The other day, I emailed my friend Elissa:
“Could I do a free 10-minute audit of your current copywriting business via Skype? Let’s knock out some of your questions rapid-fire.”
Her response surprised me:
“Ha! My business. I’m SMALL potatoes. I don’t know if I’m your best bet. But I could meet while the kids eat lunch. Give me half an hour?”
I don’t think her copywriting business is small potatoes. In fact, one blog she wrote, about soup of all things, convinced me of her talent. But to be fair, she may have meant that growing her copywriting business isn’t a high priority right now. She and her husband have two young children, and they travel a good bit.
But let’s assume for a second that, given the chance, Elissa would like to use writing to fund her family’s desired lifestyle.
What obstacles would prevent her from building a profitable writing business?
For starters, I will draw your attention to the most obvious obstacle: Telling oneself, “I’m small potatoes.”
A good buddy of mine likes to say that the most important story you will ever tell is the one you tell yourself. If you believe you are small potatoes, then you will never pursue big clients.
When imposter syndrome starts talking trash, you won’t recognize it for what it is. You learn how to become a freelance copywriter, but then you stall out.
You will undervalue your services and undercharge your clients. After all, as small potatoes, you have to take what you can get.
You will accede to ridiculous requests and accept abuse from clients. Why? You’re small potatoes. The freelance journey has lots of ups and downs, so it’s best to batten down the hatches and ride out the storm, right?
Have you ever noticed that people who think of themselves as small potatoes tend to have more storms?
People who believe they don’t deserve any better don’t expect any better. In business resignation attracts predators, and overbearing, needy clients can smell this resignation the way sharks smell blood.
Wait a second. Is Elissa, in fact, small potatoes?
No. I have evidence to the contrary.
One of her clients is an athletic apparel company. In the 2015 fiscal year, the company’s net revenue increased 15% to $2.1 billion.
Umm. Getting paid to write copy for flyers for your local dry cleaners might be small potatoes. (Even so, there’s dignity in paying your bills and not being a burden to others, no matter what you’re writing about.) But a small potatoes writer of middling talent doesn’t land a company that netted—ahem—$2.1 billion in 2015.
Hopefully, I have made my point by now. What you believe about yourself and about your writing business either sets you up to reach for cool clients with healthy budgets or sets you up for chicken scratch.
That’s not to say that positive beliefs will eliminate all adversity and financial hardships. Good luck with that.
No, limiting beliefs and negative self-talk represent one of many layers that you must peel back and examine. I’ll briefly discuss several more before we get to the good stuff.
“I’m not good at business.”
People make this statement as though it were a definitive, cosmic truth.
When you’re on the outside looking in, BUSINESS, in all caps naturally, looks like a fortress. How does one storm a fortress? You need a strategy. You need training. You need education. You can proceed without siege towers and weapons and troops.
But once you finally break down the gate, you realize nobody knows what the heck they’re doing. We’re all just making it up as well go.
Fortress? What fortress? Are you sure you got the right address?
When someone gives you money to do something, that simple act effectively puts you business. If several someones give you money to do something, that something is no longer an odd job. It has begun to resemble a business, your business.
The only thing that separates being in business from being good at business is a bunch of trial-and-error.
Don’t outsmart yourself by glamorizing BUSINESS. Smart business is doing more of what’s already working. (In like fashion, you also stop doing what’s not working.)
Think about getting good at business like being a good conversationalist. You don’t need a college degree or special certification to learn how to talk. You learn by doing. You talk, and while you talk, watch, you watch how people respond. Over time you observe that certain topics play better than others. “What kind of work do you do?” goes over better than “What color is your underwear?” (Good to know.) Telling quick, punchy stories about your world travels elicits more interest and enthusiasm than exhaustive descriptions of your bug collection and obsession with Miley Cyrus.
I never took a business class, so I can attest that you don’t need one to figure out how to become a freelance copywriter.
Once you realize that business, like conversation, is something you can learn to be good at, you relax. You stop worrying about the illusion of a fortress, and you focus instead on sharpening your skills and studying people.
“I feel weird about using my gift to make money.”
Six months or so, after I finished my MA in Literature, I ran into one of the Ph.D. candidates. We had taken several of the same workshops, and you will find his type in most English programs: cynical, acerbic wit, smug “I’ve got a corner on reality” assurance of his own rightness, both about this lyric poem in particular and about the cosmos in general; in other words, the person I most enjoyed beating on our occasional poker nights.
We were cycling through the requisite catch-up questions, and though I cannot remember his exact questions or responses, I remember the shape of them.
I was working as a writer?
What was it like using my talent to write press releases?
Writing for someone else must be weird.
How do you sell words without selling your soul?
Certain people develop a taste for indicting other people’s choices. They will enjoy making you wriggle, as though you’re on trial. They will cause you to question your integrity as an artist.
By selling copywriting are you compromising your integrity?
That’s preposterous. Even poets stand to make a buck or two selling the odd chapbook.
And the fact is, artists who are at peace with themselves don’t feel the need to push down their peers. Confident writers don’t need to validate themselves by invalidating others. Value judgments simply indicate the judge’s insecurity and frustration.
Was my colleague from grad school receiving the affirmation and notoriety he wanted? No. Money was an ongoing concern for him. Like most fiction writers, he wanted to be writing fiction, yet he was teaching six or seven First-Year Composition courses per semester, grading hundreds of mostly crappy papers, and feeling unfulfilled as an artist. Frustration and fear fuel criticism.
Frustrated artists are another kind of shark. Any glimmer of talent, success, or financial prospering chums the water. The sharks show up to tear that blogger, or business writer, or novelist to pieces.
That thriller she just wrote? Pulp. No sense of style at all.
On the other hand, peace and confidence instead find some kindness to give.
If people give you a hard time about using your gift to make money, do your best to ignore them. Get on with your day as quickly as possible.
Envy has a huge closet of costumes, and one of her favorites is the “pure” (but unfulfilled and hungry) artist casting doubt on the validity of a thriving artist’s paycheck and professional accomplishments.
It’s Envy, plain and simple. So by all means, sell your wordsmithery. Peddle your wares. Use a craft you actually enjoy to create a decent living, and take the harpies and happinesses as they come.
(Before you know it, you may find yourself enjoying the game of business as much as the writing itself.)
“I’m not good enough yet.”
Copywriters new to the game overemphasize experience and quality.
For example, my friend Lauren was worried that she would somehow embarrass herself by sharing with an imperfect piece of writing with a client. What if it contained grammatical errors or misspellings?
She also worried that “real writers” would read her stuff and think, “Gosh, that’s cute, but she should just pack it in and forget about it.” She does battle in her head with the Invisible Critic, and as a result, she struggles with perfectionism and seeks validation from outside sources—namely, more established writers like myself.
Yet, she also admitted that the desire to write hasn’t gone away, not for fifteen years. Would she stop writing even if other people believed she had no talent?
Though she grapples with “What if they think…” questions, she now realizes that kickstarting a profitable writing business isn’t about really about impressing other writers or even about pleasing clients.
Getting paid to write is about making a dream come true.
Transformation comes when you want the dream more than you fear failure.
Let my share some copywriting truths that I hold to be self-evident:
- You will write bad copy, ineffective copy.
- You will disappoint a client or two.
- You will see your best ideas get tossed aside.
- You will be asked to take what you know is excellent work and cheapen it by sprinkling in business glitter and technical jargon.
- You will get beat up precisely because you care about quality.
Believe me, learning how to become a freelance copywriter would be easier if you didn’t care about quality. Many people don’t. But if you can nurture that extraordinary trait of sincere caring, then you will prosper long after the mavens of mediocrity have closed their doors. (And more on mediocrity in a second…)
You’re plenty good enough now. You’re ready.
Put yourself in the game.
The fact is, you will probably have a better nose for true quality in writing than your clients. You notice nuances in tone, voice, personality, style, transition, structure, and diction. You appreciate specific details, clever use of idiom, or figurative language that makes a certain sentence pop. You decry the unseen hand of deft storytelling that bends a meandering narrative back to its beginnings. You savor comedic timing and a pungent punchline.
You are like the talented chef who can taste the difference between fresh and dried parsley in the final dish. He has a palate for subtleties. The vast majority of his patrons don’t know the difference, but he insists on using fresh herbs in his kitchen just the same.
What you enjoy about your craft isn’t always what your clients value.
I’ve written before about why you must sell what people are buying.
Sometimes your clients shop for speed—that is, a specific timeline. Sometimes they buy results—that is, more money. Sometimes, they are most sensitive to budget. As long as the project fits under a certain price ceiling, speed and results are secondary.
The fact is, most people don’t have an acute sensitivity to good grammar, spelling, or style.
Have you noticed how much shockingly mediocre writing is around us every single day? You probably tune it out now the way the way we Southerners tune out cicadas in summer: always there, rarely noticed.
You ignore bad copywriting the way you ignore commercials, advertisements, and billboards. But it’s there. And someone got paid to write that crap!
If you care enough about your craft enough to notice quality—high or low, good or bad—then you have already surpassed 90% of the people in your niche.
Your clients may see no appreciable difference between C writing and A+ writing. But please don’t misunderstand: I’m not advocating for for B- writing. I’m am, however, advocateing for putting yourself in the game because you are already more skilled than people who are getting paid handsomely to pump out vapid copy.
Are those writers getting paid an effective $500 per hour rate really ten times better than the people getting paid $50 per hour?
(And the writer who really is ten times better should be making a lot more than $500 per hour. His pricing model is broken.)
You are not small potatoes. Start peeling back layers of limiting beliefs and negative self-talk, and watch those potatoes grow.
Start telling yourself a better story:
- You can learn how to become a freelance copywriter and how to be good at business.
- There’s honor in paying your bills and not being a burden to others.
- And if you enjoy writing, why not use your gift to make money? That makes for a more fulfilling life than doing work you dislike.
- When you find yourself doubting whether or not you’re good enough yet to sell words, simply look around you. You will see mediocre writing everything you look.
Can you do one percent better?
Good. You’re hired. You’re already good enough, so put yourself in the game.
The game of business is learning what your clients value, and giving it to them on time and on budget. You can ratchet up your rates over time, and pretty soon, you’ll be that writer earning six figures who lives in a high tower in the business fortress.
And at that point, it will be your turn to tell the Elissa in your life that there is no fortress and that she is not, in fact, small potatoes…
What happens next?
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Also published on Medium.