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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Writers Worth Week: Why Your Per Word Rate Isn't All That

Day two of Writers Worth Week, and you're in for a treat. Urban Muse Susan Johnston is someone I remember "meeting" at the start of her career (and pretty close to the start of my own freelancing career). Here was someone who was going to rock the writing world. And rock it she has. Susan has a phenomenal blog, a book I highly recommend (LinkedIn and Lovin' It), and speaks at various industry conferences. Plus she's just so darned nice. 

Here, Susan's tackled the topic of the per-word rate. She's changed my thinking - I bet she changes yours, too.

Why Your Per Word Rate Matters Less Than You Think
By Susan Johnston

Ask most writers and they'll tell you they'd rather earn $1.50 per word than $.50 per word. After all, the latter is three times as much money, right?

Not necessarily.

Time is money so you also need to factor in the time and hassle it takes to complete the assignment, not just how much you're earning per word. Although most publications pay by the word instead of by the hour, it's a good idea to estimate the amount of work involved and make sure the assignment is actually worth your time.

Say you were assigned an 800-word feature article for a national magazine that pays $1.50 per word. That's $1,200, which sounds like a tidy sum of money. But if your editor asks you to interview two "real people" sources and two experts, you'll easily spend several hours (if not days) finding "real people" who meet her criteria and cajoling them to talk.   

Once you've completed the interviews and written the article, let's say your editor drops one of your sources because the source refuses to sign the photo release form or maybe the art director doesn't find the source very photogenic. Then you spend several more hours finding and interviewing a new source. By now, you've easily sunk 20 hours into the assignment.

After you file a revision, your editor sends the article to her boss, who chimes in with a dozen questions that require you to re-interview one of the real people and both experts. Another two days playing phone tag and revising your article so the article is (finally) accepted and you can submit your invoice.

But wait! Two months later, you still haven't gotten paid, so you send a follow-up email, which goes ignored. The next week, you call accounts payable and they ask you to resend your invoice.

Five months after starting the assignment, you receive a check for $1,200, but you realize you've easily spent two full weeks reporting and writing, then re-porting and rewriting your article, not to mention the time you spent begging to be paid. At roughly 40 hours a week x 2, that's 80 hours. Divide $1,200 by 80 hours and you've earned a measly $15 per hour, which is even less after taxes.

But what if you accepted a different assignment at $.50 per word? Perhaps a trade magazine offers you $400 for an 800-word article that requires three experts (all provided by your editor so there are no approval issues and no "real people" to wrangle). If you schedule the three interviews in an afternoon, you could spend an hour brainstorming questions and reading background information (you've covered the topic before so you just need a quick refresher, not a crash course), then a half hour on the phone with each source.

The next day, you spend two hours writing the article and a half hour proofreading and verifying the stats you included. Your editor emails you back right away with a few minor questions and zaps your invoice over to accounts payable. A few weeks later, you get paid via direct deposit. All told, you've spent a little over five hours on the assignment, which equates to between $75 and $80 an hour. Even if it took a little longer, you'd still earn a lot more money per hour than the other example and you'd keep your schedule open so that you could accept other projects, too.

Now, you may have non-monetary reasons for accepting Assignment A (prestige, the personal satisfaction of seeing your byline in a magazine your mother-in-law reads). But if you consistently under-value your time, then you're stunting your earning potential.

A few years into freelancing, I decided that I'd rather work with low-maintenance clients and earn a decent hourly rate than kill myself trying to please big-name clients and earning close to minimum wage. The handful of high-prestige, low-paying assignments I do tackle are balanced out by assignments for publications with a lower headache factor and higher pay.

Need help figuring out how much you should be earning per hour? Katherine Lewis of CurrentMom has an excellent post on calculating your freelance rate and the Editorial Freelancers Association lists common editorial rates.

Susan Johnston blogs at The Urban Muse and Ebyline. Her articles have appeared in, The Boston Globe,, US News & World Report, and many other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @UrbanMuseWriter


Cathy Miller said...

Great info, Susan. I have used project fees from the beginning. But, then my clients are corporations instead of magazines. When I write articles, it's ghostwriting and I'm paid by my client, not the trade publications.

Even with project hours you can make bad choices for all the reasons you have here (you underestimate research time, revisions, etc.)

For the 1st time, I am working under a retainer. I decided to use a time tracking tool for my own info on the individual projects. It's been a real eye-opener. I recommend everyone use a time tracker occasionally to validate their fees.

Great post, Susan.

Lori said...

The time tracker really is an eye-opener, isn't it? Cathy, I used one for several projects, especially the retainer clients and the one-offs. It helps narrow down the per-hour rate better.

Jennifer Mattern said...

Great article Susan!

This is one of the reasons I focus on Web content more than print, and why the only print writing I take on is the kind Cathy mentioned -- ghostwriting for clients who pitch the articles to trade publications. The clients are easier to work with most of the time, you have fewer hoops to jump through, and pay is on your terms.

That's not to say there's anything wrong with taking on magazine writing work like the example you gave. As you mentioned, there are good reasons for doing it. But there are equally good reasons to take the "lower paying" gigs on a per-word basis, and it all comes down to knowing how you work and getting the best hourly rate possible.

Lori said...

You're back! Welcome home, Jenn. :)

~Diane said...

The numbers don't lie - and I'm not in this game for the prestige. I find it hard to identify and snag those low-maintenance clients, though. Help? Tips?

Devon Ellington said...

Yup, you have to figure out how much time it takes in proportion to payment. A good relationship with the magazine generally prevents that back-and-forth redo scenario, though. I've sometimes run into that for the first article I've done, and then we sort out the obstacles, and things run much more smoothly going forward.

Of course, some publications have senior editors who always have to put fingerprints on everything, so it doesn't matter how to-the-mark your work is; they're still going to mess with it.

The trick is not to go too low down on the per word rate, or you wind up in content mill land.

Paula said...

Susan, thank you for explaining what I've been trying to get across to a handful of self-proclaimed writing experts on a forum I've been involved with for a few years.

One "expert" keeps stating her bottom line per-word rate, and I finally gave up trying to explain how lower rates sometimes pay more when you break it into hourly rates. Yeah, that's when I realized she wasn't an expert on anything.

I'll take a quick 50¢/word assignment from a good client anytime!

Sharon Hurley Hall said...

Great advice, Susan. It's important to weigh up the hassle factor too, I agree.

Like Cathy, I've used time trackers to see how much time I really spend on some projects; it's very enlightening.

Lori said...

Diane, my best tip for getting the lower-maintenance clients is to raise your rates. Seriously. The more they pay, the less hassle they seem to be to work with.

Lisa Romeo said...

Good advice here.
Because I once worked full time in public relations, and had to track every single minute back to a specific client and specific project, I carried this over to all of my writing and freelance work -- and you are correct. Very often, *smaller* jobs are the real money-makers.

Samar said...

I love it when you break down rates like this Susan! One of my biggest reason for specializing in blogging and ebook writing was the money (which is good in both if you find the right clients) and the time involved in both.

Wade Finnegan said...

Sometimes it is better to "just do the math". As writers most of us are not number thinkers and there is psychological response for a $1.50 compared to $.50, but Susan has it correct. At the end of the day you need to crunch numbers and decide how much money you want to make per hour.

Ashley said...

Fantastic post, Susan. I have been in both of these situations before. One of my editors frequently needs one- or two-source stories and provides all the contact info - either for that person directly or their PR person. I get paid within 30 days. Total time: 3 hours or less.

The article I'm finishing right now pays twice as much as the previous editor. But I've had to track down about 10 (ten!) different people (some of the sources I had to come up with myself) all with interviews, collecting photos, getting releases, and I can't ever get a response from the editor when I have questions. I have EASILY spent 20 hours on this story. I'm getting paid pennies, when I calculate it out. And on top of that, it took three months for me to get paid last time. She's a nice editor, but it's not worth all this trouble!

Missie said...

Great Info! I just stumbled across this site for the first time today and I love it! Thank you!

sarah henry said...

Love the idea of Writers Worth Week and this is a timely reminder of how some assignments are huge time sucks and thus not necessarily worth it.

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