10 easy steps to start your freelancing journey from scratch (Part 1)
Copywriting – Before we begin
There’s a lot of rubbish out there on the internet suggesting that copywriting is the best way to get that digital nomad lifestyle you’ve been craving. The internet is full of promises that you are only a few simple steps away from making double your salary while spending most of your time hanging out in trendy coffee shops or sipping margaritas on some beach in Bali. It taps into that dream that many of us have – to make an easy living by writing.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to discourage you. Far from it. But if it was as easy as they make out, everyone would be doing it, wouldn’t they? But if you are determined to pursue your passion for writing, and it does have to be a passion, then it is possible. That said, it won’t be easy, but like everything in life, it’ll taste that much sweeter when you’ve had to work hard to get there.
So before you string me up from the nearest gallows tree for my clickbait title – hold fire. The steps I am going to share with you are simple. Child’s play, in fact. But applying them is where it gets tricky.
Step 1: Write, write, write…right?
‘Just get on with it, already!’Me (just then)
It doesn’t matter what form of writing you want to get into, whether it’s content or conversion copy, you just need to start by writing. A lot. I mean actually writing. Not thinking about writing, or telling people you are writing. Actually writing.
Ideally, you will write with a particular focus but in the beginning, it is just important to get into the habit of writing. Every day. Even when you don’t particularly feel like writing – especially then. Because it is very easy to sit down and write when you are in the mood – but you find out so much more about yourself when you sit down and write because you have to.
This will create great habits, toughen you up, build up your stamina and prepare you for the career you are embarking on when, sit down for this one, sometimes you will not fancy writing! But you have a deadline looming, so you just have to suck it up, dig deep and all those other cliches about getting on with it, and well, just get on with it. It’s your career now, and no matter what job you do, everyone has crappy days sometimes.
Write every day. You could keep a journal, or create your own blog about a hobby, passion, pastime, lifestyle choice, political idealogy, weird obsession – whatever floats your boat. You could write articles in response to what you have read, you could write prose. At this point, it’s just important that you get into the habit of writing a lot. The content is irrelevant – you’re just habit-forming.
NB: When I say irrelevant, that doesn’t mean you can go at the keyboard like a chimp with ADD. It has to make sense.
E.g. hdasjk.hf lkjefwlkfjw jlkfejwlkfj jlkf jfeln nasfopklewnewilnc osajk,asj jfownf jkfkowj – NOT ACCEPTABLE.
For me, I used Medium. It is a useful site for reading a range of different articles on a massive variety of topics; just try to avoid the ‘Here’s how I made a million dollars on Medium by taking a shit’ articles. They are everywhere.
On Medium, you can write about anything – and I mean anything. It only costs $5 a month and when you have 100 followers and you have written a few articles, you can start getting paid for your writing. You also get feedback on your writing from people who are mostly lovely and encouraging, which is just what you need when you are starting out.
Step 2: Get out of your comfort zone
Right. So you have been writing for 18 hours a day for the last 60 days and you’re in your groove. You eat, drink and shit words, you read fervently and you’ve got to the stage where you can’t let a single thought go unwritten. You are ready to move on.
Now you need to get out of your comfort zone. Step one was easy compared to this. But this stage is really important. If I use the analogy of wearing clothes – it seemed like a good idea at the time. I mean, most of us wear clothes a lot of the time, unless you are the naturist copywriter (great niche, by the way!).
You have got into the habit of wearing clothes. You are great at getting dressed. You no longer put your socks on your hands and wear your trousers like a scarf. And you remember to put clothes on before leaving the house.
Wearing clothes feels natural to you. It’s just something you do. So much so that you don’t feel the urge to mention it to all and sundry like a lot of writers do. ‘Yeah, I’m just kind of wearing clothes now – it’s what I do.’ Or when someone comes round, ‘Have you seen that I’m wearing clothes? Yeah, this is me now.’
But now, you have to wear someone else’s clothes. You have to put them on and wear them convincingly, like they are your clothes.
Ok, ok, it’s a shit analogy, but you get me.
It’s over now, so you can stop going on about it.
You have been writing whatever pops into that little head of yours. Which is great, but now, you have to push yourself to write in ways that don’t seem natural, using voices that are different from your own, and about subjects you know little about.
It’s like a tennis player who favours their forehand, or a left-footed football player practising with the weaker part of their game. (Which is a much clearer and more succinct analogy, but fuck it, I can’t be bothered to go back and delete the crap about the clothes).
This is vital for two reasons. One, you develop your ability to adopt unfamiliar tones of voice, which makes you a better writer. And two, you are always going to be writing other people’s stuff about other people’s niches. Rarely will a client just say. ‘Hey, just write it as you, in your style.’ One thing they will be particular about is the tone of voice. So get used to dancing around, washing the car and throwing some funky ass shapes in other people’s clothes. (It’s back again!)
If you write quite informally, try something more formal and academic. If you love to write about technology, write about a vegan diet (even if you love a bit of steak). It really helps; believe me – the niches I’ve written for!
Step 3: Get some ‘must have’ copywriting tools
I don’t care how good a writer you are, or people say you are, or you think you are, you will still make mistakes. Whether that’s typos, comma splicing, syntax problems, when you are churning out your writing, errors are bound to creep in.
The sooner you accept that fact, the better.
But don’t fear. When you have got over your stubborn pride, you’ll realise that any help is beneficial to helping you get it done. Software and plugins or extensions are great for spotting those errors that you miss. It’s often a case of not being able to see the wood for the trees, so suck it up and use whatever is out there to expedite the whole writing process.
I was an English teacher, and I laughed scornfully at the very idea of using software like Grammarly to check my work. But I sucked it up and now I wouldn’t be without it. I also use ProWritingAid Chrome extension as well and it really helps.
At the very least, it is like having two annoyingly pedantic friends with you while you write, looking over your shoulder and constantly commenting on your writing. Writing can be quite lonely at times, so I often strike up a conversation with them. We fall out sometimes, like any normal relationship, usually over my use of the passive voice, but occasionally I just have to scream ‘Just piss off Grammarly. Yes, I meant to use that there and no amount of your underlining is going to change my mind.’
At least it opens up a dialogue between you and your writing, which makes Step 4 that much easier.
The best bit is when both my writing aids disagree about a grammatical issue. They take turns underlining different words and phrases. I can’t keep them both happy – so sometimes I like to just piss them both off and ignore them.
Step 4 – Editing and Proofreading your copy
Proofreading and Editing need to be your new best friends. I remember when I was teaching, students were reluctant to proofread and edit their work because they said it made it look messy. They liked to hand in a perfectly pristine piece of work. I think it is a human trait to finish something and then walk away thinking it is done, so we can move on to the next task.
With copywriting, you need to get into the habit of revising and editing for clarity, so you have the tone of voice spot on, and so there aren’t any glaring errors. ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’, they say, and never has this been more apt than in copywriting.
The way to encourage yourself to do this, is to start by writing blind. When you have a blank page in front of you – which can be really daunting – just start writing. Don’t sit and pore over getting the start just right; it will never come. It is much better to just start writing about your subject, knowing in the back of your mind that what you are writing probably won’t make it into the final draft. This way, you get into the flow of writing, you get into the idea you are writing about and it takes a few lines, a few sentences, or a few paragraphs for the good ideas to start pouring out.
To use a cricketing analogy (try and stay awake here), like a bowler you need a few looseners, a few deliveries before you get your eye in. You need a few sentences to get into the groove.
If you start this way, you get over the blank page pretty quickly, and it encourages you to make edits and revisions because you know that when you started writing, it was total crap.
Ideally, you should be editing 3 or 4 times, depending on the type of writing you are doing. Once for grammar and spelling errors. Once for sentence flow and structure. Once for coherence and overall structure of the piece – does it make sense? Is there a natural flow? Should that bit be at the beginning etc. And one final read through to feel the piece of writing as a whole. Be ruthless – of you aren’t sure if it should be there – get rid of it.
And you should take a few breaks in between. It doesn’t have to be between every stage of editing, but definitely before the final read through. Preferably a couple of hours or overnight.
Step 5 – Take a course
At some point, you are going to need to take the next step on your journey to becoming a writing god. Depending on what your jam is (more of that later), I suggest taking a course.
There is a lot of free information out there for newbs and while some of it is useful, a lot of it is vague and generic, that’s why they are giving it away for free. But it is still a good place to start if you don’t know much about the different types of writing that come under the copy umbrella.
I’d suggest starting with Youtube – there really is some good stuff to get you started. You can also find a lot of ‘free’ tip sheets and guides online. All they want in return is your email address and permission to email you at least 18 times a day, oh, and your soul. So that’s your call.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about courses because it really depends on a) your writing ability and b) whether you need constant feedback or not.
For me, with my background in teaching, I already had some writing experience and my grammar is pretty tight so I just took a course that introduced me to the principles and techniques of copywriting. That said, I opted for a course where I did get feedback on my copy because I am a bit needy. It depends on what works for you.
Courses start from as little as £20 for a simple course which outlines the key ideas and principles of copywriting. You can find loads on course providers such as Udemy, Domestika, Udacity and Skillshare. I cannot vouch for any of the courses they provide. Do your research. Typically, they will be a series of videos and tasks to take you through the skills. You don’t get any feedback with these courses but they will teach you the basics. Here’s a list of course platforms if you are interested.
I opted for a mid range course and these are usually priced around £200 – £500. They are more in depth and typically offer some feedback so you can hone your skills. Again, do your research, there are a lot out there. I went for The Creative Copywriter Academy course, which is fine, it covers all the bases and gave me a good grounding but I have learnt so so much since then.
Alternatively, if you prefer, you could learn from a combination of a book and videos. It is a much cheaper option but you don’t get feedback so it depends on you as a learner and your writing skills. I recommend Andy Maslen’s Breakthrough Copywriting because he is a well-respected copywriter and his book is great, so I assume his course is too. It’s £99 but you can split it into three payments and if I had my time again, I would definitely consider it.
But I can’t emphasise it enough – do your research.
And my last caveat is this: don’t expect to find a course that is going to tell you everything. You want something that is going to give you a good grounding in the skills you need, the different forms of copywriting and then, when you focus more on the specific type of writing you want to do, you can take more specific courses.
I have just realised how much I have waffled on. I am going to take a break here and post 6-10 in the next few days. Well done if you are still awake/alive.
Hopefully, if you are thinking about a writing career, this hasn’t discouraged you. I am so glad I made the leap, even when it is really hard and those times are tough to get through but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I love what I do and I love learning more and more as my experience grows.
Please let me know if you have any specific questions about copywriting. I can only tell you what I know or point you toward where to find out. Or you can sign up for my newsletter for handy tips and tricks so you don’t make the same mistakes I did.
Come back and read part 2 when I get round to writing it – it’s going to be a good one.
Just so we all leave here happy and smiling, here’s a picture of a French Bulldog wearing a hat!