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How Freelance Writers Should Charge – By the Hour, Word, or Flat Fee

writers should chargeWe spend a lot of time talking about how much freelance writers should charge and how they should set their rates, but we rarely the merits and problems about how we charge – by the hour, by the word, or by the project.

Not surprisingly there are advantages and disadvantages to each.

A look at convention

An hourly rate is a familiar form of payment for both the worker and the employer. It’s easy to understand and when someone is looking for a writer they often expect to pay by the hour.

Being paid by the published word has a long history in writing. Dickens is reputed to have written such long books because he was paid by the word. Laying out a newspaper or magazine, having word counts in advance really helps. The editor knows how many words it takes to fill a particular news hole or article space in their magazine using their type. It also provided a convenient way to figure out how much the writer was owed.

That sets the background. Now let’s take a look at the pluses and minuses of all three pay schemes.

Hourly pay

When you’re paid by the hour you know how many hours you have to work in order to make enough money to pay your for your expenses and some of your wants. At first it seems straightforward and perhaps the easiest approach to asking for pay from a client.

On the other hand as you learn the job, the better you get at it the lower your pay.

Here’s what I mean. If you’re cleaning someone’s house and they are paying you by the hour chances are the first time you do the job is when you make the most money because it takes to time to learn how to clean any house while. By the time you’ve cleaned the house a dozen times you’re probably going to get it done in close to half as much time and your pay will be reduced accordingly, which hardly seems fair to me.

Writing for a client or publication is often like that. The first couple articles or the first chapter of a book are likely to take longer because you’re not familiar with the subject or the way the client once it written. As you continue to write for them you get better at it – again, potentially reducing your total hours and, as a result, the money you actually earn.

This is the real reason I don’t like to be paid by the hour.

Pay by the word

Generally, when a client wants to pay you by the word, they have a specific number of words in mind. That also means they’ve got a budget mind. You might ask gently.

When you’re writing for the web the number of words doesn’t seem too important. After all we still don’t have a definition for a webpage – they can go on forever. Of course style and tone have a great deal to do with length when it comes to writing. Because reading on screen is anything but pleasant, short and pithy is much more the norm than long and leisurely.

When your writing goes into print the word count may get more important. You can only squeeze so many words on a printed page if the type is to be large enough to be read.

In magazine writing for instance reasonably accurate word counts are important because the editor actually knows how many words she needs to fill the magazine with articles. Book editors also know how many word result in X pages.

Of course it’s rarely made clear whether you’re going to get paid for the words you write or the words that are actually published. Editors have been known to slash writers work in half or worse. This is a point you want to get clear on when you’re getting paid by the word.

The other problem is the potential delay in your pay. The piece has to be published before anybody can count the words and know for sure how many words are on the paper.

Flat fee per project

When you negotiate a flat fee of, say $1000, you know you’ll be paid that amount no matter how many words you write or how you approach the project.

The risk is asking for a flat fee is not really understanding how many hours it’s going to take you to do required writing. Bid low and you may find yourself working literally for pennies an hour.

With experience, however, you’ll know how long roughly it will take you to generate a 500 word article, or a 50,000 word book. You’ll also know about what you need hourly, and you’ll know you need to add a contingency of at least 10% that. In other words it’s fairly easy to come up with a flat fee that works for you and is fair to the employer or client.

I find that most of my clients actually prefer flat fee.

In truth, you’ll probably find yourself doing a bit of all three payment methods. Although most of my writing is based on a flat fee I occasionally write by the word or right by the hour. I know the risks of each and the rewards.

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Write well and often,


Anne Wayman freelance writer







Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crazyeddie/

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Gotta love grammar nazis… Here you are sharing your advice & experience for free, and they fixate on unspecified minor errors. We’re all only human 🙂

    Just wanted to say thanks for this overview, and for your helpful blog in general. I prefer flat fees myself for the same reasons.

    • KeriLynn, the grammar nazis used to bother me… until I realized I need to hire them occasionally as copy editors – blogging doesn’t seem to allow for much editing – at least not the way I do it as a one woman band along with other work. Even the time to pass a ms. back and forth with a volunteer gets too cumbersome.

  • Dear Anne,
    Your advice would carry more credibility if your article were free of errors.
    As to hourly rates, I am not a worker on a production line. Nor am I so ng standardized work like installing a toilet. I don’t sell my time. I sell the value I produce for and to the client whether it takes 5 minutes or 5 hours.
    Buuuut, some clients are so mentally stuck on hourly rates that they refuse to see the advantage to them of a project price for an agreed scope of work. Hourly gives me an incentive to work slowly. Flat fee gives me an incentive to work quickly, which a rational person ought to prefer.

    Also consider: If what I create to their specs brings them an extra $10,000 in one year, and they pay me 5% of that $500, that is a 19 for 1 return on their money. That’s the beauty of business.

    • Dennis, you’re right… hourly does create the temptation to slow down. I love your formula for value.

      BTW, looked at your website… great job… except the type size is too small for many, which is, of course, just my opinion…

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