Why Commercial Writers Earn More Than Regular “Freelance Writers”

by Peter Bowerman on December 17, 2013

When I first wrote the original piece noted below, it struck me as a subject on which I’d love to get some feedback from you guys. Look for other such posts (I know, recycling content, but all for a good cause…;)

In the November 2013 Well-Fed E-PUB, my Appetizer course shared a recent client experience that underscored for me why good commercial freelancers generally make a lot more money than regular “freelance writers.” Here’s that piece (adapted and slightly edited)…

Got an email from a client of mine a few weeks back, needing a little editing work on a project her designer was working on for her (i.e., combo brochure/direct mail piece she’d be giving away at trade shows as well as mailing out to prospects).

While I can’t make blanket statements, I’d wager good money that had she simply contacted a “freelance writer”—someone charging quite a bit less than I do—with the same request, she’d have likely gotten just what she’d asked for: edited copy.

However, I took a look at it, and gave her my thoughts: she didn’t need the thing edited. She needed to trash what she had, and start all over again both with the copy and design (and, while she was at it, replace her newbie, “moonlighting-college-student” designer with one of my trusted design partners).

While the existing design was quite creative—a main panel with all sorts of other panels that folded in on it—I looked at it through a far different lens. I listened to what she said she was going to do with it. I looked at what she was selling—a service that needed to have a “case built” for it, and in a logical, sequential fashion.

Her existing copy didn’t begin to build that case (and given the design, the requested editing wouldn’t have allowed me to expand it to do so), nor did the existing design framework even remotely facilitate the proper persuasive unfolding of that “story.”

Doing good copywriting work for her for years has her trust that I know what I’m doing. So when I suggested a totally different layout (still quite creative), new designer, expanded copy and a far higher fee than originally envisioned, she quickly gave the green light.

She’s the ideal client: someone who understands that the ultimate effectiveness of a marketing piece always trumps cost (within reason, of course). So, I’m being paid far more, largely because I’m providing a level of expertise that straight “freelance writers” wouldn’t.

If you know how to write, and even tell a good story, you’ll only be able to command a certain fee (given how many other writers have those same skills), but if you can, indeed, “build that case” for a product/service in a logical, creative way, and can think strategically about copy, and—when necessary, about physical layouts that facilitate that “case-building”—watch your writing income rise.

On this piece, I averaged roughly $120 an hour, not as much as I’d like, but not bad for fun work. And I made more than a regular “freelancer” because I know both how to write AND organize what I write to fit a certain layout (which in this case, I suggested, further increasing my value).

My goal with this post (and hopefully, the ensuing comments) is NOT to discourage non-commercial writers from our business. Anyone can learn, through experience and practice, the craft of good marketing copywriting and the strategic planning side of it. But, I did want to highlight that it IS a different set of skills, and for a businessperson, they’re worth more, and hence worth learning.

And, in all fairness, we commercial copywriters get paid a lot more than regular freelancers, in large part, because the business arena in which we’re operating pays higher rates than say, magazines, newspapers, or content mills.

So, it’s the setting as well as the good skills, but being in the “high-rent” district will only get you so far without the skills.

What do you feel good commercial freelancers bring to the party that regular writers don’t?

Can you share a specific moment/project when you realized you truly had far more marketable skills than the average writer?

Can you share a moment where a business client had an epiphany, as they realized how much more you were able to do for them than a regular writer did/could?

Can you share a moment when your ability to think strategically about copy or layout, set you apart from other writers?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Joseph Ratliff December 17, 2013 at 6:54 pm

Peter,

We earn more, because we bring more value to the table. Not to devalue the skills required to say, write articles for a magazine, or pitching queries etc… of course.

But, a good commercial freelancer gets involved in their client’s business, and “anchors” themselves to that business by finding “spots” where they can write more. They can also drop these “anchors” where they find process-improvement is necessary, by becoming a consultant as an added value.

I know some commercial freelancers who are learning basic design too, so they can bring the whole package themselves in some cases. Or, as you do, partnering WITH those designers… so your connections become value-added to your writing services.

Granted, a “regular” freelancer gets to a point where their sources and skills can help them turn an article or book around in less time, so their hourly rate goes up… but we bring the direct money-making services to the table (at least, in the direct response world).

Ken Mayor December 20, 2013 at 6:52 am

Getting into the industry is quite difficult but once you’re a great freelancer, you can easily achieve your goals ! :)

William Reynolds December 24, 2013 at 10:32 am

I certainly agree with all the points raised so far about the added value of a writer who can serve as a business consultant and strategist as well as a wordsmith. I would add that (good) commercial writing is inherently worth the extra investment simply because of its goal — increasing a company’s sales, brand position and profits!

Lorrie Beauchamp December 24, 2013 at 2:58 pm

There are a lot of confusing terms being bounced around here. First, “freelance” means you are not someone’s employee, you are self-employed. A “commercial” writer is someone who is solicited by and paid by a company, usually to serve their marketing, advertising, PR or internal communications needs. This is different from a fiction or magazine writer, who might need to “pitch” his/her ideas and abilities before getting the job. Some writers are also editors and proofreaders, some are not. Creative copywriting can be worth more than content writing, whether freelance or employee-style. Fiction writers are another breed altogether, and these writers might sacrifice high pay for high exposure to their potential readers. If you’re a commercial writer, chances are you are not concerned with readers. So…. what do you mean by “regular” and “average” writers?

Peter Bowerman December 24, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Thanks all, for weighing in!

Good points, Joseph! And yes, while some commercial writers will learn design, I really suggest people not bother. Not only because it’ll take a LONG time to get anywhere near the skill level of someone who’s been at 10-15 years, but just as (if not more) importantly because when you partner with designers, they become bird-dogs for you, and will, over time, end up steering a ton of work to you. You lose that golden pipeline by trying to do it yourself. But, to each his own, I suppose…

Agreed, William – all those things that our work can accomplish drive up the value we bring. Add to that the fact that, when a company’s rivals are covering all their marketing communications bases, you have no choice but to follow suit. So, yes, the stakes are higher in our world, which is why more money gets earmarked for folks like us.

Thanks for your comments, Lorrie. Probably a good reminder to be clearer when I post!

AND, if you’re new here, you may not realize that my site and this blog are SOLELY focused on and targeted to freelance commercial writing and its practitioners. It’s definitely not a general “freelance writing” site covering all genres of writing.

As such, most of the regular visitors know that. So, by “regular writers,” or “average writers” (should have probably said “typical” instead of “average” since that sounds more like a skill level…). I mean a freelancer trying to make it primarily by writing articles (for magazines, newspapers or content mills).

PB

Columba Lisa Smith December 28, 2013 at 6:14 pm

I’m planning to begin freelance commercial writing in 2014. I’ve been reading TWFW. I am concerned that I don’t have the skills needed, after reading this post. I’m a good writer, but know very little about marketing and business strategy. I gathered from the book, so far, that any good writer can learn it, but this post seems to indicate otherwise. How can I possibly compete with PR people who’ve been doing this for years? Do I need to go back to school to make this work?

Peter Bowerman December 28, 2013 at 6:40 pm

Hey Columba (or is it Lisa?),

Good questions!

Would you better off with some marketing background or PR background? Sure. Will you fail without it? Absolutely not. Remember, I had no writing background when I started out, so one could argue that that’s as big a liability.

Plenty of people who make a go of this don’t hail from 10-15-20 years of those backgrounds. And yes, those who do have an easier go of it. That’s life. You can either hear that and decide to not bother or just know you’ll have to work a bit harder.

Let’s dissect the term “marketing strategy” for a moment. To the uninitiated, it may seem like some esoteric, arcane science, but it’s really not that terribly difficult to figure out. No, it won’t be second nature out of the gate (like it certainly wasn’t second nature out of the gate for me when I started out), but like anything, you learn by doing.

And every project and every success gives you more confidence AND more tools on which to draw for the next one.

And if you DO have good writing skills, I maintain that learning the sales/marketing part isn’t that hard. Not to mention vastly preferable to being experienced in sales and marketing, but being a mediocre writer. You can’t learn to be a great writer nearly as quickly as you can get the marketing chops under your belt.

I think that’s sort of the secret of our business – it’s not that hard to learn those marketing chops. Yet, so many freelancers think it is, so they stay in the writing bargain basement, where they’re surrounded by countless other writers with interchangeable skills. The result? Crappy wages.

Will you have to read some books and do some study? Yes. Will you need to go back to school? No. Remember, SO many of the clients for whom you’ll be working also struggle with this stuff. Seriously. Can any of you out there back me up on this? We so often put commercial writing clients on a pedestal as being so much smarter than us. And many aren’t.

I’ll be announcing my next Well-Fed Group Coaching series soon. No pressure (I’ve filled up the previous 10 series with little trouble, and I’m sure I’ll do it again), but I suspect that it might resonate with you and where you are. Check it out!

PB

Columba Lisa Smith December 29, 2013 at 10:38 pm

Thank you, Peter! That’s very helpful. Can you recommend some books about marketing, please? I’ll keep the coaching series in mind.
-Lisa

Star January 6, 2014 at 12:20 pm

I did both–magazine/newspaper and commercial. I learned commercial on the job, for the most part. There are ins and outs to direct response you can learn from a book–and should. Things like break pages in the middle of a sentence beginning with “You,” which you can also ignore if you want to. Basically the commercial part is client relations–when to advise them to toss a piece like Peter did. When things can be massaged. One guy, I remember, thought his direct mail piece would pull 50%. I kept saying, well…no…. but he insisted and of course, was mad at me later for only pulling 4%. My rule over the years became say things once, maybe twice–if they don’t want to, do what they want. The key is to think in terms of the client at all times…their best wishes, if not their best interests. I also did no design–I would tell people “different sides of the brain.”

Liz Morley LLC February 23, 2014 at 8:17 pm

CLS : I have several good books on marketing, that are subject-specific. As far as authors, I recommend Dan Kennedy.

Before you read anything about social media marketing, I strongly suggest reading Mendelson’s “Social Media is B***S***.” (Good book, questionable title.)

Columba Lisa Smith February 23, 2014 at 10:40 pm

I am finishing up The Copywriter’s Handbook by Robert Bly. I’m interested in white papers, so I think I’ll read up on those next. I’ll look up Dan Kennedy, too, and the Mendelson book. Thanks so much for suggesting those!

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