Kevin Casey is The Jet-setting Copywriter—a global wilderness explorer and part-time digital nomad who pays for all his overseas adventures through freelance writing. Born in California, he now lives in Brisbane, Australia. Kevin’s passion is exploring wild, untouched rivers around the globe. He has ventured up pristine tributaries in the Guyana jungle, searched for Kermode bears in British Columbia, discovered unknown waterfalls in Australia’s Kimberley region, shared antelope stew with pygmies in Gabon and tracked jaguars in Bolivia. As the Remote River Man, Kevin has been self-filming his journeys since 2004, producing several full-length DVDs. Articles about Kevin’s epic (and normally solitary) river expeditions have appeared in magazines such as Australian Geographic Outdoor, Wild and Sidetracked. Kevin is the author of the best-selling eBook ‘The Jet-setting Copywriter: How to Fund All Your Overseas Adventures through Freelance Writing’, which is available through his website. (I bought a copy of Kevin’s book and it is excellent. I can highly recommend it. ~ Ed.)
How NOT to start a freelance writing business
If you’re trying to succeed as a writer, there’s plenty of advice out there—and some of it makes no sense at all….
When I decided to become a freelance copywriter a few years ago, my reasons were a little bit different to most. I explore the most pristine river systems on earth—and this can be an expensive hobby. Airline fares to exotic locations, bribes to African chiefs, expedition equipment, inflatable packrafts, payments to jungle guides and chartered helicopter flights to remote areas can sure add up.
I desperately wanted to find a flexible, location-independent way to make enough money to pay for all these trips, so I jumped into freelance writing and took my chances.
Years before, I had written and self-published four books and they had all made money, so I already knew I could write. But I had zero experience with online freelance writing.
Fortunately, things worked out. Within my first 6 months of serious freelancing, I went from no clients to making $7000 a month and I haven’t looked back. These days, my writing profits pay for three distinct types of global journeys: hardcore river expeditions, normal holidays and occasional stints as a digital nomad in interesting cities around the world.
I’ve just had my most lucrative year ever but I only worked 7-8 months of it. The rest of the year I travelled. I snorkelled with manta rays on the Great Barrier Reef, spent part of the summer in Spain and Portugal, wrote blog posts from a penthouse AirBnB apartment in Milan, wandered around Tasmania, played digital nomad in Argentina for five weeks and tracked jaguars and giant armadillos in the jungles of Bolivia for a month.
Everyone measures success as a writer differently. I measure mine by the amazing experiences it helps me pay for. I measure it by the freedom it provides—the ability to travel whenever I want, to wherever I want, for as long as I want. For me, writing is a source of autonomy. It allows me to live the way I wish, rather than the way I must.
When I first started out, I read some incredibly useful books, joined writer forums and sought out the usual “helpful advice” for newbie freelance writers. What I discovered was that some of this advice was just plain bad.
Here is some of the “expert advice” I ignored:
1. Every professional writer needs a blog
No, not really. When you’re starting out, what you mostly need are paying clients. It’s all about cash flow. I think the best way to ‘build your brand’ is to do amazing work for a whole lot of appreciative clients. These provide referrals and testimonials, leading to more high-paying clients. I wrote steadily for three full years before I even thought about creating The Jet-setting Copywriter blog—and to be honest, I don’t spend that much time on it. My income doesn’t come from my blog; it’s just a side hobby.
I believe having a Linkedin presence is far more important for a new writer than having a blog. Blogs (especially new ones) tend to suck up all your time for little financial return. A new writer’s first few months are better spent cold-emailing promising businesses, networking and aggressively pursuing their target markets. Blogging can come later, if at all.
2. It’s okay to write for free to get exposure
I don’t write articles for Huffington Post. I’m not interested, because they don’t pay. I know a lot of writers get terribly excited when their blog posts are published there but I’ve never understood the appeal. Free posts from gullible writers helps HuffPo make money while the writer gets nothing. This site cranks out 1200 posts a day and most get lost in cyberspace. Where’s the “prestige” in that?
I’m a professional writer. I don’t write for (a) exposure, (b) a by-line or (c) a cut of future profits for the product I’m writing about. I don’t write for Bitcoins (yes, I’ve had that request!). I write for money. The thing about “exposure” is that you can get it just as easily when you you’re being compensated. “Web traffic” isn’t the same as a paid invoice.
3. You have to start at the bottom and work your way up
This is nonsense. Charge what you feel you’re worth. If you can provide genuine value to a client, they’ll be happy to pay a reasonable fee. If they’re not, negotiate the scope of the work but not your rate. You don’t have to “pay your dues” as a beginning writer by settling for crummy, low-paying jobs. You can go after lucrative corporate work from the get-go.
4. As a newbie writer, you should give new clients a discount
I once read a blog which advised beginning writers to offer new clients a discount off the normal rate for their first job. The idea was that these same clients would then pay your normal (higher) rate for any future jobs.
Nope—you can just about guarantee they’ll ask for the same rate again. If you agree, you’re admitting you’re a desperate writer—not a successful one.
My quotes for writing jobs are like granite, not rubber. I have an MAR (minimum acceptable rate) and I stick to it—no exceptions. I charge a fair price for guaranteed work. I don’t charge for my writing unless the client is 100% happy. Quality clients respect that. I gladly negotiate the work’s scope but if a client wants me to lower my rate, I politely decline their offer and look for a new client.
5. Content mills, bidding sites and writer job boards are a great way to get experience
Nothing could be further from the truth. The single best decision I ever made for my writing career was to abandon online writing sites altogether and start pursuing clients directly. When I first started out in 2013, I had a brief but disappointing flirtation with content mills (Textbroker and Constant Content) but soon realised the time versus money equation didn’t add up. The pay was abysmal and writing was treated as a commodity.
Once I ditched these sites, set up my own writer website, made good use of Linkedin and started targeting specific industries and clients, the change was like night and day. I went from earning $5 per article to making up to $600 per article within a few months.
I prospected by cold calling, networking, cold emails, etc. I scored a couple of solid, long-term clients during my first few months and was soon earning between $2500 and $7500 per month, every month.
Content mills and writing sites are a financial dead end for any writer hoping to make real money from their skills. The same applies to writer job boards. The highest-paying writer jobs are not advertised—you have to “put yourself out there”, self-market like crazy and go where the money is to find them.
6. Any client that pays you is a good client
Newbie writers tend to take whatever work they can get but this is a mistake, as many soon discover. Recognising the difference between an excellent client and a horrible one is a vital skill. I steer clear of clients who (a) complain about having to pay a deposit up front, (b) have only a vague idea what they want, (c) are reluctant to put everything in writing or (d) have several different people (rather than just one) giving final approval for the copy.
A good client values my skill, pays promptly, provides clear instructions and feedback, respects my time and acts professionally. These days, I carefully research potential clients before reaching out to them so I know what to expect. Being picky about who I write for has made a huge and positive difference to my bank balance.
7. You need to take an expensive writing course (or have a degree) to succeed
It seems everybody is offering courses on “how to succeed as a freelance writer” these days—and many cost hundreds of dollars. Some can be useful but none are essential for freelancing success. The best way to become a freelance copywriter is to bite the bullet and just start doing it. Read books by the masters: Bob Bly, Joseph Sugarman, Steve Slaunwhite, Dan Kennedy, Ed Gandia, etc. Check out the free resources at copyschool.com or the marketing library at copyblogger.com. Have a look at Carol Tice’s blog: Making a Living Writing for useful tips. There’s no need to pay for a writing course—just go get clients and start writing.
While journalism, business, marketing or English degrees can be useful for certain types of writing, a degree is an irrelevance for most types of paid writing work. Many of the highest paid copywriters on the planet have degrees completely unrelated to writing—or (like myself) no degree at all.
Since I became a professional freelance writer, I’ve learned that we each have to find our own way. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another. Writing advice can be very contradictory. Blog/don’t blog. Pick a niche to make more money/stay a generalist so you don’t get bored. Market yourself with Twitter and Facebook/use Linkedin to drum up new business.
The problem with trying to absorb all this endless advice is that you can end up spending your whole life reading about how to become a successful writer—and never get around to becoming one.
The Secret Lives of Writers is a series of guest posts from writers (published or unpublished) who dish the dirt on how they juggle life and their craft.
The Secret Lives of Writers is now available as an ebook
You can now read all 13 guests posts from Volume 1 in the one convenient ebook. It’s out now in the Amazon Kindle Store and in other stores (iBooks, Kobo, Nook etc.) too.
Full of writing inspiration and advice, if you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer, and this book doesn’t get you putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), nothing will!
You can grab your copy from the Delicious Publishing Book Store.