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The agony of a freelance copywriter

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

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 a 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 Senior Freelance Copywriter.
You can drop me a line here, or email