Like most young freelance writers just starting out, I had heady ambitions of one day seeing my byline appear in some respected, high-brow publication like The New York Times or the Financial Mail. But I realized that I would first have to get my name out there and the easiest way to accomplish that (or so I thought) would be to create a website that would serve as a digital storefront for my services.
So I asked a friend to help me set up a basic website, populated it with some copy, even offered an e-book as a free download, and waited for the clients and dollars to start rolling in. And I made loads and loads of money and everyone lived happily ever after.
Yeah…not so much. In fact, I have yet to get a single phone call or email from that ill-fated website. And looking back at it (with a fair amount of cringing) today, it’s easy to see why.
The copy is bloated, pompous and self-indulgent, there’s no clear call to action and the general tone of the thing is just, I don’t know, wrong.
For the love of all that is holy don’t make these mistakes. They’ll just end up costing you time and money that could be better dedicated to other marketing efforts, not to mention the fact that your self-esteem will take a nasty knock. Mine did.
Also, because I’m such a nice guy, I’m going to tell you how to avoid each of them, so best pay attention.
Writing for other people
Yes, obviously you need to keep your audience in mind. It’ll be no good using a bunch of colloquial terms when addressing engineers, and likewise, you’ll miss your mark using tech jargon when your audience is a bunch of new moms.
But it’s important that you enjoy the writing process, and that it doesn’t become an absolute chore. If you have to force yourself to stop writing because you’ve been going at it for hours, then you’re doing it right. Looking back at the (cringe-worthy) copy I wrote for my first website, it’s clear that I wasn’t writing for myself because there is no natural flow and the discourse seems incredibly stiff and stilted.
Trust me when I tell you, readers see through that crap. If you don’t enjoy what you’re writing, how can you expect anyone to enjoy reading it? It’s really that simple.
What to do instead: Well, you need to find your niche. If you detest financial issues, you really shouldn’t be writing about it because the process will be arduous and devoid of any real passion.
Once you’ve established what you really enjoy writing about, the process should be completely organic. Soon, you’ll find that the writing becomes almost automatic and you hardly have to think about what comes next; it’ll just sort of appear on the page.
The key takeaway here is: write for yourself, first and foremost. That’s non-negotiable.
In my experience, your website copy should do two things:
- It should tell a compelling story, and
- It should promote a two-way conversation.
Being afraid to succeed
In my experience, it’s not so much the fear of failing that scares most people as it is the fear of actually succeeding.
When you land that first big client, be prepared for your mind to start doing all sorts of crazy things like making you doubt yourself. Whatever you do, don’t listen to that insidious little voice, it doesn’t know what it’s talking about.
What to do instead: If you find yourself asking “Am I really good enough to do this?” remind yourself that, out of the thousands of freelancers out there, the client chose you. Of course you’re good enough. Dig up some of your past work and take a good, hard look at what your mind and your hand have been able to accomplish. Look at it from the perspective of someone else, and you’ll soon realize that you’re way more talented and capable than you give yourself credit for.
Oh man, this is a biggie. If you’re not willing to actively market yourself, you’re just about setting yourself up for failure.
I’m not saying there haven’t been instances of freelancers encountering major success with minimal marketing, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Get out there, do 30 cold-pitches a day, set up social profiles and use friends and family to utilize their networks to promote your services.
You may even have to do some free work to get your name out there, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow, but it does pay off and helps you to build credibility.
What to do instead: Research some blogs that accept guest posts and pitch your article ideas. Once you start making a name for yourself, it’s only a matter of time before you start seeing meaningful traffic on your site. You’ll also need to create some social profiles for your services and promote the heck out of these to just about everyone you know.
Not defining my voice
Chances are, at some point in your life, an English teacher has told you to “find your voice” when writing.
At the time, you probably didn’t realize just how crucial this is, but let me tell you that having a distinct voice goes a long way towards establishing a rapport with your readers.
Just like your actual, audible voice is an important differentiating characteristic, so your writing voice sets you apart from other writers and is, in many respects, an agent of your personality.
What to do instead: Write in a way that feels comfortable for you. Trust me, a voice is something that is developed over time and it’ll take a while before you have really bedded yours down. The best advice I can give you is simply this: write as much as you can. Write blog posts, write emails, write articles for magazines (even they aren’t for publication, pretend that they are!), write opinion pieces and standard operating procedures. Eventually, your unique voice will start to emerge and it will be unlike anyone else’s. That’s a pretty great feeling.
Focusing too much on myself
This is often a killing blow when it comes to writing website copy for one’s freelance undertaking.
We tend to write reams of copy about our capabilities and qualifications, forgetting that people come to our websites looking for a solution to a specific problem and not to be exposed to a showcase of your vocabulary.
What to do instead: If you find yourself starting every sentence with I or I can, stop and reassess what your objective is. A much better way to start a sentence about your capabilities is You’ll benefit in x and y way from my expensive copywriting experience or Quality content is integral to the success of a business.
Put yourself in a potential client’s shoes. Invariably, they are on your website because they need something done. If you appeal to that need instead of vainly promoting your skillset, impressive though it may be, you have a much better chance of snagging a conversion.
Not clearly explaining what it is that I do
“Hey, potential client! We are going to SEO the bleep out of your site to get it high up on those SERPs with high conversion rates and maximum click-through!”
Do you see where I’m going with this? If you are in the web copy or digital marketing industry, chances are you are well-acquainted with the industry jargon and will have no difficulty interpreting these terms and acronyms.
However, to someone not working in these niche fields, you may as well be speaking Klingon. Yes, they could go and Google the terminology, but that just puts another step between you and the client. In addition, that directs them away from your website, which you really don’t want.
What to do instead: Have clear headings and sub-headings for all the services that you offer (web copywriting, copy editing, proofreading, SEO, etc.) and then, under each heading, clearly explain what the service in question entails.
Another way to go about it is to have a glossary of terms living on your website.
In the end, you’ll find what works for you even if it entails some trial and error. You’ll start with a basic representation of your vision, and fine-tune it as you learn and get a feel for what attracts people. The best advice I can give you, and I keep coming back to this, is to write for yourself first and foremost. Write something that you enjoy reading in a style that you are comfortable with, and you won’t go wrong.