Red Flags to Avoid When Starting Out as a Freelance Copywriter

By Cynthia Maldonado on September 18, 2023

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Four red flags on a poles.

Red is my favourite colour.

From the shade of lipstick to the flavour of candy, my love affair with all things red is apparent in several aspects of my life. It may sound strange, but simply seeing the colour can shift my mood entirely. I believe it’s because of what it symbolizes for me. It represents boldness, intensity, drama, warmth, and fire. In short, it represents me.

Apparently, it also means STOP!

While I adopt this mentality when driving (I do not run red lights or stop signs- I promise!), I can firmly say it does not extend to the rest of my life. For starters, I rarely meet a red flag I don’t run towards with insatiable curiosity. I tend to view what many see as a warning as an invitation. Danger, you say? Looks more like an adventure to me.

Anyway, that’s enough about my dating life; let’s get back on track here.

In the name of personal growth and sanity, I consciously shifted my approach to red flags regarding my career. I did my research, consulted working copywriters, and devoured any information I could find on the topic. With the help of advice and a little bit of personal exposure, I developed a list of warning signs to look out for when entering the freelancing world.

And so, here is that list of fiery red flags I tried to avoid as a beginning freelance copywriter – and suggest you do, too.

Unpaid Work

Many may think this goes without saying, but that’s not the case. It is all too common for clients to ask for work to be completed as part of an unpaid test. I am not saying to NEVER agree to this; I am simply saying to pause and make an informed decision. While unpaid tests can be done in good faith and lead to great opportunities, they can also be SHADY AS ALL HECK. Take the time to consider the scope of the work being asked of you and research the client. Unfortunately, several reported cases exist of people using the copy from unpaid tests for their businesses without ever having to provide proper compensation.  

While we are on the topic of highly exploitative practices, let’s dive into another one.

Job Postings That Offer Peanuts

As I would happily accept a lifetime supply of peanuts as payment for my writing, I need to clarify that I mean this figuratively. Sites such as Upwork and Fiverr can be highly beneficial for a freelancer. They can also be a breeding ground for exploitation. With high competition and no legal requirements for clients to meet minimum wage, many people take advantage of those in need of work. Many job listings pay well below a livable wage, and while a new copywriter may feel inclined to take the work, I have stayed away.

I think it is important to note that I am lucky not to have to agree to work for meagre wages, and I in no way mean this as a judgment of those accepting the jobs. The judgment lies solely on those looking to cut costs at the expense of those they hire.

The Online Job Opportunity that Seems Too Good to be True

For the most part, this saying is too cynical for my taste.  I live my life believing things can always be even better than they appear.  

At least, I did until I joined Facebook groups with Copywriting job listings.  

If it seems too good to be true, it just might be. Be careful, friends.  I read messages from people who have been scammed every single day.  

Getting Overly Attached to Your Words

In the name of turning things inward, this is an internal challenge that anyone beginning to work with clients should be aware of.  You might write something you LOVE only to have the client discard it.  It will sting.  You will be OK.

A large part of copywriting is receiving feedback from a client and being able to incorporate it.  If you find yourself getting defensive when a client asks you for changes, take a pause and get to work on reframing your thoughts around constructive criticism.  It is a huge part of this job, and your priority is delivering great copy that your client is happy with.  The creative’s ego can sometimes hinder that; stay self-aware.

Learning from other people’s mistakes and choosing to avoid potential problems has been a great change of pace for me.  Turns out, knowing what to look out for – and then choosing not to engage – has ensured a smooth transition.  Who knew?

So while the working title of my memoir is still Red Flags, I Ran Face First Into So You Don’t Have to, I feel confident that I’ll be able to keep my life as a copywriter entirely out of it.  

How’s that for growth?

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