7 Get-Real Questions to Ask to Set Your Freelance Writing Fee

It’s one of the toughest questions for new writers: What should I charge?

“What’s the going rate?” writers ask me, hoping there is a pat answer that will let them know if they’re being ripped off.

But there is no going rate, for anything in freelancing. There’s only what you’re willing to take and what the market will bear. Where those meet, you have a gig.

What really matters is your hourly rate. Time is your most precious resource, so when you’re pricing a job you want to figure as best you can how long it will take you to do the gig. The multiply by your hourly rate to get your bid. The hourly rate you need will depend on your own circumstances — how high expenses are, how many available work hours you have, and what you consider appropriate.

As you gain experience, keep raising that hourly rate. That’s really it in a nutshell.

To help you start setting your rates, here are seven questions I ask to help me decide if a writing gig is worth taking:

  1. How bad do you need this gig? If you have open time in your schedule, it can be better to fill it with any sort of paid writing rather than simply having downtime. Getting fully booked is key to raising your rates in the long run, as once you’re fully booked you can start to be choosier about which gigs you take. If it’s a particularly interesting assignment or a high-profile client, it might even be worth doing a small free assignment from them, to get a valuable clip that could help you move up.
  2. Will this client recommend you? If rates are low, you need to know if this client is the type who would talk you up to other editors or marketing managers. I know writers who will only do pro bono works for clients who are guaranteed referrals.
  3. Does this client have more work for you? You have to do a lot less marketing when your clients have ongoing work for you, month after month. Since I enjoy writing more than marketing, I’ve been known to discount my rates a bit for clients who have steady work, while one-off projects go at my top rates.
  4. How pleasant do they seem? The longer I do this, the more I value clients with a nice personality — they’re easygoing, fun to talk to, clear about what they want, and seem to love my first drafts. The more of a pain a client is, the more you should charge.
  5. How complicated is the work? This is one of the most important factors. An offer of $50 a blog post might sound okay, but if it turns out the client wants 1,000-word blog posts with multiple interviews for each one, it’ll be disastrous on an hourly-rate basis.
  6. How sophisticated is the topic? Writing about pets for an audience with a 6th grade education is going to be easier than writing for an audience of retirement-plan managers. The more you’ll have to research an industry you don’t know well, the longer it will take, and the more you need to charge.
  7. What payment terms will they agree to? This one took me a while to catch onto, but if a client doesn’t pay for four months or more, they need to pay top rates. They’re basically using you as a short-term lender and running their business with what is rightfully your money. I hate that. You also often end up wasting time having to chase down these slow-payers, so you have to figure that into your bid. Folks that pay me the day I put in an invoice, on the other hand, deserve a discount.

How do you decide what to charge? Leave a comment let us know.

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18 comments on “7 Get-Real Questions to Ask to Set Your Freelance Writing Fee
  1. Jean Gogolin says:

    I have a few more:

    Are they paying for it themselves as opposed to having their organizations pay? This happened to me recently with a very prestigious scientist who wanted help preparing a complex presentation. Her organization would not pay for speech writing assistance. I charged her less than normal. (She has been delightful to work with.)

    Is this an interesting new field in which i want some experience?

    Can I get a testimonial for my website?

    You mentioned this, but will the client give me referrals to others in her field who otherwise would not know about me?
    Jean Gogolin recently posted…Writers, here’s how to eavesdrop – and whyMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      When you do the “Oh, they’re paying for it themselves so I’ll charge less” thought process, I like to call that buying into the soap opera.

      Your rates should be your rates, in my view, and you look for who can pay them — unless, as you say, it represents a particularly awesome opportunity to stretch or enter a new area. I recently did a book project at lower than normal rates, for instance, because it finally got me a print book co-byline after many interviews for these gigs that went nowhere, and I think it’ll take my freelancing to a new level in terms of client and project quality.

      I have a post coming up about keeping soap operas from derailing your income. I hear this sort of thing a lot: “They’re wonderful women and one of them has cancer so I’m charging them half my normal rates!” You want to avoid getting sucked into their drama and personal story — it really erodes your ability to negotiate well. It’s fine to make the occasional exception, but with some writers buying into the soap opera is their regular M.O., and that can lead to consistently poor earnings.

  2. Carol:
    I think you’re off the mark on this one. There’s really only one question…
    “What is this customer willing to pay for this job?”
    Now, if you want to get deeper than that, you could ask yourself, “Am I able to add enough value to the process and product so that at their maximum price, the client will still feel they got a good value?”

    Keep in mind that some of your questions could actually lead you to lower prices… If you focus only on filling up your day by taking jobs at any price, you will rob yourself of the time needed to prospect new, high-paying customers. “Filling the day” is what content-mill writers do.

    OK, I’ll conceed that some clients are higher quality and deserve a break. If they are going to send you massive volumes, refer you to all their friends, pay quickly and be fun to work with… all of that should get them a 10% discount. But really, there are never guarantees of future work or future payments, so basing a price on these “qualitative” issues is walking on thin ice.

    As an interesting example: 1,000 words for Entrepreneur magazine has a firm budget of $800. But 1,000 words for American Express also has a firm budget… of about $3,000. And then, even within American Express the budgets change. I wrote for 2 days and earned $12,000. Then I traveled for 3 days and appeared on camera… and was paid just $5,000.

    Now I’m not suggesting that you let the customer “SET” the price, only that you find out the budget and determine what the work is worth to the customer before you set a price.

    Finally, while an hourly rate is certainly a good barometer for most work, the real money comes from things like the AmEx job (priced as a project) and commercial copywriting (a la Dan Kenedy) that pays royalties. There are certainly examples of “freelancers” making hundreds of thousands from a single piece of work… via royalties or, in some cases, affiliate sales (which is really the same thing).

    OK, enough of David’s soap box. Just thought things needed to be shaken up a bit today.

    Still love ya!
    David
    David Worrell recently posted…Quit Your Job Now – While You Still CanMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi David — and bring it on! Feel free to disagree with me as long as it’s respectful.

      It’s true there’s no guarantee a client will be an ongoing one, but I personally highly value ongoing clients so I do take that into consideration. This is definitely my personal list of key questions…look forward to seeing other additions from writers.

      Sounds like you worked on some of the same AmEx projects I did last year…good times. Hope they decide to do more content in 2012.

      Also, this is a list of questions to ask yourself, really.

      The question I like to ask the client is “What’s your budget?” Definitely want them to blink first in naming a figure. I find any time writers do that, they report back that the figure was higher than the one they had in their heads…

      • Carol,

        I’m so glad you mentioned the “What’s Your Budget?” question. I got refused for a project just today for my fee being higher than the person’s budget. I’ll be sure to add that to my list of questions for the client in the future.
        Mellissa Thomas recently posted…The Film Industry Secret Filmmakers Should Be Drooling OverMy Profile

        • Carol Tice says:

          Yeah…I really try to get them to blink first and throw out a number…then that gives you a chance to adjust your bid if you want the gig.

          I had one friend who spent a ton of time putting together a bid in a vacuum recently…she turned out to be $9,000 over the client’s budget! And it was a total waste of time. You want to avoid that.

  3. I came across your post at just the right time! I’m just starting out and have done some work for a friend. I probably undersold myself and feel a bit silly for doing so. It’s so hard knowing how to handle rates when starting out. Any advice is gratefully received!

    Kirsten

    • Carol Tice says:

      To get an idea of professional rates, there’s a good chart The Writer’s Market publishes, off an annual survey. That said, it’ll be a big range for each category.

      Main thing to know is not to beat yourself up about how you priced one early gig. Just keep raising your rates as you go, until you make a real freelance rate — in the neighborhood of $100 an hour. That’s the sort of level you’ll need to cover all your own expenses as a freelancer and still earn a good living.

  4. diane says:

    I actually agree with both Carol and David. I am willing to go the extra mile for a client I enjoy working with and probably do give away way too much. But I make up for it by charging the “grumpy” client more. And if they dont want to pay it, I just move on to the next client knowing (hoping?) that the bottom line works out in the long run. Naive and/or pollyanna? maybe Works for me? absolutely! Freelancing is tough and I hope to earn $12,000 for two days worth of work as David does but don’t see that in my interior design niche future so just try and enjoy the work that comes along and attempt to get paid what I feel I am worth. Thanks for the fun discussion, though.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Bet you could earn it writing for some top interior designers’ companies. Or for manufacturers of high-end interior-decor goods. Just follow the money in your niche.

  5. Mike L. says:

    How come there is no money writing about video games, apps or gadgets? It seems like they are growing and thriving industries?
    Mike L. recently posted…Offering Press Release Services for iPhone/iPad DevelopersMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi again Mike —

      Ah, you bring up a side issue to fee-setting: Some industries are plagued by very low pay. The answer to why is always the same — it’s because there are too many people willing to write about that topic for cheap. It’s no different with pets, or parenting.

      But even within niches that are overcrowded, there are always ways to make it pay. Find the clients with deeper pockets. I can tell you writing for Nintendo or Apple pays very nicely, for instance.

      The other answer is to develop other topic niches. If writing about gaming is your passion, do it on your blog, and find something else to write about for pay for others.

  6. Kiran says:

    Thanks so much for putting up all this helpful info! It’s so helpful to me as I’m starting out. The link to Part 3 of the Setting Fees Series isn’t working for me though…thought you’d like to know. Hopefully I’ll be able to find that article soon!
    Kiran recently posted…kids bedroom furnitureMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Kirin —

      I’m not sure what you mean. This isn’t a series, and point 3 here doesn’t have a link. If you can give me more info about where exactly the dead link is, I’m happy to troubleshoot it.

  7. Ali says:

    The slow payers are the biggest pain in the neck… But how would I know if a guy is going to recommend me or not? Asking for it is a bit awkward :S
    Ali recently posted…3 Secrets of Effective Copywriting ‘Gurus’ Don’t Want You To KnowMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Ali —

      It starts with defining payment terms in the contract. Mine will say “net 14 days” or something along those lines. 2 weeks out, no check — boom. I’m on the phone. Where is it? I don’t feel awkward about it at all. If you didn’t pay your plumber, or any other contractor you work with, they would immediately bill you with a late fee tacked on — which I’ve done as well.

      How fast people pay is a critical component of the whole package. I learned this covering business. One of the biggest problems freelancers have isn’t pay but cash-flow problems — checks aren’t in when they need to arrive to keep the business afloat. Many businesses go bust because of it.

      I find the more aggressive you are about defining terms and collecting, the more you end up making. You spend less time chasing checks and less in bank overdrafts while you wait, and you get more writing done. If you think of all the checks that might have pushed out from December 2011 to January 2012…that’s how much more you might have earned last year if you had better payment terms.

      If you put it in the contract, you don’t usually have a problem collecting, I find. Companies know they’ve committed to 14 or 7 days, or whatever you’ve chosen.

  8. Bobbi helms says:

    Terrific discussion going on here. I am more inclined to side with Diane. My goal is to have a long-term relationship with a client. And, so far, it’s working out well. I have several builder/developer clients who feed me work weekly. I also offer more than just copywriting. When you can do more and offer more to a client, they will use you (depend upon you) for more.
    (I have an art director buddy who will freelance for me when needed).
    The best possible scenario is to never have to justify your costs. Your client should always feel that they are getting their moneysworth – and then some.