An interview with a professional freelance copywriter: “Every project is a test of your ability.”

Freelancers, we hear your struggles. It seems that there’s no in between to either being rammed with constant work or spending two hours on a Wednesday afternoon fiddling with your website fonts.

To help you out with your copywriting stresses, Pandle spoke to Toffee Copy aka Chris Bilko. Chris has been freelancing for a couple of years now and in that time he’s picked up plenty of do’s and don’ts. Heed his advice and see exactly what it takes to become a professional freelance copywriter below…

Where do you look for inspiration?

As cliched as it sounds, you really have to look everywhere. Frankly, having to create stuff – which is a prerequisite for the role – is terrifying. It isn’t maths. You wake up every day and have a goal… but there’s no set process you can follow to achieve the goal. In an effort to placate the constant fear, I try to remind myself that creativity is just a new combination of old things… and there are a hell of a lot of old things out there to put together.

As an example, I wrote something yesterday that borrowed raw info from an economics book I read in 2011. Obviously, I didn’t know when I read the book I was laying the foundations for a 2017 idea. I just thought I was reading a nice book on holiday.

Turns out I work harder than I think.

Were there any mistakes you made early on that others should avoid?

It took me a long time to understand the time/money trade-off. Desperate as I was to keep costs down, I tried to do way too much myself. Early on, I genuinely tried submitting my own tax return. At some point, probably when looking into IR35 law whilst watching Sunday brunch, I decided I could do with spending more time writing copy and less time bastardising someone else’s profession.

So long as you can make more money either from the investment or from writing more copy in the time you save, spending money is a good idea.

What methods of getting clients on board should budding freelancer copywriters try out? Are there any they should avoid?

If they haven’t already, they should read Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins. It was written decades ago but the techniques Hopkins discusses would serve anyone looking for new clients well today.

Hopkins says it all much better than I ever could and reading his book will spark tons of ideas, but I’d advise people to think about their prospects and think about what they want. Then, offer it to them… either by calling them, emailing them, advertising it to them; whatever.

What’s the most enjoyable aspect of freelance copywriting for you?

Getting good results. In something like an email campaign, you can see pretty quickly how well you’ve done. Before it’s out there, your neck’s on the line.

Just meeting a client’s expectations triggers a sense of relief. Smashing through them is borderline euphoric. Every project is a test of your ability. And we all like to show off in tests, don’t we?

What’s the biggest obstacle out there for freelance copywriters? How did you overcome it?

Moving from full-time work to freelancing is probably up there. Unless you can survive without sleep, you can’t work as a full-time freelancer and a full-time employee simultaneously. So you get half-way there, you’re tired and stressed and missing a quiet life… and then you need to say goodbye to your stable income. I was lucky. I’d grown to hate my job and never intended to freelance permanently. I left and started freelancing to tide me over. I’ve been freelancing ever since.

If you could give a freelance copywriter only one piece of advice, what would it be?

Read, for four reasons.

The first is hardly anybody in our industry bothers to do so. In one of my early gigs, I was freelancing for an ad agency and tasked with writing a positioning statement. After a winner was selected, the account director confessed he was unsure whether I’d come up with anything decent.

I asked if he’d read Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout. He’d never heard of it. If you read, you’re going to become better than most others pretty quickly.

The second reason is writers have made mistakes and chronicled them. So why make them yourself? Learn from other people’s mistakes. Don’t spend your Sunday mornings researching IR35.

The third is people have worked out how to do this well, and we can all learn from them. Steve Harrison, Drayton Bird, David Ogilvy, John Caples, Claude Hopkins, Byron Sharp, Robert Cialdini; the list is huge. These guys are masters. Their wisdom is going to help you succeed.

The fourth is copywriting can be a lonely calling. Having heroes is motivating. Steve Harrison, mentioned above, won more Cannes Direct Lions than any other creative director and kept himself motivated by trying to live up to the work of Howard Luck Gossage. I managed to speak to Steve about Gossage once. Gossage had a huge impact on Steve’s career.

Reading will help you uncover your own heroes, and your work will improve as a result.

Which of Chris’s tips did you find most helpful? Leave a comment below or let him know by dropping Chris a Tweet. You can find out more about Toffee Copy over on their website.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments