Freelance Writing Pricing: Per Word, Per Hour, or Per Project? And How Much Of Each?
Most freelance writers would agree that pricing is just about the hardest thing to get right in this job.
There are several commonly used pricing strategies: per word, per hour, and per project.
And there is a massive and ever-changing variety of projects out there for us to work on.
How much should you charge for an article which your client is having published in a top-tier trade media outlet (assuming they’ve already got the publication’s buy-in)?
What about something that they’re just going to circulate on their blog, on Medium, or on LinkedIn?
How about writing an entire book for a client?
Or maybe “just” an e-book or a white paper (don’t be deceived — these are big projects too!)
How high should you go for a 45 minute keynote speech at an industry conference on an abstruse topic you’re going to have to research from scratch — with 200 executives and prize-winning scientists in the room ready to pounce on your every mistake, potentially causing enormous reputational damage to your client?
What if your client wants to also turn that speech into a white paper — but you’ll only have to do the editing and not the (usually) difficult work of writing the text and blocking off time to ‘download’ information from your client’s Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)?
Believe it or not, these are all projects I’ve had to come up with quotes for in the past twelve months — along with plenty of others.
And I have no doubt that many of these I have — let’s just say…royally screwed up.
Because if nothing else pricing — besides being difficult and highly variable between markets, clients, and industries — is fickle, fickle business.
Price too high? You’ve just lost yourself a prospect.
Go to low? Believe me, there are prospects out there that are going to devalue you and your work and move on to the next suitor in line who has worked up a bit more courage.
To add to the complications even further, there’s an entire encyclopedia-full of guides on this very subject to read through online.
And of extremely variable quality.
Some of these are compiled and promulgated by well-known authorities.
Writer’s Market is sometimes thought of as a gold-standard in that respect.
Personally, I have found Carol Tice’s pay surveys and commentary extremely insightful and digestable.
And increasingly Glassdoor.com is a resource for both anonymously disclosing rates and evaluating the overall experience of working freelance with a company.
Finally, there are the random musings on the subject of other non-household-name authors such as this one.
To find those, hammer ‘freelance writing rates’ into Google and try to make sense of the mess, the plurality of opinions, and the wildly different rates commanded by writers in different parts of the world.
Last year, feeling a little overwhelmed by the haystack of information — but convinced I could land upon a needle or two — I decided to swap my keyboard and desktop for a pen and paper and try to mentally sketch some sense out of the various common pricing models.
Here’s what I came up with.
Model 1: Pricing Per Word: The Print Journalism / Magazine Standard
If you’ve ever freelanced for a print publication — especially a magazine — then you’re undoubtedly familiar with the concept of pricing written work by the word.
While that may seem straightforward, the range of income possibilities that this pricing model produces is actually rather massive.
You can technically be paid in the smallest denomination of legal tender in your country. And I’m sorry to be the bearer of grim news, but if you spend enough time on Upwork, you will eventually come across just these gigs.
But let’s peg the bottom of the market, slightly less depressingly, at $0.05 USD per word. At that rate, the sentence you are reading would earn me $0.55 — (that’s up to the figure itself!). So I could buy a couple of ballpoint pens.
Now let’s take a look at the other end of the spectrum.
$1/word is a sort of classical benchmark for really decent print journalism rates — a journalistic gold-standard per se — but there’s nothing saying that they don’t stretch as far as $2/word and above.
Think about it: some journalism involves journalists putting their lives on the line or spending months in a foreign country working sources for information. We’ll revisit that potential pitfall a little later on.
So when it comes to per-word rates, the sky is the limit —but (just as equally) the ground can be too.
(If you want to get a sense for how bad journalism rates are getting, though, take a look at this eye-opening — and partially eye-watering — run-through from Contently).
The Advantages of Pricing Per Word
Per-word writing rates are amazing if you are a super-caffeinated super-fast-typing writer (that’s me as I write this!), but your client thinks that you are more the tormented artist type staring wistfully out your window as you mull over how best to end that third sentence in your debutant content marketing piece.
In other words: it’s a pretty nifty way of disguising a high hourly rate if that’s your thing.
Because of their ubiquity in the journalistic world, I also think that per-word rates remain useful as a yardstick for comparing rates between authors — whether they’re doing journalism or engaged in the fine art of producing (excuse me while I suppress the urge to burn this word) ‘content’.
The Disadvantages of Pricing Per Word
Pricing per word also clearly encourages you to just keep blabbering about whatever you’re blabbering about.
Just for fun, let me just blabber in a whole extra sentence here because if I was earning $0.50/word I would just have bought myself a (cheap) lunch — which is known as ‘brunch’ if it is early enough to be considered a late breakfast and, interestingly enough, among well-to-do young people around the world brunch-eating is an increasingly popular and very enjoyable past-time — which can also be very nutritious depending on what you eat, although if you’re on a calorie-restricted diet than you’ll want to be mindful about that too — and, of course, mindfulness is all the rage these days.
You get the idea.
In other words, it discourages brevity.
And if there’s anything that you learn through dint of experience as a writer, it’s that writing short is a lot harder (and often more rewarding!) than writing long.
There’s another disadvantage that I think is under-recognized.
Just as per-word rates can be your ticket to enrichment-through-content-churnalism, if your client caps the word count on your briefs then per-word rates can actually be per-project rates in disguise.
Think about it — and be careful about this double-edged pricing nemesis the next time a client offers it to you.
Let’s say you have a 1,000 word article to write and you’ve negotiated a respectable $0.40/word fee for the piece. This should yield you an income of $400.
If you throw a few shots of espresso down your throat (I prefer Turkish, but I digress) and write that piece in an hour — and, whatdoyaknow the client doesn’t ask for edits — then you’ve just made the hourly rate of a Wall Street Banker — and you should probably reward yourself with a cigar.
But what if it’s an article for the CEO of a medium-sized organization?
Your point of contact might need a round of edits.
And his point of contact too (because if there’s a better way to look valuable than leaving unnecessary contributions in tracked changes I don’t know of it!).
But clearing the middle management layer might not only represent… well… the ‘middle’ of your torment.
If your contract does not have a clause limiting the amount of allowable revisions, then — trust me on this! — it’s extremely possible to start out with a seemingly generous rate only to see it whittled down to minimum wage (or worse!).
My advice for pricing projects per-word: use it for comparison purposes only. Not for billing.
Model 2: Pricing Per Hour. The Safe and Steady Option
When you think about it with a jaundiced eye, all work ultimately boils down to you exchanging hours of your life in return for remuneration.
That’s a bit grim so let’s move on.
More optimistically — the only way you can guarantee a basic income for yourself, as a freelancer, is to ensure that you earn enough per hour.
(Bear in mind that mathematics are not my strong point so feel free to totally pull apart that claim.)
How to actually calculate this is actually a little bit more complicated than might immediately seem apparent, however.
Everyone seems to have their own, but my formula goes something like this:
- Tot up how many hours you work in a typical week. I’m currently at something horrible. But let’s you put in 40.
- Figure out what ratio of billable to non-billable hours is comfortable for you. I’ve never heard of or met a freelancer who puts in 100% billable hours. Non-billable hours include things like: time spent prospecting; time spent nurturing sales leads; meetings with clients who aren’t prepared to pay you for your time (you can probably guess my feelings about these). Some people like 75% (billable) to 25% (non-billable). Personally, I think that 50% to 50% is way more realistic, comfortable and — this is key — sustainable. That should give you plenty of time, plus a little bit of buffer, to do your taxes, give your clients proper attention without making things feel rushed, and give you enough time to ensure that your business is operating as effectively as it can.
- Next figure out how many days vacation you want to take.
- Finally, deduct your average monthly business expenses.
When you’ve done all this, you should be able to compute how much money each client needs to be paying you per hour in order to achieve a livable and viable gross salary for your financial needs.
I have my own spreadsheet for this which I would be happy to share (a sample is below and you’ll probably be better off building your own anyway!)
Advantages of Pricing Per Hour
I love per-hour pricing because — as mentioned — it gives you a basic degree of financial predictability that per-word and per-project pricing does not.
When everything else in your freelancing life might seem like chaos, it’s great to have this as a bulwark.
Secondly, per-hour pricing is a terrific means of avoiding the potential huge pitfall of per-project pricing: scope creep (more on that later!).
If you’re working with an unpredictable startup whose expectations and objectives for your project seem to be in a constant state of flux (as well as the internal approval cycle), consider offering them a per-hour fee.
Although, as I’ll explain later, businesses do not like these as they typically want a firm line item to approve on a budget.
Disadvantages of Pricing Per Hour
Remember our happy caffeinated writer friend earlier who had succeeded in making the hourly rate of an investment banker by getting his clients to pay him a per-word rate as he laughed all the way to the bank?
When the pricing structure is per-hour there are no games left to play.
Personally, I don’t think that this is a problem. Although you could argue that many professionals — like doctors — do get to chip in on the fact that they can do skilled work quickly.
But there’s an easy fix: charge your viable hourly rate and neither you, nor your client, has any major ground for grievance.
But this approach is commonly recommended against for “fast workers” for this very reason.
Factoid two, and a well-known one among the freelancing community:
Clients will often balk at an hourly rate but accept unquestioningly the exact same rate if it is just presented differently — such as worked into a project fee.
If you’re looking to command a healthy hourly fee, prepare to find yourself on the back foot justifying your pricing.
Model 3: Pricing Per Project. Clients Like It. But… Scope Creep!
Here’s a picture of a falafel, which is a food that continues to sustain me to this day, and which I therefore feel a weird sense of gratitude towards despite it consisting of fried chickpeas, bread, and some tomato. So let me run an analogy using it.
Almost always, falafel stores charge you a fixed price for this sandwich.
If you choose to be a demanding customer and ask for every filling behind the counter — including white cabbage, red cabbage, tomatoes, tahini, and amba— at this minute level of economics, then you, dear difficult customer, have just succeeded in putting a tiny erosion in the falafel stand owner’s profitability.
You’ve both used up more raw ingredients and also taken up more of his worker’s time as he stuffs those tomatoes and eggplants in the bread for you.
To add insult to injury, you’ve possibly drawn the ire of everybody in the queue behind you — including those who were planning on ordering a much ‘higher ticket’ meal for their entire family — and who may have given up in frustration and gone to the falafel stand down the road instead.
This is a little bit like how pricing by project works for freelancers.
Like the student who’s budgeted $10 for lunch, and needs to know the price of the falafel sandwich to stay within it, the marketing managers we typically work for have an annual budget of X many thousands, hundred of thousands, or millions, and needs to know that the service you are providing is going to be delivered on spec, on budget, and on time.
This — in a falafel-ball— is why clients like project-based pricing.
On the other side of the equation, you might find yourself in the shoes of the hapless falafel store owner.
Let’s say you get one bad customer who proves to be unreasonably demanding and puts you behind on other (more profitable) projects.
And what if you get four customers like that back to back?
This is where you, as a freelancer, can end up in a world of pain and frustration.
So be careful.
Some Advantages of Project-Based Pricing
We’ve seen why clients like project rate.
But what about freelancers?
Like per-word rates, project rates let you disguise quick work.
(Okay, my falafel analogy has kind of broken down at this point, but let’s say the guy ordered by phone and has no idea how hard you actually worked, or how long it actually took you, to put together his sandwich).
If you can predict the amount of time the project will take you, then you can basically just price the job at a rate that guarantees your hourly.
So — if you’ve written five thousand press releases on a subject and a client asks you to write your five thousand and first, all you have to do is figure out how much to charge based on a near certitude (the amount of time it will take).
But things don’t always work out this predictably in the real world of freelancing.
And The MAJOR — No Let’s Make That ENORMOUS — Disadvantage
Let me be honest.
There are a few projects that I have come to remember as absolute nightmares.
Legitimate weeks-long disasters.
Not because the client was inherently unpleasant or because I didn’t enjoy the work.
I remember these experiences like a sense of revulsion rather because the thing scope creeped so far out of control that I had to wonder what universe the client could be living in that the request seemed reasonable to them.
There are a few ways to avoid this:
- Have an ironclad contract. My writing contract is sometimes superceded by my clients’, but it limits revisions to two rounds of “minor” changes affecting less than 25% of the text. Any more back and forths and it’s billed at an hourly. I also think it’s highly advisable to set a maximum time frame for revisions. When I was starting out, I once got a $100 blog post back for its third round of revisions ….. six months after the first draft was tendered.
- Pick your clients carefully. Exploitative clients are out there. So are eminently unreasonable ones. And so are staggeringly cheap ones. All will have an absolute field day with a freelancer they can get to write a project for a fixed rate — and force to work on it for eternity.
Finally — A Word About Retainers
You may be wondering where retainers fit into this schema.
Yes, those lofty pinnacles of freelancing success and the dream of a (partially) steady monthly income.
Here are some quick thoughts on them (and they are, of course, great).
- They have the same potential for scope creep as per-project fees: Businesses that make a living out of retainers, such as PR agencies, are unscrupulous about telling their clients when they’ve run out of hours. Whatever you sell a fixed quantity of your time as a freelancer, you should too.
- They have the same potential advantage as per-word rates: I don’t advocate trying to make a quick buck out of anybody. I advocate always ensuring that you make a sustainable living that meets your financial needs. But retainers can also be ‘gamed’ by those that can dupe their clients into thinking that they’re working a lot harder — or for a lot longer — than they actually are.
Go With What Works For You … Or Pick A Combo
Sorry to end this so insipidly, but my only real advice around this aspect of freelance financials (I’ll discuss rates themselves and rates for specific projects separately later) is to do what works for you.
What do I do?
Simple — I keep my target hourly spreadsheet at the forefront of my mind and I build all my proposals around it (although more often than not, they end up being flat-fees to meet clients’ needs).
I find the idea of hourly rates extremely appealing because — at the end of the day — nothing stresses me out as much as the prospect of not making enough money to survive.
But as I said — clients have justifiable reasons for being reluctant to agree to them. They have to control expenses just as we do.
Although given that I have seen both flat project fees spin nightmareously out of scope control and seemingly envious per-word rates degraded to the bargain basement fees you can hopefully understand the slight fear I feel whenever I hit the send button on a proposal based around them.
I would suggest that a great trick (if your clients will agree to it) is to use a combination of the two.
The pricing structure I mentioned earlier (a 1,000 article for X; up to two changes; and further revisions billed hourly) is actually a hybrid flat fee / hourly fee pricing structure.
The few times I’ve had to charge the hourly it actually ended up feeling like a totally worthwhile experience.
I’ve no problem with a team that wants to get this blog / white paper / ebook 100% right — so long as I’m being fairly compensated for my part in the effort.
If you’ve any thoughts to offer / advice feel free to drop me a line by email.
Thanks for reading — and happy pricing!