“How do I get started as a copywriter, and how do I know when I’m ready to start charging for my work?”
That’s probably the number one (2-part) question I’ve been asked in my 13+ years helping people learn to write copy.
The story of how I, myself, got started as a copywriter goes so far back, it’s wearing shoulder pads and dancing to Bell Biv Devoe.
So I asked the copywriter members of Shrimp Club, my 8-month mastermind, how they got started. They’re pros, but most are newer to the game.
I think their answers will be more useful and implementable.
Here’s how they answered the question,
How’d you know it was time to charge as a copywriter, and how’d you get your first paying client?
I did a lot of pro bono work to try my hand at a lot of copywriting pieces. I think the first thing I did (it was a long time ago now) was basically hopping on a call and tweaking pages for a half hour with people in my network who needed help, and then got hired to work on other web pages & sales pages. Turns out I hate writing sale pages, though. After I finally wrote my own welcome sequence and started getting responses from it, I felt qualified enough to reach out to my network to pilot the service and get testimonials before charging top dollar for it.
[NOTE FROM LAURA/TALKING SHRIMP: Want to learn how to write a welcome sequence? When The Copy Cure opens, you’ll have the opportunity to purchase our guide, The Welcome Sequence That Sells, at checkout! Get on the interest list here.]
I had a natural affinity for writing and took Tarzan’s course and Laura Belgray’s Italy retreat and just got started! I had been writing “whatever” for social media content but once I had some fundamentals I went for it. I think we can forget that if we’re good at writing (even if we just like it a lot) and we get some basic training on the fundamentals, we can provide a super valuable service – which is taking work off someone’s hands and doing it better than they could themselves. The time value alone is significant. The key is to not overpromise results.
I feel like…if you’re asking whether it’s time to start charging, it’s time to start charging. I’d guess it’s easier if you’ve always been a writer; I never doubted that it would just be my job at some point.
Mine was a soft landing into marketing copywriting adjacent to the work I was doing as managing editor for a trade publication. I took on writing blog posts for DIRT cheap but used it as my springboard.
My two cents: For me, it was essential to start charging BEFORE I felt ready. I fortunately had a friend in my corner encouraging that. I’ve since heard the phrase “learn while you earn” and I like that.
My first paying client was a referral from a friend. My next paying client was a referral from a different friend. After that, I started getting referrals from clients and professional acquaintances that I met by giving talks in online networking groups.
My business is still almost entirely referral-based.
The clients who *don’t* come to me via referrals learn about me from presentations/interviews I give in groups they’re part of (usually coaching programs).
If you’ve given any amount of thought / done any learning as to what makes for good copy (instead of some other kind of writing), you’re already ahead of 98% of people (a lot of whom think they’re rEaLLy gReAT wRitErs).
So charge like you’re learning — but also like you’re more knowledgeable and skilled than 98% of people. Charge enough that you feel like you’re winning out on the deal.
(If you don’t feel like you can charge from the get-go, still write up a contract and exchange the work for referrals and testimonials. Don’t do it for nothing at all.)
Then, I like the phrase “charge it thrice, then raise the price.” This gives you a framework of when to up your prices little by little and doesn’t leave you hanging with the incessant “You just aren’t charging enough” advice that’s everywhere online.
Alternately, if you ever start to begrudge the work, it’s time to raise prices (or otherwise reconsider the work).
Since I came from journalism as a writer and editor, my path is maybe not quite as relevant to the total newbie, but here goes: I never did pro bono work per se (how about all that Latin!), but I did lots of VERY LOW paying copywriting work for the first year or so. Coming from journalism, it didn’t feel very low paying, but in retrospect…yikes!
If you’re brand new, maybe you can’t get around that, but I wouldn’t recommend doing pro bono very long. People don’t value pro bono work; to my mind it’s better to charge well below market rate than not at all. Plus, if you’re good and they want you to do more for them, you don’t have to have that awkward conversation about going from free to paid.
I don’t remember my first actual copywriting job, but my first regular gig was for a local chain of natural drug stores (think Whole Foods meets CVS). They’d advertised on Craigslist for a copywriter and I did quite the song and dance to get the gig. I worked for them pretty steadily on very part time contract for two years. It was great on-the-job learning because I had to turn out so much weekly copy. By the time they went out of business (not my fault! it was The Great Recession!), I felt like I could handle anything.
I have a bit of a complicated answer, LOL. My very first clients, I got from simply telling Facebook friends what I was up to and that I had started a business. I advertised myself as doing social media, blog posts, and emails (if my memory serves) — and my first clients were for social media and blog posts.
But before I officially became “a business” I was doing email marketing & social media marketing for a friend because I wanted fake eyelashes.
In this sense, I didn’t realize there was ACTUAL copywriting stuff I should be studying — with my ignorance I just put myself out there believing I could help people with little prior knowledge I had.
So at first, I studied and learned on the job — the little bit of side work I’d done in the past gave me confidence I could do the work.
When I actually became a “copywriter,” I’d taken Chris Orzechowski’s email course so I felt confident that I knew how to write emails. And, I already networked with the social media marketing I was doing and people liked my writing, so I was able to naturally transition over and get copywriting clients pretty quickly through referrals and Instagram marketing.
So basically being naive, vain (I needed those eyelashes!), friendly, and putting myself out there helped me get my first clients without worrying as much if I was equipped. 🤣I also was charging next to nothing so that helped me feel better too as I started out.
Before I started my business I’d been working for almost a decade as first a UX writer and then conversion copywriter. After I had twins, daycare fees made working full-time seem even more unappealing. So I figured out how much I had to earn to cover daycare fees (and yes, I fully subscribe to the belief that my husband was paying half but it was a handy yardstick) and how many hours I reckoned I had to work and that became my hourly rate – it was pretty high out of the gate and has only grown since. I’m definitely someone who’s motivated by money. If I won the lotto I would quit work tomorrow. I know that’s not the trendy thing to say in the “space”, but it’s true for me! And that combined with more than 12 years of experience, and my UX background and skills which make me increasingly desirable to prospective clients now helps me feel confident charging a good rate (although because I charge in AUD it’s still a bloody steal for anyone paying in USD).
I made the move from an ad agency copywriting career—an unpopular path but hey, one people should know exists. You can go get a legit diploma in the field if you wanna be all proper about it like me, and build a portfolio and connections while you’re in school. And then work in agencies even for a year or 2 and get lots of good experience to use as an easy springboard to a solo career.
Since I had ad agency experience I felt fine charging for my skills…but I had no idea where to find clients. I got my first gig on Upwork. Also an unpopular move. But I actually found some wonderful clients there, including people I still work with today. 🤷♀️
Stage 1: I’m a writer with a Master’s degree in education. I can figure it out. I’ve got this.
Stage 2: Hold up, I don’t got this. What the heck is copywriting? –> took a course
Stage 3: I reached out to people I wanted to write for and who had cool businesses. I was very honest about my experience.
Stage 4: I can’t possibly charge less than what I am (and my client’s got great results)… oh crap, I need to learn how to run a business.
Stage 5: Raising prices, getting client testimonials, growing into a copy boss with Laura Belgray
I never did it for free. It wasn’t an option because I literally did NOT have the hours. However, in the beginning I was acting more like a VA/with copy experience more than anything and then kept reaching out to people and businesses I wanted to work with.
[NOTE FROM LAURA/TALKING SHRIMP: Want to learn more about copywriting? The Copy Cure can help. Get on the interest list here. And if you’re interested in how Lander grew “into a copy boss” with me, click here to learn more about Shrimp Club.]
In the before times, I was working as a VA for a guy who had me write blog posts for him. (He knew I could write because I’d worked as a church communicator and had a personal blog.) Then a friend needed blogging support for his company and ghostwriting for his book. Then I stumbled on StoryBrand, became a Certified Guide in 2018, and got my first “real” copywriting gigs through connections in that community. (To be perfectly clear: StoryBrand training is NOT copywriting training.)
In short: I was lucky enough that people asked me if they could pay me to write for them, and I figured it out along the way. I never had to decide it was time to charge.
I quit my full-time salaried job in a fit of rage. Suddenly I had to find clients. That’s how I made the switch to get paid for copywriting.
I jumped into the deep end.
And I infamously used cold sales emails to get those new copywriting clients. Which worked so well that I had a full workload within 4 mos.
I started charging when too many folks were asking me for business and marketing advice. It sort of snowballed while I was working as a marketing and revenue manager for a winery group. Another business approached the Manager asking who was doing the marketing. He encouraged me to take the side hustle and presto. I started charging for my services and then slowly increased my rate. There was a tipping point where word of mouth took over. During covid and post covid I had to adjust my offering and pivot a little but my rates are still the same. At the moment, I’m only taking on bigger client jobs with specific issues that need at least 3-6 months or more worth of help.
“Can you help me with what to say in this email back? You’re so good at this!” my Harvard roommate says to me.
When I was getting my MFA in Acting from Harvard, you have a showcase for agents in NYC and LA. From there, you hopefully get appointments to meet with those agents.
Afterwards you’re supposed to send a thank you email or card. I was fantastic at helping my classmates remember and include the “non-biz” talk — like if they bonded over their love of dogs or a TV show, or a comment on the weather even.
My classmates were getting great responses from those follow-ups/thank you cards.
When I went back to NYC with my agent, I couldn’t go back to waiting tables or nannying because I needed to keep my schedule as open as possible for auditions.
At the time, one of my best friends, Di Ana, was a leading parenting coach and was in this thing called a “mastermind” with other “online coaches.”
She told me, “You’re so great at writing these thank you cards for people and pinpointing the connection moments, you could help people in my mastermind!”
I said, “Ok, why not.”
The first client came from Di and I’ll never forget that person asked me to write a “JV Packet.” I had ZERO clue what that was so Di told me to say, “Hey, could you send me an example of a JV Packet you love so I can really nail the vibe you’re going for?”
And Voila! I became a copywriter for online coaches.
I learned that a JV Packet is an Affiliate Packet. And I kept getting work from there based on referrals (and Di singing my praises wherever she went) and learned copy “on the job”. Some jobs (like acting) I nailed, others I failed forward.
Right away, what helped was this actors guide to copy I figured out because I realized that what makes you a compelling actor on stage can also make you a star in your business so that’s how I approached everything.
(ie, when you’re on stage you trying to make the other person feel something, you want to move them to action which is the SAME thing you do when writing an email. An email is a scene. A sales page is a whole play, if that makes sense.)
He said yes.
Using what I learned from The Copy Cure, that year I wrote 5 landing pages that converted over 50% (and as high as 80%), sold out a 6-figure course launch in just 35 hours, and brought in $220K in brand new revenue to my client’s business.
Are you a copywriter or have you been one? Got a story to tell about how you got your first copywriting client or how you started charging for your work?
Pop it in the comments!
Want help building your copywriting skills so you have the chops to actually charge?
Love the idea of making a living from your writing?
Whether you’re looking to go pro as a copywriter or using your persuasion smarts for your own business…
Get your word-loving butt in The Copy Cure!
It only opens once or twice a year, depending, so if you have an opening…do it!