Three surprising things I learned when I became a freelance copywriter

Three years ago, Laura Sands gave up her corporate career and became a freelance copywriter. Here are three things she’s learned along the way. 

Time flies whether or not you’re having fun. So you may as well make the time you have count. At least that’s become my approach.

Three years ago, I was working out my notice in a blue-chip multinational. I was also studying at night to retrain as a copywriter whilst looking after a three-year-old, two-year-old and (let’s face it) a husband. I was leaving behind the security of a regular income, health insurance and company fuel card as well as office camaraderie and the chance to dress up nicely every day.

Was going freelance really the right decision? I certainly had my reasons (you can read about them here), but what was the reality going to be like?

Three surprising things I learned when I went freelance

With three years’ experience under my belt, I’ve had my freelancing ups and downs. But I can honestly say I love my freelance life. But it’s not for everyone, and here are three things I’ve learnt.

1) A lack of accountability to others isn’t actually that great

Working for yourself is relaxed. You can go for coffee with friends, sneak in a cheeky manicure, tidy out your sock drawer…

But if you want to grow your business you need to pull yourself together and snap out of that approach. It’s way too easy to get distracted, procrastinate and focus on the wrong things, especially if you lack the confidence in your plans or ability to do what you need to do.

It’s incredibly helpful to set yourself up with a mentor, coach, or other form of accountability network. Someone to keep you on track and make you do what you said you were going to do. I was lucky enough to do a skill swap with a friend who was training as a coach.

She coached me; I wrote blog posts for her husband’s business. She helped me identify and start to resolve my incredible ability to procrastinate and made me tackle some of my deeper issues around self-doubt and confidence. She was also a brilliant sounding board who made me take things easy when I was beating myself up about not getting enough business and spurred me on to attend networking meetings that I dreaded the thought of.

I’ve learnt to treat desk time as if I were in a real office with a manager breathing down my neck. Would I take that personal call if I had colleagues around me? No of course not… Would I come in late because a friend asked me for coffee after the school run? Only if I wanted to get fired…

2) Invest in yourself; no-one else will

Now the buck stops with you, you need to invest in yourself properly. In my early days, I overdid it. Once I’d got over the three-day migraine that comes with a poor diet, too little sleep, and not enough exercise, I wrote myself a “charter” to stay on top of things. I also got some migraine tablets from a pharmacy online to help reduce the pain.

First on that list was taking care of my health. I reasoned if my health went, I wouldn’t do my best work, my family wouldn’t get the best of me and I’d feel miserable. It can be hard to stick to, especially when you have kids to look after, but I work hard to prioritise my health. I acknowledge a pre-breakfast meditation habit is unrealistic, but there are other things I can do.

I take the time to go to a pilates class every week to look after my back and neck. I drink plenty of water, avoid caffeine after 1pm and get decent food in for my lunch; it’s way too easy to have cheese on toast every day when you work from home!

I also try very hard not to attack the kids’ chocolate supplies when I’m running low on inspiration and blood sugar. I invested in a very good office chair (the fancy looking Capsico Puls in case you were wondering) and have set up my desk for good health with ergonomically placed screen and keyboard and plenty of houseplants around me.

The result? I feel healthier, I enjoy my office time and I’m much more productive.

But investing in yourself goes further than physical self-care. There’s no-one to keep an eye on your professional development or mental health when you work freelance, and a year or so in, I found myself becoming quite isolated. It’s very easy to tap away on your laptop, go onto Twitter and pretend you’re interacting with people.

An impulsive acceptance to a conference invitation was just what I needed to realise the value of professional development in staying fresh and relevant. Professional interaction is also crucial for your mental health – networking has a low appeal for me (I don’t like small talk and struggle in large group situations), but when I make the effort, I feel better for it.

Speaking to others in your situation creates a sense of camaraderie. It also opens the opportunity for potential new work. What’s not to like?

3) You have to stay in touch with your original motivation

Everyone has a different motivation. Some people want to be millionaires. Others just want to cover the bills. I wanted financial reward, to be professionally challenged and the opportunity to enjoy time with my children. It’s a combination that can be tricky to realise…

I use my flexible hours to my benefit and help at school one afternoon a week, listening to children read. It’s a small thing but means a huge amount to my kids and the kids I listen to. It’s also one of the most amusing parts of my week. Kids speak truthfully and come out with the funniest things – it’s a real mood lightener.

I clear my books over half-terms and holidays, just sticking to regular work for my long-term clients who know and understand the deal. Holiday club is an option for that “can’t refuse” project, but I’d rather enjoy the time with the kids while I can… in 15 years they won’t have the time for me, I’m going to get my fun time in now!

Charging enough can be a struggle when you go freelance; too many people expect you to be happy to do the work for next to nothing, something reinforced by companies such as Fiver. I did too much work for too little in my early days and know pricing appropriately is a challenge for most freelancers.

I’ll be honest, it’s the part of my business I continue to struggle with the most, but with resources like the ProCopywriters network helping champion a realistic rate for copywriters, I feel like I’m getting closer to where I should be.

A lack of professional challenge was a part of the reason for me leaving my old career, but there’s plenty in my new freelance life. With the admin and legal side of managing a business (GDPR anyone?), relationship management with a variety of clients (all good in case you were wondering), and meaty projects that stretch my skills and teach me new things, I’m learning every day.

Freelance isn’t for everyone – but it is for me

Freelance working isn’t for everyone. It can be isolating, bad for your health and financially disastrous if you plan badly. But it’s liberating and incredibly rewarding when things go in the right direction. It’s undoubtedly hard work, but then if it wasn’t – everyone would be doing it, and where’s the fun in that?

Laura Sands is a freelance copywriter based in Surrey.

Photo by Anete Lūsiņa