If you’ve spent any amount of time working as a freelance writer, you know that rates vary wildly across the industry.
Setting your prices is no simple feat. Particularly at the beginning of your career, it can be difficult to work out appropriate freelance rates. On the one hand, you want to remain competitive, but on the other, you need to earn a living. From setting a minimum spend to settling on your price-per-word, the finance equation challenges even the most experienced of freelance writers.
And, just when you think you’ve worked out your rates, you come across a fantastic writing opportunity…that pays hourly. Now what?
Hourly writing jobs can be a great source of income, but obviously, these positions differ a bit from your average writing gig. Before you accept (or dismiss!) an hourly writing assignment, ask yourself the following important questions.
How Much Do You Need to Earn?
Yeah, I know, freelancing basically provides limitless earning opportunities. The question still remains, however, how much do you need to earn? When you factor in mortgage and car payments, grocery bills, retirement savings, tax bills, and all of the other variables, how much money do you need to earn?
Tom Ewer of Leaving Work Behind wrote a really interesting piece on determining your minimum acceptable rate (MAR) a few years ago. Tom outlines how to calculate this figure using your overhead, hours worked, and tax obligations. I’m also fond of this freelance hourly rate calculator from Motiv.
As the Motiv calculator points out, it’s vitally important to understand how many of your hours are billable! You don’t get paid for pitching, updating social media, responding to emails, etc. Be sure to include your non-billable hours in the equation, or you could quickly discover that an otherwise impressive hourly rate actually represents a paltry sum of take home pay.
You might also want to refer to this handy document from Writer’s Market, which details industry rates for writing.
How Quickly Do You Write?
I’m a really fast typist, which behooves me greatly. Of course, writing content for the web requires a bit more than good typing skills.
Before you accept an assignment that pays you based on the hours you spend, take the time to consider how long it actually takes you to write, say a 500-word article. It’s important to also consider the parameters of the job in question. For example, writing a white paper that requires heavy research is much different to copywriting.
Remember, the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t apply to professional writing. Don’t allow a potential client to pigeonhole you with broad questions like, “How much do you charge per word or hour?” Each project varies in size and scope, and there’s no shame in admitting that to your customers. Many of us answer those questions using language like, “My rates start at…”
How Will You Track Time?
So, you’re going to accept a job that pays an hourly rate—how will that time be tracked? Is the client paying you for actual time spent, or are you providing an estimate upfront?
In an estimate situation, you may quote, say 10 pages of web copy at eight hours. You come to an agreement with the customer on your rate, complete the work, and invoice for the agreed upon eight hours, even if you only spent six and a half.
If you’re instead working on actual time spent, you’ll likely be working in the offices of the client, or instead using a time tracker. If you’ve ever dabbled with assignments on platforms like Upwork or Elance, you’re probably familiar with the time tracker concept. You download an application to your computer and initiate tracking when you start working. The tracker monitors your keyboard input and take screenshots of your work periodically.
Whoa, sounds a bit big brother-y, no? I actually don’t mind time trackers, assuming I’m comfortable with the client and the rate is appropriate. It eliminates the need for time sheets or manual time tracking, which can be cumbersome.
Regardless of which approach you take, be sure to clarify with your client before the project kicks off.
How Long is the Contract Period? The “Costco” Approach.
If the Costco near my apartment in Brooklyn is any indication, people love to buy in bulk. Larger quantities often equate to lower prices. Costco and I don’t have a whole lot in common, but I too offer a discount for clients who buy in bulk.
The length of a potential writing contact may impact how much you’re charging, simply because your non-billable hours decrease if you’re spending a large portion of your time partnering with a single client.
Let’s say you use the calculator I referenced above to determine an appropriate freelance rate, and you’ve settled on charging $85/hour. It’s not unheard of for businesses to spend upwards of $100/hour on copywriting services, but you’re not going to find a ton of clients who want to employ you full-time at that rate. (40*85)*52 equates to $176,800/per annum. If a client has that much work on their plate, I’d wager a bet that they’d want to hire you on as a salaried employee.
Glassdoor reports the average copywriter makes an annual salary of $58,477. Do the math and you’ll see that hiring a salaried worker would save the business nearly $120k. If we’re looking through the Costco lens, that’s a bulk discount.
Consider the weekly time commitment the contract demands, as well as the length of the contract. If you’re contracting for two weeks, for example, you’ll need to continue your other freelance activities outside of working hours. If you’re working 20+ hours on a weekly basis on an open-ended contract, however, a lower rate may be appropriate.
What Opportunities Exist for Growth?
First, let me provide an enormous caveat: many web startups use growth potential as an excuse to pay pathetic rates.
Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, a new company won’t be profitable overnight. Don’t accept a job that pays you $.01/word, simply because the client claims they’ll raise your rates once they’re making more money.
It is important, however, to consider real growth opportunities when accepting a writing job. I wrote a few months ago on how I got a 133% raise after working with a client for one year. That client pays hourly! The starting rate wasn’t quite as high as I’d hoped, but I accepted a writing role because I hoped it would grow into something bigger, and it ultimately paid off.
Let me share a little secret: lots of freelancers are awful. From missing deadlines to submitting sloppy copy, it’s not uncommon for freelance writers to make a real mess of things. If you can be a shining star for a client and deliver real results, rate increases should naturally follow.
There is no hard and fast rule for ascertaining whether or not a company may be willing to pay you more, but trust your gut.
Do you accept hourly writing jobs? What tips do you have for setting your rates?