The 3 Stages of a Copywriter’s Life

by Ryan M. Healy on April 8, 2008

I have been a freelance copywriter for almost three years now. The 3-year anniversary of my start in the freelance world will be June 13, 2008.

As I’ve reflected on my short career (and the careers of others), I’ve recognized three distinct stages in a copywriter’s life. They go something like this…

Stage 1: “If I could just replace my income…”

In Stage 1, the freelance copywriter is mostly concerned with replacing his income. Of course, he wants to make a lot of money; that’s one reason he became a freelance copywriter in the first place.

But the big income is a long-term goal. In the short-term, he wants to be able to get paid to write while suffering no loss of lifestyle. Basically, he wants to make as much as he did in his last job.

Many copywriters never fully achieve Stage 1. In which case, they are either forced into another career or back into a job. If they do fully achieve Stage 1, then they are not far from Stage 2.

Stage 2: “If I could just crack the six-figure mark…”

After a copywriter has some projects in the bag and some testimonials rolling in, his next aspiration is the six-figure mark. He thinks he would be happy if he could make a hundred grand or more a year in copywriting fees.

In a way, the long-term goal in Stage 1 becomes the short-term goal in Stage 2. He has already successfully replaced his income, and earning six figures a year is the next natural target.

To achieve this goal, a copywriter must either raise his fees or take on more projects. Usually, a copywriter will do both. It’s a classic case of earning more while working more.

It’s also a classic recipe for burn-out.

Stage 3: “If I have to write one more sales letter, I swear I’ll…”

As a copywriter, it’s easy to get jaded. You see all the sales pitches, and then some. You witness what goes on behind the scenes. You realize there’s a lot of shady stuff that happens in sales and marketing.

And eventually you see sales and marketing for what it is: giving people what they want, even if what they want is not necessarily in their best interest.

Instead of finding joy in all projects (as you might in Stage 1), the Stage 3 copywriter finds joy in only a select few of the most profitable and most interesting projects. He resents any project he feels compelled to take out of obligation. And he longs for the day when he can stop trading hours for dollars.

Some people have asked me, why is it so hard to find a good copywriter?

That’s because it takes just as much time for a copywriter to get really good as it does for him to become disillusioned with being a full-time freelance copywriter. It is at this point he decides to strictly limit the number of projects he accepts and begin writing copy for himself.

Q: Who makes more money? The copywriter or the person hiring the copywriter?

A: Generally speaking, it’s the person doing the hiring.

Q: What did Claude Hopkins say was the biggest mistake he ever made?

A: Not going into business for himself.

Most freelance copywriters eventually figure this stuff out, take themselves off the market, and finally start earning more while working less. Which happens to be an excellent recipe for happiness and long-term success sans the burn-out.

-Ryan M. Healy

About Ryan M. Healy

is a direct response copywriter. Since 2002, he has worked with scores of clients, including Agora Financial, Lombardi Publishing, and Contrarian Profits. He writes a popular blog about copywriting, advertising, and business growth, has been featured in publications like Feed Front magazine, and has been published on sites like WordStream.com, SmallBizClub.com, and MarketingForSuccess.com.


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{ 30 comments }

Jason Leister April 8, 2008 at 3:01 pm

Good post Ryan. You really hit the nail on the head with this one. It’s funny, you can read about this whole idea till you’re blue in the face.

But for some reason, it seems that every copywriter still has to make the journey for himself.

From stage 1, to stage 2 to 3 and beyond if they choose to go there…

Of course most eventually come to the same conclusions you mention here, there’s just something about “living it” that makes it real.

Good job.

Jason Leister April 8, 2008 at 8:01 am

Good post Ryan. You really hit the nail on the head with this one. It’s funny, you can read about this whole idea till you’re blue in the face.

But for some reason, it seems that every copywriter still has to make the journey for himself.

From stage 1, to stage 2 to 3 and beyond if they choose to go there…

Of course most eventually come to the same conclusions you mention here, there’s just something about “living it” that makes it real.

Good job.

Ryan M. Healy April 8, 2008 at 3:22 pm

I agree, Jason. Every copywriter has to experience it for himself. And just because Stage 2 often ends in burn-out, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start the journey or that the journey isn’t worth it. It is!

Ryan M. Healy April 8, 2008 at 8:22 am

I agree, Jason. Every copywriter has to experience it for himself. And just because Stage 2 often ends in burn-out, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start the journey or that the journey isn’t worth it. It is!

Tamara Hanson April 8, 2008 at 1:29 pm

If you want it bad enough, you just keep going, thinking of new ways to get out there. It’s certainly not a get-rich-quick sort of thing. I love writing and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.

Andrew Cavanagh April 8, 2008 at 10:42 pm

I think as a copywriter it’s important to remind yourself of what a life of leisure freelance copywriting really is compared to other jobs or professions.

You get to work your own hours at home or in an office if you want.

Once you have some skill you get to choose most of your clients.

And it’s hardly back breaking work (try digging ditches for a living).

And it pays well…really well.

You’re spot on about writing copy for yourself and building your own business though.

Most copywriters will work that one out eventually.

Kindest regards,
Andrew Cavanagh

Andrew Cavanagh April 8, 2008 at 3:42 pm

I think as a copywriter it’s important to remind yourself of what a life of leisure freelance copywriting really is compared to other jobs or professions.

You get to work your own hours at home or in an office if you want.

Once you have some skill you get to choose most of your clients.

And it’s hardly back breaking work (try digging ditches for a living).

And it pays well…really well.

You’re spot on about writing copy for yourself and building your own business though.

Most copywriters will work that one out eventually.

Kindest regards,
Andrew Cavanagh

Shel Horowitz April 9, 2008 at 1:31 am

Congrats on your 3-year anniversary, Ryan. Gosh, I feel old when I think that I had my first bylined article in 1972 (still in high school) my first piece of marketing copy in 1974, and the first of my seven books in 1980.

_____
Shel Horowitz, copywriter and award-winning author of five marketing books Blogging on the intersections of ethics, marketing, media, sustainability, and politics: http://www.principledprofit.com/good-business-blog/

Shel Horowitz April 8, 2008 at 6:31 pm

Congrats on your 3-year anniversary, Ryan. Gosh, I feel old when I think that I had my first bylined article in 1972 (still in high school) my first piece of marketing copy in 1974, and the first of my seven books in 1980.

_____
Shel Horowitz, copywriter and award-winning author of five marketing books Blogging on the intersections of ethics, marketing, media, sustainability, and politics: http://www.principledprofit.com/good-business-blog/

Michael Beck April 9, 2008 at 1:47 am

So this brings the question:
If you were to start over again, and you had your copywriting knowledge, which would you focus on, your own products or client work?

I asked this of one of your copywriting colleagues, he said without a doubt internet marketing. He is fully time copywriter at the moment.

Michael Beck April 8, 2008 at 6:47 pm

So this brings the question:
If you were to start over again, and you had your copywriting knowledge, which would you focus on, your own products or client work?

I asked this of one of your copywriting colleagues, he said without a doubt internet marketing. He is fully time copywriter at the moment.

Joseph Ratliff April 8, 2008 at 7:18 pm

Ryan,

This 3-stage process is right on.

But examining how that three stage process could be taking the next wave of hot copywriters off the market?

Hmmm…could be another post :)

Tamara Hanson April 8, 2008 at 8:29 pm

If you want it bad enough, you just keep going, thinking of new ways to get out there. It’s certainly not a get-rich-quick sort of thing. I love writing and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.

Joseph Ratliff April 9, 2008 at 2:18 am

Ryan,

This 3-stage process is right on.

But examining how that three stage process could be taking the next wave of hot copywriters off the market?

Hmmm…could be another post :)

Ryan M. Healy April 9, 2008 at 10:46 pm

Tamara – You have a healthy outlook. Keep going and you’ll do well.

Andrew – I agree with you: copywriting is a great profession. I’m grateful for the flexibility it affords me.

Shel – Thank you!

Michael – It’s a great question, and it probably deserves more than a short reply.

My answer: yes, I’d still focus on the client side. I wanted to learn copywriting inside and out, and I figured working with clients was the best way to do it. Plus, my circumstances at the time didn’t allow me to gradually ease into information marketing.

Joseph – Perhaps, perhaps… ;-)

Ryan M. Healy April 9, 2008 at 3:46 pm

Tamara – You have a healthy outlook. Keep going and you’ll do well.

Andrew – I agree with you: copywriting is a great profession. I’m grateful for the flexibility it affords me.

Shel – Thank you!

Michael – It’s a great question, and it probably deserves more than a short reply.

My answer: yes, I’d still focus on the client side. I wanted to learn copywriting inside and out, and I figured working with clients was the best way to do it. Plus, my circumstances at the time didn’t allow me to gradually ease into information marketing.

Joseph – Perhaps, perhaps… ;-)

Chris Mole June 9, 2008 at 10:46 pm

Ryan, I’ve just stumbled across your blog and read this post. I am a copywriter and web designer and I am at Stage 3 …. approaching burnout from too much work and wondering how I can get my life back.

I am making a six-figure income by working about 70 hours a week. Every time I get another inquiry I groan inwardly.

I started out freelancing in April 2004. The first year was fantastic, I loved every job and put my heart and soul into it. It really wasn’t until about a year ago that things got really busy. I’ve barely had a day off since then.

I can certainly identify with your 3 Stages :-)

Chris

Chris Mole June 9, 2008 at 3:46 pm

Ryan, I’ve just stumbled across your blog and read this post. I am a copywriter and web designer and I am at Stage 3 …. approaching burnout from too much work and wondering how I can get my life back.

I am making a six-figure income by working about 70 hours a week. Every time I get another inquiry I groan inwardly.

I started out freelancing in April 2004. The first year was fantastic, I loved every job and put my heart and soul into it. It really wasn’t until about a year ago that things got really busy. I’ve barely had a day off since then.

I can certainly identify with your 3 Stages :-)

Chris

Ryan M. Healy June 9, 2008 at 4:04 pm

Hey Chris –

Thanks for dropping in.

I’ve approached Stage 3 on a few separate occasions.

I’ve never actually become totally burnt out because I only work 35-40 hours a week, max.

Plus, I really love writing.

And I take frequent “mini-vacations.” In fact, I just got back from a three-day bicycling trip in the mountains of southern Colorado.

One idea for you:

Transform one or more of your fee-only relationships into a percentage share of the profits.

It’s always more exciting to do client work when you know you can increase your income.

Hope to see you around more often.

Ryan

Ryan M. Healy June 9, 2008 at 11:04 pm

Hey Chris –

Thanks for dropping in.

I’ve approached Stage 3 on a few separate occasions.

I’ve never actually become totally burnt out because I only work 35-40 hours a week, max.

Plus, I really love writing.

And I take frequent “mini-vacations.” In fact, I just got back from a three-day bicycling trip in the mountains of southern Colorado.

One idea for you:

Transform one or more of your fee-only relationships into a percentage share of the profits.

It’s always more exciting to do client work when you know you can increase your income.

Hope to see you around more often.

Ryan

Chris Mole June 11, 2008 at 7:04 am

Thanks Ryan,

Yes I have a couple of clients that could become more of a profit-sharing deal. And I think it’s great that you are only working 35 to 40 hours a week. That’s my goal over the next year.

I’ve bookmarked your blog so will drop by regularly.

Chris Mole June 11, 2008 at 12:04 am

Thanks Ryan,

Yes I have a couple of clients that could become more of a profit-sharing deal. And I think it’s great that you are only working 35 to 40 hours a week. That’s my goal over the next year.

I’ve bookmarked your blog so will drop by regularly.

Joseph Ratliff November 14, 2008 at 12:08 pm

Coming back to this post Ryan, has placed me right at the end of stage 2…and feeling stage 3 coming on. :)

It was a good read (again).

Joe

Joseph Ratliff November 14, 2008 at 7:08 pm

Coming back to this post Ryan, has placed me right at the end of stage 2…and feeling stage 3 coming on. :)

It was a good read (again).

Joe

Ryan M. Healy March 27, 2009 at 10:10 pm

@Joe – So that was November 2008 and it’s now late March 2009. Have you hit Stage 3 yet?

Ryan

Ryan M. Healy March 27, 2009 at 3:10 pm

@Joe – So that was November 2008 and it’s now late March 2009. Have you hit Stage 3 yet?

Ryan

Joseph Ratliff April 28, 2009 at 7:34 pm

Ryan,

Coming back to this post (the 3rd time…) has me bouncing between stage 2 and 3 and back…

I love the industry of copywriting, but love internet marketing even more…and although they are tied together…it’s interesting.

Joseph Ratliff April 28, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Ryan,

Coming back to this post (the 3rd time…) has me bouncing between stage 2 and 3 and back…

I love the industry of copywriting, but love internet marketing even more…and although they are tied together…it’s interesting.

Doberman Dan January 19, 2010 at 8:03 pm

Ryan,

You nailed this one. Good job.

I had the good fortune of starting my copywriting career as a mail order business owner. I couldn't afford to hire a copywriter so I had to learn how to become one.

That was a great experience. When my own money was on the line for an ad or direct mailing I HAD to learn how to write good copy or risk going broke.

After many years of only writing copy for my own businesses I thought freelancing sounded really sexy. I only had to focus on writing copy for other people and they take care of all the business details. That was fun for a while, too.

Then I got burned out on client work and went back to exclusively running my own direct response/online business.

Then I got burned out on only writing copy for the market I'm in. So just this year I started taking some client work again so I could research and write for other markets to have a little variety. I've found that has been a big help in avoiding that “Oh crap, I gotta write another sales letter” thing. Variety.

Even if you're not interested in running a business, I suggest all copywriters create a report or info product, write the copy for it and start selling it in direct mail, space ads and online.

You'll learn a lot about direct response marketing which will make you a better copywriter… and GREATLY increase your value (and fees!) to your clients.

And you'll also have another income stream.

And frankly, if you can't create your own product, write the copy for it and sell it… you're not much of a copywriter and have no business taking a client's money.

Just my humble (but accurate) opinion. :)

Best,
Dan

Doberman Dan January 20, 2010 at 3:03 am

Ryan,

You nailed this one. Good job.

I had the good fortune of starting my copywriting career as a mail order business owner. I couldn't afford to hire a copywriter so I had to learn how to become one.

That was a great experience. When my own money was on the line for an ad or direct mailing I HAD to learn how to write good copy or risk going broke.

After many years of only writing copy for my own businesses I thought freelancing sounded really sexy. I only had to focus on writing copy for other people and they take care of all the business details. That was fun for a while, too.

Then I got burned out on client work and went back to exclusively running my own direct response/online business.

Then I got burned out on only writing copy for the market I'm in. So just this year I started taking some client work again so I could research and write for other markets to have a little variety. I've found that has been a big help in avoiding that “Oh crap, I gotta write another sales letter” thing. Variety.

Even if you're not interested in running a business, I suggest all copywriters create a report or info product, write the copy for it and start selling it in direct mail, space ads and online.

You'll learn a lot about direct response marketing which will make you a better copywriter… and GREATLY increase your value (and fees!) to your clients.

And you'll also have another income stream.

And frankly, if you can't create your own product, write the copy for it and sell it… you're not much of a copywriter and have no business taking a client's money.

Just my humble (but accurate) opinion. :)

Best,
Dan

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