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Freelance Copywriters adapt to survive

A typographer I worked with loved his nicotine. So much so, he’d take a Marlboro red and snap the filter off, because “I like to taste my fags”.

He was burning his way through 50 a day. 1,400 a week. 18,250 a year.

Filterless, full-on, tar-dripping man cigarettes; a new one lit every 20 minutes.

He was a lovely bloke. Sounded like an asthmatic playing the bagpipes in a bucket of wallpaper paste, but lovely all the same.

I moved to a new agency and our paths didn’t cross again for a couple of years. Then I bumped into him in Charlotte Street.

“Alright Pete, long time. How’s tricks?”

“Good, still busy, still surviving.”

It turned out he’d been diagnosed with stage 1 lung cancer, so had knocked the fags on the head.

He’d gone from three cigarettes every waking hour to none. Cold turkey. No looking back.

He looked great. Had more puff and had filled out a little. No regrets, no twinges of addiction. He was now a 100% non-smoker.

It had taken the threat of an early death, but all the same, he’d ditched a 25-year habit and was now a new man.

He adapted. He survived.

And that’s a life skill that all Freelance Copywriters need a slice of.

If you’re a steady Eddie or a stable Mable, freelance life may not be for you.

Let me correct that. Actually, you need to be totally unflappable; a rock-solid support for your clients. But that cucumber-cool stoicism needs to operate at full power, even while the world is crumbling around you.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
Dumdy dumdy dumdy doo,
Dumdy dumdy dumdy dum…
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Freelance Copywriter, old chum!

Sorry Mr. Kipling.

Clients change their minds. Projects are shelved. Briefs are revised.

When you’re in the freelance copywriting game, you have to learn to roll with it. Stay cool, take control, keep smiling.

Here’s the sort of thing you may have to deal with.

No one said freelancing would be easy

I’d been working with a really smart, hotshot digital agency in Old Street, London. They’d shuffled a few nice projects my way and we’d built a good relationship. They appreciated what I did and I admired their work. Plus, the Creative Director was a fully paid up member of the Diamond Geezer Club.

The CD recommended me to a friend who worked at a big, ambitious SaaS company in Holborn.

After a couple of conversations, they asked me to write an in-app knowledge base and an idiots’ guide to getting started / problem busting.

It was a complex bit of kit, developed and tested by a huge in-house team of lovely cyber-geeks and tech-dweebs.

We agreed a substantial fee, with 50% paid upfront.

The plan was that I’d spend three days in their offices grilling the developers, chatting with clients and getting to grips with the latest version of their software.

They sent a Purchase Order number and I duly put my deposit invoice in.

Four weeks and several awkward telephone conversations later, the invoice still hadn’t been paid. But my contact was still pushing to put dates in the diary so I could set up shop in their office.

I let it lie for a few more days, half expecting the job to be pulled and remarkably, the payment showed up on my bank statement.

Dates were decided and I booked a London hotel, as I couldn’t be faffed with a three-day 6am commute to get in for a 9am start.

Then they changed the dates.

Just as I was trying to rearrange the hotel booking, they changed the dates back again.

(Still smiling. It’s all part of the job.)

I went in and had eight back-to-back meetings in the first two days. There were four team members who’d used the platform five days a week for the last year, so they were fluent in all of the jargon and shortcuts.

The learning curve was steep and painful, but I threw myself into it. Asking questions, chipping away to find the everyday human language hiding behind the robo-speak.

By the end of the third day, I was by no means an expert, but I could find my way around the top levels of the software without getting lost down a dark alley.

I went home and deciphered my copious notes, had a few more lengthy online chats and drafted the basics of a knowledge base / user manual.

This document went back and forth a couple of times to their head developer and the gaps in my understanding slowly but surely started to shrink.

We were at a point where the wider team, including the MD, needed to check for factual inaccuracies, before I created a user-friendly masterpiece.

Then the lines of communication went cold.

(Still smiling. It’s all part of the job.)

I spoke to my main client contact. The MD was in New York dealing with staff issues. They would be in touch asap.

A month went by. Emails went unanswered.

Another month went by. I left voicemails.

We eventually had a chat on the phone. They’d become so overwhelmed with work that the project had to get to the back of the queue for another month or so.

So I forgot it and concentrated on other clients and life in general.

Three more months passed and I started to get an inkling we may never reach the finish line. This was a fast-moving industry. My worry was that after six months of developer updates, half of what I’d written might not actually make sense.

I called the client. Nothing.

I called again and again. I wasn’t taking it personally; everyone I’d met was constantly chasing their tail. This project was no longer a priority.

Having got nowhere, I sent an email 38 weeks and five days after having first taken the brief. A brief that had a deadline of six weeks to complete:

Hi Xxxxxxxx,

Hope you’ve had a lovely Christmas break.

We never did finish that user manual project off. As we started the job in May last year, I’m assuming that it’s gone to the forgotten project burial ground. If so, I’ll scrub the balance invoice in my projected income spreadsheet and put it down to experience…

Wishing you a wonderful, happy and prosperous New Year.

All the best

Jonathan

Haven’t heard a dickybird since. Thank goodness we’d agreed a 50% deposit.

(Still smiling. It’s all part of the job.)

This is one of my more extreme work-related experiences, but as a Freelance Copywriter, things rarely go quite the way you expect.

There’s no guaranteed pay cheque at the end of the month and no two days are ever the same.

So if you are going to make a go of this freelance copywriting lark, you’d better learn to adapt if you want to survive.

Bonne chance.

Jonathan Wilcock (that’s me) is a Senior Freelance Copywriter.
You can
drop me a line here, or email jonathan@sowhatif.co.uk