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

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

  1. Peggy P

    Great article. You gave me a new perspective on how to put a “price tag” on my work. I loved your thoughts on hourly rates and I agree completely!

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