Deciding on an amount that reflects my worth as a writer is probably my biggest headache as a freelancer. With the diversity that comes with the job of writing, comes the strange incongruity in pay rates.
In my experience, if you want some consistency in this department, spending a little time on admin goes a long way.
Set your own standards
There is no global, standardised set of freelance writing rates. Each publication differs, and each country has its own range of rates. For instance, a standard magazine article in New Zealand, Australia and the US may bring in anything from 20 c to 60 c per word. An online publisher may pay from 1 c per word!
So what do you do with such vastly differing rates?
For starters, you can decide on your own set of standards, taking into account what you need to cover basic costs and what your ideal profit-margin is. Other things to consider are your goals as a writer, whether you want to work full-time or part-time, and what your level of expertise is. Experiences writers get paid more – up to double the rate of beginner writers.
Contact publications that appeal to you as a potential writing market and ask what rate they pay their writers. Best is a phone call, as this is an industry notorious for its unanswered e-mails.
Get hold of other freelancers in your country. Established full-timers will probably have a website that may be able to tell you what their personal rates are. Otherwise, contact them and tell them who you are and what you need. They should be happy to disclose their rates because it helps to bring consistency to the market. You’ll be surprised how many professionals in this field are willing to share information to promote healthy competition.
Once you have an idea of what freelancers around you are being paid, consider your own experience. Pick a seasoned writer with high rates and use them as a yardstick to determine your personal approximate worth. Measure your professional experience against this yardstick and adjust your rates accordingly. But be honest. It doesn’t help to inflate your ego if you fail to deliver the goods in the end; nor does it help to be too self-deprecating.
This is the perpetual paradox of the workplace: if you ask for too much, a client or employer will ask a more affordable writer to do the job. If you charge too little, you may be perceived as inexperienced. Be sure about your status as a writer. If you claim to be a niche writer in a particular field, ask yourself if you really can be seen as well-read in that division. Do you have something to say about the subject off-the-cuff, or do you first need to do extensive research?
Determining these factors will give you enough backing to be able to justify your rates, whichever way the pendulum swings. Always send your CV and a portfolio of work to potential clients – work done previously will speak for itself. If you don’t have a lot of experiencing, stay confident. If you know you can do the job, say so. But if you can’t, don’t be afraid to decline. People will respect you for your decision and will trust your judgement in the future.
Also, know your market. It’s common knowledge that certain sectors make more money than others. Business writers and PR writers will probably make more money than writers doing work for an NGO. So be reasonable about your expectations. Be aware of what your client will have to offer and consider the limitations.
There are three main ways to bill your client, either per word, per hour or per project (where you receive a flat rate for work done). Be discerning and choose the one that suits both you and each individual client best:
- Per word: Many feature writers opt for this billing method. You know what you’ll get paid before you start to write (assuming word count is included in your brief) and you’ll be able to work at your own pace as long as you stick to the deadline.
- Per hour: While many employers prefer this method, it becomes problematic when dealing with freelancers. Since you’ll more than likely be working in your own time and space, how can your client know if you’re being completely honest about the hours you spent on the work? Also, it could take you more time, or less time to write an article for a variety of different reasons. Unless you’re physically in the client’s office space on a contractual basis, I wouldn’t opt for this billing method.
- Per project: If you make the most of your time writing, this could be quite a lucrative option. That is, the faster you write the more articles you can file in your billing hours. What you charge will depend on the difficulty of the project.
Remember to state your rates and terms of payment upfront. It’s no use going back later to demand a down-payment if that wasn’t discussed at the time of the briefing. Provide all the necessary information in the form of a quote – or at least via email so that there’s a paper trail.
Freelance Journalism for Magazines and Webzines Course
Working out an exact rate or salary
If you’ve been a full-time employee in the past, call-up the Human Resources department at your old company to find out what your Cost to Company (total compensation) was. As a freelancer, you become responsible not only for your gross income, but for your medical aid, retirement plan and insurance. These are normally part of your CTC salary, things that you’re now going to be responsible for. Use this number to determine your net annual income and from there decide what you need to earn monthly to cover all your costs and earn a profit. It’s entirely doable with a bit of planning.
Knowing exactly what you need to get by should give you the inspiration to stick to your guns when it comes to your rate. Be honest and be consistent.
Don’t lower your price just to get work – you’ll sell yourself out and you’ll lower the integrity of the writing profession as a whole.
Be positive, patient and persistent and you’ll start getting work for what you’re worth.
Samantha Moolman is a freelance writer and editor who is currently responsible for the Family Life articles in Your Baby magazine.
Samantha also works as an assistant lecturer for the University of Pretoria’s Department of Journalism.