The agony of a freelance copywriter – Snake Plissken v Dot Cotton

The agony of a freelance copywriter

Me: “Hi, I’m Jonathan, I’m a freelance copywriter.”

Them: “Oh, you’re a writer.”

Me: “A copywriter, a freelance copywriter, yes.”

Them: “Must be great. I mean working for yourself and all that.”

Me: “Well yes, it can be.”

Them: “What’s a copywriter?”

On the surface, being a freelance copywriter (once you’ve explained what one is, again) sounds like a great way to earn a living, almost romantic in a ‘wandering-lonely-as-a-cloud’ kind of way.

We play with words, tease out creative ideas, make up stories. The overheads are low and the pay is good (more on that later).

But, behind the floppy forelocks and flouncy blousons, no one knows the agony of the freelance copywriter better than he/she/it. So, let’s have a look at some of the harsh realities shall we.

The agony of a freelance copywriter – Ideas never sleep

Ideas don’t do sensible hours
Creative ideas are like teenagers with too much hormonal weirdness going on to respect normal, decent working hours. It’s absolutely par for the course to be reaching for the laptop before the sparrows have cleaned their teeth – it’s 4.06 and I’ve already written a dozen headlines for a campaign I’m working on – now I’m writing this stupid blog post!

What is it with creative thinking? I don’t necessarily want to do a 9-5, but there was nothing in the contract about doing a 2-11 (that’s am – pm by the way). Seriously, what kind of idiot starts work at 2 o’clock in the morning and is still going at cocoa time?

This freelance copywriter idiot, that’s who.

You always get the dregs
Those full-timers. They swan in at 8.30 with their café lattés, pull up a chair (that someone else paid for) and take the pick of the juiciest briefs. “Hmmm… now what shall I have for starters, the Nike TV commercial or the big-budget poster campaign with the shoot in St Lucia. Ooh, I just can’t decide… what are you having Giles?”

The agony of a freelance copywriter – Vultures

Like big fat food critics, they gorge themselves on briefs for luxury high street brands, sucking the bone marrow out of every last Gold Pencil winner, and then if you’re lucky, they toss the splintered carcasses to you to cut your gums on.

Are you free this afternoon?
Wow, an amazing brief to work on, but what’s that you say, “you’re presenting to the client the day after tomorrow? First thing? How long have you had the brief? Oh, just a couple of weeks, yep, no problem, I’m on it.”

I’ve been in agencies and heard it with my own ears, “if the ‘team’ can’t crack it, let’s get a freelancer in.”

As a freelance copywriter, that’s sort of a good thing. Not only do you get more work, you get the chance to prove how gifted/invaluable/amazing/humble you are. But you’d better work fast, you know, the sort of pace that demolishes the bragging rights of peregrine falcons.

Even if you’re called in for a month’s stint, you’ll probably find out about it at 5.29 on a Friday, and be expected to start on the Monday. Of course, the stars do occasionally align, but having to turn down great briefs is all part of the wonderful, care-fee life of a freelance copywriter.

Of course, you won’t be able to show it to anyone
The work looks fantastic. The client’s ecstatic. “Another one for the portfolio”.

Woah, hold on there a cotton-pickin’ minute, did you not read the small print? ‘Under no circumstances shalt thou ever ever EVER breatheth a word of this to anyone (not even your Mum). We paideth you, we owneth the work, now stop wimpering and writeth some more stuff to make us look clever – eth.’

The agony of a freelance copywriter – Top Secret

Harsh but true, at least much of the time it is. The work we do is often ‘sensitive’ or ‘confidential’. I didn’t realise I was signing up for the Secret Service, but from now on, if you want to brief me, we’ll meet on a bench in Central Park.

It’s not fair, I want to show the best bits off to the world, they’re my babies, I’m proud of them, just look at them with their rosy cheeks and other baby-shaped analogies.

In this game, if you want to avoid 12-year old portfolio syndrome, often the only answer is to do extra-curricular, self-initiated campaigns. Luckily, there are another 3 hours between 11 and 2, so let’s order the Pro-plus in.

Haven’t spoken face-to-face with another human being since…
Some might think this is a good thing and to be honest, a couple of days without human contact is sort of detoxifying, but by day three you’re praying for a courier to come knocking. “Of course I can sign for that. I was just putting the kettle on, come in, help yourself to nibbles, tell me all your darkest secrets…”

Office banter is rubbish for writing, but the walls just don’t laugh at my jokes. When they do, that’s when I know I’ve definitely had too much solitary.

You want payment? Chase me!
“Great stuff Jonathan, we’re really chuffed with the work. You’ve saved our bacon again. Thank you, thank you, thank you, a thousand thank yous, may you and all your family go to the highest heaven and drink nectar from the horns of unicorns.

“Now about that invoice; we’re having a bit of a cashflow issue, so if you wouldn’t mind waiting ‘til the next cheque run at the end of the month… which month? Oh you needn’t worry about that, you know we’re good for it. Anyway, are you free tomorrow, a really exciting brief’s just come in…”

To be fair, I’ve only ever had one proper bad debt and only once did I have to resort to sitting in reception, refusing to leave unless they paid me. It was all kind of Hollywood and exciting in a “what if they all go home for the weekend and leave me in the dark?” kind of way. I look back at it now and it makes me feel a bit Snake Plissken – in reality, I’m probably more Dot Cotton.

You’ll find the brief on the back of a napkin
If you’re thinking of jacking in the day job and becoming a freelance copywriter, then you’d better get used to brief wrangling. Two-minute briefings via facetime are not unusual.

My advice? Don’t stop until you’ve got all the answers. The worst brief in the world isn’t the social media brief for incontinence pants; it’s the brief that’s full of holes. Mind you, if you get both at the same time, now that’s a bad brief.

The agony of a freelance copywriter – The Negotiator

They want to pay you less than a Victorian workhouse
I’m a writer not an arm wrestler, but that grubby, nasty folding stuff has to be dealt with sooner or later.

If you’re a full-timer, you haggle over your salary once a year at most, you know what your pay cheque is, you do your work and as if by magic, the exact figure that went into your bank account last month, goes in this month.

Mates’ rates, pro bono, can you sharpen your pencil a bit for this one… now that I’m a freelancer, just call me The Negotiator (say it in blockbuster voiceover-style, it sounds pretty cool).

To be a freelance copywriter, or not to be a freelance copywriter?
I’ve tried all four basic options as a creative animal:

– The lone wolf – pitching my mad ideas to publishers and gallery owners.
– The worker ant – 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year, same faces, same office politics.
– The alpha male – employing my own motley crew of creative rogues and scoundrels.
– The honey bee – freelance flitting from brief to brief, being buzz buzz busy, even when there’s no paycheque at the end of it.

They all have their pros and cons, but for the forseeable future at least, freelancing is where it’s at.

The hours are ridiculous and they pay is sporadic, but you know what, I love it and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Hey diddly dee, it’s freelancer’s life for me.

(Please remind me of the last two sentences next time someone asks me if I’ll work for a packet of dry roasted peanuts on a Bank Holiday Monday).

If you enjoyed this, then these posts might tickle your fancy:

How to conquer writer’s block
How to choose the right freelance copywriter
How to edit your copy

Jonathan Wilcock (that’s me) is a freelance Copywriter, Art Director and Creative Director.
You can drop me a line here, or email jonathan@sowhatif.co.uk

How do freelance copywriters conquer writer's block?

How freelance copywriters conquer writer’s block

Freelance copywriters write copy – at least, that’s what they’re supposed to do.

On a good day, ideas come thick and fast. Words pop into the mind and flow through the fingertips to dance across the page with an elegance that would make Darcey Bussell look like a newborn elephant taking its first steps.

It’s what freelance copywriters do. Words are their stock in trade – ads need devising, blogs need populating, stories need telling… and then it hits – the copywriter’s nemesis – writer’s block. Like a sleeping buffalo; push all you like, it feels like nothing’s going to shift it.

So, how do we get over writer’s block? Are there any tricks that can help us turn a sticky keyboard into a glorious piece of customer-grabbing prose?

Writer’s block can strike at any time, but freelance copywriters have deadlines to hit and in the commercial world it’s usually only the client that has the power to change the target date.

Before you write a single word

Know your brief – Before you write anything, you need to know the who, what and why of it all. If there’s no formal brief, it’s up to you to ask the right questions. Learn more about writing a creative brief here.

Getting into first gear

The brief’s agreed and you know your deadline, now what?

Find your sweet spot – The absolute worst place for me to concentrate on a piece of copy is in the agency. It’s the perfect arena to discuss the brief, share ideas and catch up on gossip, but for me personally, 8-hours of banter and other people’s telephone conversations are as effective at killing off my writing mood as throwing a bucket of cold water over an amorous pooch (RSPCA, please note, I don’t even have a dog). If you want to get maximum return on your time investment, find a place where the ideas flow freely – in the park, locked in the boardroom, in a hermetically sealed glass booth with a ‘Do not disturb’ sign stuck to your forehead… whatever it takes.

Freelance copywriters – do not disturb

Choose your weapon – Especially at the beginning of the writing process, getting your ideas down quickly is important. If you’re a one-finger-one-thumb typist, get a note pad, smartphone or dictaphone (and keep it with you throughout the day) for getting your thoughts out of your head. The pen, pencil or keyboard you use can make a huge difference to your flow. It’s all about comfort and familiarity. When you’re writing with an instrument that feels right, you can concentrate on the words, not the means.

Remove distractions – People perform better without unwanted brain bait and concentration confuddlers. And boy, are there a lot of those to contend with in the modern workplace. The three biggest culprits are email, social media and phone calls. I started this post at 5.40am and had the key ideas, structure and at least 20% of the final words cracked by 7.00. Not a single email (switched off), tweet (tab closed), or conversation (clients and collaborators are fast asleep or eating their cornflakes) got in the way.

Now let’s write something

Get your first words down – Blank page syndrome is enemy number one. For a novice, a blank page staring back at you is like facing Mike Tyson in the ring. The answer is simple; get the first punch in. Write anything down that comes to you – lists of related words, your first un-edited ideas; just throw them down and then there’s no more blank page to taunt you. Even if you just write a flood of semi-legible nonsense, at least you’re writing. Writing something is definitely better than writing nothing. You may be under the illusion that sitting and thinking (or waiting for the creative muse) is the way that writer’s work. Maybe some do, but thinking about words and actually writing need to be split seconds apart. A germ of an idea sparks a sentence, which fuels a paragraph and the next thing you know, you’ve written that brochure you’ve been worrying about for 2 days.

Don’t worry about spelling – Spelling matters, but not when you’re getting your first ideas down. Write your first draft without the worry of getting everything just right. Deadlines permitting, there will be plenty of time to worry about the finer details in the second, third or fourth draft. Don’t edit as you go, just keep writing until the words dry up.

Freelance copywriters – SPELLING

Put the thesaurus down – Non-writers often think that their thesaurus will save the day. Cat stuck up a tree? Get the thesaurus out. Colleague needs CPR? Give Roget a call. A thesaurus (for speed, I use thesaurus.com) is great when you’ve already got ideas and you’re into the next level of refinement, but if you’re staring at a blank page, I really wouldn’t make it your first port of call.

There’s good noise and there’s bad noise – Ambient sound can have a profound influence on what you write. Have you ever been writing when someone enters the room and starts talking? It was all going great, the sentences were almost writing themselves then I’m doing a sandwich run, cheese and pickle, no make it falafel, oh bugger, where was I? Noise has a huge effect. Some freelance copywriters like to work in pin drop silence, some love music, the sound of the sea, whale song… experiment, it’ll soon be clear what kind of ambient sound works for you.

Don’t let a good idea get away – The mind is messy thing, ideas can come and go in a heartbeat. That fantastic idea can quickly be replaced by “Ooh, I wonder what’s for dinner” and then it’s gone, sometimes for good. If an idea hits you, scribble it down in the margin. You can always come back to it later and see if it still works.

Freelance copywriters – lost concentration

You write what you eat and drink – Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of writing about hydration for a healthcare client. The brain is 73% water, and if that’s where ideas and words are processed, then we owe it to ourselves to make sure it doesn’t shrivel up. Equally, writing on an empty stomach will only get you so far. Hunger will eventually become as distracting as a PPI phone call. If you’re hungry, eat, but don’t eat too much – a three-course lunch will make you sluggish, and slugs really don’t make the best copywriters.

Everything looks better after a couple of liveners – Some freelance copywriters are convinced they write with greater fluidity when they are more fluid-y themselves. Alcohol removes inhibitions; it opens up parts of the subconscious that otherwise keep themselves to themselves. Relying on any form of stimulant to fuel the creative process and remove writer’s block may be tempting, but it’s a slippery slope. I’m sure Jack Kerouac or Robert Louis Stephenson would have disagreed, but for every drug-fuelled genius writer, there are a hundred who’d wished they’d just said “no”. However, if that’s your bag (or pipe or glass), make sure someone who is alcohol or drug-free reads your masterpiece before it goes to print.

Don’t ignore your body clock – As evidenced by this blog post, I love to write during the wee, small hours. I can always have a kip later on, but if the brief is basically sorted by midday, then I reckon I deserve it. Everyone is different, but if your mind and body are telling you to write at stupid o’clock, then don’t put it off. Having said that, deadlines show no mercy, so professional freelance copywriters have to learn how to turn it on whenever it’s needed.

I’ve got a first draft, but…

Save it, never discard it – Have you saved it yet? No? Do it! 1,000 words can be difficult to tease out the first time, but if auto-save isn’t on (or the dog eats your note book), it can be twice as hard to write it all over again. If, for whatever reason, your first draft does get lost, my advice would be to engage stiff upper-lip mode, forget what went before and start afresh. Trying to remember exactly what you had first time round will only end in even more writer’s block.

If it’s not behaving, just ignore it – If you’re part way through and you get stuck, the best way to un-bung is to walk away and do something else. Change the scene, have a cup of tea. If it’s a temporary hiccup, a minute or two away from the screen or page usually does the trick. If you can afford the time, go outside, look at the trees – it’s amazing how easy it is to shift what seemed like an immovable object just by changing your outlook (don’t forget to take your notebook with you).

Don’t be afraid to get the axe out – Another great technique to overcome writer’s block is to hack whatever you’ve already got to pieces. It’s rare that the third draft isn’t an improvement on the first, but you just never know, so keep everything. If you want to know more, there’s lots of copy editing advice here.

Still bunged up?

When a short walk just won’t do – For those extra, cemented-in blockages, have a proper break and give it the overnight test. Do something completely different – work on another creative brief, go paint balling, deep-sea diving, Morris dancing… whatever it takes to completely lose the plot. You’ll come back to it with fresh eyes and a completely different perspective.

Bring in reinforcements – Ask others for their opinions, not necessarily other copywriters. Bounce your ideas off almost anyone, especially someone who doesn’t know the brief (or even better, someone who is part of your target audience) and see what their gut reaction is. Even a seemingly random comment from your Aunt Ethel can sometimes get things moving again.

Freelance copywriters – aardvark

Call it quits – Not everyone can write great copy. I’ve worked alongside people (non-writers) who insist on writing when they really should be getting on with the day job. 8 hours and a half-written paragraph later, everyone else has left for the evening and they’re still trying to wrestle a headline into submission. I understand the temptation to do everything yourself. I could buy a Haynes manual and spend a couple of weeks watching YouTube tutorials, but it’s probably best if I take my car to the garage for an MOT. If words don’t come easily, then spend your energy on working out what the brief is and get a professional in.

Further reading:
How to choose the right freelance copywriters
How to edit your copy
More about music and creativity

Jonathan Wilcock (that’s me) is a freelance Copywriter, Art Director and Creative Director.
You can drop me a line here, or email jonathan@sowhatif.co.uk