Copywriting is the endurance sport of the marketing world. It requires discipline, a thick skin, occasional bouts of creativity and an open mind. And when you’re in it as a freelance copywriter endurance becomes even more important.
Fortunately, copywriters are a friendly bunch and are happy to share the tricks of the trade. Michael Metcalf is a UK-based freelance writer who made his bones in the B2B technology and eCommerce spaces across his brand Chroma Copy and content agency Expert Machine.
Michael was kind enough to share his copywriting experiences on Stoic Athenaeum. We chat binning off difficult clients, how to know your worth as a copywriter and using philosophy to become a better writer.
Cheers for being a part of Stoic Athenaeum Michael. To start off I’d love to know what first attracted you to the copywriting industry and what some of your earliest experiences in the sector were.
Thanks for having me!
After dropping out of uni I bounced around a few office jobs and found myself going nowhere. So I started volunteering for my local TEDx events in Salford, becoming an editor for their website. I ended up managing a fairly complex content operation over the course of three years while I had a day job in a call centre.
This experience helped me get a job as a content officer for a research software company in London, becoming a marketing manager shortly afterwards. My day job involved writing copy, but it was on my lunchtime walks around King’s Cross that I started listening to business and entrepreneurship podcasts.
For a while I’d vaguely dreamed of running my own business, but it was at this point I started to realise I could be a freelance marketer and potentially build a business in this industry. I had one early client from a friend-of-a-friend, but I didn’t really jump in until fate forced my hand, a couple of years into the corporate job.
When was the moment you decided to be a freelance copywriter and how did you go about securing your first client?
I decided to study for a degree-equivalent marketing qualification to enhance my career prospects. But the day after I paid the course fee, I got made redundant.
After my redundancy, I went on a little backpacking tour around Northern Europe. I was on a cruise ship somewhere near the Åland Islands, halfway between Finland and Sweden, on a sunny evening in mid-2018. I was leaning over the railing listening to a Spotify retro hits playlist, and the blessed algorithm served up Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5:
“9 to 5, yeah
They got you where they want you
There’s a better life
And you think about it, don’t you?
It’s a rich man’s game
No matter what they call it
And you spend your life
Puttin’ money in his wallet“
I decided I would rather put money in my own pocket, rather than The Man’s.
I’d been pondering the career change for a while, but Ms Parton’s timely advice helped light the fire. A week later I was browsing Twitter from a Warsaw cafe and came across spirit guide and fellow copywriter Kerry Needs. Kerry helped me understand how easy it was to get started and has been a good friend along the journey.
My first moves included setting up a portfolio website, writing a few articles on Medium to display my skills, and getting myself a directory page on ProCopywriters. That was a great source of leads: within the first month I had one agency client and one local SaaS company. Both ended up being long-term clients, which was great.
It was a bit serendipitous. They both took a chance on me that paid off, and it was months ’til I got more leads, but I didn’t network, apply for gigs, or market myself as much as I should have back then. That was a valuable lesson to learn.
What is your best approach to explaining the pricing of your copywriting services to clients?
I shouldn’t have to explain my pricing, I just state it. If a prospect raises major objections, then they don’t understand the value of content, or they’re not running a business suited to content marketing. If either of those are true, I’m already in a losing position, and it’s time to say “thanks but no thanks.”
These days, I mostly do long-form content for tech B2B clients, which includes eCommerce and software companies. I don’t do journalism or creative brand copy because, despite being enjoyable, they’re harder to make really good money from. There are some exceptions to this, but they’re rare.
I have a set price for a 1500-2000 word blog post. It includes a first draft, one reasonable round of revisions, metadata, and CMS upload if they want it. I charge more for images and social media posts. These days I include a lot of SEO strategy work, so I’ll include extra costs for things like Clearscope briefs or performance reports in the form of Databox dashboards or the like.
Hourly rates or per-word charging don’t work for me. The incentives are all wrong. If I can help an enterprise eCommerce platform bring in 10 new sales per week with my content, and each sale is worth £3,000 in customer LTV, then I’m not going to charge £100 per article.
At minimum, I put my rates up by a fixed amount with each new client, but in some circumstances I’ll quote higher if I’m confident I can directly impact revenue. I know some people who routinely charge £1500 for a 3000-word article, and they’re doing very well. You just have to find the right customers.
For those starting out, I would highly recommend the Work Notes Freelance Pricing Guide. It’s great for figuring out how your freelance money works within your wider life, including the boring-but-important stuff like pensions, tax, saving, etc.
What are some of your best practices for dealing with difficult clients and ensuring you get paid on time?
My best advice for difficult clients is to fire them. Just bin them off.
You can try to mitigate things and explain how your workflow doesn’t suit their workflow. You can politely remind them you’re not a paid consultant and won’t answer questions at 11pm on a Sunday. But the easiest thing to do is just stop working with them and find better clients. Life’s too short to get stressed on behalf of a badly run company.
Recently I made the mistake of working with an agency. Their project manager sent me an 18-page brief document for a task that was supposed to take an afternoon. He sent it via email, then went on holiday for two weeks. I replied to his boss and said I’m just not doing this. “Thanks, but you’ll have to find another writer.”
The confidence to do this does come with time, I’ll admit. You need a decent roster of clients that are paying your bills, so dropping one isn’t a big problem.
When a client is late paying me, I become extremely annoying, and I recommend you do too.
I don’t think of myself as a burden and say “sorry for hassling you with this, but would you mind looking into this?” Instead, I think to myself “how dare you”. You wouldn’t leave a restaurant without paying, and I’m not working for free.
Firstly, to help prevent this situation, get your clients to sign a contract beforehand that stipulates payment terms. You can find templates for this around the web – I quite like the selection Bonsai has on offer.
Secondly, before starting the project, ask them if they can assure you payment will be made by your due date (mine is within 14 days), and who you can contact if there are any problems. It’s useful to get the email address of their accounting department so you don’t have to get your contact to chase it for you.
If it does happen, though, be tenacious, and don’t let them forget about you. Email them the day after if a payment misses the due date. Don’t leave it waiting.
Obviously you have to stay professional, and accept the possibility they’ve made a genuine mistake. This tends to happen with smaller firms who only have one accountant, who might be away on your due date. But it’s your money, and you have every right to demand it.
Just adopt the persona of a lawyer that’s acting on behalf of your client (yourself), and remind them of their legal obligations.
For problematic UK clients I’d like to recommend the Small Business Commissioner. Going through the Money Claim procedure is an affordable and easy way for freelancers to put the pressure on late payers. They have a great guide for it here.
What are the most challenging parts of being a freelance writer and what are the most satisfying parts?
The discipline needed to perform multiple roles is without a doubt the hardest. When you’ve got a full week of writing for clients, you’ll have a hard time freeing up the energy to do your marketing and networking. And when you’ve got a full calendar it feels like you don’t need to look for more work.
But it can quickly become a feast and famine cycle. It’s an ongoing challenge, really. But every three months I dedicate a week to doing business development and outreach, which seems to work quite well.
I think most people say loneliness is a challenge. I can sort of understand, but I’m quite introverted so I don’t mind working solo. Also, I’m constantly answering zoom calls, Slack messages and emails, and it’s rare that I have a day without talking to anyone. If you can, join a coworking space, though. For me it’s a huge upgrade to my psychological needs, compared to working from home.
Satisfying parts? There’s no income cap, for a start. You can make as much money as you want. Wake up whenever you want. Take a day off whenever you want. Fire bad clients whenever you want.
If you love writing and like getting into that ‘flow state’, this job offers plenty of opportunities for it.
And of course – learning. To write about things, you have to learn about them. If you’ve got a wide range of interests, freelance writing is a great way to satisfy your curiosity about the world.
From the business perspective of getting insurance, declaring self-employment etc, what other crucial things does a freelance copywriter need to know when setting up their brand?
You have to get a business bank account at the beginning. It’s super easy. I use Coconut, which helps me calculate tax and provide records for my accountant. It’s literally a phone app and a debit card – you don’t even need to use a computer for it. Tide is another great option.
Learn about self-employment tax right at the start. It’s not as complicated as you might expect, you can get the basics from a single blog post. Just keep proper records of your transactions, file your documents on time, and get an accountant to help.
My other tip is to network with other writers and ask lots of questions. I’ve never met a fellow writer that wasn’t helpful. They’re a pretty great bunch, and you might even end up getting referrals.
There’s a good crossover with the two communities I’m a part of – online content writers, and creative copywriters from the ad agency world. They’re a friendly lot, although if you go to the pub with the agency writers you’ll never get a word in. They don’t half chat.
Outside of writing, you’ve mentioned that you have an interest in exploring Stoicism. How did you hear about the philosophy and what has been your experience with it?
It didn’t really sink in until I read Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is The Way, somewhere around 2013 I think. It was one of the few books that genuinely changed my life.
All I can really explain is that it solidified the love for challenge. It made me want to live fiercely, take on the scary things, and get stronger in every aspect of life.
I could have easily given up and rolled over. Carried on with the corporate career and just accepted my lot. But that book kept the fire burning and made me realise I could handle a lot more than younger me thought.
Funnily enough, as I was reading it one day, I was sitting in a café in London. A driver exiting the opposite car park accidentally pressed the accelerator instead of the brake, and drove through the café window, sending glass flying everywhere. I like to think my calm response was influenced by the book: “there’s nothing I can do here other than act with virtue.” I tweeted this to the author and his response, of course, was ‘memento mori!‘
I also have to give credit to Brian Johnson from Optimize. He summarises and synthesises philosophy and self-development books in short podcasts; Stoicism is a big part of the curriculum, and I’m a huge fan.
Finally, big shout out to my dad, a lifelong philosophy student and wisdom supplier. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the ancient and modern thinkers make for some engaging intellectual discourse. Cheers Dad!
At some point, everyone develops their own philosophy of life. What’s yours and do you find it helpful when applying it to your work?
I’m not entirely sure we’re not living in a simulation. I’m not quite sure that you exist either, and perhaps we’re both just being conjured by some rather elaborate code in a quantum supercomputer.
On the chance that you are real though, and so are your readers, I’ll give my honest answer.
Life is unpredictable, occasionally joyous, occasionally cruel. It’s not a Disney film. Awful stuff happens to people who don’t deserve it. I might have a brain aneurysm tomorrow, or go blind, or my flat might burn down.
What can you do other than 1) laugh, 2) treat each day knowing it could be your last, and 3) be kind and show love to others?
In relation to my work, well, the work is a means to an end. I am delighted to be able to genuinely help readers and businesses. But at the end of the day, my profits will go towards living well for myself and helping others as best I can.
I am an epicurean; I don’t want to leave this life without having experienced as much of it as possible, in all possible senses.
That said, it’s much easier being a rich epicurean than a poor one. That reminds me, I should raise my rates again…
What’s your best advice for someone who’s starting out as a freelance writer?
Join a community. Fellow writers are pretty helpful in sharing work and wisdom, and doing it alone is much harder. I recommend Peak Freelance, and there’s another called ContentUK which I’ve heard good things about. (I’m happy to help anyone who reaches out, too.)
I’d recommend working with digital agencies when you start – they can give you regular work and you’ll get some great experience understanding how things work while being shielded from client interaction. However, don’t aim to do this long term, as it becomes harder to charge high rates and they are quite demanding.
You also really have to understand that this is a marketing job. You aren’t an artist working under patronage. Freelance writing is a land of marketers and entrepreneurs, and the only reason people hire you is because you’ll be helping them make more money.
Some find that difficult to reconcile with their beliefs. I know a few contemporaries with backgrounds in literature and journalism and they’re just not very commercially oriented. They’re capable of getting by, but they don’t seem to really excel.
Not that you won’t have the opportunity to be creative, of course. But your best asset in the freelance world is a love for the commercial. Copywriting isn’t about entertaining, it’s about persuading.
Learning about business, economics, and marketing was the best thing I did for this career. If you spend your free time on chat forums bemoaning the failures of capitalism, posting memes about how you hate billionaires – this probably isn’t the job for you.
Put differently; you can become a really successful freelance copywriter, make lots of money, work whenever you want, and spend more time sitting in coffee shops reading philosophy books. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?