How to Set Your Freelance Writing Rates: The (Only-Slightly Painful) Guide

If-you-think-its

Let’s see if I can start this post without triggering a panic attack for any of my fellow writer peeps …

Please take out your math homework.”

I know. <shudder>.

Did you do your homework assignment from last week, in which you were supposed to figure out how much money you need to make to survive every month? If you didn’t, no worries. Once we dive into this week’s lesson, you’ll have a pretty strong incentive for figuring out that number.

Monthly money goals

Last week I spelled out a bunch of reasons why charging by the hour is a bad idea, but there’s one I didn’t mention. That is, if you really want to do this freelance writing thing full-time, it’s a helluva lot easier if you can have a targeted, predictable monthly income goal in mind. Why is that? Because it can give you a benchmark for deciding which jobs are worth taking, and which are going to be a costly distraction.

So right now we’re going to walk through how to set some monthly revenue goals. This may seem like a lot to take in, but I promise I will hold your hand and we’ll get through it together.

In any case, it’s really important to DO THESE STEPS because they will be invaluable in figuring out how to set your rates:

1. Figure out what you need to make every month. Multiply this by 12 to figure out what your yearly income must be.

Don’t forget to add in health insurance — because you’ll be paying all of it if you’re a full-time freelancer. As a point of comparison, my insurance is about $400 per month for me and one kid (I have two kids but one is on a separate policy). That $400 includes the tax break on the healthcare exchange.

2. Get out some tissues for your tears, because I also need to remind you that if you’re self-employed you’re on the hook for paying your own taxes.

Yes, this is such a pain in the ass, but don’t be scared of it. People way dumber than you have managed to handle their own tax payments without having an employer to act an insulator. You can do this.

I’ve never found a great equation for figuring out estimated tax percentages. In general, though, I assume that 30% of anything I make is going to taxes. That may be a little high, but I’d rather overestimate. If anyone has better insight on this, please email me at trish@writeworks.co. I’d love to have better calculations.

3. Figure out what you’d like to make every month. Go ahead and multiply this by 12 to see what your yearly income would be if you could pull this off. (And hopefully you can — we’re going to talk about how in a bit, so hang tight.)

4. Now figure out how many hours per week you would like to spend working for clients. That includes writing, researching, interviewing, and communicating with clients via phone, emails, and in-person meetings.

5. Keep in mind that you’ll need some time for general business stuff as well, so set aside some hours for bookkeeping, prospecting and pitching, networking, marketing yourself, and doing whatever it takes to stay current in your skill set. When you’re a freelancer, no one is paying you for that stuff so it falls into a little category called overhead.

Now pull out that calculator.

Determining your target rates 

Let’s work with some round numbers here so the math-challenged among us (holla!) can stay on track.

Say you want to bill $100K this year — with about $30K going to taxes, you’ll have about $70K to live on.

To hit that target, you’ll need to bill around $8333 per month, or $1923 per week if you’re working 52 weeks per year.

But wait! Do you want two weeks vacation time? No employer is paying for that, either. If you want to build that in, let’s re-calculate based on a 50-week year. $100,000 per year divided by 50 weeks is $2000 per week.

*Note: A serious downside of Freelance World is that true vacation time can be hard to come by. Unless you negotiate that into a client agreement at the start, clients will probably expect you to produce the same amount of monthly work every month, whether you’re on vacation or not.

Remember all that talk about hourly rates …

So how do you get $2000 a week?

Remember how I told you not to charge by hour? I still stand by that. However, you should have a target hourly rate in your own mind to help you set prices.

Let’s assume you want to work about 30 hours for clients and leave 10 hours for all the other bullshite. Based on a 50-week work year, you’ll need to bill about $67 an hour to hit your target. [That’s $100,000 / 50 weeks to get $2000 per week; then $2000 divided by 30 hours.]

When evaluating a new job, you can then figure out about how many hours per week (or month) the job is going to take you. For example, something that’s going to take you 4 hours per week should be billed at at least $1200 per month. [That’s 4 hours x $67/hour x 4.5 weeks.]

To hit your target, you’d need about 7 similar gigs per month.

However …  seven gigs may feel like a lot to juggle every week.

In that case, you might want to shoot for more substantial jobs and have fewer clients.

I find that I like having a mix: a couple small, reliable contracts balanced by a few contracts that require a bigger time commitment. Having to switch gears between different clients can be a brain drain if I have to do too much of it.

Not all work is the same

Does every client get quoted the same rate? Hell no. You should figure out your target rate and then slide up or down from there depending on the work. With your target rate in mind, you’ll have a better idea of where you want to land going into each new job — and you can say no to the jobs that just aren’t in your ballpark.

I just got into a great discussion about this on LinkedIn yesterday. To paraphrase what I said there, different clients get different rates not because I’m trying to be sneaky or because I’m trying to squeeze more money out of them, but rather because one hour on one project may not be equivalent to an hour on another project.

That is, some work is going to require me to break a sweat and some isn’t.

For example, I just finished a blog post on technology solutions for monitoring underground pipelines. That project forced me to get quickly up to speed on an unfamiliar topic so I could write about it in an authoritative way. Plus, it required me to apply my acquired knowledge of technology solutions — which has taken years to amass. One of the reasons I was hired for the job was because the client had the expectation that I was coming in with a certain level of experience, and that I could handle tackling a new and intense subject.

On the other hand, I also just wrote a blog post about February being children’s dental hygiene month. The hour or so it took me to write that didn’t require nearly the effort that an hour on the other post did. Therefore, it got charged at a lower rate.

Of course, theoretically, you could  decide to take only jobs that you bill at your highest hourly rate. There’s nothing wrong with that if you can pull it off.

As for me, I find that spending all my client-work hours in intense-research-and-concentration mode can be fatiguing — but my kids are getting off the bus at the same time every day*  — I like to have some mental juice leftover to be mom.

*Except for the month of February, when they’re home three days a week.

For a more in-depth discussion of this, please check out Laura Shin’s excellent article in Forbes. She does a great job of crystalizing exactly how this works.

How will I ever make my number?

Right now I can hear some of you thinking something along these lines:

The number I came up with for my targeted hourly rate seems HIGH. Can I really get anyone to pay me that?”

Or maybe you’re thinking:

Wait. Didn’t you mention something about blogging for businesses? So what exactly am I selling to these clients for those rates?”

Those questions, my sweet little muffins, are the topics we are going to cover in the next few posts. And remember: I promised there would be NO GIMMICKS in this series so prepare for some straight talk about assessing your skill set in relation to what the market will bear. Some of you will be ready to go get some work right now and others are going to have to ramp up — but if you’re willing to work hard and turn yourself into a writing ninja,  all of this should be attainable.

And really, isn’t that the secret to everything in life? Just be a ninja. Duh.

This week’s homework: Keep working on your numbers.

See you next week!

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How Much Should I Charge for Freelance Writing? (And Other Questions No One Wants to Answer)

invoice

Stop flying blind and start getting strategic to make a steady income from freelance writing

Who wants to talk about how much they charge for freelance writing work?

Anyone? <crickets>

If it’s one thing writers hate, it’s talking about money. We all want to work and we all want to be paid well for it, yet most writers I know approach money talks with about as much confidence as a dog skulking toward an owner who happens to be wielding a rolled-up newspaper.

I just want to play ball with you … please don’t hit me too hard first …

I admit, I have done this. Even now I sometimes find myself reverting to the fearful pooch position when talking to a client. And then I grab a rolled-up newspaper and thwack myself with it.

Because here’s the thing: If you’re any good at what you do, there’s no need to work for peanuts. (If you’re skeptical about that statement, I insist that you pause and go recite the PAYlance Pledge right now.)

And here’s another thing: You don’t have to be desperate for work because there’s lots of work out there.

And here’s yet one more thing: If people don’t want to pay you what you’re worth, you can always say no.

YOU are a business

I think it’s fair to say that a lot of writers are shitty business people. It’s not our natural skill set. We tend to value ideas over numbers and experience over creating our own business plans. And there’s nothing wrong with those things, except for the fact that it keeps us from approaching our freelance work in a strategic way.

So now I’m going to ask you to suck it up and pretend that you have a business. In fact, you ARE a business. That is the mindset you need to have when setting rates and talking to clients.

Why is there no magic formula for setting rates?

Today we are going to start assembling the building blocks you need to determine your rate structure. If you’re looking for the shortcut, quick-and-dirty, ultimately definitive answer on how much to charge, I can’t give it to you. The fact is, determining your rates depends on a LOT of things, including your experience, your revenue goals (yes, you need to have some), the kind of work you’re doing, and the companies that you’re doing it for.

But chillax, boys and girls. I’m going to walk you through how to put all this together in a way that hopefully will not make your head explode (too much).

A tale about why you shouldn’t charge by the hour

As I mentioned in a previous post, I do not charge by the hour and I don’t think you should, either. One of my clients told me the best story the other day that perfectly illustrates why:

A nuclear plant was having critical errors that were likely to cause a meltdown. They hired a consulting firm to come in and assess the problem. After spending days at the plant, the firm was unable to figure out what was wrong. They later sent a bill for $20,000.

The folks at the nuclear plant then contacted one of the leading experts in nuclear energy and asked him to have a look. The arrived at the plant and spent five minutes walking around. He then took a Sharpie out of his pocket, walked over to a pipe, and drew an X. “There’s your problem,” he said, and walked out. He later sent a bill for $80,000.

The powers-that-be at the nuclear plant were none too thrilled about paying $80K for five minutes of work, so they asked for an itemized bill. The nuclear expert complied. He sent back a two-line bill that looked like this:

  • $1.99 for Sharpie
  • $79,998.01 for solving your problem and diverting a nuclear meltdown

The point: Charging by the hour, the word, or the cubic ounce de-values writing and all of the accumulated experience you bring to the table. (And if you’re a beginner, don’t despair — we’re going to talk about what you should do to get started in a later post.)

You are a knowledge worker, not a factory worker

Remember that content is not a commodity. We’re not assembling stuff at a factory, we’re using our brains and our talent to create something that’s going to further someone’s business interests so they can do what? Say it with me: Make money.

If it takes you five minutes to write something but it makes a company a million dollars, that’s where your value is. (I believe I’m ripping off that idea from boyfriend, who ripped it off from Book Yourself Solid. Credit where credit is due, y’all.)

If someone just wants words to fill a space, that’s fine — they can go hire one of the many content factories to poop out some product for them. If they want someone who’s going to come in and learn their business, who their audience is, and what their business goals are — and then figure out how to put all those things together in a compelling, relatable message, that’s where my value comes in.

And ultimately, that is what  you should be selling.

Hourly schmourly

Beyond that, there are some other, very practical reasons that I don’t like charging by the hour.

  • Not to get all cosmic about it, but writing is a weird beast. Sometimes things go really fast … and sometimes they don’t. If I get stuck staring at my screen a little more than usual on a given day, then so be it. I don’t want to have to justify why a piece took three hours to write instead of two, or worse, as if I should subtract time from my bill because I couldn’t wrap my brain around something at a particular moment. It takes as long as it takes, and as long as I meet my deadlines, it’s no one’s business how much or how little I’ve sweated over something.
  • Getting paid by the hour feels like I’m playing beat the clock all day, every day. I don’t feel like working under that kind of pressure.
  • If you’re working for the same clients over a period of time, you’re going to get faster because you’ll know more. If a company found a way to produce a product more efficiently, would it charge less? Hell no. And neither should you.

Do I really have to do math?

Now that we’re all hopefully in the right mind set, I have some homework for you:

  1. Grab a calculator and figure out how much money you need to make every month. Multiply this by 12 to figure out what your yearly income must be.
  2. Start thinking about how many hours per week you’d like to devote to freelance work, whether that’s full-time or part-time.

You will need all these numbers for next week, so put a little time into this. See you then!

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Anatomy of a Pitch Letter: How I Get Meetings With Potential Blogging Clients

Pitch Letter

Here’s exactly what to do to get companies to take you seriously as a freelance writer

Quick note: I’ve started getting questions from some  readers (THANK YOU!) about how to figure out what to charge, if it’s ethical to work for two competing companies, if grilled cheese is really so much better with or without tomatoes … and I want to talk about all of this. However, I think for now it’s best to keep plugging away in bite-size, digestible chunks so I can provide you with actionable, concrete steps to win clients and make a regular monthly income as a freelance writer. If I don’t answer your questions along the way, we’ll troubleshoot like crazy at the end of the series. (I’m so excited that you’re all anxious and raring to go!)

Having said that, this week we’re going to discuss how to approach clients. Let’s dig in!

____

Anyone who has attempted to survive as a freelance writer knows that getting work is a serious pain in the ass. In fact, it can be a job in itself. Obviously, it’s a much better use of your time to write and get yourself paid than it is to have to continually knock on doors trying to get people to buy your Girl Scout cookies.

That’s why blogging is the way to go. Blogging requires a steady, consistent stream of content. Most companies just aren’t set up to keep shoveling coal into the content creation engine. If you can make that problem go away for them, you can get yourself a handful of recurring monthly clients so you can cover your monthly nut without having to constantly hunt down new work.

Picking the right targets

Now if you did your homework from last week, you should have a pretty solid idea of how to match up your talents with businesses that may be interested in paying you to blog for them.

Hopefully you’ve done some research and zeroed in on a few companies that you’d like to target. As a reminder, these companies should meet the following criteria:

1. They already have a blog. That way you can have some assurance that they understand the value of blogging (or content marketing, which you probably know is the big catchphrase of the moment) and you won’t have to waste your time selling them on why blogging is a smart business move.

2. Their blog could be a whole lot better (i.e., more interesting, more reader-focused, updated more often). If their blog is sorta crappy, you know that one of their pain points is probably executing consistent, worthwhile content. They may be primed to outsource.

3. You have some expertise or experience in the industry you’re targeting, because you’ve worked in it, you patronize it, you’ve done volunteer work in it, or you’re very familiar with it for another reason. This is important because it will give companies a reason to hire YOU specifically as opposed to any old schmo (or any old content factory) that can fling some words together. If you can demonstrate some understanding of your prospects’ worlds, you will immediately be seen as having more value.

Ideally, you probably want to start out with small- or mid-sized businesses. There are a few reasons for that. As I mentioned last week, large businesses probably already have writers on staff so they’re unlikely to outsource.

Plus, you generally want to talk to the business owner or someone who has that person’s ear, so you can get a decision faster. Getting stuck in an endless decisionmaking zone when you’re a freelance writer is much like getting stuck in the friend zone when you’re dating. You know how it is: You *think* something *might* happen so you close yourself off to other options while you wait it out.

But playing the waiting game is not going to get you laid and it’s certainly not going to get you paid. You want to deal with companies that are going to shit or get off the pot with some expedience.

What your email should look like

Here’s what your pitch email should look like:

  • Greeting to business owner
  • Who you are and why you’re contacting them (i.e., an experienced writer who wants to be their personal blogging ninja)
  • Why YOU are the ideal person to write for them (because you totally get their business in a way that few other writers could)
  • A concrete example of how you could re-purpose an existing blog post to make it more enticing to readers (more on this in a minute)
  • An invitation to talk further

Here’s a letter that I have used:

Hello [business owner’s name],

I’m a former editor-in-chief of a newsletter on employment law. I was just checking out your blog and I wondered if you’d like to meet to talk about how to get better traction from it.

I have more than a decade of experience tracking and reporting on employment law trends. I’m highly skilled at taking “legalese” and translating into audience-focused terms. I’ve also recently done some ghostwriting for [known law firm], which resulted in placements in [known legal publications].

As for your blog, this piece [link to post] could be refocused to appeal to your prospective clients and to show up higher in search engines. Here are a few potential headlines:

[INSERT THREE TOTALLY KICKASS READER-FOCUSED HEADLINES HERE]

Please let me know if you’d to chat about opportunities for us to work together. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best,
Trish Sammer
[my cell #]
[my LinkedIn profile]

If you’re going to put time in anywhere, do it here

Now I can’t prove this for sure, but I suspect that the headline examples are one of the most critical components to this pitch. Why do I say that? Because the one time I neglected to write headlines was also the one time that I didn’t hear back from anyone. Could be a coincidence, but I doubt it.

The fact is, people may have a hard time visualizing what you can do for them unless you give them some examples to sink their teeth into. Writing headlines allows you to whet their appetite without having to rewrite an entire blog post.

Put some time into crafting great headlines. Remember that businesses want to blog so they can build trust with customers. Try to put yourself in the customers’ shoes and think about what would make them click on a link — and what would make them feel warm, squishy feelings about the company. (And for the love of Gawd, please check out Jon Morrow’s Headline Hacks for what I consider to be the ultimate guide to headline writing. It’s free, it’s amazing, and it will make you a better writer.)

Your homework for this week: Write some pitch emails but DO NOT SEND THEM. Why? Because you need to read next week’s post first so you can learn what to next — which is make an offer for the exact package of services you’d like to provide.

And hey … have you taken the PAYlance Pledge yet? If not, better do it before next week because that’s when we’re going to start talking about money. That’s right … it’s time for the much-anticipated and much-feared talk about how to set your rates. Oh yes, we’re going there.

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