15 Aug 2014

How much does a freelance writer charge for quality copy?

My first answer to the oft-asked question "How much do you charge as a freelance writer?" is always: not enough. That's subjective, according to your standpoint, of course.

However, one look at the EFA Table of Editorial Rates is often enough to convince a client that I'm not over-charging them.

The problem is, every market has its parameters: the maximum it, or a client's budget, will bear. Likewise its troughs, low points when you should walk away. Or should you?

That's what we're going to look at, today. Are there times when you should take a job, even if the rate falls below a perceived "minimum wage" that you, the industry or acceptable society has set?

Writing as a pastime is not the same as freelance writing full time

Whilst we dream of being the next Stephen King or J K Rowling, the truth is we have to be sensible about the rate we charge.

Okay. Let's disappoint the aspiring freelance writer yet further. Their rate, at least as a fledgling writer without portfolio and few contacts, is rarely up to them at all.

Many would-be writers happen upon the craft not in a moment of divine vocation, but as a way to make a little extra whilst holding down a full time job. Or when they're between jobs and every little extra helps.

pink sunglasses

When copywriting isn't the sole financier of your standard of living, it can lead to rosy-coloured-glass syndrome.

As a bit of pocket money, you perhaps don't mind earning less than your employed hourly rate. But, Be Warned!

That mindset can cast a hue over what your writing's worth, at least compared to the perceived value a full time writer places on their copy.

If you're earning a full time wage, winning a job on a freelance site (or getting a recommendation by your aunt to write a piece in the parish newsletter) is all well and good.

There's often plenty of time to complete the task. The pay isn't always great so clients don't (always) harass you for the finished product. And when payday comes, your fees get added to the holiday fund or put towards 'that treat'. Everyone's a winner.

The game-changer is when you begin writing in a professional capacity. It's your only income and your clients have deadlines.

The upping in tempo, the pressure of the deadline and the realisation that you've got to write otherwise there's no Becks in the fridge this summer drains the pinkiness from those glasses.

With the rose-frosted hue melted, you see the world of freelance writing in its own garish, naked light for the first time.

Look away now if you're easily frightened.

Global freelance sites are tremendously good value - for the client

There's no subtle way of pointing it:

Unless you get lucky, you must build up a #credible portfolio (work and happy clients) before commanding a liveable #wage as a #writer. At least if the global freelance sites are where you're hoping to earn your living..

Fortunate may be shining upon you and your client finds you in the right place at the right time. I put myself in this category, although my good lady insists I positioned myself to be so fortuitous.

Alternatively, you may have graduated with a degree that opens doors. This could be to an established magazine, journal or other recognised publishing house.

It's usual for blue chip companies to demand at least some letters after the names of their authors. Not debtors, as is the case with some lower end publications.

The truth, though, for most writers is that they have to bid on jobs as a freelancer to secure their first projects.

If you can land plumb on your feet at a magazine, you may command the princely sum of £5.00/100 words. The higher-end the publication, the better prospects you have of pushing that to £10.00 or £12.50/100 words.

As a fledgling freelancer, that's living in the lap of luxury. Now compare that to the cut-throat global freelancing sites where you're up against freelancers from countries whose cost of living is only fractions of that in the UK.

Sit down and grab something stiff to drink if you've not yet seen the delights on offer on global freelance sites like oDesk, freelancer.com, People Per Hour, Fiverr and Elance.

shocked emotiguy

Many clients - the freelancers’ paymaster - offer set prices for the jobs they offer. Whilst not globally the case, jobs regularly appear on digital freelance sites at a rate of $1 or $2 per 500 words.

It’s worth pointing out that the majority of such global sites operate with the US dollar as their one and only currency. Take away the agency's fees and the forex rate and you're taking even less home.

So, yes, you’ve read that correctly: $0.40/100 words is often the going rate. And that's before deductions.

Use your proposal - add value to up your rate

So, let's break down what it takes to create a semantically sound article in today's world of search. And remember, we're talking about writing for clients who you may want to come back and order from you again. The easiest, most cost-effective way to grow your business is from your existing customer base, right? Darn tootin'!

For a start, someone offering to pay $2/500 words doesn't even understand the #concepts behind quality #content. At least not in a way that will help Google rank a web page. You know when we said walk away? This is the bottom of the trough.

A unique, quality, 700-word article can take up to an hour alone to:

  • absorb the raw data;
  • re-draft the piece in your head;
  • extract the bullet points you'll use as headers;
  • re-write and repurpose the content into a legible article that adds value;
  • let it rest before you go back to edit it.

If you're anything like me, the editing process will involve data extraction. If you're hoping to rank a client's content, why wouldn't you be interested in seeing your assignment through the eyes of a search engine? Yes, it adds time, thus cost.

But you want to be paid more. The client wants great value. Explain your process to them in your proposal, justify your rate and you see if they don't snap your hand off!

Hang on; I feel an incoming soapbox moment: too many websites that talk about copy and blogging are telling people to write for the click-thru. Make your headline emotive.

I just want to temper that - not pish it! altogether. If you're writing for the social click-thru then, yes, you do want your headline to stand out from the crowd. But what about SERPs?

Think about this for a minute. When you search Google, the main traffic source for any quality website, what type of headlines do you see? Do you see headlines that tug at your heart strings? Or do you see headlines that answer your question?

I'll leave that thought with you, for the next time you're beating yourself up over a headline. If you want the social click-thru, make it dramatic. If you're good enough to write for organic search, write a headline that both describes your article succinctly and the question you're looking to answer.

[gets down off soapbox]

Should I accept low-paying jobs?

You can see in an instant that the life of a freelance writer begins far from the six- and seven-figure sums that best-sellers command for one small book. Or even renowned copywriters themselves earn in a year. But that doesn't mean you won't or can't get there.

There will be contracts on freelance sites that are worth doing. Some of the more technical writing projects, niche markets, white and academic papers and articles for professional services can offer the aforementioned magazine rates and more.

The harsh reality is that without a portfolio to back up your job proposal, you’ll be lucky to even get a response from the client.

You have to decide whether to accept a few lower paying jobs to lay the platform from which you launch your career. If you do, don't make a habit of it. Explain up front why you're offering to complete their project at such a competitive rate. Otherwise, they'll expect that rate forever.

Or, you could sit there twiddling your thumbs waiting for the higher paying jobs to come. Target your proposals to each of the higher paying jobs and hope they're willing to take a chance.

There is no right or wrong answer. Some people will harangue me for that, but they've just forgot what it's like to be sat there waiting for responses with no 'credits' left to bid on more jobs.

What to do next

My advice to anyone looking to start a career in freelance writing is get some experience before ditching the day job. But try to charge the rate you'd expect if writing was your only source of income!

uncertain future for man

If that snippet of genius has come too late and you're sat there waiting for responses from clients, get writing. Today.

Start your own blog. Start timing your words/per hour output. Not just writing, but editing it, too.

Step out of your comfort zone. Not every project will be on a topic in which you're authoritative. Or even familiar. However, do write down those subjects in which you are savvy. By knowing and practising them, you can tailor your job search and subsequent proposals to match your specialities.

In a semantic world, with authority counting for so much, "Write what you know" can't be overstated enough.

But also, be prepared. It can be demeaning, working ten, twelve hours a day for little more than a take-away meal and a six-pack if that's the way you go. But boy, you'll have earned it, if that's what you choose to spend your wages on.

Your reputation will grow. You will become faster and more adept at creating and editing articles. That lifestyle you always hoped writing could deliver is achievable and worth the sacrifice at the outset.

But you have to start. Somewhere. Every journey begins with a single step. Just decide if it's a small step you want to take or stride out like John Cleese!

Once you get to the professional stage, the whole thing flips. Rather than clients tell you what they're willing to pay, you can choose the best-paying jobs or tell the client what you're willing to work for.

It's not easy. It does require talent, doggedness and a very thick skin. But learning perseverance, adopting a willingness to learn and practising consistency will get you there.

As the Internet becomes more dependent on quality content, the need for capable writers is only going to increase. So I ask you this: "How much can freelance writers earn?"

The answer is very much down to your attitude. Good luck.

image credits, all from freedigitalphotos[dot]net:
> "Pink Sunglasses" by Teeratas,
> "Shocked Emotiguy" by farconville
> "Future Unknown Represents Unclear Uncertainty And Man" by Stuart Miles