Interview: Patricia Carswell on making the leap from law to copywriting

It sounds like the synopsis of a new US drama: a successful lawyer finds herself tired of courtrooms and judges and makes a ballsy decision to pack it all for the pen and paper.

That’s Patricia Carswell’s story. Having been a commercial barrister for 10 years, she found she’d “had her fill of stiff collars, pink ribbon and black suits” and set out to become a freelance copywriter, journalist and blogger.

Carswell tells me that she still doesn’t feel like she’s ‘making a living’ from writing, but then how many full time writers can truly claim peace of mind?

Still, having written for some of the UK’s top newspapers and magazines (including The Telegraph, The Guardian, Women’s Fitness and Bodyfit), and laying claim to an award winning blog, it’s probably safe to say that her brave career change has been a success.

You decided to quit your career in law and become a freelance journalist. What was your first move towards that goal?

I signed up to an online journalists’ forum, www.journobiz.com/forums, watched, listened and learned from other freelancers. I also went on a couple of their courses.

How did you nab your first freelance gig?

I pitched a first person piece about an eco subject that I knew a lot about.

How did you go from that first job to building up a number of returning clients?

I just kept pitching, not worrying about knock-backs (there were – and still are – many). I took every opportunity that came my way and had a lot of help and advice from other freelancers.

At what point did feel that you were making a decent living from freelance?

I don’t think I do feel that yet!

Describe a typical working day for you…

The joy of being a freelancer means that there really isn’t one. It completely depends on what projects I’m working on.

What makes a good freelance journalist?

You have to be organised, determined and persistent. You need to treat it as a business rather than a creative enterprise and be flexible enough to let your work go in a direction that you might not have expected.

Who do you pitch articles to and how do you pitch effectively?

I pitch to national newspaper and magazine editors. I have a list of those I know to be receptive to my ideas and tend to start with them, but always love the challenge of breaking into new titles. I make sure I’ve researched the publication so I know that I’m on the right lines – this is really important – and  keep my pitches fairly brief. If the editor doesn’t know me, I explain who I am and what publications I’ve written for.

What about copywriting? How did you get your first client there?

It was through a friend of a friend – a photographer. They needed some web copy and I needed some professional photos done, so we did a trade swap.

How does pitching for copywriting differ to journalism?

I’ve actually never pitched for copywriting work. My website is very well optimised so copywriting clients have always come to me.

If you could give one bit of advice to an aspiring freelance journalist what would it be?

Learn as much as you can from existing freelancers. Also, get yourself a decent website as soon as you can. I spent quite a lot of money on having one professionally done and it’s the best investment I’ve made in career terms.

If you could give one bit of advice to an aspiring freelance copywriter what would it be?

Spend time at the beginning of a project getting to know the client and understanding what they want, who their target market is and how they want their business to be presented. Finding the right “voice” is the real key to copywriting, and it will be different for every client.

I have found that blogging has been a useful tool for attracting copywriting clients; quite a few have come to me because they like the style of my blog and want me to liven up their copy.

Visit Patricia Carswell’s website for more about her journalism and copywriting career, or take a look at her blog Girl on the River.

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