I decided to switch careers and start my freelance copywriting and proofreading business 4 months ago. Losing my job forced my hand, but it was ultimately my choice. I could’ve found another full-time teaching job. But it seemed like time for a change.

I had some expectations of what freelancing would be like. My wife has been working as a freelance translator for almost 2 decades, so I’ve seen how she works. That gave me some clues about how freelancing might work for me—but there are some key differences. There were definitely some surprises.

No surprise—it takes time to build your freelance reputation and business

Freelancing for almost 20 years, my wife is well established in her career. She has contacts and a good reputation in her field. Being brand new to copywriting and trying to spin skills I’ve developed as a teacher has been a challenge. Changing careers a couple of years shy of 50 is tough. I have no practical experience in my newly chosen field, and I’m also too old for most in-house positions. No one wants to hire a middle-aged guy with no practical experience. I don’t agree with that—but I get it.

Biggest surprise as a freelancer? Looking for gigs takes up a lot of time

This was the first surprise—looking for work is time-consuming. Really time-consuming. This is one of the biggest differences between my situation and my wife as a freelancer—finding work. I knew finding work would be a challenge, but I didn’t expect it’d take up as much time as it does. I grossly underestimated the time commitment to this aspect of freelancing.

A picture of lots of colorful clock faces, indicating it takes time to set up a successful English copywriting and English proofreading business

At present, I find work through several freelancing sites. Typically, I browse services required by people and then I place a bid. Like everything in life, you win some and you lose some. It’s a numbers game. I’ve got to place a lot of bids, and if I place enough, I get a few bites.

I have to spend time searching freelancing sites for gigs (as they’re often called) that I have a chance of winning. I then have to send a bid, including a cover letter. I have templates I work from, but each bid has to be tailored. When using templates, you need to be careful to make all the necessary changes—especially when selling your attention to detail!

I often have to complete ‘tasks’ to prove my worth. I currently have a small portfolio, and I always refer clients to my homepage, portfolio, and this blog. I ask them to note the quality of the writing and the absence of typos and grammatical errors. I’m working on one such writing task right now. Researching, writing, editing, and proofreading will take me about 3 hours—unpaid. And there’s no guarantee I’ll get the gig. Such is the life of a beginner freelancer.

My wife is a freelancer, but she works for several different companies that outsource work. She has built up contacts and connections throughout her career. There have been occasional lulls, but for the most part, she has as much work as she wants. She often has to turn work down. I look forward to having that problem—but I don’t see it happening any time soon.

TIL—freelancer is actually secret code for ‘cheap and desperate’ 

Many posts on these sites seem to assume that freelancers will take any job at any rate—and be happy about it. These job posters haven’t considered that many freelancers choose to be freelancers. My hand was forced, but it was still a choice I made (instead of finding another teaching job). Some choose to be freelancers because they enjoy the freedom. Others only need to supplement their income. Yet others want to enjoy time with their families. They are not all desperate people freelancing because it is their only option. 

A vector graphic a old timey hobo on the street  to indicate that freelancers are desperate for any English copywriting or English proofreading gig they can get

I did a little research on the minimum wage in English-speaking countries. I am trying to succeed as a native English-speaking copywriter/proofreader after all. I converted all amounts to US dollars for ease of comparison. Here’s what I found:

Canada: $11.72 / hour ($14.21 Canadian dollars—national average)
UK: $12.58 / hour (£ 8.91)
New Zealand: $14.35 / hour ($20 New Zealand dollars)
Australia: $15.34 / hour ($19.84 Australian dollars)
USA: $7.25 / hour

Average: $12.25 / hour

The first thing that jumped out at me is that the minimum wage in the US is pretty much half that of the other countries. Heck, the minimum wage in Korea is $7.81/hr (₩8,720 won). If you remove the US from the above list, the average jumps to $13.50/hr. 

I also realized most of the posts on these sites are at rates below minimum wage. Almost everyone wants top-quality work for a pittance. Many of the job postings are extremely detailed about expectations. They demand quality, original work, with no grammar or spelling mistakes. Yet they routinely offer rates far below industry standards, and often at less than minimum wage.

A photo of American 5 and 10 dollar bills, representing that $25 dollars is the average wage someone doing English copywriting or English proofreading might receive

According to Salary.com, the average wage for a junior copywriter is $25/hour. ($51,980/year–2,040 hours a year = $25/hour). Jobs are posted daily in the $10–15/hour range that demand years of experience and a proven track record.

You should be paying me for the privilege of writing these articles for my site”

I turned down such a job a few days ago. The client requested I write eight articles between 1,500–2,000 words each, in 10 days. These articles were to compare software tools and awards given for those tools. The stated qualifications were to have SEO knowledge, ‘expert level content writing skills,’ and ‘mastery in the English language.’ Of course, all articles needed to be free of plagiarism and errors.

For the privilege of writing these 12,000–16,000 words, the ‘chosen one’ would receive the grand sum of $104 dollars. That’s total, not per article. That’s to research, write, edit, and proofread 8 articles. Oh, we can’t forget that these freelancing sites all charge a ‘service fee’—usually in the ballpark of 20%. So I would’ve received less than $84. That’s even on the low end for proofreading, never mind content writing.

A picture of a man typing on a laptop, perhaps doing some English copywriting or English proofreading

I would’ve made $10/hr—if I’d researched, written, edited, and proofread one 2,000-word article per hour. I cringe imagining the ‘quality’ of those articles. At 2 hours per article, I’d have made $5/hr—for ‘expert level content writing skill’ and ‘mastery in the English language.’ As I write this, I can see the client has interviewed 8 freelancers, including myself. The job currently remains unfilled.

It’s not all doom and gloom—but you have to dig through the crap

Fortunately, if you dig deep enough, you can find some good clients. I’ve found several. I’ve yet to receive a negative review, and all my clients have been thrilled with my work. You’ve got to wade through the garbage to find the good jobs—but they exist. But again, this process takes a significant amount of time.

I was reading another blog (sorry, I can’t find it for the life of me) that put it this way. If you were remodeling your kitchen, would you hire the cheapest, bottom-of-the-barrel contractor? What kind of quality would you expect from a contractor whose bid was 50% less than the next lowest bid? Guess what? When you do the same with writing, ya can’t expect top-notch results.

A woman sitting on the floor of a room obviously being redecorated. She is holding two paint brushes in a Zen meditation pose. Introduces the idea that if you wouldn't hire a cheap painter, why would you hire the cheapest person you can find to so some English copywriting or English proofreading

On the flip side, there are a lot of unqualified people masquerading as freelancers

Freelancers aren’t the only ones that have to slog through the abyss to find decent clients. Clients have to sift through a plethora of unqualified folks offering services they can’t actually provide. For example, there are a lot of non-native speakers offering English proofreading services. While not impossible, my 25 years as a language educator tells me it’s very unlikely. 

Remember my wife, the freelance translator? When she translates from Korean to English, she gets me to proofread her work. I don’t have to make a lot of changes, but I can always improve on her work. Achieving native-level fluency in a second language is very tough. Native speakers hire proofreaders. What are the chances a second language learner can surpass a native speaker’s command of the language? That they can fix not only grammar mistakes but will also be able to make changes in tone and find the perfect word for the occasion? Only a small percentage of native speakers have what it takes to be proofreaders. It logically follows that the percentage of non-native speakers is even smaller. 

A picture of a man standing next to a first generation PET computer from the eighties used to introduce the idea that most native speakers aren't qualified to do English copywriting or English proofreading tasks

Heck, many of the native speakers on these sites aren’t qualified to offer proofreading services. The quality of the writing in their intros/offers indicates they are not capable of proofreading. And I’m not talking about debating obscure grammar points. I’m referring to misspelled words, confusing there and their, and using awkward word choices. If your own writing is rife with errors, how can you expect to correct someone else’s writing? Sorry, but running someone else’s text through Grammarly doesn’t count as proofreading.

You need to develop your proofreading and writing skills over time. I’ve honed my skills as a proofreader during my time as a teacher and subtitle proofreader. I’m improving my writing with weekly blogs, social media posts, and copywriting projects. Like most things in life, you can’t get better at something without actually doing it.

Likely not limited to copywriting, but…clients often don’t know what they want

When I take on a copywriting project, my first step is to send the client a questionnaire. Their answers allow me to learn about them, their product, and their target audience. Most clients do a great job of providing me with insightful answers—but not all of them. Some give one-word answers or reply with “I don’t know.” 

  • Who is your ideal customer?—Everyone. 
  • How is your product better than similar products?—I don’t know. 
  • What is your primary value proposition?—I’m not sure.
A picture of Boggle dice with the letters I K D, introducing the idea that if you don't know your own business, my English copywriting service won't be of much help

If you don’t know, what kind of magical divination would you suggest I employ when writing your copy? I’ve just met you—via online chat. I’ve never heard of your product. I’m not sure who your target audience is. Sure, I’ll write you an award-winning page that’ll generate more sales than you can imagine. You’ll be able to retire in 6 months. No problem. 

This post has become much longer than initially intended. You’ll have to check back next week to see if I regret my decision to become a freelance copywriter/proofreader. Subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss it!

Fellow freelance copywriters—please share your experiences in the comments!

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