“You know nothing, Jon Snow.” What could I know about freelance copywriting with less than 12 months’ experience? Hell—I was teaching English 12 months ago and wasn’t even sure what a copywriter was!

Well, let me tell you—desperation can light a fire under your ass. In the first few months after being let go from my job of 17 years, I opted for a career change. A career I had zero experience in. I had a lot to learn—and had to learn quickly. And I did.

In those first few months, I consumed everything I could about copywriting. I read blogs and books. I perused online forums and groups. I took online courses and practiced my new craft as best I could. I had to figure out this new career so I could get back to helping support my family.

What’s the first thing you learn about experienced copywriters online?

It didn’t take me long to notice a pattern. Many of the well-known copywriters online, who show up on the first page of Google search results, are predictable. They start off offering you some freebies—just enough to entice you. They’re very supportive. 

A black and white photo of two young children walking down a country road, one with their arm around the other.

They promise that anyone can become a copywriter with practice and determination. In addition to their free stuff, they have even better stuff for devoted students—but you’re gonna have to pay.

If you take a moment and step back, you’ll realize they’re marketing to you. They’re not your friend. They’re not doing this out of the kindness of their heart. 

They’re trying to make a living. And who could blame them? Creating a decent online course that people are willing to buy takes a lot of time and effort. And once it’s set up, it’s a pretty solid revenue stream—with minimal upkeep. 

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered creating a similar course for Korean students—English for copywriters. After all, my expertise lies in teaching—it’s what I know. Who knows? When I’ve learned a bit more, I may actually do that in a few years. 

When I started teaching English, I was already fluent in English. But during those first few years, with no training, I was a horrible teacher. I tried hard, but I had a lot to learn about teaching. Now, I’m a decent teacher, but I’ve got me a bit o’ learning about copywriting to do first before I can start teaching it. 😉 

After you register and download your free resources, your inbox becomes more active. It fills up with newsletters, more resources, and deals on paid content. 

Picture of a man wearing sunglasses, holding several one hundred dollar bills in a fan shape.

The emails are personal and casual. They’re empathetic. “I was once where you are now.” They promise great fortunes. “I now make several thousand dollars a month, and I only work 3 hours a day.”

Who wouldn’t want that? And if anyone can become a copywriter, what’s stopping me?

My suggestion? Take what you can from the websites, the materials, and the courses. But you’ll learn a lot more by studying the emails and posts that make you want to buy from these copywriters. They’re connecting with you and drawing you in. Study that.

How are they appealing to you? What is it in their emails and blog posts that make you want to give them your money? There’s lots to learn. And most of these copywriters are successful for a reason—they’re good at what they do. 

They may or may not be good at sharing their knowledge and teaching you how they do what they do. Not everyone who speaks English can teach it. But by virtue of the fact they have successful online copywriting courses means they are likely decent copywriters.

I picture of a laptop, with the text "Everything you need to start an online store and sell online" visible on the screen.

And here’s a pro tip—courses on sites like Udemy and Domestika vary widely in quality. Some are great, but many aren’t. Don’t only go for the top-rated course. Look at the total number of reviews. Ideally, you want to find a course with a high rating and lots of positive reviews.

You should also check out the forums associated with these courses when possible. Look for activity—not from users but the instructor. Lots of students asking for feedback, but no replies could be a red flag. 

Two screenshots of website banners announcing that sales will end soon.

Oh, and never buy a course at full price. One of the ways many of these online learning sites get you to buy is by offering massive discounts. Or what seems like an unbelievable discount. Courses that go for over $100 are suddenly on sale for $15—how could you pass that up? Pssst…$15 is the actual price. There are sales every few weeks. Just be patient.

I know you’re excited about your new career—but ignore the hype

I didn’t choose copywriting because I wanted to get rich quick. I picked it as a career I could transition to and continue to do for the foreseeable future. Copywriting wasn’t a quick fix—it’s a long-term plan. 

An image of someone drawing a chart with the terms Short Term and Long Term.

As mentioned before, in these online courses, the instructor claims a few years ago, “I was just like you.” But now they have regular clients and only work with people they want to. And when current clients refuse to accept their rate increases, that’s okay. They’ve got a list of clients dying to work with them.

And to be clear, I’m not calling anyone a liar. This may be 100% true. But I also believe this to be the exception, not the norm. How many careers are there out there where this is true? Where you can make thousands of dollars a month, work twenty hours a week, with no prior experience—after only a year or two?

I see a lot of new copywriters online who are already “experts”

I’ve spent a fair amount of time online reading forums and posts by people in similar shoes as mine. They’re just starting out on their copywriting journeys as well. But they seem very confident about several absolutes.

  1. Copywriters should never work for free—it undermines yourself and the industry.
  2. Copywriters should never have to complete tasks to get a gig—that’s what portfolios are for.
  3. Copywriters should never accept lower rates—know your worth.

Well, those “rules” may work for some. But I’ve broken them all on my way to achieving top rated plus status on Upwork in under eight months. What does that mean? 

A screenshot of the Upwork profile for Dean C., owner of DC CopyPro.

To earn a Top Rated Plus badge, you must display proven success on large or long-term contracts. You will have built a strong reputation on Upwork by getting positive feedback time after time, including work on high-value contracts. If you become Top Rated Plus, you will represent the top 3% of performers on Upwork. You worked hard to get here, so we want to help you show it off.

To qualify for the Top Rated Plus badge, you must:

Have earned and maintained Top Rated status
Have $10k+ in total earnings over the past 12 months ($20k+ in total earnings over the last 12 months for agencies)
—Have worked or are working on one or more large contracts in the past 12 months without negative outcomes

Upwork

Never work for free

I achieved this status by breaking all three rules. Starting out, I did two big projects—for free. I helped a friend rewrite his website. It turned out to be a bigger project than I expected. But that in and of itself was a good lesson. 

It also gave me a chance to put into practice all the things I’d been learning. Theory is great, but there’s no better teacher than getting your hands dirty. Completing that free task was a lot of work, but I treated it like I would have had I been getting paid. 

I learned a lot about the challenge of remembering and implementing all the things I’d been learning. I also got a much better idea of how long specific tasks would take, especially as a beginner.

I also helped another friend with a landing page and his monthly email. This gave me another chance to practice my skills—but in a slightly different way. It was also yet another opportunity for me to go through the process of what I’d been studying. To be successful, you’ve got to apply the theory you’re learning.

A picture of a tablet, with Online Marketing across the top, showing a flowchart with headings SEO, content and lists.

I’m glad I did those two jobs for free. They were both invaluable learning experiences. Going through the process and learning what worked (and what didn’t) helped me better prepare for future paid gigs.

Never complete a sample task to get a gig

I had to complete a task for both gigs I currently have on Upwork. They didn’t require days of work, but I did invest hours in those tasks. The “experts” believe completing such tasks are “below” you. Your portfolio should speak for your ability. I’m sure their objections are also tinged with the “never work for free” mantra too. 

There are some agencies that set tasks as part of the interview process. Then they surreptitiously use the work submitted without having to pay for it. My wife has seen this happen in the translation industry. I don’t deny that this happens. But the tasks I completed stated my work would only be used for evaluation purposes. I had (and still have) no reason to doubt that. 

If you’re getting bad vibes and think an interview task is disguised as an agency trying to get free work—trust your judgement. But if you believe every agency/client on Upwork is doing that, you’re either paranoid or lazy.

If I had refused to do those tasks, I wouldn’t have the two great clients I do. I wouldn’t have gotten some of the other gigs I had before landing these two clients, either. I’m not so proud that I see those tasks as beneath me.

I picture of a chef plating some food.

If you were hiring a chef for your restaurant, would you hire them having never tasted their food? Online reviews and years of experience carry lots of weight. But there’s nothing like actually sampling the person’s cooking. As a teacher, I’ve had to do demo classes as part of the interview process more than once. It’s not that uncommon.

Besides, have you looked at some of these freelancing sites? Yes, there are lots of cheap, lousy clients out there. But there are also lots of unqualified freelancers. Freelancers claiming they can provide services they actually can’t. I’ve written about people claiming to be proofreaders, yet their ads and websites are riddled with errors.

When I interviewed for one of the positions I have now, I was completely upfront with them. I stressed that though I was confident in my ability, I had minimal practical experience. In fact, when the interview was over, I felt like I may have blown it. I worried I may have overemphasized my lack of experience.

A picture of a man conducting an interview with a woman via video conference.

After I got the job, I asked one of the writers why they hired me, despite my lack of experience. She told me that my writing task was strong and I had the right attitude for the position. I may not have been the most experienced or qualified candidate, but I was the right fit for the team—with a solid writing base.

Never accept offers below the industry standard

Starting out on sites like Upwork, I took jobs that likely paid too little. The average hourly rate for a junior copywriter in the US appears to be $20–25/hr. Some of the first jobs I took were for $10/hour. Why? 

I needed experience. I needed to show I could complete tasks. I needed to get some ratings from clients on Upwork. Like most things in life, gaining some initial momentum is a challenge. I just wanted to get things moving.

Would I love to be making the $50 (or more) an hour or so many online copywriters claim to be making? Of course! And maybe I’ll get there one day. But I’ve been doing this for less than a year. 

I’ve learned a lot in the past eight months—and I’m still learning every day. I’m much better at this job than when I started less than a year ago. I can only imagine how much better I’ll be in another year. 

A picture of a blue sky with white scattered white clouds, with a straight road heading off into the distance, with the word 'success' written on the road.

My path to success won’t be for everyone. And there will be some that follow those three rules strictly. Call me old fashioned, but I still believe you need to put in the work and prove yourself. 

Is it true that anyone can become a copywriter?

You know what? I don’t think it’s hard to learn the basics of copywriting. With a little hard work and some studying, pretty much anyone can produce some acceptable copywriting. And having decent grammar and attention to detail doesn’t hurt. 

Everything I’ve studied and learned about copywriting makes sense to me. The trick is remembering everything you’ve learned while trying to apply it. Something that requires lots and lots of practice.

As the copywriters selling their courses online claim, you don’t need to be an eloquent writer, spouting lines of flowing prose to be a copywriter. But as a proofreader, I’d like to see a little more attention to detail from some of the copywriters out there. I’ve lost count of the glaring typos and grammar spelling errors I’ve encountered in some of these online courses and materials.

But learning the basics and being a great copywriter are two very different things. And though I feel I understand the basics of copywriting, I know I’ve got a lot more to learn. I need to practice a lot more before I have a chance of becoming a great copywriter. 

I’m always amazed at how one of my clients can tighten up and improve an email draft I’ve submitted. With a few simple edits, the email better conveys the message and flows more smoothly. He does this with such apparent ease. But then again, he’s been doing this a lot longer than I have. He’s put in the reps—and it shows.

Have you successfully transitioned to a new career? How did you do it? Or have you found success as a freelance copywriter? How was your journey different than mine? Drop a comment below and let me know!

3 thoughts on “How I’ve learned to succeed as a freelance copywriter in under a year

  1. Oh yeah. I’ve always had issues with the ‘don’t work for free’ or ‘don’t accept low-paying gigs’ schools of thought. I had secured well-paying gigs through my low-paying projects, and I’d worked on said projects because I enjoyed them.
    All these entitled writers thinking they’re special really do irk me sometimes. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    1. Hey Stuart,

      Glad you enjoyed the post—and thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I don’t see anything wrong with having to prove yourself, especially when you’re just starting out. Might be a little different when you’ve got +20 years of experience under your belt and a proven track record, but starting out, you’re gonna have to work your way through the trenches. Like yourself, I only have the great gigs I do now because I did the grunt work.

      Great to hear from you!

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