3 Mistakes to Avoid When Setting Freelance Writing Rates

Money tree

When quoting by the hour can work — and when it can backfire

Today I have a guilty confession for you. Or actually two, depending on how you feel like slicing it.

I also want to let you know about an insanely useful tool that might change the way you set your rates forever.

But let’s get the guilt outta the way first, shall we?

I let you all down

I’m going to put forth a new axiom. Let’s call it Sammer’s Law, because why not take the opportunity to name something after myself, right?

Sammer’s Law: She who fails to consider subtleties and exceptions shall be swiftly forced to confront them.

To put that somewhat less-succintly: The principle that the act of pontificating about any one topic, especially on a blog, and especially using the words “always” or “never,” will be closely followed by the appearance of evidence that weakens the point you just spent 1000 words shooting your mouth off about.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I caution against working for hourly rates.

So guess what I went ahead and did? Yep.

Twice. <wince>

The time that the bad thing turned out kinda good

Things worked out really well with one quote and … uh, as for the other one … well, you’ll see.

So here’s what happened. Two pretty sweet potential clients showed up on my doorstep. Unsolicited work? Hell to the yeah.

Company #1 has some very important but very outdated web pages they need rewritten — actually, a little more than rewritten. They need them re-imagined.

But there’s a lot of info to go through. If information were laundry, it would be like someone dumping 10 loads of clothes on your floor and asking “How many outfits can you make out of this?”

Obviously, I can’t know that until I dig in. Also, this company is not accustomed to hiring professional writers. The person who was going to hire me thought it would be an easier sell on her side if she could quote an hourly rate. Since she’s an old friend/former colleague, I wanted to make it easy for her.

So I created an hourly rate with the help of the AWESOME TOOL that I mentioned above. My friend got approvals, the company agreed to a fixed amount of hours and now I’m tasked with getting through as much that laundry pile as I can. Pretty painless so far.

Score one for the hourly rate method.

The time that the bad thing didn’t turn out so good

Then there’s Company #2. Sigh. They are doing some really awesome things. I want to do awesome things with them.

But to make a really long story short, let’s just say that if Company #1 has 10 loads of laundry, Company #2 has 100.

At first they wanted to me to do one specific project — in laundry terms, they wanted me to concentrate on the whites. No problem. I wrote them a proposal and gave them a project rate to do the whites.

But then they said, “Hey, can you do the brights, too?” There were a lotta brights. And some of them were dry clean only. And some were hand-wash and some were cold-wash. And did I mention there were a LOT?

With a shifting scope of work, a massive assignment, and the wild card of getting through their corporate approval process — which could be easy or could be the opposite of that — quoting a project rate felt like taking a shot in the dark. If I ended up miscalculating, I could end up working well below my targeted rate.

So I thought, “That hourly rate thangity worked pretty well with Company #1. Maybe I’ve been wrong all this time! Let’s see if it would work again!”

They were game … but … (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?) they also wanted an estimate of how many hours I thought the project would take from start to finish.

I thought we were getting married!

We’d come this far. I’d already spent about seven or so hours meeting with them, getting familiar with their content, and writing a very, very detailed proposal. I was invested. So I went back to the drawing board to see what I could come up with.

But here’s the thing: There were probably over 100 completely unique pieces of content to go through. Some would’ve taken me 20-30 minutes to rewrite. Some would’ve taken me four hours. I went through what can accurately be described as a “shitload” of documents, trying to find something to hang my hat on — some way to quantify or group content so I could look at it as a whole.

It was an impossible task. In laundry terms, I was going to have to read every label on every piece of clothing in those 10 loads of laundry.

By that point, I’d easily spent about 10 hours on their material.

Finally, I ended up back where I started: I proposed a monthly retainer to get started on the project.

They’re kicking it around. We shall see.

Life is one silly teacher, yes?

It’s entirely possible I won’t get that gig. And if so, oh well. That sometimes happens in Freelance World. I didn’t need the job, although I sure would’ve liked it. In any case, those 10 hours I spent sweating over proposals for them were certainly instructive.

Let’s break this experience down into some handy “lessons learned” bullets, shall we?

  1. Time box proposal time. Yes, do your homework and let your effort show in your proposal. But keep in mind that that time may never have an ROI. Decide what you’re OK with.
  2. Don’t work for free, even if the work is fun. Did I give away too much in the proposal — like, stuff that I probably should’ve charged a consulting fee for? Maybe. (Or “yes.”) But to be fair: They did not specifically ask for all of the information that I gave them. I got excited about the gig and went to town on it.
  3. Don’t get pressured into saying how long something will take. Keep in mind, I’m not saying this as a way to get something over on a client. Rather, I’m saying that freelancers need to protect their own interests. It’s all too common that a job that looks very simple on the surface is a lot more complicated once you dig in. Clients will want to know turnaround times. Stick to ranges and be sure to explain that turnaround times may be heavily dependent on the availability of source material/subject matter experts and especially on approvals.

The amazing tool I promised you

One other valuable thing I learned from this experience is that WRITER’S MARKET IS THE BOMB DIGGIDY. Someone mentioned it on LinkedIN, and I was blown off my rocker to find that this really useful book contains pages and pages of rate comparisons for different kinds of writing work.

And my downtrodden little writer friends who think that my post on charging $67 an hour was nuts … well guess where the rates in this book land? #justified

We have a lot talk about the next few posts, including:

  • A big pep talk from your friend Trish (hey! that’s me!) on why you probably need to charge more — and how you should go about it
  • How to construct a monthly deal with a client, including determining scope of work and monthly fees
  • Why ghostwriting is such an incredibly valuable skill to have in your pocket — and how it can take your writing career to the next level
  • How to network without feeling like an idiot
  • Answers to your important questions

Your homework for this week: Send me your questions at trish@writeworks.co.

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One thought on “3 Mistakes to Avoid When Setting Freelance Writing Rates

  1. Aden

    Sammer’s Law. I love it!

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