10 Lies Freelance Copywriters Like to Tell You

Could it really be possible that some freelance writers would lie to you, saying whatever it takes to snag your business, justify their exorbitant fees, and turn you into a submissive client who does whatever they tell you?

Well… yeah.

It’s sad, but in the years I’ve been in the business, I’ve seen companies burned, stung, robbed, and strung out by unethical copywriters who couldn’t care less about them. To them, you’re just a walking ATM machine, and they lay awake at night, figuring out how to press all your buttons.

I know because my clients have told me. Sometimes, they tell me because the lie worked, and they’re thinking about taking their business away from my firm, but lots of times, it’s the opposite. They know it’s a lie, but they just can’t figure out how.

As much as some freelance copywriters would like to believe it, business owners aren’t stupid. You know when someone isn’t being straight with you. Maybe you just need someone to verify it, and so that’s what I’d like to do.

It’s ironic for me, a freelance copywriter, to be writing on the lies told within our field – but who better to reveal their lies than someone who’s right in the thick of it?

And here’s why: they make the honest ones look bad. Plenty of copywriters operate with full integrity, but when we have to struggle with a reputation given us by less ethical writers… well, it’s time to fight back.

Here are 10 of the most common lies copywriters like to tell. Take a look, so you’ll be ready:

1. “Every project is unique and I can’t quote you until I know more.”

Every project is unique, true, but top copywriters wouldn’t be where they are today if they didn’t have a good idea of ballpark rates and averages. Most top copywriters display their rates in plain view – they have nothing to hide.

Anytime you see this line, you can be sure that you’re dealing with either an inexperienced writer who isn’t sure of what to charge or a sleaze who is out to charge an arbitrary rate based on how much they think they can squeeze you. Either way, you can do better.

2. “I need to know your budget before I can quote.”

Why? So you can take all of it?

Writers who ask for your budget before giving you a quote are usually trying to figure out how much you can afford, or who want to push you just over your budget so they can get more out of you.

The good writers? They’ll either try to find a solution that fits or say they’ll be there to help when you do have the money saved up.

And they’ll never ask you for your budget.

3. “I’m qualified, because I have a degree in English literature.”

While having a degree is nice, those English lit degrees aren’t any measure of quality copywriting. They’re actually pretty useless where copywriting is concerned, because the field has far more to do with sales and marketing than with literature. Truth be told, most top copywriters don’t even have degrees.

Degrees don’t matter. Results do. The good copywriters aren’t going to show you their credentials; they’re going to show you what they’ve achieved for other clients, and they’ll tell you about the results they can get for your business.

4. “I had to quote high because of the time I’ll need to write this.”

Want to know a dirty little secret?

Top copywriters produce fantastic copy in minutes. The actual writing doesn’t take much time at all, and no copywriter worth his or her salt charges on an hourly basis. High rates are high because of the writer’s skills, experience, reputation and ability to get results. Good copywriters charge that much because they’re that good, not because they’re that slow.

A writer who justifies high rates with high hours is trying to make you think he or she is slaving away for days. It might be true, it might not, but the bottom line for you is that you expect results, and a copywriter whining about time doesn’t help you get them.

5. “Your email hit my spam folder.”

This time-stalling trick isn’t just used by copywriters – it’s the perfect excuse for anyone who wants to avoid dealing with you, for whatever reason. Maybe they’re running behind and can’t deliver on time. Maybe they don’t feel like making changes you’ve requested.

Whatever the reason for wanting to stall, the spam folder provides an easy excuse. Your communication disappears as if it never existed, and by the time the copywriter says, “Oops, I’m sorry,” it’s just too late.

The good copywriters? They know business, and they know that regular spam checkups is just part of the routine – no one’s email gets lost.

6. “I’m booked, so I can only squeeze you in if you pay a rush fee.”

This is pure psychological manipulation, and it works very nicely. A perception of being in demand makes you want the copywriter more, thanks to the magic of social proof.

The really in-demand copywriters don’t play these games. They don’t squeeze anyone, because they don’t need to. They have plenty of work, they’re not interested in filling up their plate, and they can afford to tell you that you have to wait your turn. Which you should do – it saves you money, and the results are worth it.

7. “You get what you pay for.”

Meh, maybe, if we’re discussing cars. But when it comes to freelance copywriting, there’s no such yardstick. You’ll find high-priced, poor-quality copywriters ready to take advantage of you and you’ll find just as many low-priced, fantastic copywriters ready to get you results.

Unscrupulous freelancers use this “get what you pay for” routine to elevate themselves and make you feel cheap. This influences you to hire them to show you aren’t a skinflint Scrooge.

But real copywriters? They simply point you to substantial portfolios and testimonials that prove they’re worth every penny. They don’t need to make you feel bad, and they don’t want to.

8. “All you need to make sales is great copy.”

That’s just silly. If great copy was all we needed to make sales, we could do away with websites, marketing campaigns, driving traffic, providing good customer service – there’s just no need!

Uh… no.

The best copy in the world won’t do anything for your sales if you don’t have a clear plan, tools, resources, tactics and strategies in place to draw in potential customers, convey trust and credibility and get their eyes on the page so they start to read. It’s just one piece of a successful business.

9. “This copy will sell anyone.”

Any copywriter worth his QWERTY knows this is a crock. You can’t write copy targeting “anyone” – good copy is crafted to reach specific people with specific problems. It’s laser focused on the ideal customer, and it repels anyone else.

Unscrupulous writers won’t ask questions about your target market, and the result is that they won’t sell much to anyone at all, including your ideal customer. They’ll miss all the crucial elements of good copy, like hitting the right pain point, addressing concerns, providing convincing benefits and drawing in your ideal customer to a sale.

10. “I know what I’m doing, and if you’re smart, you’ll trust me.”

This is meant to position them as an authority, but as anyone knows, people who feel the need to point out they know what they’re doing probably don’t know what they’re doing at all. And frankly, if you weren’t worried before, the statement “trust me” certainly raises an important question in your head: “Can I?”

The answer is… probably not.

Self-confidence in skills and knowledge is something that’s easily communicated and nearly tangible. You don’t have to be told – you can clearly see the copywriter knows exactly what he or she is doing without that person even saying a word.

Does a copywriter asking you to trust them guarantee they are shady?

No, but it’s another red flag. None of the lies we’ve covered here are enough by themselves to condemn anyone, but put several of them together, and it should set off warning bells. The slimiest copywriters use each of these lies intentionally, and having a collection to watch for, it should be easy for you to spot them.

About the author: James Chartrand is a straight-shooting copywriter from Men with Pens.

  1. Gosh James, that is actually quite a scary post! Lets hope that prospective clients will talk to people who have used us in the past and look at examples of our work before they make up their minds. I recently did a couple of paragraphs up-front for a prospective client to see if he liked my style. I hope that kind of honesty will convince him I am not a slime ball.

  2. Well, since I’m not actually a “copywriter” (or, for that matter, a “Canadian”) I can’t say for sure if these really are the lies those folks tell. But they sound pretty familiar, and I use most of them myself on prospective — and current — clients.

    James, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do. How are we going to keep ripping off innocent customers if you pull back the curtain. First, you spilled the beans about your plumbing problems. Then — and I’m still smarting about this — you outed me as not really being as old as dirt.

    Now this. I’ll have to come up with new lies to tell. And ways to piss clients off BEFORE they’ve even become clients.

    Like a current one (God’s honest truth) who yesterday sent me a signed contract where right up above her signature she agreed to a 50% deposit before work started. And then this morning was complaining I had “trust issues” since I wasn’t buying plane tickets and working on her stuff.

    I I’d gotten her check, I’d be in therapy. But my psychiatrist refuses to extend credit.

  3. @ Dick – You’re not as old as dirt? Are you sure that’s true? Maybe you just found some exceptionally old dirt circa Big Bang, cuz other than that I’m not convinced.

  4. Egads… I wasn’t expecting this when clicking over!

    “Every project is unique and I can’t quote you until I know more.” Any copywriter that doesn’t have a template to squeeze clients into isn’t good? Or is ‘quote’ synonymous with ‘estimate’ in your book? I’m not a copywriter, though pricing by the hour has saved me many times in the world of freelance web design / dev. The subject of freelance billing is pretty subjective topic and has covered a number of times. I’m sure you’ve read about it on Freelance Switch and the like, so I’d rather not open that can of worms here.

    I agree that an English degree isn’t a selling point nor does it qualify one to be a copywriter, but to call an English degree outright useless isn’t fair. Any copywriter should have a good grasp of the language; why can’t formal education help? And saying “Degrees don’t matter. Results do.” sounds nice on paper… wait! On second thought it sounds pretty cliche.

    “…Top copywriters write fantastic copy in minutes … you can be sure that you’re dealing with either an inexperienced writer who isn’t sure of what to charge … most top copywriters don’t even have degrees…” I was kinda put off by so many statements like these.

    It sounds like you’ve been doing this long enough to come up with a formula that works for you, which is great! While we can probably agree that some of the stuff you describe is slimeball-esc, seems like you’re spitting on others who simply don’t follow your philosophy.

    I read MWP from time to time and am a little surprised to see this article (though the ‘straight-shooter’ part is spot on!). I’m disappointed to see something this opinionated on KISSmetrics.

  5. Well done. Sadly, with only a few modifications, this list applies to other service providers as well.

    The employment world is filled with no-results/high web traffic people who hawk their wares but deliver poorly.

    Vetting the vendor is so important to all… both the clients and the good guys. Hope you keep this article active in more places than just writerly sites.

    Rita Ashley, Career Coach
    Author: Job Search Debugged
    Author: Networking Debugged

  6. I’m a copywriter, so thought I’d poke my head above the parapet and see what was going on over here. :-)

    The “every project is unique” pricing line is so common. In fact, if you try to google copywriting rates, you’ll find it extremely difficult to find a copywriter who will tell you what they charge on their website and I know this annoys clients who are searching for copywriting.

    Sure, some projects are a bit more involved, but if you have prices on your site for standard types of copy, your customers at least have an idea of what you’re going to charge for something tailor made.

    Something like that though is usually inexperience rather than malicious intent. You could still get a decent copywriter who just hasn’t a clue how to price their services yet, or how to deal with customers (not really something you want in a copywriter though).

    If you’re hearing more than one, it’s not a good sign and I’d shop around.

    As for me, I haven’t lied to a client since I told Tim Brownson I liked his jokes…

    (Of course I’m kidding Tim! :-) )

  7. It’s ok, I know when anybody tells me that they’re lying.

  8. @Tim – Even me, my sharp-souled friend ;)

    @Lucy – It is a scary post, and my hope for it is that people simply find writers with integrity to work with. I’ve had too many people come to me with, “I’ve been burned before,” for me not to speak out.

    @Dick – The question is, will you still like me in the morning?

    @Ted – You have thoughtful comments that I’m happy to respond to:

    1. I’m sorry the tone and style of the post didn’t work for you. I try to please everyone but my voice tends to be fairly straightforward and when I take a stand, even more so.
    2. Copywriters (and designers) don’t need templates, but as Amy mentioned, we all have a general gist of an idea that we can show clients ahead of time to let them know our price range. I’m sure you have a good idea of how many hours it takes to perform X or Y… and you can always give a range on what you’re not 100% sure of.
    3. I’ve taken English in college and university. Not one single course taught me how to write – all formal schools at the higher-education level expected students to already have that good grasp of language and be able to turn in papers easily. Now, that might not be the case for all schools, and some may have specific “how to write” courses, but I haven’t come across any yet. If you know of some, link me up and I’ll check them out.

    Hope that helps clarify!

    @Rita – Yes, sadly, it applies to many other service providers. I wish it was otherwise, truly.

    @Amy – For every writer who asks, “How do I know what to charge?” there’s a client asking, “How do I know what to pay?” It gets very crazy and that’s one reason judging quality by price doesn’t work well on the internet.

    I’ll agree that there are many inexperienced writers, too – that’s why this post is important to them as well, so they aren’t seen as dishonest!

    • Thanks James, I’m clearer on the quoting and pricing issue.

      As per the college degree one, I think we agree on many points. I don’t know of any “how to become a copywriter” classes and did not learn to be a designer in a classroom myself. In the case of writing, I’d tend to think someone with an English background has a strong foundation in writing and language. Not a requirement, but not rubbish either.

  9. John Christian Hager Jul 28, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    All these points seem to come completely from arrogance and arrogance doesn’t sell all that well, does it?

    “Rush fee”? I always thought that meant I should “rush” my business away….

  10. Yipes, some of these are really awful (that someone would say them aloud, I mean). And how awesome would it be to be able to avoid scamy copywriters by simply steering clear of all of ‘em! ;-)

    That said, I have an objection about budget statements. I ask for a client’s budget so that I know how to break down the project (for instance, if they only have enough to start the ecommerce portion of the site to begin with, and then we’ll do a great blog later out of the profits). When they’re cagey about budget, I’ve often found that’s because they think the project will be magically free, and they only reveal that they have no money set aside (but could “probably get some for the right person”) after asking really intensive questions that take industry-specific research and such. (So, yes, it would be more honest to say: I won’t give you a quote without knowing your budget to make sure your eyes are not bigger than your stomach. But that probably wouldn’t go over nearly as well as a simple, “And what’s the budget you’ve set aside for the project?”)

    Unfortunately for the people doing the hiring some of the really bad copywriters are quite adept at selling themselves. Thanks for rounding up some of the worst offenses, James!

  11. @John – I wish they did come from arrogance only. Sadly, they don’t, and I think it’s best to put the information out on the table.

    @Jessica – I have and do ask client budgets from time to time, but usually in cases where I can see there might be a better solution for a client, or in the case of a custom package where a client needs more than our standard packages, or when I can see the client might benefit from a tighter solution.

    In those times, it’s useful to say, “Our usual package costs X, this add-on is Y and Z… would you mind if I asked your budget, and I’ll see what I can do to help you out?” They usually like that.

  12. I like number 5. It’s always a sure sign that you’re dealing with someone not worth their salt when they draw a line between price and hourly input.

    Real pros sell their expertise… not their time. It’s what I do and its what i’d expect anyone who I hire (for anything really) to do too.

  13. The Daily Shmuck Jul 28, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    Interesting. I have a theory: to know this much about the scams of copy writing, either you exercised those things above OR you have been scammed so many times, you had to learn what to avoid. Good copy writing does not take a long time? no. VERY long time. WHO made you a crusader for consumer who look for copy writers? Your article is simply a summery/collection of manipulative sales techniques used by all unprofessional sales people. Nothing New.

  14. Goodness, what a post! And the feedback is pretty riveting, too!

    I agree with Jessica on the fees front (although I acknowledge your response to her and do the same myself — and I’m more than happy to be flexible and work out ways to keep the cost down if that’s what the client wants). I do list some of my fees on my website, but I certainly don’t think you should be regarded as a dodgy copywriter if you choose not to list any or all your fees.

    And, like Lucy, I also offer a ‘try before you buy’ service.

    The bottom line is that there will always be the unscrupulous few that paint a dark picture of copywriters. But they are, thankfully, in the minority. Most copywriters are good at what they do and, more importantly, genuinely care about their clients — even AFTER they’ve been paid. ;0)

  15. Ooops! Not that I’m saying you’re painting a dark picture, James. Rather, the not-so-well-intentioned copywriters out there. ;0)

  16. @Peter – I believe that once you have the experience under your belt, there’s really no way you could feasibly charge by the hour and make it successful.

    @Shmuck – You’re right – there’s nothing new at all under the sun. But everyone tries their best to bring a new angle or present it in a way that provokes action or reaction (such as your comment shows). Thanks for stopping by to brighten the day!

    @Tracey – Try-before-you-buy can be a cool method that works for all parties involved, definitely, and it shows serious confidence!

  17. Interesting article, and I do like your straightforward tone!

    On the subject of college degrees: most colleges with a reputable liberal arts program have at least one writing class. I’m a college student at the second largest private university in the country, and I know for a fact that every single one of us has to take two writing classes. I’m not talking about classes where students simply turn in papers. I’m talking about classes that teach specific skills. They do exist.

    Also, even if most English programs don’t focus on writing skills, writing about complicated subjects for four years probably can’t hurt. :)

  18. Isn’t it interesting how everyone honed in on the degree thing? Shows how hot a topic the value of education is. :-)

    I don’t usually mention it, but I have a bachelor’s degree in English literature, and I’m also a copywriter. And in my opinion, the English lit degree wasn’t very helpful for copywriting.

    In fact, it might’ve been counterproductive. Academic writing and copywriting are so different that they might as well be different languages.

    When you’re writing an essay about literature, professors look carefully at your research, logic, and understanding of the subtle nuances of the material. They also encourage a more formal writing style with longer paragraphs, big words, and complicated sentence structure.

    Good copy, on the other hand, depends on having a strong personal voice, using emotion to persuade the audience, using words everyone can understand, and writing conversationally. Paragraphs are short, sentences are simple, and it reads like a letter to a friend.

    It’s totally different, and personally, I had to relearn how to write. It took me probably about two years to make the transition.

    Of course, that’s not to imply that the education was worthless. Far from it. I just don’t think it was very useful for this particular profession.

    Maybe some schools are different too. I don’t know. Based on my experience though, I think James is right. If you have a degree, that’s great, but it doesn’t justify higher fees. Only a track record of producing results can do that.

  19. I have encountered with bit another problem. Hired a freelancer content writer and everything was going fine until I manually checked provided article’s copy on net. I was shocked to know that how he (freelancer content writer) just copy and paste exact content from other sources. And from there onwards I don’t much trust on freelance content writer.

    Patel, ple let me know if you know any good and affordable content writer.

  20. Howdy James; your post is pretty spot on, but I think item 2 needs some nuance.

    It certainly can be a warning sign if a copywriter is reluctant to quote before hearing a budget. But equally, it can be a warning sign if a prospect is reluctant to give a budget. Yet very often, the reasons for both parties being reticent about naming figures are quite benign, and very typical in a successful sales process.

    For the copywriter, quoting blind can be a good way to lose sales that otherwise could have gone well. That’s just because often clients have unrealistic expectations. You can manage these correctly and still win the project; or you can manage them badly and scare the client off.

    I almost always ask for a budget up front, because what I’m really asking is how much the client expects to pay. Once I know that, I know how I need to approach the quote. If he gives me a low figure, I can discuss options to scale back the project while still giving him the best value for his dollar; and I can give him options which will upsell without breaking his bank. If his budget is high, I can suggest extra items which would add value to the project, should he want to make full use of his money.

    When clients are reluctant to give a budget, it can mean they’re tire-kickers. But it can also mean that they just aren’t really sure how much they should expect to pay, and they’re looking to you, the expert, for guidance—because they don’t want to appear silly (or be ripped off). In a situation like that, I won’t demand a budget from them; instead, I’ll help them to set a budget by giving them an estimate, and then managing the project scope depending on how they reply.

    Anyway, I realize you couldn’t go into this kind of detail in the article, so I’m not really criticizing; more offering a counterpoint for those reading.

    Kind regards,
    Bnonn

  21. Interesting list James.

    I completely agree about your follow-up point that an English degree can actually be counterproductive. As we all know (or some will come to know), copy isn’t about informing. It’s about *influencing*. It’s also creative writing at, some might say (and I might be one of them), it’s most dynamic, since a short story about Joe and the flying saucer might not take you to the next income bracket, but lousy copy over a long period of time WILL (and in the wrong direction).

    I’ll add a couple of points before shoving off, though…

    The bit about “great copy makes sales” is not, in my experience, coming from copywriters. It’s coming from lazy entrepreneurs (talk about mutually exclusive terms that have fused together!) who believe, or rather, delude themselves into thinking that all they need to Think and Grow Rich is sales copy. That they have no business model whatsoever seems to be an inconvenience that can be dealt with “after I start getting some sales.”

    Also, I’ll echo a point made above that scoping out a project, at least somewhat, before offering a price/price range is increasingly becoming mandatory. This is not by preference. I’d love to say $$$ for A and $$$ for B and $$$ for C. It doesn’t serve me to distract my prospects with price. But, especially in new media, a harmless little phrase like “web copy” can be something that takes 2 hours (even in super duper copywriting time)or 20 hours.

    It’s different — and easier — when an agency project manager or account manager does the front-end work with the client (of course they take a fee for this, and more power to them). But when working directly with clients and developing projects, it’s becoming very difficult to accurately estimate without at least a solid conversation…sometimes two.

    To that end, I’d say learning how to interview clients and get them to “think” in terms of marketing and sales is probably the most valuable suggestion I’d make to new copywriters.

    Thanks for posting your great article.

  22. Hi James,

    Pretty good article but I will politely disagree a bit with you on points 1 & 2. My view on #2 was stated beautifully by Bnonn so I don’t see the need to repeat their well-thought and accurate explanation of how many ethical copywriters who ask about potential budgets operate.

    Onto the first point.

    When I started my copywriting career, I had a list of services and my normal fee for each one and here’s what I discovered: Prospects and clients would ask for plenty of other types of marketing pieces besides what I already had listed on my site. Since I write both offline and online marketing, we’re talking about a large variety of marketing pieces and even projects.

    As I got different requests, I kept updating my copywriting list of services… until it started to resemble a Chinese restaurant menu. Then I started getting emails where prospects told me they couldn’t find what they were looking for on the menu… and could they get a quote for their specific needs.

    The other thing I discovered was having a list of services really needs its own webpage. Otherwise, you’re breaking up the flow of your salescopy that’s promoting your copywriting business to present the “menu”.

    The other problem with a menu approach is if you offer any type of multi-piece discount for a project. If you try to list every possible combination of “combo meals”, that makes the menu even longer.

    Anyways, that’s been my experience and therefore it’s my opinion as well.

    Take care,

    Mike

  23. Well, for me, I never ask for their budget. Many will indeed think: Why, so you will know how much to take?

    Or: Why do you need to know this?

    (Actually, I DON’T need to know this.)

    That’s a good way to lose sales.

    I just give them a quote, and then throw in that that if their budget is tight at the moment, we could work out an arrangement.

    I always need to know more before quoting a price. That is common with experienced copywriters who work for major or small businesses.

    I have had to charge a bit more, or I landed up charging less after knowing more about their project.

    Maybe I didn’t read that section right, but,
    I’m sorry, I don’t know where you got that one.

    One has to know more. That is just common sense.

    I do put my rates on my site, but it ranges form $100 up to $1,200.

    That saves from having to have a price menu, that can actually take up a whole page.

    Although I don’t agree with everything, thanks for the read.

  24. This seems like a very long-winded way of saying: “Trust me”.

    And like others here, I think it’s reasonable to ask for a budget. Because every brief is unique – over the last 20-something years I’ve written everything from the back of a cereal packet to a 10-minute corporate film. The first of these I would probably charge by the hour (although it was part of a week). The second, for the whole project (although I was employed full-time at that point – by an agency who took every penny of the budget).

    When talking budgets, I might say: “How good do you want it to be? Just good, really good, or astonishingly good?” Not everyone wants, needs, or has the money for, brand-creating or enhancing language. Sometimes they just want another way of saying: “Two for the price of one”.

    I like the “list of 10″, by the way. It still works.

Comments are closed.

← Previous ArticleNext Article →
Buffer