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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Looking for a freelance copywriter who’s a safe bet?

I was invited to Royal Ascot the other week, so I donned a big hat and tottered off (evidence below). Call it a day out having fun? Possibly. Call it a freelance copywriter’s working day gaining insight into the world of gambling? Why, of course.

A long-standing client had passed my details on to someone setting up a new website to do with football betting.

I’m never usually one to turn work down but I will if I don’t feel I’m the right copywriter for the job.

Apprehensively, I asked the client, “Does it matter that I’m a girl who knows nothing about football?” The reply was a no.

I then asked, “Does it matter that I don’t know much about gambling – other than having spent a summer as a student working in Ladbrokes?” Again, the answer was no.

As a freelance copywriter you’re on a continual learning curve about many different products and sectors. Right now, my projects include coconut water, green tea and financial software. Understanding the market and delving into the benefits and USPs are vital. Equally key is being able to create something fresh and unique for a brand to help it stand up and stand out.

So, I’ve now created four options for a tone of voice and copy style. The client’s happy and so am I, as I know a lot more about betting on football.

I wish I could say the same for horses. I then wouldn’t have to rely on my brother-in-law’s ‘hot’ tips for Royal Ascot which turned out to be as hot as a frozen dinner.





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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 many words can you think of for a remote control?

Sounds like a competition, doesn’t it?  Researchers have actually found 57 different words for a remote control.  Blabber..zapper..melly…I can’t even begin to think of the other 54 so will have to put the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang top of my shopping list.

There’s even a section called ‘kitchen-table lingo’ – my favourite is ‘slabby-gangaroot’ for the encrusted brownish opaque bits around the top of a ketchup bottle. ‘Splosh’ for a cup of tea is more common and a great example of how many of these new words are onomatopoeic.

Essex seems to have the UK firmly in its grip with its linguistic offerings such as ‘amazeballs’ and ‘totes devz’.

How will spellchecker ever cope?

I invented my own word over New Year on holiday when faced with swimming-but-not-being-able-to-swim in a very small hotel pool.

I developed a way of upright cycling/swimming which I called ‘swycling’. I also developed a painful knee which I’ve needed physio for. I’d call that not a very good idea after all.

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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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I’ll be all of a twitter at Wandsworth Business Week

It’s Wandsworth Business Week , 3 – 8 Feb, with stacks of fantastic and free events including guest speakers such as Laura Tenison, founder of JoJo Maman Bébé, Rachel Bridge, Sunday Telegraph journo, and Sam Harrison, co-founder of one of my nearby watering holes, Sam’s Brasserie & Bar.

 OK, so I’ve had a sneaky preview because I wrote the website and leaflets. And so, without any persuading whatsoever, I’ve signed up for the ‘Boost your business through social media‘ workshop. Emma Jane Clark, co-founder of  digital marketing agency Gertrude & Ivy is set to reveal how social networking (i.e. Facebook, Twitter & LinkedIn) can help boost your business.

I’ve talked before how being a freelance copywriter can be like working in no-man’s land, so one 2014 resolution was to do some poking around outside of my four walls and investigate how to get more welly out of Twitter and LinkedIn.

And so I took part in a great Twitter Academy webinar this week, entitled ‘How to build your presence on Twitter‘. It lasts 30 minutes and is v straightforward, so do have a listen.

Having ticked one box the next was to tackle my personal and business profiles on Barclays Connector. It’s a free online community enabling you to interact and find the knowledge, customers and opportunities to grow your business. (Impressed by the succinct yet powerful description? OK, I’m blowing my own trumpet – I wrote that website too.)

So now I’m looking forward to boosting, building, branding, blooming, bewitching and – fingers crossed – being top dog on Google. Will keep you posted.

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