“I’d like to charge for writing using a flat fee but I don’t know how long it will take me.”
“I always charge hourly so I know I’ll get paid for every minute I work.”
And so the debate continues. Is it better to charge for writing by the hour or by coming up with a flat fee for the whole project.
Of course, like so many things in freelance writing the real answer is “it depends.”
The pros and cons of charging for writing by the hour
Charging by the hour is dirt simple… provided you have a decent way to track all your time. You simply multiply the number of hours by your rate, and submit your invoice.
You control the definition of the hour you work. Okay, in theory you put in 60 minutes, but a truth is you can decide to work a 50 or 55 minute hour. You also get to decide at what point you round up. After all, lawyers are rumored to charge for every 15 minutes. You can do the same or at least decide when you round up so you’re not stuck with left over 10 minutes here and 11 minutes there.
You don’t have to worry about scope creep. If the client throws a curve of an extra 500 or 5000 words, your hourly rate allows for this kind of change and you’ll get paid for the time on the additions.
The better, faster you get, the less you’ll be paid. This is what bugs me the most about hourly pay personally. It’s particularly true with larger projects or repeating assignments. The beginning of a project always takes longer than the end, or almost always. You’re on a steep and time consuming learning curve when you start. The the time you’re finishing, all that knowledge and experience means you’re working more efficiently – what took you an hour when you started now takes you only 15 minutes.
Clients often want detailed, time-consuming invoices and are unwilling to pay for the time it takes to put them together – unless you get agreement up front.
If the project gets shortened you’ll earn less. Just as scoop creep can put more money in your pocket, when the client decides they need less than anticipated, you get fewer dollars.
It’s hard to raise an hourly rate. If you start charging writing at $100 an hour it can be difficult to get an existing client to accept a price increase even years later.
I like to charge for writing with a flat fee
I actually prefer flat fees rather than by the hour.
Both you and the client know exactly what the your charge for writing that project will cost. The project is defined in the agreement including arrangements for scoop creep (usually additional by the hour fees). I like knowing the total in advance.
I don’t have to spend hours on a detailed invoice. I’m not very good at tracking hours. I’m truly not a detail person. I can do it, but not reliably.
I don’t earn less as I learn the project. This is the real reason I love flat fees. I figure I should get paid more for getting faster and I can build that into the flat fee when I look at the whole project. Another way to look at is I don’t charge the client for hours lost when I head the wrong direction or otherwise screw up. And I get paid for the flash of genius I have in the shower that clarifies the whole project. I use this as a selling point for flat fees.
Invoicing is dirt simple. The fee is the fee – its the total of what you charge for writing that project. Sometimes I get it all at once, more often in quarters, halves or even monthly payments. No thinking about it.
The biggest risk is under bidding. If you don’t have some reasonable idea of how long the project will take you and work out roughly what that would be if you were charging hourly, you’re likely to set the fee too low. The cure for that is experience and timing yourself often as a way to make sure writing something does take as long as you expect.
Scope creep can be a problem. If you don’t write your flat fee agreement carefully, the client may ask for all sorts of things that are, at least from your point of view, beyond the original intention. Which is why you need to make sure your agreements cover contingencies.
Revisions can kill you. You occasionally run into clients who ask for endless revisions. The solution is to set a limit. For example, on blog posts I allow two revisions. On longer work my max is three. That third revision is often what knits everything together.
What about charging for writing based on word count?
Charging by the word is the traditional way freelance writers were paid, and it still exists today, particularly among editors and publishers who are used to paying that way. I’m in the process of negotiating such a contract right now, and it feels old fashioned.
The only protection you have against scope creep and endless revisions is to charge a rate high enough to cover your time. That’s not always easy to get.
I’ve had some luck getting editors or publishers to make the switch from by the word to flat fee.
Everything in the writing game is negotiable. It never hurts to ask, and if you don’t like the answer you can always turn down the gig.
What’s your preference? By the word, hourly or flat fees, and why? Let us know in comments.
Write well and often,