I love hearing from newbie copywriters. Full of eagerness, excitement, and a little bit of terror, they take me right back to the early days in my biz. What a ride!

This week, I heard from the lovely Jess Phillips, who asked me a few (wonderful, thought-provoking) questions on her blog.

We cover: how I let go of my corporate job, what separates a great copywriter from a good one, what did and didn’t work for me when I was marketing my biz in the early days, how I spend my spare time, and more! Fun stuff. Here it is.

Sally, in a reflective post on your blog, you write about what you’ve learned about yourself and freelancing since quitting the corporate 9-5.

I must say I was inspired by your level of self-awareness and ability to distil down your key learnings. What I loved was hearing you speak about resilience, trust and courage. 

I feel it’s fear of not being looked after (by the universe or the thing bigger than us that we don’t understand) that prevents many people from not being able to let go of something that’s no longer working for them. What do you think it was that enabled you to let go? And what advice, beyond “believing in yourself” would you have for freelancers who have just started out, or people who are wanting to make a good go of working for themselves but are struggling to take the first step?

First of all, thank you, Jess – that’s really kind. It’s always lovely to hear that people are reading and resonating with my rather random posts! There is so much to this – where do I begin? The fear is huge. HUGE! I think I knew for a good couple of years I needed to quit and do something else, but that pesky old fear had me glued to my seat. It was far easier and more comfortable to stay put, so I told myself I’d soldier on and figure it out when I eventually had a baby. And then a couple of things happened.

The first was that I got married and went on a month-long honeymoon camping through outback Australia. I remember watching the sun set over Uluru (if you haven’t been, you must), and just thinking ‘Wow!’ The feelings of expansive joy, adventure and possibility I felt during that time were a real wake-up call, because I realised I hadn’t felt those feelings for quite some time. Finding myself back at the same desk doing the same things in the same routine was hugely confronting, and I could no longer deny how unhappy I really was. Much more than just a case of the post-holiday blues, behind the scenes, I was also really struggling with my mental health. My anxiety was through the roof and I was quickly entering the realm of depression, which I’d never experienced before. Looking back, my poor inner self was basically pummeling me from the inside-out, begging me to pull my finger out and make some big life changes.

In terms of the fear, I suppose by that stage I was actually more afraid to stay than to leave. I realised I was on a downward spiral to a pretty dark place and needed to do something fast. Obviously getting to breaking point like I did before letting go isn’t ideal, but I think it often plays out that way because it’s so much harder to make the leap from a position of comfort. It’s amazing how many of my freelancing friends have very similar stories of desperation, reaching a line in the sand, then piecing together a new and better life. Choosing to freelance, I think, often represents a much deeper personal transformation.

No doubt, resilience, trust and courage were all key factors during that period of my life. As soon as I made the decision to leave, it was like the breath returned to my body and things started to come together. I felt empowered, strong, and supported by the universe – which was a pleasant surprise after feeling so lost. As the saying goes though, dreams don’t work unless you do – so you also have to be practical. For those struggling to get going, I’d say break the launch of your copywriting business down into very clear, doable steps – and then just get them done! For example, first I have to build my website. Then I have to write the copy. Then I have to approach these people. Then, and then, and on it goes. Make progress quickly by making the whole thing very methodical, and then draw on that resilience, trust and courage when you inevitably have moments of doubt. Reach out to others for advice if you must, but know that ultimately the only person you need to trust is yourself. You know what to do – you just need to do it!

Also realise it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Lots of would-be freelancers work themselves into knots expecting to generate a full-time income from the get-go, fail to do so and then abandon the dream altogether. I was fully prepared to get a part-time job to support myself initially if that was required. In the end, it wasn’t – but there are always options and being flexible can make the transition more gradual and less daunting. Just keep chipping away and keep the faith.

Beyond being well organised, developing and refining your knowledge and having excellent processes in place to manage your projects and the expectations of your clients, what would you say separates out a good copywriter from an great one?

Great question. First of all, I think those somewhat less-glamorous factors you’ve mentioned – organisation, processes, client management – are absolutely key. Copywriting is only one part of running your copywriting business, and if you don’t have all your ducks lined up, it ain’t gonna happen! For newbies, Kate Toon’s Clever Copywriting School has some great courses and templates to get you started.

When it comes down to it though, I’d say what really separates a good copywriter from a great one is instinct / the knack / raw talent / whatever you want to call it. Fortunately for some and unfortunately for others, I reckon you either have this or you don’t. Some copywriters have all the qualifications on paper, but lack that creative edge. Others have no formal qualifications whatsoever, but nail it. Sure, with lots of training and a bit of imitation, those who don’t have it may end up being good enough – but they’ll never be great. Harsh, but true.

With that said, knowing the basic rules of copywriting, marketing and selling is still a must. After all, you need to know when and why to break them! Having the self-belief to follow your instinct and make a case for it if necessary is also crucial. It’s very easy to revert to writing something in the most immediately obvious way, or – as I often did in my corporate role – in the way I knew my boss preferred.

One of the things I love most about being a freelance copywriter is having the autonomy to dig deep into each client project and doggedly follow my instincts in order to produce the best copy I can. Each project is a new and exciting creative challenge.

In terms of marketing strategies, to make yourself known in the community as a great copywriter, aside from your marketing connections, how did you market yourself in those early days? What worked and what didn’t? And is marketing of yourself and your services still something you put much time and energy into, or are the majority of your clients now through word of mouth and repeat business?

First up, I put all my energy into creating a website I was proud of. I don’t think there’s any point contacting anyone until you have a decent place to send them. When I hit some hurdles with my web developer, this delayed my launch, but I stand by my decision to wait as it meant I communicated a professional, ‘I mean business’ message from the get-go.

Next, I reached out to the many contacts I’d gained during my corporate career to let them know what I was up to and ask them to keep me in mind if anything came up. I know you’ve asked what I did aside from leveraging existing connections, but honestly this is where I started and what proved the most fruitful. One ex-colleague in particular, a super-busy marketing consultant, referred me a tonne of work from the outset and continues to do so. I’m so grateful for her support.

Of course I couldn’t and can’t rely on her alone, so next I started to expand my network – emailing other marketing consultants, graphic designers, agencies, anyone that might need copywriting for their clients. I got a few small jobs from this approach, but it wasn’t hugely successful straight away. Some have thought of me much later on for projects, so I’d consider this more a slow-burn approach.

Separately, I also reached out to a number of other copywriters. This was not so much about generating work but making friends, getting support and asking – a little cheekily! – for advice. Thankfully, the majority of successful copywriters in Australia are super friendly and helpful. Through The Clever Copywriting School, I’m now good friends with a number of the established copywriters I reached out to at the start of my journey. Of course, successful copywriters are also very busy, so a couple of them referred projects to me in the early days in exchange for a small referral fee. Setting up an arrangement like this with established copywriters is a great way to get some work and gain an insight into their processes.

Meanwhile, while all of this was happening, my SEO efforts began to bear fruit and I found myself in the top 3 spots for a number of high-traffic keywords. From there, things really took off and I continue to get numerous enquiries via google every week. Undoubtedly, if you want to generate a steady stream of inbound leads, your SEO game needs to be strong.

Things that didn’t work for me:

  • Joining a few huge Facebook networking / biz groups – full of shameless promotion and too big, I think, to make any meaningful personal connections.
  • Collaborating with a web developer on a combined copy and development package – she went out of business soon after and this went nowhere. In any case, I’ve since learnt I prefer working on a per-project basis, customising the scope of work based on what the client actually needs rather than attempting to squeeze them into a pre-defined package.
  • Being too polite and wasting time on the phone with potential “prospects” wanting to pick my brain / talk about a not-so-amazing biz opportunity / convince me to join a networking group etc. Your bullshit radar gets really good really fast, and you learn to protect your most precious resource – your time!
  • Also worth mentioning I had grand intentions of doing a monthly eMarketing piece, but never got around to it. Because business took off sooner than I expected, I was busy with paid work, and naturally chose to focus my attention on that instead. Still a valid strategy though, if you have the time to invest.

Today, the majority of my work comes from referrals, repeat business and google. I have more enquiries than I can keep up with, so am lucky enough to pick and choose what I take on and refer the rest to some great copywriters I’m confident recommending. From a marketing perspective, the only thing I attempt to do is blog at least once a month as a means of keeping my site fresh and google friendly. In all honesty though, I usually just blog when I feel like it rather than sticking to a rigid schedule with SEO in mind. It’s a fortunate place to be.

You’ve mentioned that you also write creatively. Was creative writing where your love for writing began? And are you currently working on any creative projects?

Absolutely, it all started when I became a prolific journaler as an angsty teen (weren’t we all?)! I was always intensely curious, a voracious reader and loved writing poetry. I followed this passion – naively, some would say! – into a Professional Writing and Editing degree which contained a large creative writing component. And then, of course, I fell into copywriting. After a pretty dry creative period during my corporate years, the launch of my business has prompted a real creative reawakening. I’ve dabbled again in journaling and have loved having my blog as a creative outlet. Whilst I haven’t done as much personal creative writing this year as I would’ve like to, the freedom and flexibility I get with my business has enabled me to expand and experiment with my creativity in other ways – painting, gardening, cooking, photography, etc. Claire Baker’s Wild, Well & Creative eCourse was really instrumental in reawakening my creativity across all aspects of my life in a gentler, less-outcome focused way.

In 2017 though, I do intend to do more creative writing – more journaling, more personal blogging, perhaps even trying my hand at poetry again. Actually, just yesterday I signed up to Emily Ehlers’ new The Wombinaries Writing Group – a place for budding writers to encourage and explore the practice together. It’s free to join and looks to be exactly what I need at this point in my creative writing journey!

Where are we likely to find you when you’re not writing great things for your clients?

Tending to my plant babies in our veggie patch (totally a crazy plant lady), reading (always), enjoying a long brunch, or bushwalking in the Dandenong Ranges. I live a very quiet, simple life – exactly the way I like it.


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