We 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.
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,