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Company #1 has some very important but very outdated web pages they need rewritten — actually, a little more than rewritten.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