4 Things You Must Control in Your Copywriting Business — Including Rates

Bob Bly and Ilise Benun take the mystery out of how to price writing projects.

By Ilise Benun, Guest Writer for PWA (Professional Writers’ Alliance)
This was originally posted on PWA in 2016 and has been edited/updated.

To be successful in your copywriting business, here are four things you can (and must) control, including rates.One of the most gratifying aspects of being your own boss as a freelance copywriter — indeed perhaps the only one that really matters — is that it gives you more control over your work and, therefore, over your life.

I can tell you, from almost 30 years of freelance experience, that there is almost nothing better. You quickly get spoiled when you are the one making the decisions about what to do, when to do it, and especially, with whom.

I'm not talking about a power trip — in fact, it’s not about power over others. It’s about control over yourself and what happens to you.

Of course, in life there are plenty of things well beyond your control, and for those, you must be flexible and go with the flow. But I come across many people who could have much more control over their own lives, yet don’t.

If you permit the metaphor, I’d say it this way: I see many people get up on that horse, but then they don’t actually take the reins and guide it into the sunset. Instead, it’s as if they’re riding a bucking bronco!

To be successful in your copywriting business and to control your own destiny, here is what you can (and must) control:

1. Your schedule.

When you are your own boss, your time belongs to you. That’s the good news and the bad news. If you’re organized and disciplined, you’ll do well. If you procrastinate and lose track of time easily, you’re in trouble.

You have to be good at setting boundaries for yourself and adhering to them. When it comes to working with freelance copywriting clients, you are still in charge of your schedule.

The way you take control is this: Instead of passively waiting for clients to tell you when they need the project finished, it’s up to you to let them know how long it will take you to deliver the strongest copy you can.

This requires speaking up before they give you their deadline and saying, “That will take me three to four weeks. How is that for you?”

If they need it sooner, you can negotiate the deadline — and perhaps, even a higher fee.

2. Your pipeline of prospective freelance copywriting clients.

Your pipeline is essentially the list of prospects who are considering hiring you for a project. You should know who they are and what stage they’re at in terms of their copywriting needs.

Without control of your pipeline, you are on a roller coaster. (Some call it the Feast or Famine Syndrome).

You know how it goes: you take whatever projects come along because you don't know when the next one will appear. You may not like the work (or the client), you may not even have the right skills. But you can’t afford to turn it away and wouldn’t dare say no because you need the work.

Needless to say, this is not ideal for you or for your clients.

But when you take control of your pipeline, you choose the prospects you want to work with. A simple — but consistent — marketing campaign (which usually includes a well-positioned website with good samples, an email newsletter, and a direct outreach campaign) gets them into your pipeline.

Then, you cultivate the relationships carefully, building trust as you go and priming them to work with you by showing examples of what you know and what works. Without your pipeline of primed prospects, you won't know whom to reach out to or what to say when you need to convert them into clients.

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3. Your pricing; your copywriting rates.

If you aren’t in control of your pricing, then you’re probably practicing "desperation pricing," which involves accepting whatever’s offered and/or lowering your fees when the prospects who find you through word-of-mouth can't pay your necessary and customary charges.

You know what happens when you feel forced to accept jobs you can't afford to do: you don't dare track your time, because you don't really want to know how much time you're actually spending, for fear your hourly rate has plummeted to $10/hour (or less).

But when you control your pricing (i.e., you practice "profitable pricing"), your prices are based on facts, such as how long things actually take and what you need to charge to cover your expenses and be profitable. You estimate projects based on a history of experience, using data you've gathered through a time-tracking system that shows you what you need to charge.

More on freelance copywriting rates in a moment.

But first, the fourth thing you can (and must) control.

4. Your cash flow.

Freelance copywriting is cyclical — there is no way around the fact that when it rains, it pours. And when it doesn’t rain, you have to dig.

You never know exactly how much money is coming in or when it will arrive.

Often, this is because you bill your clients late (or sometimes forget to bill them altogether) because you haven't tracked all the details. The worst part, however, is the constant state of anxiety due to all the unknowns.

But when you control your cash flow:

  • You always get a deposit or advance payment, even with longtime clients.
  • You (or better, your bookkeeper) send invoices out regularly, so you are therefore paid regularly.
  • You always use a standard agreement that clearly states how much a client will pay and when.
  • You don't tie payments to project milestones in case something outside your control stalls the project.
  • And you fire clients who are perennial late payers.

It’s better to be in control than not — you can be, and it’s actually not all that difficult.

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Now, I want to dive into freelance copywriting rates more deeply to help you control that conversation with clients.

Is pricing ever not scary?

Is pricing ever not scary?

Yes, when it’s clear and simple.

But “Why is it scary?” is a more important question. I will address this with another question, followed by a clear and simple three-step process that will make your fear go “poof.”

Why is pricing scary? For you, it may be one of these reasons:

Fear of the unknown

Is it like selling everything you own and moving to a new country? Or dropping the career you’ve spent an entire life perfecting and starting fresh with a new one?

You’re not a numbers person

Do you believe you aren’t good at math — maybe because someone planted that belief in your mind way back when, and you’re still carrying it, whether it’s true or not, which is why you don’t trust yourself to get it right?

You can’t afford to get it wrong

Is it scary because it feels like a guessing game, and you have no tools to use, and you’re at the mercy of the big bad client’s approval or rejection? So it puts you in a position of dependency, where if you don’t guess the right number, you lose.

Fear of rejection

Are you afraid that as soon as you put a number on the table, it will be rejected as too high, or worse, your prospect will say, “Who do you think you are to charge that much?” — and then vanish into thin air?

Insecurity

Or is your fear of pricing simply garden-variety insecurity — you just don’t believe you’re good enough for anyone to pay you to write?

Let me ask the question this way: Is pricing scary like a forest at midnight, when it’s pitch dark, tall trees towering over you, the wind whistling around you, and your imagination going a little crazy? But when the sun comes up, you can see majestic oak trees overhead with tufts of Spanish moss hanging from them, adorable animals scurrying up and down the trees, and a bubbling brook beckoning with fresh water to drink.

All these fears about copywriting rates are (unfortunately) pretty common and (fortunately) completely unfounded.

In fact, I propose to you, dear Reader, that it’s just too easy to be afraid of pricing. And then, to use that fear as an excuse to avoid learning something new.

The following new knowledge requires time and effort to acquire and apply, but it will make your life so much better!

To understand it, all you have to do is break pricing down into its basic elements. Otherwise, it will remain an abstract thing you can’t get your mind around, even though your life depends on it. In fact, maybe that’s why it’s scary — because as a full-time copywriter, your life actually does depend on it.

If you don’t get the pricing right, you won’t make enough money. While that may be true, it’s unlikely you will starve to death. Because you do have other resources at your disposal, especially your brain! Don’t ever forget that.

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So let’s break pricing down into a simple manageable formula anyone can follow: 

The Simple Three-Step Pricing Process to Control Your Copywriting Rates  

1. Figure out what you need to cover your expenses (and then some).

Clarify for yourself what that number is on a monthly basis and then set that as your monthly income goal. Whether you charge by the hour or by the project, whether you track your time and calculate carefully how long it takes you to do your work, or you pull random numbers out of the air, the prices you charge have to add up to that monthly goal, at a minimum.

2. Find out what your best clients and prospects can pay.

First, you have to know who they are — the ones who value your services (and know it) and are willing to pay for it. (Don’t frustrate yourself by trying to get someone who can’t afford it to pay the prices you need to charge.)

Then, once you’ve identified them, ask what they can pay.

There are many ways to approach this, and you’ll have to find the way that works best for you.

Sometimes prospects will tell you straight away. Other times, you’ll have to push a bit, dig a little, and put some numbers on the table before they reveal to you, and sometimes also to themselves, what they can offer.

As a great starting point for both you AND your clients, check out this Free Guide to Copywriter Rates.

3. Come to a price together.

With those two steps out of the way, you can negotiate a deal that is fair to both of you (they expect you to negotiate — it’s the sign of a professional).

It’s usually a compromise, so be sure to start high.

Don’t assume your prospects are trying to fleece you — if they are, run in the other direction! They are not good prospects.

But remember, sometimes good clients need you to educate them about what’s a fair price.

That’s all there is to it!

However, it’s not the type of thing you do once, and then it’s done! You have to do it every single time you have a new project or client who wants to work with you.

Over time, you will build a history of pricing experiences, conversations, and language you can use to discover what works best for you. You will develop estimates and formulas for how long things take and adopt tools to simplify the process. And you will sharpen your antennae, especially, that will help you avoid the clients who will make you hate pricing.

If you follow this simple process, you will learn to price your copy projects smoothly, and the fear will be gone forever. Be sure to leave a comment below if you’re excited about taking control of your business.

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PWA (Professional Writers’ Alliance) is brought to you by AWAI (American Writers & Artists Inc.).

Ilise Benun is the founder of Marketing-Mentor.com, the go-to online resource for creative professionals who want better projects with bigger budgets. She is a national speaker, the author of seven business books, a business coach, and the Program Partner for HOW Design Live's Creative Entrepreneur program. For more details on pricing your freelance projects, see the program, AWAI’s Simplest Guide to Pricing Copy Projects.