Becoming a Freelance Copywriter After 50

April 21st, 2009 by Bob Bly

CH, a downsized banker, asked me about the feasibility of changing careers and becoming a freelance copywriter. He is 52.

Starting as a freelance copywriter after 50 is something I can’t advise him on with personal authority, since I started as a full-time freelance copywriter when I was 22.

“Is it harder or easier to establish a successful career as a freelance copywriter at my age, 52?” he asked me. “Is my age an advantage (more life experience) or disadvantage (too old, competing with people half my age)?”

I’d love to hear from you if you are a freelance copywriter who started at age 50 or later (and also if you started recently at a younger age, too).

Should CH pursue freelance copywriting as a means of paying the mortgage — or is it too late for him and the rest of us who have passed the half-century mark?

What say you?

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 21st, 2009 at 8:22 am and is filed under Writing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

31 responses about “Becoming a Freelance Copywriter After 50”

  1. linkfeedr » Blog Archive » Becoming a Freelance Copywriter After 50 - RSS Indexer (beta) said:

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  2. Lou Wasser said:

    I’m considerably older than CH, but my age didn’t hinder me at all when I began my copywriting business just a few years ago. If you spend a good deal of your business years, as I did, in a corporate environment, it’s easy to be tricked into the group-think that age is a big deal. In the traditional corporate colloseum, both young people striving to make their mark and more established people who want to keep control need a fall guy (or gal)for the people whom they can label “dead wood.” So in subtle ways that the EEOC and courts can’t decode, these corporate sharks work on you when you pass forty. They never dare use the “A” word, but they use glib terminology like “relevant,” “skill sets,” “understanding of current market dynamics” to marginalize and eventually trim their troops.

    Look at it this way. If you lay out some of the best copy you can find on your desk, as you go from piece to piece, can you guess the age of the writer who did the copy from simply reading it? Of course not.

    That said — it’s doubtful that a fifty-two-year-old can take out Mike Phelps in an Olympic swimming competition. But you weren’t looking to do that, were you, CH?

    Use your banking background as a niche in which to begin your copywriting business. Your age will serve you well.

  3. Michael said:

    a really inspirating post!

    I’m 38 now and I think of beginning a freelance copywriting. Some time ago I thought that I lost about ten years when I should have started this activity. For these ten years I was busy selling advertising. And it was good experience too… Now I carry out lectures in Copywriting and write ads and sales letters when asked.

    But I wish I’d begun it at 22!!!

    excuse my English, I’m from Russia

  4. Ken said:

    I think that as long as someone isn’t completely inhibited physically they can do whatever they want at any time.
    As long as his mind works and he is willing, why not? Fifty-two isn’t that old anyway.

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  6. Greg said:

    I am 62 and just starting out as a Freelance Copywriter. Do I think I can make it? Yes! I have been writing copy to sell, motivate and convince all of my business life. I just did it for companies and mostly internal.

    For the last 14 years, I worked out of my home office publishing a small trade magazine that died with the home building industry, so the office and self-employed work habits are already set up.

    I am reading your Secrets of a Freelance Writer right now, but I really do not need to make over $100K, and while I plan on earning more than I need to live on, I doubt if I will push myself to try to get to that $100K threshold.

  7. Bill Perry said:

    Honestly, only CH can answer the question.
    It’s all a matter of if he wants to do it, and it he believes he can. Those 2 things are all that really matters. He can learn the “know how” if those 2 are squared away.

  8. Philip McLean said:

    What did he do in banking? If he wrote copy, or was at least in the marketing end, that’s one thing. I didn’t have the copy/marketing experience, and it’s tough making headway without a portfolio of published clips.

  9. John Hall said:

    I’m 53, and just now getting “serious” about copywriting. I’ve read/own all your books Bob (well, most of them) and as mentioned before, we’re not talking about going up against the likes of Mike Phelps–but to note, I watched Mark Martin win at Phoenix International Raceway this past Sunday nite in a NASCAR Cup race at the ripe old age of 50. And yes, I have one of those T shirts that says, “Old guys Rule!” Point is, I’ve been doing a lot of real estate copy, since I’ve got good connections with agents–and it helps that my wife has been a Realtor for about nine years. Sure, if I’d have it to do all over again, I’d have started at 22–but I couldn’t see that far ahead then. I believe anything worth achieving is doable at any age–assuming the passion is present! If the passion doesn’t exist–failure is eminent.

  10. Ken Norkin - Freelance Copywriter said:

    What matters more is his experience and qualifications as a copywriter, not the age at which he goes freelance.

    I went freelance the year I turned 40, with 17 years of technical, corporate and marketing communications writing and editing experience behind me. So I already had a portfolio to show that I could do for freelance clients what I had been doing for employers and agency clients.

    If CH can show prospective clients that he can write the copy they need, then of course he should go freelance.

    I hope he at least will charge respectable fees so he doesn’t ruin it for the rest of us.

  11. Bob Bly said:

    Ken: if a beginner like CH charges low fees, do you feel that he can successfully compete with a top B2B copy pro like you with decades of experience and a huge portfolio of successful projects under your belt?

  12. Barry Welford said:

    Lots of good advice in the post and in the comments. However they all seem to be focusing on the production side of the business rather than the marketing side. It is the latter that will make or break this possible endeavour.

    So think about the niche you can contact and what you can do that they need desperately and hopefully can get only from you. If that strategic positioning is done right, then all it takes is a lot of hard work. This requires marketing effort (perhaps way more than 50% in the early weeks) to develop the business.

    Of course if you can network with hot prospects that is the priority.

  13. Ken Norkin - Freelance Copywriter said:

    Bob:

    I’m not so much worried about competition from newcomers as I am about their potential to contribute to downward pressure on fees for even experienced copywriters in a down economy.

    Plus, I’m not worried at all (though maybe I should be) about those dirt-cheap writers out there doing brochures and sales letters for under $100. Most of the corporate clients I deal with would never consider them qualified in the first place. And I don’t think a former banker like CH would be charging bottom-of-the-barrel fees like those.

    I also don’t want to get into anything that smacks of price-fixing.

    What I do mean to be saying is that I hope CH understands the unbreakable connection between the writing income he desires, the volume of work he can reasonably produce, and the project fees he therefore needs to charge. If he hopes to earn a professional income, he’ll have no choice but to charge professional-level fees.

    That’s good for all of us.

  14. Jim Logan said:

    Bob, You asked a great question in comment #11. Separating the question from both Ken and the topic of copywriting, it’s “the question” for all businesses and professionals.

    There are price realities to every market, but we also have influence over what and how we’re valued. We don’t have to be judged as a commodity.

  15. Ken Norkin - Freelance Copywriter said:

    Bob:

    Now I’m not sure I actually answered your question!

    I welcome CH to the community. Despite the warning about assumptions in another topic you’ve got going here, I’m going to assume that were he and I to go head-to-head, then the only way for him to compete with me would be on price, not proven ability. Unless it was a banking client, in which case, I’d expect him to win.

    The more experience he gains, the more formidable a competitor he’ll become.

    Ken

  16. Clarke Echols said:

    I spent 30 years in corporate, 20 as a senior technical writer and learning-products engineer.
    A manual I wrote in 1987 that was edited for commercial publication in 1990 is still on Amazon.
    Though dated, comments state it’s still the best book ever written on the subject.

    I’ve conversed with Bob Bly, Clayton Makepeace, and Daniel Levis, and consider them good friends. I’ll guarantee you none of them can construct a sentence better than I can.

    Can they beat me to a pulp in copy? Absolutely!
    Because they have more *specialized experience* that I didn’t get in the corporate world. But I’m gaining. I’m way past 60. But refuse to let age be my cage.

    The worshipping of youth in our society will be its downfall. But youthful exuberance can never outwit seasoned experience. Too many “oldsters” just need to know who to use their real-life experience as a powerful tool to boost credibility. Take that and some decent copy skills, and you can knock any young kid right out of his seat.

    As for price, ***SMART*** clients will buy value. If the value is there, price doesn’t matter. I just tied the ribbon on a spec piece. I figure if the prospect buys, it’s worth all of 5 grand. Came from a spurt of brain activity while I was trying to take a nap
    yesterday. I have about 4 hours in it, and two more hours will have the typography and final cleanup done.

    With 25 years of typography under my belt on top of over 30 years of writing, I don’t need a graphic designer for this kind of project…

    Not bad work if you can get it. I’ll just need to demonstrate the value. That’s why I don’t quote hourly rates.

    I thought copywriting would be a breeze. But when I tangled with Bob, Clayton, Daniel, et al, I felt like the dog that chased a car, but caught an 18-wheeler instead. Now how do I eat this thing?

    One bite at a time.

    Even when you feel like you’re drinking out of a fire hose…

    Clarke

  17. Jack Settles said:

    Henry Ford said it best: If you think you can or if you think you can’t, either way your right.

  18. Ann Jordan-Mills said:

    I have never “let age be my cage” either. That phrase is new to me, Clarke, and I’ll adopt it from now on – though I don’t subscribe to ageism and “old” is a word that I won’t allow to be uttered in my presence. I stayed home raising 4 children, returned to work at 35, changed careers at 45 and 57 and I’m now embarking on my latest and most exciting career to date – copywriting and web development. I intend to succeed because I persevere and, as Henry Ford suggested, I think I can! In fact, I know I can.

  19. Shane said:

    Hi all,

    I have been writing for over 25 years but it was only a few years ago that I decided to start a career as a copywriter. I am 55 years old and started as a freelancer when I was 52 years old.

    I am having so much fun writing ads and webpages for people. I get to meet someone new every week and get to research new and exciting businesses all the time.

    It is awesome.

    You’re never too old to try something new.

    Just give it a go. Do what you want to do and when you want to do it.

    Shane K

  20. Katherine Chalmers said:

    As one of Ken’s copywriting clients, I can tell you for sure that I can’t afford a free (or cheap) copywriter. What a lot of newbies fail to realize is that fees are only the beginning of the currency clients pay for good copywriting. Even more costly is time – time to teach the writer about the company, about the products, about the market space, about our “voice.”

    I can’t possibly be expected to have to teach a newbie copywriter all of that PLUS the basics of copywriting. And, having invested in building a relationship with a few good copywriters, I’m not likely to replace them just to save a couple hundred bucks. “Free” just isn’t worth it.

    With an experienced copywriter like Ken who knows our company and our space, I don’t have to explain in minute detail what I need for every project. An email promo? He knows what that is for us. A website page? Sure, just give him the messaging and general info, he can craft the copy. Even if our needs change mid-project and I end up re-writing his first draft myself, he’s saved me time and moved the project forward.

    Of course, we have some projects that require specialized expertise. We hire analysts to write white papers. When I have a specialized direct mail project (and enough budget) I call Ivan Levison or use Bob’s copy review service.

    Notice that none of these considerations has anything to do with age. I don’t care what the writer’s age is – usually I couldn’t tell you what it was anyway.

    From this client’s perspective, my advice to any new copywriter, whether 25 or 55, would be to choose one or two industry spaces (so much the better if you have experience working in that industry) and read as much copy as you can from companies in the industry. Learn what pieces are typically needed. Study their styles and formats and learn to write like that. Then, before you pitch a client take some time to read THEIR materials.

    If you do that, no one worth working for will care what your age is. And cranky, overworked prospective clients won’t have to contend with low-priced pitches from copywriters of any age who are too lazy to learn the clients’ needs.

  21. Ben said:

    What a great thread!

    Very informative and thought provoking. I’m also considering a change of career and, even though I’m only 35, have similar fears to CH.

    I think it’s all too easy to get caught up in the “Why it won’t work.” as opposed to “What a great idea!”

    CH has previous experience, I don’t. He may think I have age on my side, but I don’t feel any different to when I was 20 and see it as no advantage.

    All this because of the nagging doubt in our minds. I feel reading about other people’s experiences is a great way of dispelling the fears. I just have to work out if I can start from scratch.

  22. Tom McKay said:

    With age comes wisdom — or so they say. Your age — and the experience that comes with it — can be positioned as an asset rather than a liability, especially for the B2B client.

    I went freelance in 2001 at age 54, after a long career in media, journalism and some copywriting. I find it’s much more effective to present myself as a consultant/ business partner who can offer expert advice as well as write great copy. A big part of our value, it seems to me, is being the trusted advisor who prevents our clients from veering off-course and doing something stupid.

    “Wordsmiths” are a dime a dozen, frankly. But being the writer who also has in-depth experience in their business, like CH and banking? That’s where the real value (and the big fees) are.

  23. Chris Gregor said:

    Go for it! These days anonymity is your friend when you are of a certain age. Most of my clients never want to see my face. The most important thing is to do good work, bring added value, and be nice to people. Your age will never matter if you fulfill those requirements. Best of luck.

  24. Susanna K. Hutcheson said:

    I am certainly for older people beginning anew in any career they choose. However, most people fail to understand that copywriter or, for that matter, professional writing, is a skill that takes many decades of learning and doing before one is truly a master at it. I certainly would not recommend a person at that stage of life go into copywriting. He would be beginning on a course that he literally couldn’t win in most cases.

    Having said that, a lot depends on a person’s background. If there is a good background in sales, if the person is a reasonably good writer and a quick learner, it is possible. But one must have a solid background in both.

  25. Neil Moran said:

    I’m looking at copywriting as an option when I retire from working with the State of Michigan. I have experience with nonprofits, senior citizens and horticulture. I hope to target those areas I’m competent and experienced in; I’ll do brochures, grants, etc. I’m trying not to let age cage me. The inspiration above gives me hope. I think there is a strong base of baby boomers to write to in such a way that a younger person might not be as adept.

  26. Richard Baker said:

    I don’t believe there’s any age barrier to writing as either a full or part time career. When I started freelance writing, I had retired from the practice of law and accounting. I’d also retired from network marketing as a Diamond Director.

    In short, I was already over 60 when writing became my main source of income. Now I haven’t earned $100K per year, but as the gentleman above stated, I don’t need to work that hard any more. I do it because I love writing, and I make a comfortable 5-figure income from the trade (cash flow is still a handy thing!)

    I also agree that you need to know how to write. (It’s extraordinary how many people are functionally illiterate). And it helps if you’ve been a lifelong reader, too.

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  31. Kara said:

    Starting at 50 is quite challenging. You have to prove more, gain skills and maybe harness more about your knowledge in English. But it could not be too late to start something. Learn something new.

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