Today I’m pumped to share my interview with Karen Marston. Karen is a full time freelance writer and also runs a popular site Untamed Writing, where she shares honest and “bullshit free” advice on getting paid to write. After randomly landing on her site one day, I immediately wanted to interview Karen because of her honest writing style and advice – which for me was very refreshing to see.
So let’s get started…
Tell us a little bit about yourself, where are you from, what did you do in your previous life?
I’m Karen, 30, living in Edinburgh, Scotland (though I’m English, lest you be shocked at my lack of Scottish accent should we ever talk). I run Untamed Writing, a blog where I dish out bullshit-free advice on getting paid to write, and teach courses on how to get started with freelance writing.
Oh, I guess I should also mention the fact that I’m a copywriter. Duh. I write copy for businesses that want to give their websites a personality. Before that, I worked in bars. Yup — no corporate history to speak of here (which may explain a few things).
How did you first get into freelancing?
I was always scared of starting a ‘career’ — I didn’t want to get tied down to a job that would mean I could never, or at least rarely, travel. So after I finished uni, I continued to work in bars, dotting my jobs with spurts of travel abroad.
Around 25, I reached the point where I was like, ‘I can’t keep doing this shit forever.’ I figured there must be a better way of fitting travel into my life. I investigated various options. Become a teacher and enjoy long breaks in the summer? Become a radiotherapist, which are in demand all over the world? Become an outdoor adventure instructor? None of these were right.
Eventually I found Location Rebel, a paid membership site that shows you lots of different ways to start a location independent business — that is, a business you can run from anywhere with an internet connection — and signed up. One of the options was SEO writing, so I started with that and not long after, I had my first client.
One thing I really like about your blog and writing is how honest and open you are. On your about page you write, “Now, I work exclusively with people who care about what their business does and who it serves. People who aren’t just in it for the money.” Can you talk more about what you mean by this and the process that goes into selecting who you work with?
When I first started freelancing, my clients were exclusively SEO companies. That meant they wanted me to write short articles focussed on specific keywords — things like airport parking and garage doors. Boring as shit, but when you start out, you take what you can get!
Fortunately, after I launched my first course, I started making enough money to be picky about my writing clients. I eventually phased out SEO writing altogether and decided I would only take on copywriting projects with companies that interested me.
I decided to include the ‘I only work with’ section on my site because I didn’t want to have to weed out companies I didn’t want to work with. By including that section, my clients went through a self-selecting process — so now the only companies who contact me are ones who share my values and appreciate the character I can put into their copy, and are therefore people I’m likely to want to work with.
I never have to hunt down copywriting clients myself now. They come to me instead. Which is bloody fabulous, obviously.
We’ve been communicating a bit back and forth over the last month via email while you’re traveling and I know you talk about that a lot as well on your site. So how do you work freelancing into your traveling routine?
When I first started the business, it was because I wanted to travel full-time while I worked. Technically, I am now in a position to do that… but I’ve also realised that that’s not what I want any more. (Or at least, not right now — never know what the future will hold!) Now, I LOVE my work, and I’m able to afford a nice place to live on my own, so it no longer feels as though I have to escape — not from a shit job or a shared flat.
So I’m at home in Edinburgh for much of the time, but I take a few trips throughout the year. In January I was in London, in April I visited my hometown, in June I went to Berlin for a week with friends, and I’ve just got back from three weeks in the US. Next weekend I’m probably going to head to Prague for a few days because a couple of my friends invited me to stay with them (I love that I now have friends who say things like ‘fancy coming to stay with us for a weekend in Prague?’, which never would have happened in my past life), and in September I’ll be heading to Devon to hang out with a group of brilliant, like-minded people.
My calendar is a great help in managing all this. I tend to do copywriting projects in two-week bursts, so I can easily glance at my calendar and see when I’m going to be at home. I never schedule projects when I know I’m going to be travelling. Likewise, I slot in my courses in between trips away. When I travel, I try to just do the bare minimum to maintain my business: writing two blog posts a week, sending out my newsletter, and answering emails. If I’m really on fire, I’ll do most of my work before I leave. (Sadly, I am rarely on fire.)
In 2012 you quit your job to write full time. Can you tell us more about that decision and process?
Oh, it was SO easy for for me. I was only working three days a week in a bar, which was an intentional choice so I could fit in my freelancing, and I had cut down my expenses as much as possible. I was living a very cheap life, which meant it was easy for me to replace my income with freelancing, which I did only two months after beginning. I had one client who paid me £5 for a 500-word article, and he gave me five to do per day. That was £125 per week, which covered my necessities (rent, bills, food). Anything after that was a bonus. As soon as I was making that £125 per week, I handed in my notice.
Is there anything you would have done differently early on?
I would have got started a lot sooner! I first joined Location Rebel in November 2011, but I didn’t do anything with the knowledge I’d gained in there for a long time, despite quitting my job in February 2012 so I could start freelancing. I went creeping back to work a few months later when my savings ran out and I’d done nothing. I’m one of those people who needs a boot up her arse to do anything. Deadline looming? I’m on it. Need some more money or won’t be able to pay rent? I go out and find new clients. But give me an open expanse of time and money? I’m watching Netflix all day, every day. (Fortunately my habits have improved a lot in this regard since I started, but I still fuck up sometimes.)
As for the work itself — no, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. You need those crappy experiences so you can learn how to do it better in the future. I don’t regret a single painful phonecall (‘I can do 10 articles in 24 hours! And they will be great!’), a single soul-destroying SEO article (‘The Advantages of Installing Glass Splashbacks in Your Kitchen’), or a single failed negotiation (‘I’m putting my rates up to £30 per 500 words! No? Okay, let’s stick at the old rate then’).
How has freelancing changed your lifestyle?
Oh god, so much. When I worked in bars, my idea of socialising was going out for drinks after a 1am finish. Now, my idea of socialising is buggering off to Prague for the weekend, or attending a conference I know a few of my friends will be at. Day-to-day life is obviously a lot more sedentary, which is one of the downsides to this kind of work, and it’s very easy to look up and realise I haven’t spoken to anybody for three days. But the freedom to get away whenever I want makes it worth it, as does doing work I actually care about. I probably do less things ‘for fun’ when I’m at home now, because I find my work fun (and also, if I’m being honest, because my brain is often in ‘can’t do this, gotta do that!’ mode — one of the perils of working from home). Also, I take weekends off now, which was unheard of in my previous life.
Do you still write for fun? Are you working on any side projects?
I do! I’ve never been into writing fiction or trying to write a novel or anything, but I do, as a rule, enjoy writing. I’m even enjoying writing this, and I enjoy writing on Untamed Writing. But as for none business-related stuff? Yes, I still write quite a bit. I have handwritten notebooks and a folder on Evernote for capturing my thoughts and ideas, and I’m working on a personal blog behind the scenes, too, which I will no doubt launch ‘officially’ in a few weeks. Actually, I probably write more for fun now than I did before I started my business. although I’ve been writing personally since I was about 15.
Can you tell us a bit about your freelancing course? Who is your ideal student?
I have two courses on offer now. The first, the one you know about, is called Start SEO Writing: The fastest way to get paid to write (even if you have no experience). This is the course I launched way back in August 2013, and it walks people through exactly the same steps I took when I started out.
The new course, which launches on 14 September, is called Start Content Writing: Build a freelance writing business you love from scratch in 6 weeks. This course will show people how I would create a freelance writing business if I went back to the start, knowing what I now know from three years of experience.
I know, I know: earlier I said I wouldn’t do anything differently. But, you know, that’s if I went back in time — which is different. My goal with this course is to help people sidestep some of the lessons I learned the hard way, and to help them create a business they love working on. It will cover blogging and copywriting, and won’t feature SEO writing at all.
The two courses are aimed at people with completely different goals: Start SEO Writing is for people who want to start making money ASAP and don’t care if the writing isn’t fulfilling or well paid. Start Content Writing is for people who aren’t so bothered about making money quickly as they are about building a writing business that ‘feels like them’ — that is, one that’s focused on their unique talents, temperaments, and topics.
Lastly – what is one small thing that an aspiring writer can do today to improve their freelancing business?
Start emailing companies, applying for gigs, and pimping yourself out! You’ll never get any clients, no matter how perfectly you tweak that one tiny thing on your website, if you never make contact with anybody who could hire you. Stop being so afraid. It doesn’t matter if you don’t win every single client you approach, whether because you fuck up or because somebody better came along. It’s all a learning experience, and you need plenty of those if you’re going to get anywhere.