The Internet is bloated with freelance writers in search of opportunity. And that shouldn’t be any surprise. An online writing career holds the promise of limitless possibility–as long as you’re willing to work hard and climb your way up rung by rung.
The pay is solid, the flexibility fantastic, and (let’s face it) the commute is about as good as it gets.
So how are we supposed to compete against the flood of freelancers on Elance, Guru and Constant Content, many of whom are willing to work for rates that would barely pay the rent on a fifth-floor Bangalore walkup?
The problem with many online copywriters is that too many are singing in the exact same key.
How not to get work
Cold calling is for the birds, and I’m happy to say I’ve never done it. Not once.
I also don’t spend time on message boards looking for work. I gave it a brief try, just long enough to verify without the shadow of a doubt that it was something I didn’t want to do.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with looking for work. But we only have so many minutes in the day. No one is offering any more.
I’m a writer. If I’m on a message board, I’m not writing. If I don’t have any paid work on my desktop, I’d rather spend my time writing something that will support my business and potentially pay dividends later.
No, it isn’t an easy decision, but it’s been the right one for me. Every second I’ve stayed on task has made me a better writer.
Standing out in a crowded market
The only way to stay far from the freelancing bottom-feeders and close to decently paid work is by distinguishing yourself from the crowd.
You don’t necessarily need to be a better writer. The Internet is filled with amazingly talented (and broke) wordsmiths.
But I know my strengths and I don’t shy away from tooting my own horn. (I’ve raised that to a full-fledged orchestra these days.)
I have a simple tactic I learned from my decade running a flower shop.
When you create a bouquet of flowers, you need to finish off your design before you hand it across the counter. Not only does a completed bouquet need a beautiful ribbon to tie it all together, it also needs a focal point so striking it takes the viewer’s breath away.
Of course, not every writing job gives you the opportunity to polish your prose to perfection. Basic SEO blog posts aren’t exactly the type of copy to satisfy the muse.
But whenever I can, I spend the extra time to include at least one line that sets me apart from every other writer–one sentence that could only come from me.
That sentence, that final “bow on the bouquet,” draws the client toward me. And I make sure it also draws my client’s customers toward them.
Taking the time to make it great
After my client sees the bow that ties it all together, they can see for themselves the difference I’ll make in their copy. The “secret,” if you can call it that, is that most freelancers don’t take the extra minutes to really make their copy shine. They’re rushed, they take shortcuts, and it shows.
You can’t compete with the world, it’s way too big. Besides, why would you ever want to be anyone other than yourself?
But you can compete with every writer your client has worked with before you. If you’re willing to take the time to tie a bow around your copy, you’ll stand head and shoulders above the rest.
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Reader Comments (42)
Chris Cree says
Good point Sean. Each of us has something unique and valuable to bring to the table. So many try to mimic someone successful to the point that they forget to let a little of their own uniqueness shine through.
Chanda | BizDharma.com says
100% agree. Just to take your thoughts further, we need to add a personality to our copy. This makes it unique and sell-able. Finally the difference between Ordinary and ” Extra ordinary” is that little Extra…
Michael A. Stelzner says
Thanks for your contribution to Copyblogger.
Might I suggest you give some examples of what you are referring to?
I get what you say about making sure your copy shines, but doesn’t that come down to great writing?
The way I read it, you need to deliver great work to stand out from the crowd.
That’s always been my mantra. But it seems like you’re being a bit vague about what this ribbon is exactly here.
Write a Writing says
I had my share of experimenting with the job boards and they are a down right crap. I partnered with a company few years back to manage proposals for projects at Elance and Guru but it wasn’t worth the effort that I piped in.
Well, cold calling might not be a good shot but cold emailing helps. At least it gets something of your own in the world wide web and people know that you are offering this this @ this this, so it is never a bad idea!
Your attitude about writing is exactly why I follow you around the web. You inspire a lot of folks because you are real. Not a lot of reality out there these days, so THAT’s how you are standing out from the crowd.
Keep on keepin’ on, bro.
Sonia Simone says
@Michael S, while we wait for Sean, I’ll give you an example from a post of mine last week. I made a point along the lines of “Warhol had it wrong. We’re not going to be famous for 15 minutes, we’re going to be famous with 15 people.” That line was what got twittered and allowed the post to spread.
Of course, some of our killer lines are more successful than others. 🙂 I see it as similar to a hook, but it can appear anywhere in the copy.
Writer Dad says
Chris: I suppose it’s possible to make it by copying someone else, but unless you shed the pose like dead skin it’s unlikely that you’ll ever be remembered.
Chanda: Exactly. Unless the job specifically asks for me to stay invisible, which of course some ghostwriting jobs do, I feel as though it is my job to insert at least a bit of my personality into everything I write.
Michael: Hi Michael, good question and of course I’d be happy to give an example.
Yes, doing your best job does come down to great writing, but I also believe it is more than that. Whenever I write something (for myself or for a client) I try to embed some element that could only come from me; something from my writer’s bag of tricks (ticks).
One specific thing when it comes to my own writing is my use of alliteration. Admittedly, I tended to overuse this particular quirk, of mine in the beginning, then I totally shied away from using it at all. After a year of writing, I think I’ve found a balance, and often use it to great effect.
I try to arrange my words in a way that allows people who know me to recognize the voice of the copy before seeing the byline. With a million voices screaming on the web, this ability is something I am exceedingly proud of. We all have our favorite writers that arrange their words in a particular way. I have chosen to build my business slowly, by attracting the types of clients who think of me not just as their hired writer, but as one of their favorite writers as well. Writing copy for a paying fan, at least for me, is more than twice as rewarding.
Here is a brief excerpt from something I wrote about writing copy for clients.
“Anyone should be able to organize information given enough time, but a born writer can burn brilliance from bullet points by bringing the heart and soul to the surface of any subject. If you find you can write with minimal pause, proud of the prose that spills from your pen, please move forward.”
Write a Writing: I could probably get behind a cold email about a million and a half years before I could do it on the other end of a receiver, and I’m certainly not above it. It would just never be my preference. The hourglass is constantly spilling and I don’t ever feel as though I can write enough.
George: Thanks, man. I really appreciate the compliments. I’m happy being me and thrilled to be developing a skill I can use forever.
Sonia: Hi there Sonia! Thanks for being patient with me while I cleared my desk a bit. Well said… I guess it’s like a songwriter always in search of the hook. Some songwriters do this as if by instinct, able to get in our heads in a way that is instantly identifiable as “that artist.”
Cobain is a great example. A lot of musicians considered him a crap guitarist, and perhaps he was, but the dude knew how to blend a simple chord progression with an engaging melody line that rattled around in the brain of the nation and paved the road for a million Nirvanabees to mimic his voice years after his flame had burned out (since he never allowed it to fade away).
I am looking to hire short-term talent in this function right now, and here is a dilemma that you guys can perhaps help me resolve.
I don’t want to hire a writer. Talented, stand-out, sticky or whatever. I want to hire a full, closed-loop marketer. Somebody who is not only a good writer with a large creative space in his/her head to come up with lots of ideas, but the end-to-end marketing brains to assess the results from analytics/feedback, see what catches fire, and what does not, course-correct (major/minor), rinse and repeat. I’d like to pay for results rather than clever wordplay.
This point was made in yesterday’s killers vs. poets post. That’s almost the whole story, but it goes beyond that. I think the market for pure writing/copy functionalists is going to end.
Coree Silvera says
Great points, Sean. I agree with your thought that everything we write should have a bit of our unmistakable personality to it…one thing that readers know could have only come from you. I suppose that would be called Personal Branding.
Loved your tie in with Corbain. It just takes one thing…one thing about yourself (and it could be good or bad) to make you a star. He knew how to use his & wish we could have had him longer.
@Write a Writing: could you elaborate on what you mean by “cold emailing”?
Sonia Simone says
@Venkat, I couldn’t agree more. Absolutely, nail on head.
Bamboo Forest - PunIntended says
The point you make about the commute is about as true as it gets.
I agree with putting the extra time in. Copy is largely as good as the amount of time that went into it.
Michael A Stelzner says
Great example in your response. I think had you included that in your original article, it would have made it even more powerful.
All my best to you!
Hi Sean. Cold calling just feels wrong and it’s never worked well for me. I love the imagery you have used here. You absolutely got your point across. Your bow is your trademark.
Shane Arthur says
Step 1: Wrap your writing project in Copyblogger paper.
Step 2: Apply creative bow.
I agree with sonia , thanks for posting
Sami - Life, Laughs & Lemmings says
An effective metaphor and works well with Sonia’s last post. I took it to be like writing with an authentic, poetic and killer instinct.
Jonathan Kranz says
Got to admit, I’m not a big believer in “bows.” Instead of aiming for a killer sentence and flattering my own ego, I aim my copy at the heart of the client’s needs. That’s the kind of work that distinguishes “good” writing from writing that sets the eagle flying — in the writer’s direction.
John Rugh says
Thanks for the post, Sean, lots of great information. As an aspiring freelance copywriter and speechwriter, I appreciate reading the wisdom of others who have successfully done the things I want to do.
Writer Dad says
Venkat: Excellent point and I agree. Clever wordplay does nothing to drive sales. It may amuse the reader or make them feel more at home, perhaps, but it does nothing for conversion. I think the future is a desert for the one dimensional copywriter.
Coree: Yes, personal branding it is for sure. I endeavor to stay true to the writer inside me while learning the tricks of the trade and shedding the unnecessary skin.
Bamboo: So true. If I were to look over my weakest posts, I’m sure it wouldn’t be too difficult to draw the line between time spent and impact delivered.
Michael: You are right. Thank you for asking for an explanation and allowing me to more clearly see my own point.
Davina: Thanks Davina. Yes, my bow is my trademark.
Shane: LOL. yep.
Teratips: You are welcome.
Sami: Yes, exactly.
Jonathan: I totally hear you, but perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to ghostwriting. For me, it isn’t about the credit. I love language. I could care less if I get the byline, but clients hire me to make their copy sing. By writing killer sentences I am aiming my copy at the heart of the client’s needs. Some of my business is SEO copy sure, but I also write a lot of love letters, wedding vows, fiction, speeches, even letters of complaint. In 100% of those cases, the client expects me to make them sound intelligent through word choice and it isn’t enough for me to be good. They want the bow as well.
Gordon Rowland says
Sean and others, thank you for your highly readable copy, comments and instructive insights.
I’m not a copywriter, I’m a landscape designer, with a passion for creating beautiful, eco-friendly gardens. In a market crowded with designers who seem to understand little about aesthetics and still less about ecological integrity, I often feel like a voice crying in the wilderness (pun unintended).
To become an influential voice in this multi-billion dollar export-import industry, and remedy its indifference to the native landscape, I need to educate the gardening public, especially here in Australia, where vested interests control the gardening media.
That’s why, before upgrading my labor-of-love website http://www.ilda.com.au, to Web 2.0, I need to learn persuasive, killer, copywriting.
And that’s why Copyblogger is such a valued resource to me. Again, Thank you.
I love this idea, drawn from your unique pre-freelancer days. I try for the bow, though I’d never thought about it that way, but I definitely get what you mean.
If the whole post is killer sentences from your wildly original p.o.v., it loses its impact. But one bit of Wow to wrap up a great post… just right.
Very memorable strategy! Off to check my next post… to see if I should go crazy, or elegant, or rustic, or silly with my bow. 🙂
Recently started blogging and I’m finding it so hard to just sit, write and post it. Maybe it’s my personality (a tad obsessive ; ) but I keep editing and editing and rewriting to get it just right. I guess that’s a good thing because a lot of writers out there seem to quickly spit out what’s on their minds without revisiting it for edit. I usually write something first to get the idea out of my head, leave it for a day, then get back to it with a fresh perspective. I have a file of blog posts that are in various states of editing. For me, it’s all about choosing the perfect words to express my ideas, not focused on SEO. My theory is that the people who find me organically will be more meaningful.
Harrison Schmidt says
Good post. Just have to write well, and market yourself well to entities with large audiences and lots of money to pay you.
A good lesson for new commers on web writing. For Standing out in a crowded market of writers need to add an overall attraction which will force reader to stay on page,it must capture their attention, provide new information, engage the visitor and positively provoke them to make the right decisions.
What can I say… this is why there is also poetry in copywriting… there HAS to be! I’d like my special little little piece of poetry to be my own bow…
thanks for the great advice!
Jenny Pilley says
I find these posts really useful. It’s always worth putting that little bit extra into your work to make it stand out and the fact you express your knowledge of this in a different example to writing brings home how important it is.
belajar wordpress says
From your writing and talk in blog, i know you are good writer.
lawton chiles says
Great post Sean. It seems that we all are looking for a “magic bullet” some of the time, while, let’s face it, nothing beats rolling up your sleeves, tossing out draft after draft until we know it’s rock-solid.
The flower analogy really struck a chord with me.
Putting that icing on the cake is what sets us apart.
Otherwise, it’s not good enough.
And if it’s not good enough for us, why should it be good enough for a client to run with, spend money putting out, and because it’s not our best effort, get a mediocre return?
Writer Dad says
Gordon: Copyblogger is a tremendous resource. I would’ve figured out the need for the bow all on my own. Copyblogger taught me that the bow isn’t nearly as important as I might have otherwise thought. Everything in measure.
Kelly: Hiya Kelly! Like I said to Gordon, everything in measure. If I spent the entire page in pentameter, not only would it take way too much time, it would have a dim impact compared to using it as a highlight. Like in the song when the last verse is just devastating, gives you chills, and makes you hit the back button on the player.
Moblebee: There is a lot of truth to that, but be careful. Growth without SEO is way harder than it sounds. I spent six months writing my best and yielding no return outside digital high fives. Surrendering to SEO was one of the smartest things I’ve done online.
Sreeja: It’s a dance for sure. Whether we are writing for ourselves or others, keeping in mind what’s in between the words can sometimes be everything.
Marherita: My pleasure. I call it SEOetry. : > )
Jenny: Thank you Jenny. Metaphors are the shortest cut I know.
Belajar: Thank you for the compliment!
Lawton: There is no silver bullet, magic pill or fairy dust. However, we all can access the best inside of us. It might take more work, but if it’s honest work, it will almost always show in the after shine.
I wasn’t suggesting that SEO not be considered at all in writing, but I think too many people are way too focused on SEO and not communicating the message and building the brand. I know going the organic route is hard and takes longer…I founded and grew a start up children’s footwear brand with the organic philosophy…it took time, but the results were long lasting and meaningful. I built the brand, so people were searching for the brand name, not certain keywords. Looking at the analytics of the site, the more meaningful visitiors (the ones with very low bounce rates) were the ones that searched for the brand name. The visitors with high bounce rates were consistently the ones who searched for keywords related to the brand. Which says to me that they were looking for something else and found us instead and left.
Bobbie A says
This was perfect and timing is everything! I was updating my brochures for an upcoming trade show & this definitely reminded me to include those things that make me unique. Great posts and I completely agree with your points on the sites / message boards. I spent a LOT of time there as part of my quest for work… At the time I felt like I was doing SOMETHING but to your point, after a while, unless you are willing to work for a nickel an hour, you are losing money looking in most of those…
Thanks for the post – inspirational!
Cat Wagman says
Sean, thanks for a great post!
Whether I am “capturing” someone else’s voice, or giving voice to my own writing, I want the readers to have the instantaneous emotional response … be it underling chills of sexual tension as I whisper softly, close enough that they feel my warm breath on their ear … or, rapt attention to a center stage performance that inspires them to do what I (or my client) would like them to do … read or spoken, each word given its due, can be magical!
… and I like being magical!
I also like getting paid 🙂
Glad you mentioned the current market for writing via the online venues. Makes the current real estate slump look like a gold mine. I also wrote about this on my site (title: “Why Elance Sucks Lately”) and it got a response from one of the suits at Elance, which to my pleasant surprise wasn’t defensive or full of outrage. Actually, he copped to it and asked if I had any input on how to fix the problem (and oh brother, did I).
As an Elance vet for the past two years, thought I pass along some observations to those who have been there and gone because of the slim pickings. There are still some good projects there, and on the other online venues, but you have to have the patience to find ’em. The good old days are long gone (Robert Bly burned his pricing sheet years ago, by the way).
The real problem, I think, isn’t the preponderance of English-as-a-third-language writers living in that Bangalore walkup, the one willing to write articles for a buck a throw, or an entire ebook for under $500, it’s the buyers who EXPECT that pricing. Elance and other sites like them are chock full of these customers, who don’t have a clue how to value writing, who just walked out of an online marketing workshop for which they paid two grand, having been told that they need promotional articles and it doesn’t mean a thing if they’re any good or not, it’s all about SEO, and there’s plenty of starving suckers out there who will write them for you.
There, I feel better. Let me catch my breath.
My favorite rape job on Elance — a guy who wanted 800 articles of 1000 words each, all fully researched and delivered with — his word — “high quality writing”… drumroll… for less than $500. Do the math. Some schlub bid $300 and got the job. Hope he’s enjoying his one dollar an hour gig.
The real value in this discussion is something Sean alluded to — the best asset a freelance writer has is her or his relationships. When we find a legit buyer, someone who values writing and believes it’s a skill worth more than flipping burgers, we need to cultivate those relationships, to delight them with our work and then solicit referrals and endorsements.
It’s a lot like building readership for a blog. Deliver the value and they will come… if and only if you network your relationships well.
Writer Dad says
Momblebee: Ah, I see. Then we find ourselves in harmony. I agree entirely.
Bobbie A: Bidding for low paying work would only make me hyper aware of minutes that I’ll never have again. Nothing is more important to me than my time, and I’d rather be generating nothing, but have time to work on my personal projects than make just enough to keep me running around the track.
Cat: Yes, there are few things more rewarding than getting to do the work I love to do and being well compensated for it. Playing with words in exchange for dollars is awesome indeed.
Larry: Wow Larry, that’s a comment and a half. I’ve seen jobs like the abomination you referred to and it was definitely enough to keep me away from the boards entirely. There is a thin membrane between not being able to feed my family and being barely able to feed them. Yet even during the leanest times of the last year, I was proud of the majority of the work I was doing and I could lie in bed with my wife and read my day’s work out loud. That is every bit as important as the money to me and not likely with disposable writing. I agree with you about building relationships. Though I’ve had a few clients that needed my services for one specific purpose only, the wide slice of my clients have returned, each time happier than the last. That is a powerful force of compound interest at work.
Thank you to Brian for another chance to post at my favorite writing site and to everyone who made engagement engaging.
The Story Woman says
Sean, great post. I always learn something from Copyblogger posts.
Celeste Stewart says
Interesting conversation – I’m glad I stumbled across it.
I think we all have our own unique flair that will come across one way or the other in our writing. However, when writing for clients, it’s important to understand the client’s point of view and each client’s unique message. As ghostwriters, we have to take our flair for the written word and pull it off so that it is authentic when the client adopts it as his own. Are our words a good match for the client’s style, product, taste, or brand?
Adding a fancy literary ribbon isn’t always going to make the difference. Understanding what the client wants to communicate and then communicating that message far better than the client (or your competition) works wonders.
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