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Sorry, but talent will only get you so far

Old B&W photo of a woman with a chicken on her head – from the blog of Jonathan Wilcock

Last Monday I had an attack of the can’t-be-bothereds. Then a brief came in, with a deadline.

A ‘soooooo sorry we’ve dumped this on you last minute, but we’re in a bit of a mess’ kind of deadline.

Bang went my afternoon of cloud busting and melancholy harrumphing.

Can’t be bothered needed a swift kick up the knicker factory.

Sleeves rolled and socks pulled, I had no choice other than to call on my three best mates:

Grit, Determination and Sheer Bloody Willpower.

Which got me to thinking. Having a God-given talent is wonderful. Having a ton of experience is magical. But if you aren’t prepared to bare knuckle box your way to the top, you’ll probably never make it as a freelance creative anything, never mind a Copywriter.

Copywriters. Sort your attitude out

A few weeks ago, I had two very different conversations, with two very different junior Copywriters.

Both equally capable and both with similar issues they wanted to discuss. “There’s no work coming in, what the hell do I do about it?” was the main gist.

I told them what I do when I’m in a similar predicament and what I did when I was at their career stage.

One was all ears and enthusiasm. The idea of hard graft didn’t scare her at all (I told the tale of being made redundant and dragging myself around town for 150 interviews in a little over 3 months).

We discussed the idea of making up briefs to boost a dreary or out-of-date portfolio – exactly what I had to do when I had an NDA slapped on the majority of my most recent work, having just sold my agency and all the intellectual property that went with it.

It’s tough – working really hard for no pay.

But that’s what the creative industries are like. For every overnight ‘How I earned 6 figures in my first year without any experience’ success (I don’t believe any of it by the way), there are a thousand wannabe Freelance Copywriters struggling along the rocky road to paying the bills through writing.

It hurts. I know, I’ve done (and I’m still doing) it. Five redundancies take their toll. But I’m still full of love and enthusiasm for what I do.

After 30+ years, I still work just as hard at attracting new clients as I do on the day job. Am I mad? Most likely. But that’s what it takes.

So, both Copywriters got a similar pep talk – ‘you can do this, but you’re going to have to put the hours in’.

When the second writer said they weren’t up for the drag of doing speculative briefs for their portfolio, my heart sank. They even went as far as to say, “Padding out my website with briefs I’ve made up would seemingly be something an experienced writer could do when forced to do so!”

Seriously. If a more experienced writer, with a bigger network and real industry nous is prepared to do it, why wouldn’t a newbie?

The crux of the matter is not how talented you are, but how much you want it.

Stop making out it’s easy

But it’s not his fault (well, it kind of is, but), I blame the snake oil, content-churning tosspots who’ve flooded the industry with their boondoggling chicanery.

There’s so much misleading fluff bandied about online. So many get-rich schemes. So many shortcuts and 10-step copywriting courses. And sadly, there seem to be just as many half-decent young writers who fall for it all. Three months in, they can’t understand why they haven’t got a down payment on that villa in Tuscany and a Black Pencil on the shelf.

No doubt, talent will get you so far, but with so many people competing, if you haven’t got a stubborn streak and a proper work ethic, well, it was nice knowing you.

I’m definitely not advocating working on live briefs for free. That’s exploitative and depressing. But as soon as you lose the enthusiasm or the will to keep pushing; when you think, ‘well I gave it my best shot’ (for a couple of weeks), then you really should think about an easier way of getting Nutella on your toast.

Times is tough, so you’ve got to be too

The word on Copynation Street is, we’re going through a particularly tough time. The economy’s up the creek and budgets are tight.

To double-check it isn’t just me, I stuck a poll on Twitter and a post on LinkedIn:

Help me out. I’m writing a post about how difficult it is to be a freelance #copywriter. On a scale of 1 to 10, how hard do you have to work to keep the work rolling in? Any insights, please add a comment too.

If you’re just starting out with a head full of ‘freelancing’s a breeze’ propaganda and a belly full of bright-eyed optimism. Good on you, but you may want to look away at this point.

Twitter Poll results. 99 out of 118 Copywriters find it difficult to get work – the blog of Jonathan Wilcock

Even I can do the maths.

99 out of 118 Copywriters who took part, have to slog away at finding work. And I know for a fact, some of these writers have been in the game 10, 20 years, or more.

And for an extra dose of hard truth, here’s some of the comments:

Various LinkedIn and Twitter poll comments – Jonathan Wilcock, Freelance Copywriter

How competitive? This competitive!

I know I’m coming across as a right Miserable Malcolm Mopey-chops, but sometimes tough love is exactly what you need.

Like most of us, I get LinkedIn alerts for relevant opportunities (in my case it’s mostly Freelance Copywriting). Want to know why I gave up responding to those ads? I reckon this says it all:

LinkedIn Alerts showing multiple applications for the same roles – the blog of Jonathan Wilcock

And now the good(ish) news

Come on Jonathan, give us a bit of light relief.

OK, when it goes well, being a Freelance Copywriter is fun, creatively satisfying and relatively lucrative.

In fact, it’s a fab way of earning a living.

There’s a nice, steady stream of exciting new clients with equally exciting briefs queueing up and begging to work with you. The ideas flow, the bank account bulges and all’s well.

But when things go a bit pear-shaped, you need to be prepared to work like a genetically modified beaver, just to bag a few scraps.

Yes my friends, this copywriting lark is hard work. But if you’re prepared to grip it with your knees and take the blisters, I reckon you’ll crack it.

Love and patience.

Jonathan x

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