How to become a freelance copywriter UK - people looking at their feet

Want to become a freelance copywriter in the UK? If you love to write, it could be your best ever move.

Here are some tips from my experience since going freelance in 2014. Plus advice by fellow UK copywriters, often shared during our York Copywriters’ Coffee meet-ups.

How to become a freelance copywriter UK: money

How do you make money as a freelance copywriter?

As an employee, I didn’t really understand self-employment. I was always a little in awe of the freelance contractors shipped in to help with projects. How do you make money if you don’t have a regular salary?

Freelance copywriters work in a similar way to an estate agent or a solicitor. We are paid to work on a project. Often we work on several projects at once. Sometimes a client asks us to continue on a retainer. This means they pay us a certain amount each month for a set number of tasks or hours.

How much does a UK freelance copywriter charge?

Your freelancer rate is not your old salary divided by 365 days. And your new income will not be your day rate multiplied by 365 days.

As a freelancer, the following all come out of your earnings:

  • Tax – usually 20% if you earn above the Personal Allowance rate
  • Sick pay
  • Holiday pay
  • Pension contributions
  • Office overheads – electricity, heating, office furniture
  • Equipment such as a laptop, printer, printer ink (HP Instant Ink has saved me at least £70 a year), stationery, designing and printing business cards, web design, web hosting, URL registration
  • Travel, membership of professional bodies, networking event tickets

So what should you charge? It depends on your location, your sector and your specialities. Check out the Professional Copywriters Network rates recommendations for current rates.

Charge by the project, not the hour or day

As an employee, you probably had set hours. So you’ll think of pricing jobs in the same way. However, freelancing hours are different. Are you charging by the hour or the day? Keep a timesheet, including times spent in meetings, on phone calls and dealing with emails.

After your first few projects, you’ll get more of a feel for how long things take. At this point switch to pricing by project. Otherwise, you’ll get better, and therefore faster, but be charging less.

Another tip – your working week is usually 70% on projects, 30% on admin, invoices, networking, marketing yourself, updating your website. Don’t stretch yourself too thin.

hourglass representing time
Tip: Often it’s best to charge by project, not time

How to become a freelance copywriter UK: finding work

As a freelance copywriter in the UK, how do you find work?

Contacts, contacts, contacts: My first few clients were friends and family, their friends and family and contacts. I still get referrals from my time as the web manager for the Lake District National Park.

Networking and training events: In my first year of returning to North Yorkshire and then York I went to as many networking events as possible. Don’t like networking? Training days feel less ‘salesy’ and you get to learn something too. It’s one of my 10 networking event tips for the shy.

On the strength of past projects: Having a portfolio of past projects is essential. People like to see your track record. When you start, you might do these for free or at a reduced rate.

Teaming up with a marketing agency: Successful agencies often need an extra pair of hands. I’m really lucky to work with some talented agencies as a professional associate.

Learning about selling: I met the wonderful Becky of People Buy People in the coffee queue at a tourism conference. This led to my attending her course on selling.

She explained that you are your business’s director, financial officer, worker and salesperson. However rather than thinking of it as selling, think of it as helping. Are you making a client’s life easier? Then you’re improving their quality of life. It’s just that as you’re not a charity, you need to be paid for your services.

Social media: Target your ideal sector by following organisations or people on Twitter and LinkedIn. Like or, even better, comment on their posts. It’s a gentle tug on the sleeve to announce your presence.

Co-working spaces: As a member of the Hiscox Business Club in York, I’ve connected with so many brilliant small businesses through chatting to fellow hot deskers.

“I’ve just graduated and want to become a freelance copywriter. Have you any advice?”

Over the years, York Copywriters’ Coffee has welcomed graduates and savvy undergraduates researching careers. The advice we give is that clients will judge you on your track record and experience. Having five, ten or even 15+ years’ of experience before going freelance is a huge positive.

It’s probably a good idea to get some work experience first. Try roles in the communications team of a large company as well as marketing and advertising agencies. Many copywriters start in journalism. You could also ‘side hustle’ with smaller jobs to build up your portfolio.

Networking is still working

In the beginning you need to attend lots of networking events. Some of them will feel a good fit, others might not. But don’t feel pressured into joining up. Occasional events, where you pay for the venue hire and food such as BLaH – Business Ladies Around Harrogate, are an excellent idea. You get to meet different people and there are fewer cliques.

The best networking events usually involve a lot of chatting, maybe even with a drink in hand. They feel like ‘jollies’ for an ex-employee. However they are all part of the work to get the work. I see them as a real perk of being a freelancer.

The butcher, the baker…

A word to the wise about ‘The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker’ networking groups. These are groups where only one person is allowed for each specialist slot. Members are heavily encouraged to bring along new faces. Sometimes they need to meet a quota, so will ask you to be a guest even though they know you won’t be able to join.

I didn’t realise this, so couldn’t work out why a delegate looked annoyed when I explained what I did. Until he stood up and announced “I’M a copywriter too”. This meant the slot was filled, I wouldn’t be accepted and I’d wasted my time as the protocol is you only do business with those within the group. So do research them first before saying yes.

candlestick to represent networking group idealogy
Tip: Be aware of ‘the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker’ networks

How to become a freelance copywriter UK: payment

Industry standard: Charge 50% up front

A 50% project kick-off fee is the industry standard. They’re taking a chance on your doing the work. But you’re taking a chance on them paying you the full amount. If they dispute this, walk away as they will probably be a nightmare client.

The only exception is for larger projects where you may need to break down payments into 33% kick-off, 33% mid-project and 34% end of project.

Often the larger the client, the slower the payment

Unfortunately some large firms have ridiculously long terms of payment. You send your invoice, but they can take weeks to pay. This is why it’s important to be paid a portion up-front so you can still pay the bills. If possible, try to build up a buffer savings account to reduce the stress of late-paying clients.

If you have a variety of clients, rather than just one or two big contracts, it helps even out the payment rollercoaster.

Expenses aren’t free money

When I started, my Dad kept saying “oh just put it on expenses!” But expenses don’t come from a giant pot of free money. You still have to pay for them. You just don’t get charged tax on them in a year’s time.

To discount or not to discount?

It’s up to you. When I explain that as York City Council won’t give me 10% off my bill because I gave 10% off mine I don’t discount, people usually give a wry smile.

If you’re discounting to build up your portfolio or help a charity, do always show the full amount first on your invoice. Then feature the discount and then the total payable.

Why? If anyone asks “How much was your copywriter?” you want them to quote your full rate and say “but they gave us a discount”. Otherwise they will quote your discounted rate.

How to become a freelance copywriter UK: tax

Turnover and profit

You are taxed on your profit, not your turnover. Don’t know the difference? Turnover is the money that comes in. Profit is turnover minus expenses.

So I could land a project worth £3,000. Whoopee! But then the client asks me to work in-house 300 miles away, so I spent £70 on overnight accommodation, £10 on fuel, £20 on food. So the profit on this job, before tax, is actually £2,900.

Of course I might be able to claim some of the £100 back as expenses through my tax assessment. But I will have to wait.

Record your income and outgoings once a month

I record my income and expenses each month on a spreadsheet. It doesn’t take long and avoids a mad scramble when I need to submit my tax assessment.

Save for tax from the beginning

Hive off 20% from the start into an account. You can also set up payment directly to HMRC.

After a certain threshold, you need to make Payments on Account to HMRC by 31 July as well as by 31 January. That’s 50% more tax due – a real shock when you don’t know about it!

You can submit your tax assessment at any time

You may have heard self-employed friends huff and puff in January about ‘getting their taxes done’. But you can submit them any time after 31 March has passed.

I try to sort it out in the summer. My accountants are less busy then and I feel better knowing exactly what my January tax bill will be.

Do you need an accountant?

I switched to freelancing from PAYE in the middle of the tax year, so felt I needed an accountant. However I’ve stuck with them as they’re good sounding boards and flag up potential issues. There are also rumours that you’re less likely to be investigated by HMRC if you use a reputable accountant.

To find one, ask your contacts, or chat to accountancy firms at networking to find the ones you ‘click’ with. I met J and D Accountants in Scarborough when we were all volunteering as experts for a Pop-Up Business Cafe. Their emails about the Covid-19 grants, tax updates and business measures were particularly helpful.

how to be a freelance copywriter UK - sliced orange to represent tax
Tip: Always keep a slice back for tax

How to become a freelance copywriter UK: looking after yourself

Turn off phone notifications

As I turned off my phone one evening, a client email popped up which started my cogs whirring and kept me awake. My email is now set up to only appear 9am – 5pm and through my phone’s apps panel. It’s the same with Twitter and Facebook. My ‘shop’ opens when I open my laptop.

You need downtime. You also need to set boundaries with clients. If you reply at 11pm, guess what? They’ll expect the same service the next time.

You must protect your brain and allow it to refresh before the next working day. Otherwise you’re cheating your clients as you won’t deliver the quality of service they’ve paid for.

The positive side of difficult clients

There will be businesses who will try to not pay you, or mess you about. Warning signs are that they:

  • quibble about price or payment terms from the start
  • have unrealistic deadlines – although if you’re happy to work weekends or overnight, you can charge a ‘rush fee’
  • can’t clearly explain what their product or service is
  • want to arrange lots of meetings before committing
  • want a free sample of your writing
  • are a bit dismissive about what you do but someone told them they should get a copywriter involved

If you do get burnt, try not to take it personally. You really can’t please all of the people all of the time. However as a freelancer, you’ll never have to deal with them again. I put them in a ‘Lessons Learned’ file. See them as a way to improve your processes and terms and conditions.

Trust your gut

It may seem illogical, but if you get a sinking feeling when you talk to a potential client, walk away. It’s hard to turn down work. But your instinct is telling you you’re not the right copywriter for them. Weirdly my stomach has known this every time. When I overrule it, I always regret it.

Slow and steady wins the race

There are some people who seem to play at running a business. One fellow copywriter calls them ‘The Surface People’. They’re the ones who went mad on sleek logos and the latest computer and even offices. But are they being bankrolled by a partner, a redundancy pay-out or a trust fund? Will they still be in business in three years’ time?

I started with an old laptop, a bog-standard website I set up myself and worked from my parents’ dining table. Here are my very first home-made business cards:

how to be a freelance copywriter UK - first business cards
Tip: Keep start-up costs low

Impostor syndrome is rife in entrepreneurs. There’s always someone who seems to be doing it better, or getting all the press coverage or the awards. Don’t worry. We’re all on different paths.

Be kind to yourself

You are your most valuable asset. Without you, the work doesn’t get done. So if you need a physio session in the middle of the day, or to finish early, do. Presenteeism isn’t necessary if the work gets done. Your health is.

Good luck and welcome to the freelance copywriting world. I hope to see you – on social media or in person – soon!

About the author

Helen Reynolds is a freelance copywriter with more than 20 years’ experience of managing and writing websites. She sows, transplants and refreshes websites with customer-friendly and Google-friendly web content.

Based in York, Helen helps heritage, hospitality and business professionals across the UK. Find out more about her freelance copywriter services.