Essential tools and tips for the freelance copywriter

doxie scanner, macbook air, hard drive, typewriter, note pad, pen
You don’t actually need all these things

Some time ago we talked about how to become a freelance copywriter. At long last I’m going to follow up with some answers to the question “What kind of software and hardware does a freelance copywriter need?”

If you’re considering becoming a freelance copywriter and this question hasn’t occurred to you, you might think the answers are fairly obvious. Many of them are. But in addition to those answers, I have a few suggestions that might save you some time, and could even save you from looming catastrophe.

Two of them

Among the obvious answers to what you need to get into business is a computer. I would, however, suggest that you need two. Because you can’t put everything on hold if your one computer goes down. As a freelancer, you are your own IT department. If you were working full-time somewhere and your computer went dark one day, you would call up the IT department, and they would (in an ideal world) set you up with a new computer, which you would hook up to the network, power up, and continue with from whence you left off. As a freelancer, you’re where the buck stops in these situations.

As you are also your own CFO, you may be thinking, “computers are expensive,” which they can be, and, “how can I afford two?” In response to this I point out that your second computer doesn’t have to be a top-of-the-line machine, it just has to work when your main axe doesn’t. My primary computer is a 21″ iMac, and my backup is a MacBook Air. They’re both 2011 vintage and starting to show their age, but copywriting is not a particularly processor-intensive task. The software you’ll need (which we’ll get to shortly), should run fine on machines much older and slower than mine.

I do most of my work at home on the iMac with an additional 22″ monitor. I like a lot of screen real estate. If you’re doing a lot of digital work, and everyone is these days, you’ll often be looking at wireframes and prototypes while writing, and you’ll work faster if you’re not always switching windows and trying to remember where you left off. The laptop becomes my main writing implement when I’m travelling or presenting work to clients.

Another approach would be to have a laptop as your main computer and then get something modest like a Mac Mini as a desktop/backup. Grab a used external monitor on Craigslist, Kijiji or Facebook Marketplace. They’re cheap and plentiful.

Backup strategies and cloud-based file storage

You should have a backup strategy in place, and likely more than one. I’ve had good luck with Apple’s Time Machine, though not everyone shares my experience. I’d recommend an offsite backup as well. This could be as simple as a cloud-based file service, of which there are many. I use Dropbox at the moment. Other options include iCloud (though I’m not a fan, because I’m never sure where my files are), Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive (I’m not a Microsoft fan either, but I’m told they exist), and, for the security-minded, SpiderOak.

A good SaaS file management solution serves the dual purpose of co-locating your files in the event of catastrophe at your primary physical location (heaven forfend), as well as creating a seamless workflow when you switch from one computer to another. If I keep all my client files in Dropbox, for example, I know that if I switch from my desktop to my laptop when I need to work remotely, all my files will be available in their current state wherever I end up.

Some organizations are getting quite particular about what cloud-based services they allow their employees access to. If you expect to work onsite at a client’s office, through their network, be prepared for the possibility that your SaaS of preference will be inaccessible. I’ve been doing a lot of work in financial lately, and pretty much everything is locked down within their walls. In those cases, if you don’t have local copies of all the files you need, you’ll have to rely on your mobile data plan and tether your computer to your phone. If you don’t know how to do that yet, get a handle on it now, before the need arises.

It’s equally important to know what your contractual obligations are with regards to file security when you’re working remotely. The level of risk you decide to assume with regard to file sharing applications is up to you, but keep in mind that your clients and their lawyers may have standards that are higher than yours with regards to infosec.


And now the fun part. I’ve just wrapped up a long in-house contract during which I was required to work on a Dell laptop running Windows 7. So I’m basically going to tell you all the things I missed about my Mac workstation, and everything I’m looking forward to firing up again at home. Apologies in advance to PC users; I have no beef with you. If you have software suggestions for your fellow Windows-entrenched copywriters please leave them in the comments. I should also mention that I’m not receiving any consideration from software developers for promoting their applications here. If I’m telling you I like and approve of something, it’s because I do.

Let’s just get the Office suite out of the way. As has been famously said about democracy, MS Word is the worst possible solution with the exception of everything else we’ve tried. In the case of the Office suite, it’s earned that status through technological inertia. There’s just too much of it around for us to be able to change easily to something better. So get Office, and don’t complain to me that you hate it, because I hate it more. The only up side is that the Office 365 subscription is not a terrible deal, particularly if you have other people in your household who can take advantage of the extra user licenses. Of course if your clients don’t use MS Office, you don’t have to either. But they do.

BBEdit is an amazing text editor. I’d been using its freeware sibling, TextWrangler, for many years before it was merged with the more full-featured BBEdit. The good news is that it’s still free; the trial version of BBEdit has no time limitation and does everything Text Wrangler did. It’s so much more than a Notepad (or a Text Edit). It remembers all the documents you have open, even if you don’t save them, even on restart or after a crash. You can jot down notes from phone conversations, drafts of articles, whatever. It’s also a very powerful coding tool, if you do that sort of thing.

CopyPaste Pro is a clipboard management tool. You tell it how many previous clipboard states you want it to remember, and it makes them available to you in a menu or through various key commands. If you do any UX writing, this is a huge time-saver, as you can save multiple tables and links into a kind of scratchpad database. It has saved me countless hours in putting together application copy decks. It can also strip out formatting with a hotkey, and turn anything you copy into plain text at will. Other handy features include stripping line breaks, capitalization, and even creating unordered HTML lists. That last one is the sort of thing you only appreciate when you suddenly need it, as I did once or twice.

Acrobat Pro DC is an old-school tool that I feel is falling out of favour, and I love it anyway. The subscription price is a bit on the steep side, but nothing else does what it does. I love it for highlighting and commenting on files, turning multiple files into a single document, OCR of image files, creating forms, signing contracts, and the list goes on. If you send me a bunch of JPGs to review, chances are you’ll get a PDF binder back. The Adobe Creative Cloud subscription model and process are terrible, but I find Acrobat Pro DC useful enough to live with it.

Peizo is an easy-to-use application for recording system audio. If you do any phone interviews as part of your job, you’ll want to look into some way of recording interviews and getting them onto your computer. The best way I’ve found to do this is to use Skype and some kind of app that lets you select and record audio from any source application. There are a few apps that do this, and I’ve found that over the years Apple changes up their OS enough that some of my preferred tools have been rendered obsolete. In the end I’ve had to pay for something to do this task a couple of times. Such is life. Audio Hijack, also by Rogue Amoeba, is a more full-featured app for your advanced system audio recording needs.

Freshbooks is my accounting and invoicing service of choice. The company is based in my home town, which I think is kind of cool, and it does everything I need it to. The customer service is top notch too. You’ll absolutely want some kind of SaaS invoicing and time tracking application. If you’ve got more than a handful of clients, doing it manually is completely nuts. I’m sure there are lots of other options out there, but I haven’t tried them, and this isn’t Consumer Reports. Take advantage of some free trials and find one you like.

More productivity tips to come

I think that’s pretty much all you need to get up and running. There are lots of other things I could recommend (there’s a Doxie document scanner and some lovely writing implements in that feature image, for example), but I don’t think I could rationally claim that they are essential.

If you think I’ve been a bit tough on Microsoft, it’s only because I don’t like them. But I’m nothing if not pragmatic, and I have not only learned to live with Word and Excel, but I’ve come up with a few productivity tips and hacks specific to those applications that I hope to share in future articles.

Just don’t ask me about PowerPoint if you want to stay friends.