Sarah Nuttall is based in Somerset and sells fabrics for a living. She’s kind of in recovery from freelance copywriting. Does she miss the word game?
Short answer: I was burnt out, needed a break, needed to do something completely different – for my health and my sanity.
Since 2013, I’d been working very hard and by accident I’d gradually moved away from straight commercial copywriting and into ghostwriting of national-press opinion pieces for business people and politicians. Then broadened out into High-Net-Worth Individuals’ advisory work – sort of high-end PR writing.
I loved it but, for the last three years, it had run completely out of control and I was doing 60-hour weeks and more. I’m no spring chicken and frankly the pace was starting to take a serious toll.
I’ve always been interested in starting a retail business. So, when the opportunity came along to have a break from writing, I decided to start an online fabric shop called Simple Life Fabrics. Of course, I still work long hours but I do have more control.
What were the best bits of the freelance-copywriting game?
Oh, the people, definitely! For the last seven years, I worked remotely with young London-based start-up businesses and teams of people in their 20s and early 30s.
They had incredible and infectious energy, commitment and drive. I’ve made some great friends, too. I’ve also written for some very interesting business people and politicians, and you learn such a lot about people’s lives, attitudes and psychology, and about success.
And the worst?
The people! Definitely! Any copywriter will know that clients can be unreasonable, demanding and sometimes just a bit mad. And of course in my younger days I had my fair share of bad payers, slow payers, and people who needed a Letter Before Action to decide to open their cheque book.
One big client, having ignored the LBA, said to me years ago on receiving a court date, ‘You can’t do this to us!’ I said: ‘I just did.’ They paid that day.
What was your finest hour?
Ha! I was always a behind-the-scenes person so my finest hours will remain undocumented – because, though they’re written by me, they are the client’s finest hour.
But the biggest personal kicks, the things that have made me most proud, have been op-eds trailed on the front page of broadsheet newspapers, especially when I didn’t know they were going to be mentioned on the front page.
Also, the occasions when the TV news put my words into a box and used them on-screen, and the times when a client has stuck to my ‘lines to take’ in interviews or panel shows. That’s always nice, and a big relief too.
You lived in France for a while. How did that work out?
It was brilliant! But of course not great for business! I turned over something like £10k the first year we were there, but thankfully I didn’t need much rent.
I was a French taxpayer under the Autoentrepreneur system, which was interesting. Every three months, a return would pop through the post and I would go into a huge panic that I would make a mistake on the form and end up in some unspecified ‘trouble’.
But I’m very glad we spent the two years in France – I think self-employed people should mix things up and give themselves time to assess whether this is really what they want to do with their life.
It’s my dream to live and work in France. Why on Earth would you come back?
Ha! France is amazing! The food, wine, lifestyle…everything! But the area we were in was very much retirement-central and we were in our mid 40s and I just wasn’t ready for pipe and slippers.
Also, our French was terrible…really terrible. Our own fault, of course – you think your ‘O’ Level French is enough, and it isn’t. So while it gets better and you get more language and more confidence, everything is a struggle.
On top of that, my poor old Dad died and that changed my priorities, and I was missing our daughter, too, so it just wasn’t the right time.
But I’m not ruling out going back to live in France. It was such a brilliant experience and I think about it all the time – it was wonderful in so many ways. But if I went again, I’d book some French lessons before I left and find a tutor immediately I got there.
What tips would you offer newbie copywriters?
First, remember that what you do is of value. What you do is worth what you’re charging for it. These days, they’ll tell you that they can get it in India for £20 but, in reality, they just can’t. Tell the lowballers where to get off.
Be proud of what you do, and charge what you’re worth. You’re selling your brain – that’s worth a lot of money. And email your Ts & Cs with every job, saying that by commissioning you they are agreeing to them. It’ll save you a lot of heartache further down the line.
Secondly, don’t be afraid to admit that what you’re doing, or how you’re selling yourself, isn’t working. To use the current jargon, keep pivoting and evolving until you find product-market fit.
You might think this doesn’t apply to copywriters, but it does. There are loads of niches out there and you need to find yours.
It could be that you’re not a natural generalist working across sectors (which is how everyone starts out). You’re actually a car writer, or a heavy-industry writer, or a fintech writer or a fashion writer. Find your niche if you can and sell yourself on this niche, at least in part.
Great advice. I’m currently thinking along those lines. Anything else?
Yeah, keep learning. When you get a job for a new client, become an expert. Read round the subject or industry area until your eyes bleed. Leave no stone unturned. Read academic papers and statistical releases. Read everything everyone else has written.
Make sure you’re on top of the subject before you start. Remember that what you learn for this client will be useful for other clients in the future, so take the research phase really seriously.
If you were starting out today as a freelance copywriter, what would you do differently?
I’d do more due diligence on clients before I took them on. It’s a mistake everyone makes: you get a client and you’re so grateful because you might actually be able to pay the rent that month that you forget that not every client is what they seem.
Use Companies House (which wasn’t around online in my start-up days) and the London Gazette, and just check that you’re not getting into bed with a charlatan or conman – because you’ll be the last to know and the last to get paid when they inevitably go bust.
Any tips for clients?
Don’t expect a copywriter to read your mind. Give them more information than they need.
Cherish them, value their expertise, trust them and don’t underestimate what they’re putting into your job – the hardest thing to do is to write the fewest words. Volume doesn’t mean you’ll get better real-world results for your business. And for God’s sake pay them on time!
You’ve started up a new business. How’s it going?
It’s going well. Great, in fact. It’s early days but the signs are promising. It’s a little online-only business that sells sewing fabric, jersey fabric, cotton fabric, quilting fabric, sewing patterns, gifts, that kind of thing.
We started Simple Life Fabrics under a holding company – which makes it sound very whizzy but is really so that if we have any other mad ideas we can put them into that business entity. The holding company is called The Simple Life Group Ltd.
I’m absolutely loving it! I think I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I was so burnt out that I got to the point where writing words was making me feel physically ill. I was starting to get a stress-related shaking condition and was suffering from rampant insomnia.
Now, being surrounded by lovely, pretty fabric and the very predictable, controllable business process of cutting and selling it is incredibly soothing, and I’m almost recovered now.
And would you never go back to copywriting?
I have one client remaining, a wonderful business that creates high-quality corporate videos. I’ve worked with them for more than 15 years, so I still write scripts for them.
My copywriter website is still live, too, but I pass on all the jobs that come in. There aren’t many, to be honest, because I dropped that ball a few years ago when I started working with start-ups.
But you can never say never in life. I never close any doors completely…