Tracking Freelance Writing Billable Hours and Expenses

by Anne Wayman

Freelance writers and editors often find themselves doing projects that are billed by the hour. Sometimes these projects also involve expenses, like phone, travel, etc., that will be reimbursed.

Keeping track of the hours worked and reimbursable expenses is absolutely necessary if you are to be paid the correct amount. As with all thing freelance, there is a wide variety of methods for keeping track of the time spent writing and of billable costs.

No matter how you track, your system should include at least the following:

  • Project name
  • Nature of the cost (writing, research, phone, etc.)
  • Billing rate
  • Hours worked
  • Expense list (keep track of these even if you’re not reimbursed for tax purposes)

Track Your Writing in a Notebook

A notebook can be a huge help, particularly if your work involves time away from your desk. Make sure it’s of a size to fit in pocket or purse and you’re on your way. You can track in diary fashion, or by setting up a page or two for each project. Just make sure you’ll be able to read your own writing when you get ready to create an invoice.

If you don’t like the notebook approach, try 3×5 cards. This is what I do and find between keeping receipts and noting costs where I don’t get a receipt I’m in pretty good shape. I’ve also been known to jot down a contact or a writing idea on the same card. I transfer the data from the card to its permanent home at least once a week.

Track Your Writing Expenses on a Spreadsheet

If you’re familiar with Excel or other spreadsheet program, it’s a snap to create one for each project. The topics can run across the top with dates down the left, or visa versa. The spreadsheet can also be used as an invoice if you create the proper headings.

Each of my clients has their own folder on my computer, titled with their name. I’ll create subfolders for the spreadsheets, and subfolders for the writing I actually do for them. I’m always able to find information regarding a particular client in a hurry.

Track Your Writing with a Computer Program

There are all sorts of programs that will track the time you spend at the computer. Some are flexible enough so you can track multiple projects in the same session; others also act as billing software. These may be overkill for casual freelancers, but for those who actually spend 30-40 hours a week at the computer, they may be worth the investment. You can find many of these programs by Googling: freelance time tracking


Logging the date and hours worked at the top of the writing work can be a simple but effective method of tracking time spent. For example, I’m working on a glossary and at the end of every session, I simply put a line like this:

2 hrs, 5/19, 2+ hrs, 5/20 – 1-1/2 hrs , 5/22 – billed 5 1/2 hrs

On May 19th, I worked an additional two hours and one-and-a-half hours on the 20th. Since I’m billing the client as I go, so I’ve also noted that on the 22nd I invoiced the client for 5 1/2 hours. When the project is finished, I’ll put together the final invoice and just delete the tracking information at the top of the file before I send it.

Inspiration in the shower

One of the problems with billing by the hour is what I call the inspiration in the shower. You know what I mean. A writing project stalls and you spend several hours trying to get it back on track. When you give up and do something entirely different, a solution appears in your mind. It never seems quite fair to me to bill for the hours I spent trying to solve the problem. On the other hand, an inspired solution appears in moments and billing your normal rate for 10 or 15 seconds of inspiration doesn’t make much sense either.

If I’m billing hourly, I figure it all works out. If, however, I’m taking on a project that I suspect will involve some false starts and some magic moments, I may propose working for a flat fee.

How do you keep track?

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Image from http://www.sxc.hu

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jackhub November 26, 2013 at 6:04 am

Hi,
nice article, it really hit the spot:)

I´am using primaERP TIME TRACKING for half year and it works great. App is web based and very intuitive.
For our freelance use it´s free.
http://www.primaerp.com

Reply

annew November 26, 2013 at 10:35 am

Thanks, Jack, I’ll give it a try.

Reply

Joanne March 1, 2009 at 10:59 am

Excellent article! The importance of time tracking is often underestimated even though it can cost a lot of money when not done properly. Luckily there are a lot of tools out there to help us :).

Joanne’s last blog post..New instruction videos available!

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Lori November 3, 2008 at 2:34 pm

Great article, great transition from B5, Anne! Glad to see the new format, and really glad you’re “home” again. :))

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