Figuring Out A Good Pay Rate for Writing

http://www.freelancewritinggigs.com/2008/10/figuring-out-a-good-pay-rate-for-writing/

by James Chartrand

This is the third post in a series on increasing your rates and getting more money writing for a living. We’ve already discussed when you shouldn’t ask for a raise and how to find the confidence to ask for a raise. Today’s post covers figuring out what you should be paid for your work in the first place.

Feel free to ask your questions in the comment section, and we may cover the answer in an upcoming post.

The pay rate of writers is a hot topic. With the wide range of pay rates for various types of writing, no one can really figure out what they should be charging or what they should be paid for their words.

Sure, we can all cry for industry standards and level out the playing field so that both clients and writers know what the going rate should be. It’s not going to happen anytime soon, unfortunately.

There are way too many factors involve in different types of writing for people to set a standard rate. Both print and web content pay rates vary according to readership, subscription numbers, types of articles, the amount of research… the list goes on.

Toss in local economic factors and the jumble gets even messier. Live in California? Pay needs to be pretty good just to get by. Live in Siberia? Well, things are a little different over there.

We can look at going rates around the net to try and figure the problem out, but that’s not much help either. An article that pays $500 here might only bring $5 over there. Which is the right price? Both, really.

The only way to figure out what you should get paid for your work is to sit down and start thinking.

  • What’s the typical minimum wage where you live? If it’s $8 an hour, then you certainly don’t want to be writing for less than that amount. Know your “no go” pay point and start from there.
  • How fast can you work? If you can produce two pieces per hour, that helps you determine what kind of money you might make in a day.
  • How many distractions do you have? You may be a fast writer, but if you can only work a couple of hours in a whole day, then you need higher pay to make ends meet.
  • What are your personal expenses? Knowing what you have to pay each month for bills, rent, mortgages, utilities and credit cards helps you know what you need to bring in.
  • What are other people paid? Visit sites like Payscale.com, writing associations or other credible sources to see what they suggest as going rates.
  • What are other people really paid? Sites that suggest pay rates are great, but they’re often posting what people should be paid and not what they actually receive.
  • What are your overhead costs? The answer, “Nothing,” is false. Writers have to pay for internet connections, PayPal fees, bank fees, daycare costs, insurance, and all sorts of things.
  • What do you pay in taxes? So many people think about what goes in their pocket but forget what they’ll have to pay out in taxes. Factor tax payment projections into your rates and stay covered.
  • What will you be left with? Decide what you’d like to be paid per hour (not per piece). Subtract all overhead costs and taxes. If you’re left with a dollar or two, your rates are too low.

Why did I mention that you shouldn’t base your rates per piece? People get a little stupid when money is involved. They believe $50 for 500 words sounds great, but then they forget that the level of quality may take them longer to write. It could be more advantageous to take a gig for two articles at $15 instead.

So let’s say you’ve figured out that you need at least $400 a week to make ends meet. You’ve decided that you can only work 20 hours peacefully each week. So you need a minimum of $20 an hour to reach your $400 goal.

You’ve also figured out that you can write 350 words in a half hour. Now you can tell your client that you want $30 per piece.

Do the math. You’ve not only met your monthly monetary goal in the number of hours you’ve chosen to work, but you’ve also made a $10 profit on each hour you work. That’s an extra $200 you can set aside every week.

Lean weeks? No work? Getting desperate? That’s okay. You know that you can drop down to $10 per piece and still meet your goals.

Now that’s smart business.

<em>Do you have suggestions to add? Any tips to share with new writers? Share how you figured out the rate you wanted to be paid when you began writing in our comment section.</em>

Comments

  1. The “no go” pay point is my key factor. I know I’ve been on boards and been berated for not charging what those in big cities are making with those people saying online work cannot be compared to my area’s going rate.

    I look at it this way. I’m competing with those from India many times for some telecommuting jobs. I’ve been told this by employers who ended up selecting me because of the language concerns. Those in India charge a fraction of what I charge, and I’m sure many speak English just as well as I do. If I based my salary on an average of what everyone around the world makes, I’m not sure I’d like it.

    I have friends who have been laid off in the past two years and have watched them struggle. It’s a sad state when even fast food retailers are shutting down in this area. Wendy’s shut their doors for good due last month. Linens and Things has just announced they’re closing. IBM laid off around 200 recently, my husband’s plant laid off 20 and there are businesses in other areas of the state shutting down completely. Of my friends who were laid off, many have had to take jobs that paid far less than they were making. In addition, IBM announced that they are dropping shift differential pay which is leading to a 20% pay cut for all of the manufacturing floor workers.

    If I found a job doing what I did before I had my son, I would be looking at $9 an hour to start. I’d also have a 30 mile drive, one way, to the nearest city where the majority of employers are located. When I bid for jobs, I keep that figure in mind. I’m not paying for gas, professional clothing and the wear and tear on my car. By charging a minimum of $10 per hour, I make more working at home and am here for my children.

    In addition, they dropped high school bus service this year, that’s been a good thing for me because I can arrange my work schedule so that I’m available to drive my son and his friends. I know many parents have to get to work late and leave the office early to meet the high school’s drop-off and pick-up times of 8am and 3pm. Plus, the high school holds half day sessions once a month while they have teacher conventions or hold the testing required for No Child Left Behind. I know many parents who have had to take days off from work to be there when the school releases at 11:30.

  2. Great article. I’ve always wondered what I should charge clients. I usually end up under bidding projects because I’m afraid that I’ll lose the gig if I overcharge.

    Thanks for posting this, it has helped me a lot.

  3. You know James, you forgot a few important factors.

    First off is the complexity of the piece. Not all 500 words are created equal, even in the same type of writing. Some topics just take more time to explain for your readers. A new product launch is less complicated then explaining a new coding language’s basics.

    Another issue, though it seems to be one that many site like to skip over is the level of education the writer has. This is not to knock writers without a college degree but it matters in many other fields. A MS level nurse makes more than one with a AS even if they are doing the same job. An accountant makes more than a bookkeeper, because of that degree. Writing really shouldn’t be any different.

  4. @ Kate – Actually, I did mention that not all 500 words are equal:

    They believe $50 for 500 words sounds great, but then they forget that the level of quality may take them longer to write.

    It’s easy to miss things on a computer screen these days, though. I do it all the time.

    As for level of education, I’m afraid that I’m one of those that doesn’t believe a formal degree makes a difference in writing. It certainly does in the medical field, I’m sure!

  5. @ Christie – You may and will lose some. But you’ll win others, and I think that’s important to remember. Sometimes it’s worth losing a gig because you get something better out of it!

    @ Ann – Ahh, I was hoping you’d come comment, actually. You have good views on the topic and I appreciate your comments.

  6. @ Ann – I really appreciate your comments and I certainly relate. Thank you very much for posting!

  7. My tip is to start at a wage you are comfortable with, produce the best possible product, and don’t be afraid to ask for more money if you find that the time investment is outweighing the pay.

    It was my experience that once I got over the fear of asking for more money I made more money :)

  8. Great article and I agree with your points. This is similar to the strategy I’ve tried to use. Having that defining low-end pay rate is definitely important- I feel when pay gets too low, my time would be better spent looking for new leads, applying for better paying jobs and conceptualizing and pitching articles. It’s definitely best to think in terms of hourly rate–I’ve been burned a couple of times when a rate sounded good but the article ended up taking hours. Factoring in how much you know and will need to research, as well as time editing, taking photos, etc. is definitely key.

  9. Scribette says:

    I am one of those crazy people that believes that education does play a role in the writing profession.

  10. Scribette says:

    Also – I do not think that one can compare the skill involved with writing an article to a minimum wage paying job (like McDonald’s). But that’s just me! :-)

  11. I have been freelancing for many years, and now I’m very quick at certain kinds of writing which often pay well (press releases, direct mail, etc.). Thus, I charge by the project for those types of work – assuming that I know the client, and can predict that the process will be smooth. I can sometimes make $100 for project that will take me only an hour – very nice indeed.

    But if a client is new to me, and I have no sense of the process (will she chat for hours? ask for 50 revisions?) I like to charge by the hour. That way, i’m paid for what I actually do.

    If I’m working to get a particular type of work that’s new to me, though, I might work an hour or two for just $20 – in order to get clips, or to build a relationship.

    Overall, though, I’ve found that work for hire can easily pay $50-$70 per hour. And that’s even when I work for non-profit clients. It’s the byline work that’s cheap, and that’s because the competition is FIERCE!

    Lisa

  12. @ Scribette – Having worked at McDonalds in my day, let me assure you that it does take great skill to work there. You need to be on the ball, forward thinking, motivated, have fantastic social skills, be able to count, stay moving and ensure high customer satisfaction. You also have pressure of supervisors watching, timers going off around you and the place has to stay spotless.

    I don’t know many writers who can do all of that, and these types of skills are a set extremely crucial to success. No degree will give you that. Sorry.

    But I do respect your view that you believe a degree has value.

    @ Lisa – The combo method works really, really well – especially when you have that gut feeling that you might have a picky client on your hands!

  13. I find that if a rate is too low, often negotiating for a higher rate nets me increased earnings. Usually I explain what goes into crafting an article and can usually achieve higher rates. These still may not be too a desired ultimate level but this demonstrates that negotiating pays off.

  14. I am very new(about a week into it)to freelancing and I have a question about hourly rate. If you quote a company an hourly rate, what time do you actually count? I assume that you would count the time you spent writing, revising, researching, etc., but do you count time you spend meeting with them?

    I have had four meetings with my first client. The first couple could be seen as me selling my product to them, but today I met with the client and a third party (marketing partner) of theirs to discuss the project in detail. Is that something I can (should) bill them for? I’ve already spent several hours on this project, though I haven’t written anything yet.

    Any thoughts would be appreciated.

  15. I think a degree is less relevant than your skill. Yes, a degree indicates a certain skill level in an of itself. But there are brilliant writers out there who don’t have degrees (there are probably some who check FWJ here with us everyday!). I think it matters less in freelancing than in, say, news writing, where you must have certain knowledge of journalistic standards. I think a degree can add credibility, too. But ultimately, I think employers look at skill. I definitely understand and respect the opinion that a degree matters, though.

    I do mostly print writing, and I try not to write for less than .20/word. Just a general rule. I figured that out maybe this summer, that I do not want to write for less than that. Knowing the rate you want to stay above, that cut-off point where you say to yourself “any lower than that, and I’m not interested” – that’s a good thing to keep in mind.

  16. Re: McDonalds.

    Like James, I worked for McD’s as a teen and it certainly takes skill. To start, they had me train with a supervisor for two hours and then I was turned loose to do it myself. From correctly getting the order, counting change, putting the order together it’s not as easy at it seems, especially during a lunch or dinner rush. Add in someone who isn’t fluent in English and you have to translate too.

    I remember best having a group of contractors come in and place an order. There were ten of them. Back then it was policy that you didn’t collect the money until the order was prepared. So they ordered, then it was a made scramble to get all the drinks, food, desserts, etc. If the ice cream machine ran out, you had to drop everything to refill it with the mix. Meanwhile, you have a line building up and customers yelling at you to go faster. Supervisors throwing deadlines at you constantly. They had timers set up and you had to have an order filled within two minutes, no matter how large. Food was also set to timers. Before you could grab it, you had to make sure the food wasn’t more than 15 minutes old and sitting in the warmers. If it was, it had to be thrown out and new orders had to be called in to the kitchen staff.

    I lasted a month and went back to babysitting. Babysitting was so much easier!

  17. @ Andrea – Everything is billable. Whether you choose to bill it or not is up to you. Some freelancers give a half-hour consult for free, some give an hour… but that’s all time that you could have been earning money and gave it away for free.

    Or, you can integrate time into pricing. Estimate that 15% of your rate covers reading email, meeting, looking over information, etc., for example.

  18. Scribette says:

    I also worked at a fast food place in the past. Without a doubt, I did learn more at university personally – hands down.

    I can’t even say that the fast food place taught me customer service skills as my other jobs in offices, hotels, libraries, and so on taught me those skills.

    That’s just my experience though! :-)

  19. What I do is meet with the client once to determine the details of the project, the process to be followed, the fee structure, etc. Then I write up a memo describing what I understand to be our agreement, and send it to the client asking them to review and either agree or ask for changes.

    Occasionally we will either make changes or clarify – and that’s fine.

    Once we’re on the same page, I turn the memo into a short letter of agreement. If the project is more than a couple of hundred dollars, I always break the fee into at least 2 parts, and ask for a portion of the fee “upon signing” of the letter of agreement.

    As soon as that letter is signed, I’m “on the clock.” (Unless I’m working for someone who I know well, and with whom I’m completely comfortable. In that case, I still have a written agreement – but I might start working before the letter is signed and sealed).

    BTW – quite agree that degrees are essentially irrelevant. If you have a couple of published clips that relate to the client’s needs, you should be just fine.

    Also: have never found the “I need X amount so I’ll charge Y amount per hour” formula to work especially well in real life. It’s like making a family budget: it sounds great, until the transmission blows out, or your mother gets sick and needs you to fly to Florida tomorrow. Basically, I find that I work on projects that are available, at the best price I can negotiate. If other, more lucrative projects come up at the same time, I just stay up later or get up earlier!

    Lisa Rudy

  20. Scribette says:

    In more specialized areas of writing, degrees are usually required. (in many cases, advanced degrees are required).

    That said, as mentioned before, there are many excellent writers who do not have formal education.

  21. Scribette says:

    To add, I believe that the most important item that I learned at university (along with time management, perseverance, how to debate, how to handle stress, how to work as a team and on your own, how to properly pour a beer LOL, etc) was “how to think critically”. I do not believe that I would have learned that skill in another type of environment.

  22. @ Scribette – Well, there really are no advanced degrees for writing, but I’ll agree that legal writers should have legal background, medical writers need medical background, etc, so perhaps that’s what you mean.

    I’m glad that you also learned those important skills in university. I attended two years of university, and that training didn’t come close to teaching me what I’d learned through everyday interaction with people in high-stress jobs.

    What I *did* learn in university is that one should never underestimate the value of other types of education beyond that learned in the classroom.

  23. @ Jenn – I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying in the second paragraph, and I am interested, considering you feel that minimum wage has no bearing whatsoever. (Dunno about you, but I wouldn’t want to be working for less than that…)

    Also, it seems that the arguments you bring forth about employer’s contribution may not apply to all situations. In the case where there is no employer/employee relationship but rather a business/sub-contractor relationship, I have trouble seeing how these costs apply. Not saying they don’t – just saying that as worded, I can’t see it right now (hence, my request that you go into a bit more detail. Help me out, hm?)

    Lastly, are you referring to a U.S. only situation? Some of the contributions you mention don’t apply to other countries.

    Anyways, let me know. I’m interested!

  24. @ Jen – Okay, I think we’re saying the same thing. Sorta. Not sure. Anyways. I said to use the minimum wage as a consideration along with other factors – not on its own. I mentioned business expenses, which will of course affect rates.

  25. All this discussion of what a writer SHOULD make may be irrelevant for a writer starting out without any backlog of experience. In fact, a writer may choose to write for nothing in order to build a good collection of published clips. Or she might decide to take a lower fee in anticipation of a large quantity of future work, etc.

    Bottom line: work is a good thing, and it’s usually a bad idea to turn down a paying client because they don’t hit an artificial per-hour fee. There’s certainly no guarantee that the next client will pay more – and you can easily end up with no clients, no clips, no nothing.

    ON THE OTHER HAND – when I taught the Business of Freelance Writing class at Penn, I told my students NEVER to charge under $20 per hour. Why? Most clients assume they get what they pay for. And a writer who charges $8 per hour is almost certainly a brand-new writer who is honing his skills on the client’s nickel! (Of course, if both parties to agree to the arrangement, that’s fine – but it’s a rare situation!)

    Lisa Rudy

  26. I immensely enjoy your article, James. Great stuff, as always!

    I hope I would be not be impolite if I ask a question through this board. My question is not within your article but somehow related to it.
    (Maybe my question had been resolved elsewhere in this site but I seem not to find it).

    Here goes:
    What should a freelance do when a client pays half of the agreed amount ? (example, the agreed fee is $20. The writer wrote and submitted the article but the “client’ sent only $10).

    Worse case_– what should a freelance writer do when the client does pay the submitted articles? ( Client ignores all communication and just ” disappears”, so to speak).

    James, kindly delete my post if this is off topic in your article.

  27. I feel that many freelance writers fail to see the bigger picture when they first start out. On day one you’re sat in your home office, staring at your screen – and initially all you’ll see are the seemingly low-paying adverts. It’s tempting to just close the window, sigh and dream of being the next best-selling author!

    But everybody needs to start somewhere and if you take on a few $5-50 jobs, you’re gaining experience and a portfolio of delighted clients. Make sure you obtain a testimonial from each client.

    Armed with your portfolio of completed jobs, you’re now a much more marketable commodity. Nobody but you knows you only got paid $5-50 for each of the jobs! What people DO know is that you’re an experienced writer, who can turn their hand to a number of diverse projects and timescales and have happy client testimonials to back that up!

    Once you’ve got a portfolio, you can start to make contacts with people, perhaps when networking, and the fact you’ve done some work before will start to draw people towards you. People will start to pass on your details, they’ll know you’re a writer who does freelance work, you’ll start to get calls.

    See the bigger picture and use low-paying freelance jobs to produce your all-important portfolio, testimonials and evidence of good work completed!

    Good luck everybody!

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