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?
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.