How Long Did It Take You to Become a Profitable Commercial Writer?

So, I recently got the following email – similar to many I’ve gotten over the years from what I affectionately refer to as “shortcut-hunters.” Can’t blame them – we all want the path of least resistance as we build our commercial writing practices. He wrote:

I have been working as a freelancer now for a couple of years, and during that time I have pretty lucky in being offered work with little or no marketing effort.

The work has been relatively low-paid, but enough to keep me afloat. I’ve been planning to follow your guidance now for some time, but I have always felt too busy with work and family to extend my reach.

Recently a long-term client told me he’d hired an in-house copywriter and that he’d be in touch if and when the company needed to outsource. This has left me in a serious bind as that work constituted a large part of my income. Today, I’ve been cold-calling per your instructions in TWFW, and called 23 marketing agencies.

I got the usual gatekeeper responses (even when calling between 4:30 and 5:30), and I have been given a lot of email addresses of those in charge of marketing to send along my resume, etc. I’ve emailed them, and given them my website address and resume in some cases, but it feels mostly like I’m wading through mud.

What you recommend should be the course of action for someone like me who is a decent copywriter, but needs work quickly?

My reply:

I wish I could give you some magic solution, but there really isn’t one. If there truly were a shortcut to landing high-paying commercial copywriting work faster than normal, everyone would have figured it out by now, and, on the heels of that, no one would be making any money anymore…

I’m afraid the commercial writing business doesn’t really lend itself to fast ramp-up times to profitability, unless you already have a pretty sizable pool of existing contacts that you can tap.

What you describe (calling 23 agencies and getting people asking for you to send info, but nothing right now) is VERY typical of how prospecting in our business goes. In most cases, one has to make many hundreds of contacts, and then nurture those contacts over time in order for things to ultimately pan out.

As I note in TWFW, any business that can pay the wages commercial freelancing can, is going to take a healthy amount of ramp-up time. You just can’t expect it to happen fast. The only fast jobs in writing are the ones that offer lousy pay.

AND, the more calls you make, the better your chance of finding that client who does need something NOW, but you can’t count on that.

While I felt for him (sorta), my evil, snarky twin wanted to say, “Where did you get the idea that this was an easy business? And hello? One client who makes up a BIG chunk of your work? That’s a crisis waiting to happen. AND (echoing a line from my note above), if it were really that easy to earn $50, $60, $80, $100 an hour, how long would that window last, before the low-ballers entered the ring, and crappy rates became the norm?”

As I’m fond of reminding people, the commercial freelancing field pays well precisely because it’s not easy. It’s a bona fide opportunity precisely because you’ve got to bust your butt, and often for a long period of time before you make decent money, and that there are precious few shortcuts.

It’s precisely because it can take a long time to get profitable, that when it does, it’s likely to be a more enduring profitability. And chances are excellent that’s the case because you got into the right habits early—habits that ultimately led you to healthy profitability. Amazing how that works.

In 1994, it took me four months to hit financial self-sufficiency as a commercial freelancer, which is fast. Though, in all fairness, I’d scaled down my expenses, and hit it very hard. Count on longer these days. Put another way…

Anyone who promises you fast riches as a writer is jerking your chain. Period.

With any luck, this piece and the soon-to-appear comments below will provide a good reality check to those starting out or early on in the business-building process.

How long did it take you to get to comfortable profitability?

What advantages/disadvantages did you feel you had compared to others starting out?

If you made it happen fast, what do you think the key was?

If it took you longer to become profitable, why do you think that was?

Any advice to give to someone starting out?

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16 replies
  1. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    For me, networking was absolutely the way to go. I cold-called for a solid year with almost nothing to show for it. Once I got involved with a few different business networking organizations, the jobs started rolling in. That’s because when you meet with the same group of business owners/reps week in and week out, you can establish referral relationships with them, essentially turning them into your virtual sales team. As they run into other businesspeople with writing needs, they naturally funnel those people to you — and since you’re already vouched for, you’ve leapfrogged the gatekeeper. You also get to hear all sorts of first-hand news about what’s going on in your business community, which never hurts.

    Of course you’re expected to return the favor by seeking referrals for your networking buddies, too. But it feels good to help other folks grow their businesses even as they’re helping you grow yours. Some charge hefty fees, and some don’t, but there are lots of different organizations out there to choose from.

  2. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    I am not so far removed from my early days (latter part of 2008) as a freelancer that I don’t remember what it was like. I have been profitable every year since I started; however, that is not to say I was where I wanted to be.

    Being the clever person I am, I decided to venture out during one of the worst times in our economy. 😉 I struggled the first year but it was more from my mental state at the time. I did make a profit but I was so burned out from a 30-plus-year corporate career, I needed that time more for healing.

    Coming off that corporate career did help me with connections and a lot of resources. LinkedIn was my best friend. As I wrote for a famous copywriter’s newsletter, 😉 about 60% of my clients came as a result of LinkedIn. Either by reconnecting with people I knew or networking through Groups and Answers.

    I steadily increased my earnings to hit top dollars in 2010 and passed that in 2011. So, every year it was going up. Then just to show you never should get too cocky, the bottom dropped out from a series of unforeseen events in 2012 when I lost 3 top clients (think mergers and layoffs). I still did okay mostly because I had already earned in 6 months what I had in the prior year. The loss of the 3 clients happened in the last quarter. It spilled over into 2013 but I did build my income back up.

    Knock on wood, I have been back on track and I can say every new client this year is a result of networking for a long time – some after years of building a business relationship with them.

    I would say if you have the luxury of planning your leap into freelancing, work on building your business relationships . There is a reason you hear over and over that’s it all about relationships. Because it is. And that takes time, sharing, and mutual respect for what each of you bring to the table. Good luck!

  3. Miriam Davis
    Miriam Davis says:

    This is a sobering post for me as I contemplate jumping into the freelance commercial world. I’m still in the creating samples phase (and I have a book project I need to finish before turning to anything else). I have plenty of writing experience but none commercial. I’m coming from a teaching career, so I don’t have any business contacts or industry experience, I live in a relatively small market, and I’m still new to town. I’ve read Peter over and over saying that there are no shortcuts in this business. Fair enough, but given that, is there any advice those of you who are making it can give to someone in my situation? I’m not looking for shortcuts (I’m in the fortunate position of having a husband with a good job), just a realistic appraisal of what I’ll need to do to succeed.

  4. Mike Klassen
    Mike Klassen says:


    When I used to do some coaching with newcomers to freelancing, one of the first questions I’d ask is, “What did you do to make progress today.” Often, there wasn’t anything they’d done. And then they’d wonder why the weren’t making progress. That’s not you, but my first advice would be to make sure you are doing something everyday to move forward.

    For example… do you have your website up? Don’t wait until you’re “really” ready… start on that now.

    But my main advice is looking for places to network with people. Are their any groups that meet nearby? (I once was a guest speaker at one… made connections and got to promote what I do.) Does your local paper or business journal list any events you can attend to network beyond the traditional Chamber of Commerce events. (Those aren’t bad, but many attendees are just there to sell, not buy.)

    I often share the story of a copywriting friend of mine. We live near the U.S./Canada border and there was some get-together to discuss cross-border trade issues. Most everyone there was a business person wanting to sell products in the other country. She was the only writer. She saw the connection…. businesses will need copy written, so that’s a good meeting to go to. That’s how you begin to get contacts and even an education in certain topics.

    The nice thing is, the things that are a “problem” for you now are all in your control. You can start making new business contacts, you can start going to meetings, you can work on your website, you can keep creating your samples.

    I love that you have a teaching career because teaching and working with clients is often a necessity. You already have a skill-set that’s going to serve you well as a writer.

  5. Katherine Swarts
    Katherine Swarts says:

    Google “content mills” or “bid sites” and you’ll find plenty of examples of the “chain-jerkers” referred to in the article. Even after several years of bad publicity from the pro-writers networks, and a couple of major collapses, there’s still no shortage of places that will take any topic or style of freelance article for $10 or $20 per post: easy money, sure, IF you don’t mind writing 4+ articles a day and don’t care about improving your skills or getting credits that will impress the higher payers.

    One thing that’s helped me get down to business recently is to set a firm commitment–and get several people to hold me accountable–to doing marketing FIRST every day, even when I already have paid assignments going. And to do SOMETHING on one major long-term project each work day.

  6. Miriam Davis
    Miriam Davis says:

    Many thanks for your helpful and encouraging reply. I feel better in that I am already doing some of what you suggest – spending a couple of hours a night working on my website, reading about marketing, etc. I will take your advice about networking to heart. I’ve already joined Rotary, which seems a step in the right direction. And, of course, I’ll continue to read Peter’s blog.

  7. Jennifer Mattern
    Jennifer Mattern says:

    I suppose you could say I “cheated” a little bit in that I came from a consulting background before writing full-time (though I freelanced part-time for a few years before that). A lot of the work from my PR firm involved a mix of consulting, PR-oriented writing, and media relations. When I hung up my consulting hat to write full-time, most of my former clients stayed with me for their PR writing work — press releases, pitch letters, media room material, etc. So technically it happened immediately. But of course there’s more to it than that. I’d spent years building the consulting client base before making the switch, and I’d already built a certain reputation and decent visibility among my target clients.

    But even on the consulting side of things, it only took a few months. I tapped my personal network early on — family members, friends, etc. I started in music PR before branching out to small and online businesses. And it was particularly easy because I happened to live in an area where indie music is a big thing in the whole tri-state region and it was almost as if each artist I came into contact with knew pretty much everyone else. It’s a very tight-knit community. If you got in good with a few artists, you were set.

    When I decided to focus more on business clients, things transferred smoothly. I went from working with independent-minded artists to independent-minded (mostly) young entrepreneurs who were excited to be doing new things on the Web. Most didn’t know anything about PR, and they knew little about social media beyond managing a personal account or two. I stepped into the right market at the right time with the right information and the right attitude. It just worked out that way.

    There’s always an element of luck to these things that goes along with the hard work. If you’re lucky with timing and you hit a fresh or under-saturated market, your writing business can take off faster than most. That hard work doesn’t disappear. But get creative. Find a specialty or a marketing angle that makes you stand out and you can skip the common “little fish in a big pond” start to your writing career.

    I’ve seen colleagues go from nothing to five figures per month pretty quickly (in weeks to months). But I’ve also seen far more writers struggle. And the difference is very often their specialty. The ones in narrow and highly-specialized markets, ones in industries that require special education or licenses (think finance, medicine, or legal topics), and writers who have a great deal of corporate experience before freelancing tend to be the ones who earn the most the fastest.

  8. Jennifer Mattern
    Jennifer Mattern says:


    If you live in a small market, consider bypassing it. Focus on non-local clients. That could mean targeting clients in the nearest bigger city or targeting clients all over the world.

    There is a common misconception that overseas businesses can’t afford to pay professional rates for western writers. That’s not true. With an increasingly global economy, it’s becoming more important than ever for international companies to be able to reach English-speaking customers. And they’re willing to pay well if you can get the job done. Just don’t expect to find these clients on bidding sites or classified sites.

    In the 15 years I’ve been freelancing (7 full-time), I would estimate 65-70% of my writing clients come from outside the U.S. It’s extremely rare that I work with anyone even semi-local anymore. Don’t let your location limit you.

    As for not having many connections, just get out there and make them. Attend local business events if you do want to focus on local clients. Get on LinkedIn and start connecting with prospects. Join forums or groups on social networks where you can interact with target clients (I owe a lot of my early success to forums that targeted online business owners). Establish a presence. Share information. When you make yourself a resource to the type of people you want to work with, you’ll build visibility and a reputation with that group, and when they’re ready to hire, they’ll know where to find you.

    One of my most successful early marketing tools was a simple guide. I was an online PR specialist, so I whipped up a short e-book (less than 20 pages) over the course of one weekend. It was a guide on how to write better press releases for the web, with tips on handling online release distribution — something my target clients were very new to at the time. Because that area is so saturated now, if I were doing this now I’d give that e-book away for free. But at the time I charged for it and it brought in a few thousand dollars in direct income fairly quickly.

    At the end of the guide, there was a one-page pitch for my press release writing services. Some colleagues at the time didn’t understand why I’d want to teach potential clients how to do what I do. Why risk losing the freelance income? It’s simple really. I let potential clients see that good press release writing was more difficult than they thought.

    If they couldn’t afford me anyway, there was no harm in letting them go the DIY route. But in many cases, they weren’t happy with their own releases. So even if they couldn’t afford to have me write one from scratch, they’d hire me to edit theirs instead. Others would hire me to build a media distribution list for their DIY release. But more often than not, they’d realize that they needed a pro after all, and they hired me to get the job done (sometimes for the first release and sometimes after their DIY distribution flopped). Even better, the guide helped them understand what they were buying. Combine that with showing them how difficult it can be and it weeded out almost all complaints or attempts to haggle on price.

    These types of guides are still extremely effective tools for landing new clients. And if you’re a teacher, you’re in a great position to educate potential clients in a way that’s easy for them to understand. Use that to your advantage! 🙂

  9. Melzetta "Mele" Williams
    Melzetta "Mele" Williams says:

    Great post, Peter!

    You wondered: “Where did (he) get the idea that this was an easy business?” Over the years, I ‘ve observed these four mentalities:

    1. I chose the wrong marketing technique, so I need to stop and start again
    2. I chose the wrong coach, so I need to stop and start again
    3. I chose the wrong niche or specialty, so I need to stop and start again
    4. Businesses are built faster these days
    5. Something is wrong … with ME

    To be honest, I’ve fallen into one or two of these categories over the years. With the first three, the person focuses more on finding the shiniest object/person that’ll shoot their business into the stratosphere — AND in ten days or less! BTW, I’m not referring to the fruitful process of figuring out your direction (which could ultimately lead to a tool, coach, niche or specialty that’ll work for best for you).

    Number four is more about what I believe is our current add-water-and-mix society. Our schools don’t teach us about the long-haul mentality of building a business, there are too many get-rich fast schemes (and even legitimate business opportunity marketers don’t always tell the truth about what it takes to build that business. Hype-y marketing sells better).

    Even reality shows promote the idea that you can become an instant celebrity with a controversial personality or a penchant for starting fist fights. Pity the “poor fool” who dares to believe she can make it with acting lessons and years of auditioning. (Though, I must admit I enjoy reality shows — brainless activity, a respite from a day of hard work).

    Number five is more of the disorder, where the first four are sort of the symptoms. Some people believe they’re missing they success-personality gene that everyone else in the world possesses. As you once said, Peter, success is “more about a process than a personality.” There’s freedom in that statement.

    We need more people like you, Peter (and the folks on this blog) who’re willing to tell the truth about obtaining success in our business. And yes, the process often involves luck and timing, but as Miriam said, that GOES ALONG with the hard work.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Peter!

  10. Lori
    Lori says:

    You know Peter, some days you’re a breath of fresh air we need desperately and other days you’re just plain brilliant. Today, you’re kind of both.

    You had me here: “Anyone who promises you fast riches as a writer is jerking your chain. Period.”

    Thank you for saying it. I’m so damn tired of seeing offers of “Make $200K writing while sitting in your underwear!” or “Earn millions working just two days a week!” Too many snake-oil salespeople out there are making it hard for beginning writers to know where to turn.

    To your questions:
    I started freelancing full time in 2003. It took about three years to get in my groove, and it all came together the minute I realized marketing was a daily exercise, not a hit-and-miss one.

    My disadvantages starting out were pretty intense; I was a single mom and I’d just been fired. However, the advantages I had were: I saw it coming; I prepared for it by collecting contact info; and I garnered my first assignment the very next week. In other words, I didn’t let dust settle. I moved while I still had contacts who could give me projects. I still work with most of them.

    I think my clearest advantage was I had a specialty, and it was one that few writers wanted. I liked it, and I followed the thread. It’s now what I’m known for.

    I had to make it happen fast. Fear of starvation is a pretty solid motivation. 🙂

    It took me longer to become profitable because it took me a while to realize the marketing angle. Plus, I was too quick to supplement my income with temp work. Another writer friend (Kristen) said “Treat this job like it’s your only option.” That turned it all around for me. I realized I’d been too eager to take temp work instead of putting that effort into my business.

    That would be my advice to someone starting out, too. Treat this job like it’s all you have. You’re the parent and the job is your baby — protect it, nurture it, and help it grow. You have to be active in order to have an active business. Waiting for something to happen will never cut it.

  11. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks to ALL of you brilliant people (and I mean that…)—William, Cathy, Jenn, Katherine, Lori, Mike, and Mele, for your wonderful answers. Miriam, you couldn’t ask for a smarter, more experienced bunch to learn from (and thanks Jenn and Mike for your extended answers to Miriam!).

    Had a feeling this topic would resonate, not least because (as Lori discussed), there’s so much snake oil making the rounds out there about quick riches, that I think it’s exceptionally useful for prospective commercial freelancers to hear from successful folks about what it REALLY takes to be successful. Funny how otherwise intelligent and healthily skeptical people will suspend their critical faculties when they WANT to believe something…

    I’m struck by how many people used networking – and given your situations/circumstances, that makes complete sense. Of course, I didn’t have much/any network to speak of, so cold-calling made sense for me, as it’s the Great Equalizer of prospecting methods. AND, because, as a long-time salesperson, I had zero fear of picking up the phone.

    Thanks, Mike for your “Do something every day” advice. It’s easy to fool yourself with paper-shuffling. AND, know, you probably have to do more than one thing a day if you want to make real progress. Ditto, Katherine, for your similar advice – especially to do marketing when you’re busy with work. NOT easy, but SO important.

    Love your colorful background, Jenn (I’ve heard you speak of it before); thanks for sharing it. A lot of lessons in the places you’ve been and what you’ve done while there.

    Great stuff, Mele – oh, have we all been in all those places… 😉

    Thanks Lori – not sure how brilliant I am, but yes, important to remind us what our mothers told us many times, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is…” Can we change that to “definitely”?

    And LOVE your line you got from Kristen (King, perhaps?) about pretending it’s your only option. Cut off your escape routes…

    When I started in 1994, it was weird how it all unfolded. As most of you’ve probably heard, I was working in a video-dating service in sales, in the late fall of 1993, when I had my epiphany (i.e., “I’m better than this.”). I’d come across Bly’s book on commercial writing a few years earlier, and while I didn’t do anything for a while, in late January 1994, within a few months of my golden moment, I pulled the trigger.

    The key was that ALL roads were leading to this place: commercial writing. It was as if I could visualize my options narrowing slowly yet inexorably to ONE. And once I started, I simply wasn’t going to take no for an answer, because there WAS nothing else. There’s some most welcome clarity in such moments…


  12. Lori
    Lori says:

    King is indeed the Kristen I’m referring to, Peter. 🙂 Her words were what I needed to hear.

    Funny how sometimes the universe just pulls you toward where you’re meant to be without you realizing it, isn’t it? I love your epiphany. That’s the time when we’re ready to take the leap, consequences be damned. 🙂

  13. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    @ Lori: It’s always interesting to look back on a “charmed moment” through the lens of time, and see how far one came since then. And how different one’s life would’ve been had there not have been that somewhat magical confluence. AND, had one not had the “stuff” to seize it and make something of it.

  14. Star
    Star says:

    I freelanced as a reporter and commercial writer for 35 yrs. I was sole support of my family–and I just kept trucking, went down every road and alley. This was the 80s…you could make $500 a story, not $50 or $5 as some of the skeeves offer now. I remember WebMD and CBS–you could pitch half a dozen at $600 and get all assigned. But to get an idea, flesh it, interest an editor, research it, write it, comply with notes and get the check–sometimes of necessity in a month or five weeks–that was a trick. I look back and still don’t know how I did it time and time again. Sometimes, I had regular clients, sometimes here and there clients. But again, the atmosphere was different–people knew how to buy creative services, you got some respect for helping their business, sources also respected journalists and would talk. Now I am back to screenwriting–and wonder how I did THAT for 15 years before my mother got weird. Strangely that business has not changed much, except they are making fewer films. They still won’t acknowledge a query, it’s still hard to get in…

  15. Angie Dixon
    Angie Dixon says:

    I was talking about this basic thing with my dental hygienist last week. She said she admired me for making it as a writer, both because she has never been a good writer and because she’s “heard it’s a hard way to make a living.”

    I said, “Of course it’s a hard way to make a living. Is becoming a dental hygienist an easy way to make a living?” No. “Or becoming a dentist. Or a doctor or a computer programmer or a car salesman.” She nodded.

    There is no easy way to make a living. It takes time to become good at anything and to hit critical mass to make a living at it.

    I hope the guy who wrote you will stick it out, if that’s what he really wants, but he will have to stick it out and put in the work.

    Oh, and yeah–one client? Most of his income?

  16. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Forgive the delay in responding – been doing a lot of traveling!

    Thanks Star, it most certainly is a different writing world these days – one that demands more creativity (and butt-busting) to find the well-paying gigs.

    Love what you wrote here, Angie. There is no easy way to make money, despite endless over-hyped claims to the contrary. And it only takes a few trips around the block to get that. But, hope springs eternal, which means the over-hyped claims will always find a gullible audience.

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