Here’s to copy without excess baggage fees

Did you know that, right now, there are models, actresses and famous people flying all over the world with a cashmere wrap and scented candle?

But of course…because that’s what they tell us in various “I never travel without” articles.

Please get real. Travellers fall into two categories: those with lots of stuff and those who travel light as light. I would rather not go away at all if I didn’t fall into the latter category: even on a two-week family holiday to the States, we only took hand luggage and still managed to bring back bargains from an outlet centre.

Maybe it’s because I hate waiting for luggage to arrive at the carousel (or not, as in the recent debacle at Gatwick) or because writing copy is like packing for holiday. Dump down all your thoughts and info on paper, just like you throw down everything you’d like to pack on the bed. Then start whittling away. What do you really, really need?

It’s not easy to do. I’m in the middle of revamping my website and even I find it hard to discard work I’d love to show and words I’d like to keep.

(There you go – even that paragraph can be pruned to ‘It’s not easy. I’m revamping my site and it’s hard discarding work and words I like.’)

Jakob Nielsen says page visitors only have time to read a quarter of the text on pages. Unless your writing is “extraordinarily clear and focussed, little of what you say will get through”. Less is more. Nielsen goes on to say that your value proposition must be communicated within 10 seconds or you’ll lose the reader’s attention.

Striking through stuff with a red pen yet retaining sense is hard; losing unnecessary words yet retaining brand character is harder.

Which would you prefer: a wordy site worthy of a Ryanair excess baggage fee? Or an engaging, gossamer-light site by an experienced freelance copywriter?

Written by Caroline Gibson

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How can a freelance copywriter stop a brand being bland?

I was invited recently to a meeting to explain how I could help a company – not a big company but definitely one you’d have heard of – that had lost its way. With a hands-on founder and a marketing director who’d been there for years, they’d realised the need for some fresh perspective.

Being a freelance copywriter is about more than clever words and ideas. It’s about demonstrating strategic thinking. You need to be able to understand how a brand works.

What’s the vision and what are the values? What’s the position in the marketplace – now and five years from now?  What are the USPs? Who’s the target audience? Who’s the competition?

The brand values have to clearly summarise the characteristics of the brand and how it should be perceived by our customers. How will you articulate those values? And how will they be reflected by a distinctive tone of voice that’s delivered consistently across all communications?

As a client, you can do this yourself – but you may not see the wood for the trees. Or you can appoint an agency – and pay big bucks. Or you can work with a freelance copywriter who’s also a good strategic thinker.

Get it right and your brand will not only stand up but also stand out.



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Ever been lost for words?

I loved the recent news about Cambridge University students sitting their English finals and literally drawing a blank with a poem by South African singer and writer André Letoit aka Koos Kombuis: Tipp-ex Sonate.

The poem was written in the 80s as a protest against censorship (witty title, Koos) and only consists of punctuation, with mostly brackets.

Being faced with a blank piece of paper and not knowing what to write is, phew and thankfully, a feeling that rarely happens to me as a freelance copywriter. The secret? The tighter the client brief, the tighter the work that will result. What are the brand values? What are the company aims – in one year and in five years? Who’s the target audience? Who’s the competition? And, really key, what are the points of difference – why should I buy your service/product rather than someone else’s?

As a copywriter, you should never be scared of interrogating your client or challenging what they say. There’s no need to go the Jack Bauer route. Create a client brief, ask them to complete it, then make sure you’re both 100% happy with the resultant foundation upon which you’re going to build customer-enticing, market-changing, sales-boosting copy for a press ad or website. The concept and copy should flow faster than Niagara Falls.

However, I’m told all too often (usually by designers) that no-one bothers to read copy.

Ah well, here’s hoping mine might be an exception.

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How late is late?

The big plus to being a freelance copywriter is that you can work just about anywhere and any time. The downside is letting clients know when ‘any time’ starts and stops. Hang on, let me rephrase that to ‘letting potential clients know’.

I sometimes receive emails and even calls in the evening or at weekends from prospective clients making an enquiry. I’m sorry, but I won’t answer these.  As a freelance copywriter, you have to maintain professional integrity and keep to professional hours. Even if I’m beavering away on a project at 8.30pm, that’s my choice but to the rest of the world I’m what Skype terms ‘offline’.

Similarly, I wouldn’t dream of contacting a client between 1 and 2pm or after 6pm – unless asked to or if a deadline is looming.

Of course, there have to be exceptions. Right now, I have a client in Oman (i.e. three hours ahead) and a client in New York (i.e five hours behind). The working week for my Omani client runs Sunday to Thursday. If either needs to get hold of me, of course they can – we’ve discussed and agreed this beforehand.

So, how late is late? After 6pm in my books if you’re not an existing client. But look at it this way: I won’t be ignoring you – I’ll just be giving you 15 hours extra thought until I get in touch at 9am the next day.

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Thinking of becoming a freelance copywriter?

Some years ago, I was out for dinner with all parents at my son’s school. One mother I didn’t know asked what I did. When I replied, she responded, “How lovely to have a hobby like that.”

Reader, I was not amused.

Mention the word ‘freelance’ and people assume a life in which you take the whole of August off, spend your days in pyjamas and resort to daytime TV.

If only….

I’m not sure if anyone chooses to become a ‘permanent’ freelance copywriter. I had been made redundant four times and had a toddler the last time I was ‘let go’, fifteen years ago. But I’ve never looked back since and could not imagine returning to the ‘dark side’, ensconced behind a desk or snatching a seat daily on the District Line.

If you’re thinking about becoming a freelance copywriter, here are ten tips based on all my years of freelance experience that may help:

– Never ever think in terms of a monthly salary. Sometimes, you may be able to shop at Waitrose. Other times, you need to say hello again to LIDL. Either way, always keep money aside for when the tax man cometh i.e. just as you’re about to go on your summer holiday (July 31) or just when you’re recovering from Christmas debt (January 31). Oh, and don’t send a cheque to the Inland Revenue: mine was intercepted last year. Naughty Post Office people.

– Set up a separate bank account and get yourself a good accountant – and keep every single receipt, bank statement etc etc for six years. You’ll need to decide whether to trade as self-employed, register as a company or register for VAT.

– Get yourself a good lawyer – you need to sort out terms and conditions though, as a much cheaper option,  there are some great templates such as at Simplydoc.

– How much should you charge as a freelance copywriter? That depends on your experience. There are now a number of sites where you can bid for work such as Elance and Freelancer – for peanuts. Please, please don’t. It lowers rates and quality for everyone. (Which is why I haven’t even added links to these sites; they’re a disgrace.)

– How will you charge your freelance copywriter rates? By the hour, day or project? What about allowing for revisions? Don’t forget to allow time over the phone and on emails with your client – you’ll be amazed how much this can eat into your day. No wonder lawyers charge for every single second spent on a client.

– What about payment terms – some clients assume freelance creatives lack any business acumen. Chasing up invoices can be tricky and time consuming, but it’s important to be like a rottweiler. If a client looks as if they may not pay, then tell them (email and recorded delivery letter) you’re entitled to charge interest and failure to pay will result on a small court claim. I add this to the end of invoices: Please pay this invoice within xx days. After this, interest and debt recovery costs are chargeable in accordance with The Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998 as amended and supplemented by Late Payment of Commercial Debts Regulations 2002. Pay On Time is packed with invaluable payment advice for freelance copywriters.

– Always draw up an agreement with your client before starting work. Make sure you know if they are a registered company or a sole trader. If a registered company, check their trading address at Companies House. If  you ever need to take someone to the Small Claims Court, it’s vital to provide the right information.

– Are you going to ask for a deposit upfront? It’s a good idea to agree milestones in terms of timings and payments. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told a project is needed urgently, yet six weeks later I’m still awaiting feedback.

– On the subject of time, the advantage of being a freelance copywriter is that you have to be flexible. I always aim to deal with a project as soon as it hits my desk, as I never know what lies in store the following week. Yes, it can eat into my evening or weekend (which is when I’m writing this) but, on the other hand, I’m freed up to go to my daughter’s netball match. So, for me, it works both ways.

– Always agree a brief with your client, with all the info you need about USPs, competitor info, target market etc etc. You know the score. You are now creative director, account director and planner rolled into one.

Good luck! And if you have any questions about becoming a freelance copywriter, feel free to email me at

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How many ways are there to say ‘thank you’?

It’s a topic that seems to have filled my week for several reasons.

Reason 1: Having attended the recent TFM&A show (boo to link building and yessss to high quality content, I discovered), I felt I should squeeze in some time to pimp up my Google+ account. I got a bit distracted and was spirited away to Friends+Me which I seem to have signed up to without so much as sneezing.

Within minutes, I received an email saying, “Hey Caroline, I am Alois, Founder of Friends+Me. I wanted to reach out to see if you need any help getting started.”

Surprised, I replied, “Is this an automated email?” to which he answered, “Hi Caroline,yes, it is automatic email but what’s important is the message, offer of help. Don’t hesitate to contact me in case you need any help. Have a wonderful day!”

What great – and instant – customer service.

Reason 2: I’ve been working on a school questionnaire to send prospective parents accompanied by a thank you email from the Head. SurveyMonkey, I love you. It’s easy, it’s flexible and it’s free though you can upgrade to some extra techy wizardry.

Reason 3: One of my regular clients, Anatomic & Co, has asked me to create a series of thank you emails to customers. The best thank you messages from companies are those with a really personal touch – the ones that make you feel one in a million, not just one of a million.

Such as these:


Yes, appreciative retailers – my debit card will definitely pay you a visit.

So, pencil sharpened and at the ready to pen a gracious bon mot or thirty.

Meanwhile, thank you for reading this. I mean it.

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How much should a new name cost?

I read a recent article in The Daily Telegraph’s business section about Rodial beauty products. It’s a remarkable brand, not just because of the turn-back-the-clock anti-wrinkle formulations, but also because the names are truly eye-popping. What copywriter wouldn’t want to pass up the chance of dreaming up Snake Serum, Dragon’s Blood and Bee Venom? Who couldn’t fail to be seduced by the promises of SUPER FIT boob job and SUPER FIT size zero?

Any naming project these days is a tricky one – mainly because just about every url worth its salt has been snapped up. Not any more, though. Generic top-level domains (gTLDs) are coming up for grabs on a regular basis. The registry Donuts Inc has plans for over 1,000 new appendages such as .agency, .boutique, .builders, and .cheap. Apple and Ford have already laid claim to registering their names as gTLDs, as protection from naughty cybersquatters.

But for start-ups who can’t afford to pay $185,000 to ICANN when applying – and $25,000 for each year the domain name is used – what’s to be done?

There is a cheaper way to get a great name and corresponding url: through using a creative copywriter. But how much cheaper, you’re wondering?

Thinking up a name can take minutes, but more likely days. In the early 90s at Wolff Olins, I worked on a brief for a new Hutchinson Telecom brand. Our team spent days, poring over dictionaries and the thesaurus (only Roget’s will do, BTW)….probing books…. ploughing through magazines. The name? Why, Orange. Seems pretty much par for the course now as we’re so used to it, but Oarnge was a head turner when it launched.

A good starting point is to trawl through wordy sites like More Words, Word Hippo, The Phrase Finder and good old Roget’s (in hardback, of course). It’s rare that a client will decide on a name, plus its url, in the first round of suggestions so you need to allow for plenty of to-ing and fro-ing.

Half a day isn’t enough. But two to three days of a copywriter’s time allows for research, mulling, revising and revamping.

The cost may be a little more than you’d anticipated. But the result should be priceless.


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Things to make life (a bit) easier

There must be some law of physics that says the older you get, the less time there is in the day. 

I don’t have any miracle answers but I do have a few secrets to share to help anyone, not just other freelance copywriters.

1. A handy Mac repair person – if you happen to live near Richmond, you too can stop tearing your hair out and contact Szymon at Megabytex Computer Services. I have often asked him to take up permanent residence in my office and be on hand at all times but, strangely, he refuses.

2. A good accountant – can I work with words? Yes. Can I work with numbers? No. I’ve had the same accountant for twenty years and dread the day he retires.

3. A transcription service – forget having to spend hours deciphering your notes and writing them up. I found someone excellent and efficient (and cost effective) through People Per Hour.

4. We Transfer – I know many people like to use Dropbox or Hightail (why, oh why, did they change their name from You Send It?) but I prefer We Transfer. It’s simple to use and lets you send up to 2GB plus there’s always a rather lovely visual to look at.

5. Zamzar – not sure how to change a pdf to a jpeg or an mp3 to an m4a? Zamzar is another easey-peasey website offering free online conversion of just about anything. No software, no signs ups.

6. Barclays Mobile Banking – the app that lets me instantly check if clients have paid as promised and whether this week’s food shopping will be done at M&S or Asda.

7. Oyster auto top up – never ever have to queue at the tube station again thereby missing the train and running late for the meeting

8. More Words – my favourite place, apart from Roget’s Thesaurus (my Desert Island Discs book of choice) for word inspiration.

9. Snooze Bot – when you’re hit by that 3pm wall of fatigue, set this app to 15 mins, take a quick nap and bingo – you’re fresh and raring to crack on with that next D&AD clincher.


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My Mighty Rice client has won a mighty nice award


My Mighty Rice client has just won an award in The Dieline Package Design Awards 2013 –  a worldwide competition devoted exclusively to the art of brand packaging.

Twelve industry experts judged over 1100 entries, based on quality of creativity, marketability and innovation.

A great brief from Mighty Rice in Mauritius led to gorgeous packaging by Mouse Graphics in Athens with packaging copy from freelance copywriter me in London. Now that’s what I call a mighty fine international collaboration.

Hungry for more rice? Check out their website.






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Where you communicate is as important as how – part 2

Part two of my freelance copywriter blog considers offline v online. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons.

Traditional offline media

Press ads

Pros: Can reach a broad audience easily. Allows in depth explanation. Variety of sizes. Cons: Can be expensive. Clutter. Readers rarely look at all sections.


Pros: Broad reach. Can target specific locations. 24/7 exposure. Creative venue possibilities e.g. escalators, train stations. Cons: Limited message capability. Short exposure time. Prime outdoor locations are expensive and go quickly. Unable to change message quickly.

Direct mail

Pros: Target by location/demographics. Easy to track response. Low cost per thousand. Cons: Low response rate (a successful direct mail response rate is 2%-3%). Could be thrown away. Only as good as your mailing list.


Pros: Cost effective. Can target different audiences at different times. Local radio station can write and produce the ads. Can measure response by asking people to contact specific web link/phone number. Cons: Audience may not be listening. Audience is not actively engaged.

Online media

Digital media often allows for high levels of targeting, tracking and measurability which makes it easy to measure the success of your communication and refine and improve it for the future.


Pros: Ease – a template for a newsletter is created, for client to supply copy and images to be placed. Can direct audience to websites for more info and get feedback. Inexpensive and timely. Builds loyalty. Cons: Can end up in spam box. May be ignored. Needs to be sent out regularly.


Pros: Cost effective. Can promote a service or build a community of supporters. Cons: Takes time to set up, maintain and update. Not SEO friendly.


Pros: A short editorial piece that is newsworthy/provides an opinion and maintains regular contact with your audience. Boosts your SEO online. Timely. Free. Can create a viral effect through social sharing and bookmarking. Cons: Needs to be done regularly, so consider hiring a good freelance copywriter. May run out of things to blog about. Social media takes continual time and effort to create a positive, relevant presence.


Pros: Good for starting a conversation around a certain topic. Generates a wide and engaged audience base virally. Instant. Free. Cons: Takes time and effort to create a positive, relevant presence. Anyone can have a voice can offer opinions, with or without your consent. Large follower drop off rate. 140 character count.

QR codes

Pros: Ideal if you want to avoid content-heavy print literature but have more information to get across. Quick to generate. Simple way to share digital information to a mobile device. Contains trackable links. Cons: Many people still have no idea what QR codes are. You need to download an app to scan QR codes from your iPhone/Smartphone

RSS feeds

Pros: RSS (Rich Site Summary) is an efficient tool for retaining updated information from frequently visited websites. RSS feeds are spam-free. Cons: The identity of the source website is often confusing as RSS feeds don’t display the actual URL. Impossible to determine the number of users subscribed to a feed and frequency of visits.

App development

Pros: Can tie into all of the advanced features of your mobile device, e.g. can provide GPS-based directions. When people make a phone call, they might see your logo. When they get a text message, your brand can be reinforced. Cons: Can be expensive. Can fragment your online presence and/or marketing strategy, i.e. should you guide people to your website or app or Facebook page?


What ever medium you choose, one thing is for certain, the tighter the brief, the tighter the creative work and the better the result. Want to know more or see an ideal creative briefing template? Then email

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