This post was written by TCCS member, Vivienne Pearson
Working as a ‘subbie’ is a great option if you prefer writing to client management or
want to learn while you earn.
As a newbie copywriter, I assumed I’d only think about subcontracting when writing for a builder.
Then, I started to see other writers posting call-outs for ‘subbies’.
Fast forward a year and I’m happy to report that one-quarter of my income over the past six months came from working as a subcontractor copywriter.
Yep, that’s one dollar out of every four.
If you’re a newbie looking to learn, or a more experienced copywriter looking to focus on writing rather than client management, read on to see if being a copywriting subcontractor is right for you.
How does subcontracting work in the copywriting world?
Subcontracting, or subbing, happens when a copywriter outsources some of their work but retains overall control of the project. Just like a builder might do.
It might be that a copywriter simply has more words to write than they can manage. Or they might be someone who thrives on the client wrangling but doesn’t love the detail of putting one word (or 800) after another.
Another scenario is a copywriter who needs a second (and maybe a third) person to keep the writing fresh, especially on a bigger project.
“I love the way writers come up with a completely different approach”
– Shannon Lancaster, a copywriter who subcontracts out a lot of work.
The main copywriter holds ultimate responsibility for both client management and the quality and timeliness of the work. And, when it’s time for payment (you know, the important stuff), the subbie will invoice the main copywriter, not the ultimate client.
From there, things vary:
Some copywriters who sub-out work do not tell their clients. Even if they do, subbies usually don’t directly communicate with the client. Instead, everything goes through the main copywriter.
A subcontracting-subcontractor relationship can be as brief as “Hey, can I pay you to bang out the first draft of this blog and we’ll never speak again” through to a long-lasting partnership.
It might involve a contract (oh, look, there’s a template here) and a non-disclosure agreement, or things might get set up via email only.
Communication might be by email or via a project management platform. The briefing might be anything from some dot points to extensive written documents or calls.
Subbing is similar to working for an agency. But, because subbing is a project-by-project arrangement, it’s different from employing a copywriter as a staff member.
And, subcontracting is different from Writer A handing on a client to Writer B for a referral fee because, with subcontracting, Writer A hangs around and keeps overall responsibility, even if Writer B does most of the writing work.
Subbing sounds sweet! Tell me more about the benefits
Subbing has helped me build my confidence, given me insights into the copywriting world, and taught me new skills. I’ve also discovered I can write on topics I never would have otherwise put myself forward for.
Here’s what some other Clever Copywriting School members love about subbing.
“I love how easy it is,”
“There’s no client management, I just get the brief and get to work.”
– Kara Stokes
“I love getting a solid brief and knowing I can just crack on with it”
– Angela Denly
“I don’t live for the chase, but I do enjoy partaking of the feast,”
“For every copywriter who loves the high of winning a Big Project, there’s a subby like me.”
– SE Horton
Some advantages of subbing are:
- Learn on the job. Subbing can give you an opportunity to ask questions of a more experienced writer (keep it on topic – hassling the person you’re subbing for is never cool).
- A boss who ‘speaks copywriting’. Instead of briefs written in fluent-marketing or random client-thoughts, your brief will come from a copywriter, who likely knows their meta-description from their H2 and that it’s perhaps not ideal to have 47 subheadings in a blog post.
- Try new things. My first subbing job was writing about the Federal Budget; a topic I frankly knew nothing about. I’d never have put myself forward to a client for this work, but for another copywriter who was desperate (thanks to a pressing deadline), I felt ok about giving it a go (I’m pleased to say everyone was delighted with the result).
- Focus on the writing. If the idea of working directly with a client makes your knees knock, you’ll be happy knowing that subbing focuses on what you do best: writing. This also applies if you’ve been-there-done-that with client liaison or if your current circumstances – including illness, disability or caring responsibilities – means you prefer to stay behind the scenes.
Hmm, it sounds too good to be true. What’s the catch?
Like anything in life (and work), subbing has its challenges.
As a ‘subbie’, you may not be able to claim credit for your work.
“I don’t like not being able to parade big brand names on my site if I’m a ‘secret subbie’,”
“But that’s part of subbing.”
– SE Horton
And, just because your boss is a copywriter, it doesn’t mean they’ll be delivering pristine briefs.
“As the person subbing out, I’m outrageously bad and give flimsy ‘just do something kind of like this’ briefs”
– Angela Denly
Payment rates will vary. Though most subbing is paid on a per-project basis, if I calculate the subcontracting I’ve done on a per-hour rate, it ranges from less than $30 to close to $100.
Like all freelance work, when quoting or considering an offered subbing rate, ensure you consider all that’s involved; from initial emails through to invoicing.
And, just because it’s a subbing job, there are no guarantees all will go smoothly. I learned this the hard way recently when pushed-back timelines and bigger-than-expected tasks meant I had to withdraw from a subbing project and refund the upfront payment .
Read on for tips to help maximise the chance of subbing going splendidly.
Keen on subbing? Here are five tips for you
1. Be real. Sure, you’re going to do your best possible work and approach everything with professionalism but, when working for a fellow copywriter, there’s less need to ‘fake it until you make it’.
“My biggest tip is to ask ALL the questions,”
“You’re better off asking and clarifying, than wondering and missing the mark.”
– Zoe Simmons, a writer who loves subbing.
2. Under promise and over-deliver. Just like any job, be polite, professional, honest, and respectful.
“Don’t agree to write something then, at the last minute, say you can’t deliver,”
– Caitlin Wright
“Always deliver on time!”
– Angela Denly
3. Communication is key. Make sure you’re clear about the scope of the work, payment, and other terms. And, if things start to go wrong?
“Communicate early if shit is hitting the fan,”
– Angela Denly says, with the direct eloquence of a truly great copywriter.
4. Build relationships. While some subbing jobs are one-off, others have the potential to develop into an ongoing relationship.
“When you find the people you love working with, build the relationship,”
“Remind them you’re there, pitch yourself and let them know if you’ve upskilled.”
– SE Horton.
5. Aim for a win-win relationship. When subbing works well, it’s a total win for everyone involved (cue a mutual admiration party).
“Remember they need you as much as you need them,”
“It’s a two-way street.”
– SE Horton
I’m in! Where do I get started?
If you’re a member of the fabulous Clever Copywriting Community (you are, aren’t you? If not, check out all the benefits here), there are different ways to hook into subbing opportunities:
- Keep your eye on the Job Board. In addition to external clients, the Board is a place for TCCS members to post their subbing needs. It might not always be obvious that the job poster is a CopyBeast but you can double-check by looking in the Member Directory or the Facebook group.
- Keep your eye on the Facebook group. Sometimes subbing jobs are too urgent to make it to the Job Board and will be posted there instead.
- Comment on the ‘I Can Help’ thread in the Facebook group that’s posted every Thursday. Try out some of your pitching skills and even have some fun in selling your skills and availability to those who might be on the lookout for a subbie.
A subbie summary
Working as a subcontractor for other copywriters can be a great way to learn some skills, earn some income and churn your way through projects without having to focus on client management.
Over to you
Let us know your experience with subbing in the comments below. Or share this blog to your socials to get a conversation started there!
Vivienne Pearson is a feature and content writer whose subbing work has seen her write about everything from banking and asset management to bridal lingerie and nappy bags. You can find her words, or holler for some subbing magic, at ViviennePearson.com