borne out of that foundation–the foundation you build from doing the work, building relationships and your unique knowledgebase. Without that foundation, you will crash and burn. Harsh? Yes. True? Also yes.

You have to KNOW WHY you’re doing what you’re doing. KNOW WHY you ask for half the project fee up-front instead of billing for the whole thing after you’ve sent it to the client. KNOW WHY you’re attending this particular networking event/conference and not those others. KNOW WHY you charge what you charge. KNOW WHY you only work with certain clients. The only way to learn these WHYs for yourself is through experience. You can’t cheat on this one. You just have to get out there and do it.

It’s supposed to be hard.
It’s supposed to be a little scary.
It’s supposed to be uncomfortable.
You’re supposed to feel like you have no idea what you’re doing
and then do it anyway.

If this has been your experience, then good job! You’re on the right track. Keep going and see it through if you’re truly invested in this path. Change your focus and do something else if not.

Make It Worth My Time

Before you ask someone (me, in this particular scenario) to take the time to answer your questions, make sure you’ve spent your own time trying to find the answers first; educating yourself as much as you can on your own.

Come to me educated, with complex, dynamic questions that help me as well as you, and I’ll be much more likely to sit down with you one-on-one. Say to me, “I’ve read The Well-Fed Writer, the Conclave blog, and I’ve implemented the strategies and advice from both. I have some additional questions and thoughts I’d like to run by you. Can we meet for coffee?” YES, WE CAN!!

For example, a peer called me up a few months ago and asked me a great question: what do you do when the client gets in the way of your doing great work for them? What a great question! This woman was a stranger to me, yet we spent 20-30 minutes discussing her challenge. It was great! The college freshman questions I’m referring to are: How do I find clients? and How do I make more money? To be clear, I believe these are valid questions. As you can see, we’ve already written blog posts answering them. I believe answers to such questions are important and widely available online. I would love it if you would first do a web search for this information that you seek (much of which I think you will find on this blog), before asking them of me via email.

That’s all I’m saying. Does that make sense?

How to Write Technical Documents

How to write technical documents first depends on the kind of technical document you’re writing. This is the biggest factor in deciding tone, style, word usage, etc. Most of the technical documents I write are user guides (UG), or Best Known Methods (BKM). Both types of documents save your reader’s time and energy, and can make the difference when launching a product or training session.

How to Write User Guides/Manuals

User Guides or Manuals (UM), tend to be longer, more complicated, and have more references. They generally deal with product specs, building instructions, and the like. The longest UG I have worked on was over 4,000 pages, the shortest are less than ten. They all follow the same basic steps:

  • Introduction
  • Body of the Text
    • Tools Needed (if applicable)
    • Steps (usually with Images)
    • Final results
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix with resources (if applicable)

Then it is up to you, the writer, to take all that information that you have tested, or have been given, and make it into something that the end user is able to read.

How do you do that? You KISS* (Keep it Simple, Scribe**). Think about who your audience is, a skill that is always important when writing. When I write, I imagine that I am producing documents for my grandparents or my friends who are ESL speakers (English as a Second Language). English is a tricky language, and a technical document is complicated enough without translation issues. Avoid turns of phrase and spell out all acronyms the first time they are introduced. Don’t take for granted the things that you know, they may not apply in a different language.

Another neat thing about writing UG/UMs is the fact that you can get away with publishing a whole document without a single complete sentence. In fact, bullet points, numbered lists, and notes are your friends in technical documentation. Bring on the sentence fragments! Use tables and images to illustrate the instructions. This is a situation where a picture is really worth a thousand words, and visuals are easier to understand.

When it comes down to it, the document is a more detailed version of “put the thing in the other thing and turn it on,” or some variation of that idea. If you can get that message across to the users, you’ve done your job.

How to Write Best Known Methods/Internal Processes

I find that BKMs are easier to write. Usually, when you’re writing a BKM it is for an internal process that you work on regularly. Examples of BKMs are: instructions on posting a document to an internal portal, how to run a machine, or how to process software testing. Even if it isn’t something that you work on personally, you should work closely enough with the person giving you the instructions to complete the final project. If you feel like you don’t have enough information, talk with your manager/engineer to fill in the blanks.

BKMs work best with clear instructions, small words (unless they are process specific), and diagrams. Think about trying to put IKEA furniture together without the diagrams. My house would be filled with nightmarish semblances of furniture. These documents are often shorter than a UG, usually less than ten pages. The writing process is very similar:

  • Quick introduction, less than a paragraph.
  • Steps for the process, including sub-steps, diagrams, tools needed, and images.
  • Conclusion/Summary of the final product.

Right now you may be wondering what the difference is between a User Guide and a BKM, which is understandable as they are similar. Think of a User Guide as the full explanation and possibly a little history of the project, whereas a BKM is a quick “how to.” Essentially, the two documents cover the same basic ideas, but the detail they get into differs. Remember: always keep your audience in mind. User Guides often go to external users (a wider audience) and BKMs tend to be internal (a smaller audience).

Final Tips and Notes

Technical writing is much like any other style of writing; you are passing along information to your readers in the clearest way possible.

  • Bullets, notes, and number lists are your friends.
  • Add images whenever applicable, the entire document can be images with minor text notes if that’s what works.
  • Keep your audience’s technical knowledge in mind.
  • Spell out acronyms the first time they are used, and consider adding a table of acronyms if the document contains more than ten.
  • Use tables to keep track of test results.
  • Don’t get fancy with your language. The document needs to be readable, not pretty.
  • Commit to a positive relationship with your engineers/testers, this will make your job so much easier. Tech guys tend to like cookies, just an FYI.
  • Most of all have fun with it. Even technical writing can be enjoyable if you keep an open mind. Proof-positive: I love my job.

*Tech Writers LOVE acronyms, seriously we can have whole conversations in them.
**Traditionally, this ends with Stupid, but I think that’s rude and ablest.

Lessons From Starting a Co-Working Space

Three years ago, when I couldn’t stand working another day in my bedroom, I found desk space in my friend’s studio. At $100/month, it was an expense I couldn’t take lightly. I committed to this ‘experiment’ for three months.

Three years later, I’ve increased my income and productivity substantially, and gone from a sub-leaser in a three-desk studio to a co-leaser of a space that fits eight. With my two co-leasers, I’ve invested four figures in furniture, decoration, and a semi-private meeting room. Why did I go from sub-leaser to co-leaser? Here are my lessons learned from starting a co-working space.

Why level-up from desk-renter to desk-lord?

Our landlord invited us to. She offered to subsidize our rent for six months as we got ourselves together. We figured that was plenty of time to find other refugees from home offices and the café scene. Heck, maybe we’d even turn a small profit.

Building out the space, including our time, cost several thousand dollars. That semi-private meeting space took several more weekends than we were expecting. Fortunately, our illustrator friend Andy Lunday welcomed the opportunity to grace our walls with his art.

Should you start a co-working space?

Consider these questions first:

  1. Are you willing to set up a separate business entity?

  2. As soon as the three co-leasers decided to take the opportunity, we should have set up a separate LLC (Limited Liability Company). If nothing else, it would have kept our accounting clean. Though we collect our sub-leasers’ rent in a separate bank account, that ‘income’ will make 2015 taxes more complicated and costly.

    We were smart to define our agreement in writing. We specified what we were getting ourselves into, what we expected of one another, how we would make decisions, how we would deal with expenses and revenue, and what would happen if someone wanted to back out before the lease’s term came up. Even though it’s not a legal document, the exercise of writing it out helped us arrive at a common understanding.

    We also composed an agreement for our tenants. It’s not so much a legal document as a framework of our expectations and our offering. Since signing, no one has had to reference the agreement to settle disputes. Maybe that’s because we try to offer space to fair-minded people. Maybe we’ve just been lucky.

  3. Can you afford the time to market the space?

  4. When we first considered moving, we assumed that other freelancers would beat a path to our door.

    Hope springs eternal.

    We advertise on Craigslist, PivotDesk and with a sign in our front window. Though PivotDesk charges a 10% fee for the service, we’ve had more inquiries from Craigslist and the ‘desk space available’ sign.

    Since we consciously decided to undercharge other co-working spaces -believing that would do the attracting for us- there’s little incentive to make a substantial effort finding sub-leasers.

  5. What’s your ultimate goal?

  6. Unless you want to make this a viable business, or you have extra space in your office that you’d like to rent out on the side, you’re probably better off leaving this to someone else.

    If you just want to create, just create.

    If you hope to attract prospective collaborators (developers, designers, videographers, writers, etc.), put your effort into networking. Build up those relationships. With time, you may have enough prospective partners to share a lease and space where you can focus on creating.

That said, if you’re looking for affordable co-working space in Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial Neighborhood, please email us at studio3 [at] zoomtopia [dot] com.

We may be what you’ve been looking for.

How to Land Big-Name Clients

We all want to land big name clients. On average, they pay well, on-time, and having their names in our portfolio enables us to bring in even more clients like them. But how do we get them? If you’re going it alone, you’ll struggle longer to achieve this goal. If you combine your individual efforts with some strategic partnerships though, landing those big-name clients is kinda easy.

Here’s how to land big-name clients:

  • Creative Staffing Agencies
    1. Staffing agencies for creatives (copywriters, graphic designers, photographers, producers, etc.) have relationships with the largest companies in any city. They know all the Big Names and they can get you a gig or a job with them. I’ve added some awesome work and Big Names to my portfolio thanks to some of the creative staffing agencies (CSA) in Portland.

I highly recommend you locate some, or all, of the CSAs in your city and tell them what kind of work you want to do and for whom you want to do it. Many have multiple locations around the U.S. and the world. Here are a few: Mathys+Potestio, Filter Digital, 24Seven, 52 Ltd., and Aquent.

    1. Design/Advertising Agencies

Most marketing/digital/design/branding/advertising agencies survive because they have at least one Big Name client. It could be Target, Intel, Nike, Nordstrom, or The Standard. These agencies work with the biggest of the big, the creme de la creme, and they need all kinds of different creative abilities and content. Work can range from internal process documentation to B2B partner/vendor communications to B2C product descriptions and social content. Design agencies are often a one-stop advertising shop.

If you’re one of the creatives they call on for work, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be working on some Big Name accounts. Not all creatives want to work with agencies though. That’s fine. If you don’t like having to deal with the middle-men, focus on some direct routes.

    1. Ask Your Network for Referrals

Let’s say you’ve got your eye on a Big Name client, but you don’t know anyone who works there. Do you know anyone who knows someone who works there? Probably. Ask your friends and family if they can refer you to someone in the target department at Big Name X. If you’re good at what you do, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t. You can also ask people in your LinkedIn network to recommend you to their connections with whom you’d like to connect.

Invite people to help you! More often than not, they’ll be happy to.

    1. Cold-Call

Don’t know anybody, or anybody who knows anybody, at Big Name X? Cold-call the hiring person in the department you’re targeting (Marketing, HR, Product Design, etc.) and introduce yourself. I’ve sung the praises of cold-calling many times on this blog and I will continue to do so! You’re not a telemarketer, and you’re not calling apartment-dwellers asking them if they’d like to buy aluminum siding. You’re a skilled service/product provider calling to offer something that the person needs, and would probably make their life easier. Don’t forget that.

Oh, and you can cold-email people on LinkedIn if you have a Premium account. They call it InMail. Not everyone accepts InMail, but this is another “cold-call” route if you’re terrified of using the phone (and a lot of people are, so you’re not alone).

    1. Go Where They Go/Network

The best way to make lasting connections is still the oldest way: face-to-face. If you can find a conference, networking event, or any other event where a representative of Big Name X will be, go there. Find them, meet them, and be your usual charming self. Design agencies AND creative staffing agencies host events where they invite reps from Big Name companies. Get on their mailing lists and check their Events pages regularly.

Check out the links, see if you’re interested in connecting with these agencies. If so, come to the event ready to introduce yourself to them. And be sure to introduce yourself to me as well, because I’ll be there and I’d love to meet you.

What other ways do you recommend landing big-name clients? How did one of these five methods land you a big-name client? I’d love to know.