Is English your first language?
If it isn’t, you’ve got some tough competition ahead of you. You’ve got to approach prospects who think it’s fine to expect to pay you less because you’re from an “affordable” country.
That goes for Eastern European countries. Many Nigerians I’ve spoken with. Same with Indian copywriters.
Or even writers from countries like the Philippines. You could have a name that’s common in the US, like Richard Gomez. And prospects will still look at you like you can produce 2,000 words a day for their affiliate site at $50 a piece. (Not good enough!)
A personal story from a non-native English speaker
Believe it or not, this has happened to me as well.
This founder of a major New York agency pinged me over LinkedIn about a year ago and wanted to hop on a call. We chatted about the state of marketing and the challenges of building remote teams. (He had come prepared. He was more than familiar with my C-level background.)
Everything seemed to be going well. He and his team loved my work. But when I brought up my rates, he balked.
Me: “I expected someone like you to know the average rates for a pro with my background and experience.”
Him: “I do, but I just assumed because you’re based in Thailand…”
Me: “I’m sorry?”
He fumbled. Asked if I could swing a five-figure salary. The conversation ended there. Bangkok, the city I’m living in as of this writing, is one of the most expensive cities in the world.
But the founder had bought into all the digital nomad propaganda from the past few decades. He came to believe Thailand was some sort of cheap idyllic paradise. (Far from it.)
Then there’s the issue with my name. In the past, I did consider changing it more than once. I know how hard it is for Americans to pronounce “Valerio Puggioni” without falling to the temptation to simplify it as “Valerie Pajamas”.
But that’s my name, and I won’t apologize for it. (And neither should you for yours.)
I do, though, suggest that you consider adapting a company name that’s easy to remember. (Mine’s Copygun. I don’t love it, but I didn’t overthink it. I picked one I liked enough and went with it. You may love it or hate it. You have to admit it though. It is easy to remember. Make yours easy to recall as well.)
A veteran SEO copywriter from Nigeria shares a valuable tip
Chima Mmeje of Zenith Copy is reputable in her space for SEO copywriting, as well as her ability to tackle complex subject matter. Yet, when it came to getting the rates she deserved, she’s had to overcome her fair share of struggles.
Here’s her advice:
“The easiest way to find clients when you’re from a developing country is to use LinkedIn. You can search for a service keyword like ‘freelance copywriter’, ‘SEO copywriter’, or ‘blog writer’. This was a tactic I used in the first 6 months as a freelancer, and it worked. I got at least one gig every month with this method.”
She adds, “Just make sure you’ve optimized your profile for the service you want to offer before replying to a job ad. It’s better than Fiverr or People Per Hour, where you’re competing with 100 other freelancers for cheap work.”
Does grammar actually matter in copywriting?
Yes and no. If your pitch stands out because it’s awkward and strikes a strange chord in a native English speaker’s ear, then you won’t get a response for your pitch.
If you’re selling yourself as a writer, it’s essential that you have someone with a high level of English proficiency review your copy. (It doesn’t matter if they’re native, as long as they’re good. Some of the best writers in English are non-native.)
The good thing about copywriting and content writing is that we’re writing for mass audiences. This means we have to use simple words and phrases. No complex clauses. No smarty-pants words. Just good ole’ plain English.
How to reposition yourself with culture in mind
The biggest issues facing non-native English speakers are grammar, idioms, and cultural nuances. (This last one is according to one senior agency copywriter on Reddit).
I don’t buy it. Hell, we could turn that argument around and put it on its head. Let’s try it: Cultural nuances. Now they’re a strength—not a weakness—for foreign copywriters.
How?, you ask.
Sell your unique knowledge of your country. Are you Chinese? Sell your knowledge of the local markets. Maybe you’re an ecomm copywriter. Offer to help negotiate with vendors. You could also navigate the nuanced cultural complexities that Chinese factories operate under.
But it doesn’t even need to get specific to the country level.
Look no further than your own background to craft your “Why” story. We all tell stories about ourselves, to ourselves and to others, about who we are. We’re always reinventing ourselves, especially as marketers. This is a natural part of being human, but also a conscious and intentional part of personal branding.
Did you enjoy coding in high school? Maybe you’re somewhat proficient in python or web design. Whatever it is, you can try to leverage those skills. Or maybe you worked in the IT industry, in some tech company, before you moved over to freelance. Tech speaks a unique language, and you do too.
So sell yourself as someone who speaks their language. Someone who can help tech companies simplify their messaging into persuasive copy. It’s all about how you position yourself in the mind of your prospects.
How to get taken seriously as a copywriter if you’re a non-native English speaker
One thing you do need to watch out for when it comes to positioning is this:
Don’t fall back on lazy clichés.
Want to offer “affordable guest post writing” to your potential high-ticket clients? Don’t. “Affordable” positions you as competing based on price, and you never want to compete on price.
Want to offer “SEO-optimized” content? Don’t. Specialize, and then offer content in that area. Big businesses with a budget will assume you already know how to write SEO content. (You are a professional, right?)
And say no to “conversion-optimized” content. Yes, conversion copywriters are a thing, but unless you have the data and results to back it up, it’s hard to break into this lucrative space.
- It also depends on what type of copy (or content) you’ll be writing. If you’re selling guest posts, expect to attract cheap prospects. That’s because these prospects are usually affiliate marketers who care little for the quality of the work produced. (They want those sweet, sweet backlinks, and that’s pretty much it.)
- It also depends on your prospect’s mindset. Do they have assumptions about where you’re from? They might think you deserve to make less because you live in Morocco or Poland, where the standard of living is lower.
But what does it matter to them where you are? Let’s look at this situation from another angle. Would they pay you Morocco rates or US rates if you were an American named Kelly Madison who happened to be living in Morocco?
- It also depends on your targeting. The right prospects don’t have these bigoted preconceptions. They don’t care if you’re from the Philippines or from Mars. If you can do good work, they’ll pay good rates. Savvier prospects know what’s up.
Your dream high-ticket clients are pros, so act like one
How do you level the playing field?
You specialize in something, regardless of nationality. Like Chima, who specialized in SEO, you can gain a real edge if you focus on something that native English speakers—or just about anyone—struggles with.
The challenge with SEO is that everyone claims to know how to do it, when very few people actually do. In such cases, showcasing your results can do wonders. And so can your samples. And so can your testimonials if they’re from reputable people in your industry. (Ever hear of the Halo effect?)
If your samples are of exceptional quality, your prospects won’t care if you’re from a war-torn city in Syria. They need to work with you, and their offer will let you know they’re serious. (These are the prospects you’re after.)
Don’t be a spam artist either. A lot of copywriters spam Facebook copywriting groups with cheap job offers. Occasionally, they’re offering free work. Don’t do this. It won’t win you any friends in the copywriting community. You’ll also forever stain your own reputation as a dirty, dirty spam artist who needs a good spanking.
No one ever scored a high-paying gig with this approach. Not a single person. Not ever. Don’t add to the noise.
Instead, be the signal. Approach businesses like the professional copywriter you are. Professional businesses expect you to conduct yourself with some decorum. And that’s how you get someone to open up to a potential working relationship with you.
Practice makes perfect, along with a little help from friends
Here’s a personal example. I speak 6 languages. The last language I learned was Thai, and I picked it up in my mid-thirties. I’m self-taught, so I rarely get a chance to practice my speech, save for the occasional chat with a Muay Thai coach or the mankoot seller.
My point is to show you that I know something about learning languages. And this is my single best tip for becoming a better copywriter as a non-native English speaker:
Seriously. Read lots of it. Some people will tell you to read the classics, like Hemingway and Melville, to understand cadence and the like. That’s all fine and good. After all, Hemingway and Melville are two of my favorite writers.
But it might not be the best approach for some people. For me, the best approach to learning languages was to read comic books and study the vocab. Reading comics gave me the fluency (and cultural understanding) lacking in most books (especially the classics!).
In the fast-paced world we live today, where our online lives are driven by meme culture, the English language is becoming more and more flexible. But to thrive in that flexibility, you’ve got to know the rules.
And you can go a long, long way with a little help from your friends. See, you can’t spell “friends” without “SaaS”, right? (Actually, you can, but follow me here.) My point is, there’s tons of remote tools available for non-native copywriters today.
But I’m going to recommend only one here:
It’s Grammarly. (Grammarly comes with a free version, which is excellent. I’ll write about the paid version once I test it out for a bit longer.)
What will you do with all this info?
I firmly believe that learning without execution is a waste of time, so here’s what I encourage you to do:
- Take some time to think about how you can position yourself based on your country, your expertise, your interests, and so on. Think about traditional weaknesses, and experiment with trying to turn them into positives.
- Try to pick up the daily habit of reading in English. You can go light in the beginning. Start your day with 15 to 20 minutes of reading time in English, reading your favorite comic. (You can also watch TV shows with English subtitles on.)
- Use Grammarly, even if it’s the free version. A tool is no replacement for a friend, but a good tool like Grammarly doesn’t only correct your English. It can teach you a lot over time as well.
- Get feedback. Hemingway said it best. “The first draft of anything is shit.” The fastest way to improve is feedback. It’s the next best thing to having a mentor.
- Work with an editor. You can work with a native English editor and decide to pay them a cut (like a small percentage of every job).
Now let’s come back to the original question: As a non-native speaker, can you succeed as a copywriter? The answer is a resounding Yes—but you have to put the work in.
That’s because nothing worthwhile ever came from doing the easy stuff. And no one has ever achieved greatness while sitting on their ass, doing nothing. (You’ve got to be sitting on your ass, reading comics!)