How to find freelance copywriting work: Try these 3 ways to get noticed
Your usual sources of freelance copywriting work have gone quiet. And your job applications seem to be vanishing into a big, swirling recruitment vortex.
What to do?
First: don’t beat yourself up about it. The world’s on its arse. You are not to blame.
Second: allow me to offer some hope that there *might* be something you can do to turn the tide.
Here are three incredibly basic – but often overlooked – things that could improve your chances of success.
They’ve all worked small miracles for me in the past. And I sincerely hope they can help you, whatever kind of work you’re looking for.
1. Send (lots of very good) cold emails
Get people’s attention, communicate an idea, and persuade them to act. That’s your job as a copywriter, right?
Is there anything better than email to quickly show how well you can do that job? I’m not sure there is.
Because if you can get a busy stranger to open your message, read it through and respond how you want them to, you’ve already gone a long way to proving your worth.
I’ve built most of my career on cold emails and speculative applications. They’ve been particularly effective at times when I’ve needed to find work fast. Or when I haven’t had much of a portfolio to speak of.
“Your emails can be long. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If your message is tight and interesting enough, people will read it.”
Like in November 2010, when I quit my ‘dream’ graduate role after four days and found myself unemployed, with a maxed-out student overdraft, in a post-recession job desert.
Cold emailing allowed me to scramble together a freelance business in a few weeks. And it sustained me for three and a bit years.
Then there was January 2020, when I went freelance again. Not the best timing, looking back. But cold emails have, mercifully, kept me booked solid so far.
Let’s be clear, though: your emails have to be good. Really good. And you have to go all in with them.
You have the chance to get in front of someone you really want to work with, and to show what you can really do. So don’t blow it by being meek, apologetic, waffly or indirect.
You also want to build as full and persuasive a case as possible, so that the reader could, if they wanted to, offer you work on the spot.
That means your emails can be long. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If your message is tight and interesting enough, people will read it. The one I’ve used since January is 330 words, and it regularly gets comments like this.
Here’s a quick list of things that have been consistently effective for me in 10 years of writing cold emails. Try them and see if they work for you.
- Write to a named person – not a generic info@ address.
- Make sure that person has hiring power.
- Use their first name in the subject line.
- Test two different subject lines: one simple and direct, one more creative and oblique.
- Use “Hi [First name]” as the salutation.
- Cut to the chase – no small talk or pleasantries.
- Open with a question. It instantly makes the message personal and hard to ignore.
- Use a Who? What? Why? Where? When? How? structure for the body copy. Who are you? What do you do? Why should I care? Where can I see your work? When are you available? How can I hire you? Just don’t let the structure show.
- Personalise the body copy, but not too much. You’ll need to send lots of emails, so make it easy to edit.
- Use humour if it comes naturally. Play it straight if it doesn’t.
- Poke a little fun at yourself. The pratfall effect can be powerful.
- Finish with a strong CTA (I did say some of these were basic). Do not tell the reader to “feel free to get in touch” – because they won’t. Make it clear what you want to happen next, and by when.
- Write a P.S. People always read the P.S.. Mine asks the reader to forward the message to other people who might need a copywriter. It works.
- If you haven’t heard back in a week, follow up. Then follow up again. Keep doing this until you get a reply (or it’s clear you’re wasting your time).
IMPORTANT! Make sure your cold emails are GDPR friendly. These FAQs give a good overview of what you need to consider (though bear in mind it is not expert legal advice).
Cold emailing is a numbers game. There’s no escaping that. And you will have to send hundreds of emails for it to be effective.
But in my experience – once you’ve done the groundwork – it’s still the quickest and most reliable route to a steady stream of work.
2. Make your covering letter impossible to ignore
In my last full-time job, my fellow copy lead and I had to recruit a couple of writers to join the creative team.
The applications poured in and we both had high hopes. Until we started reading the covering letters.
It’s not that any of them were technically wrong or anything. They were all just so dry and forgettable. Too formal, too grovelling, too conventional. Big on adjectives, little on substance.
They left us completely cold.
Only two writers stood out. And they stood out because their covering letters were the opposite of everything I’ve just described.
They both got invited to interviews, and they both got jobs.
So if you’re applying for an in-house role, my advice is this: please, for the love of all things wordy, don’t paint your covering letter beige.
“As copywriters, we’re great at telling other people how to sound different and sell their stuff. But we’re less great at taking our own advice when selling ourselves.”
Treat it like you would any other creative brief. Push the limits and do something unexpected with it. Make the reader laugh or cry. Make them feel something. Anything.
Just don’t give them any reason to ignore you.
I do get why you might feel the need to play it safe. If you desperately need a job, or your dream role has just opened up somewhere, there’s a certain pressure to minimise the risk of rejection.
But the truth is, you have more chance of being rejected if you simply do what everyone else does. Especially if you’re applying for a creative role.
If you can’t make yourself stand out, why should an employer believe you can do it for them or their clients?
As copywriters, we’re great at telling other people how to sound different and sell their stuff. But we’re pretty bad at taking our own advice when selling ourselves.
That changes today. Agreed? Good.
3. Show your CV some serious love
Like a covering letter, your CV is another chance to set yourself apart and show what you can do.
So don’t waste it.
I’ve read stacks of copywriters’ CVs in the last couple of years. And what I’ve mostly seen is a whole lot of telling and nowhere near enough showing.
- The writer talks about their clear, ultra-concise style – but their CV drags on for several pages.
- The writer says something like “I have a great eye for design” – but their CV is a dull, formatted Word doc.
If clarity and concision is your big thing, prove it. Turn your CV into a super-compact one-pager and show how hard you can make your words work.
And if your design knowledge is your special weapon – again, show it. Pay a professional designer to work on your CV. Make it a visual treat for whoever gets to read it.
There are loads of other examples, but you get the idea.
Yes, competition for full-time jobs and freelance gigs is brutal at the moment. But so much of that competition looks and sounds exactly the same. And I really believe it takes very little to set yourself apart.
As the saying goes:
In the land of the bland, the half-interesting copywriter is queen.
Or something like that.