Freelance writing has changed dramatically in the last several years. Not only have technological advances made it easier for more individuals to join the pool of freelancing professionals, but a boom in new outlets has significantly increased the number of places for a writer to earn their daily bread.
That means that companies have more places than ever to find a freelance writer, considerably upping their chances of hiring just the right person for the project. The challenge lies in determining whether the freelancer’s asking rate is commensurate with the work required.
So, just how do freelancers come up with their individual rates?
Factors in determining individual rates
When determining a flat rate for a project, many freelancers estimate the time involved, then multiply that by their individual base rate. That individual base rate isn’t derived through a predefined formula, but most freelancers take into account their expertise (i.e., years of experience writing or knowledge of a certain subject), as well as geographical factors such as cost of living.
Having both hired freelancers and worked as one myself, I can tell you that I came up with my own general rate by determining how much I wanted to make annually and estimating that I would work 25 hours per week. While that might seem like a short workweek, I was also taking into account how much time I’d spent the previous year performing administrative tasks such as billing, tracking down unpaid invoices, and pitching assignments. All of this work accounts for unbillable time, but time nonetheless. And, of course, I’d want a vacation now and again. Multiply those 25 hours by 52 weeks in a year and you’ve got 1,300 hours of annual paid work time.
Let’s say that, as an experienced freelancer, I wanted to make $100,000 annually — a fair salary for larger cities such as New York, Seattle and Los Angeles. To bring home that amount of kale, I’d have to bill roughly $77 an hour. And I did just that my first few years freelancing.
But it wasn’t long before I was deluged with calls from new clients for projects ranging from creating newsletters to writing blog posts, as well as my main focus of ghostwriting. Instead of turning away prospective clients, I bumped up my rate. I still had more clients than I could handle. So I bumped it up again. I found that I was not only making more money, but my higher rate actually attracted better clients — ones who were easier to work with and paid on time. Who’da thunk?
Project-specific rate factors
When a project calls for a flat rate, I use my personal base rate as a general guideline. I know that one client will require more phone time than others (necessitating a higher flat rate), while a publication I write for rarely asks for rewrites and usually posts my work as submitted (meaning I’d ask for a lower rate). So while I may be doing essentially the same work for each, the personal client demands far more time to complete the same task.
Even with a single client, projects can vary considerably. Last year, I was hired to ghostwrite five chapters of a book, one of which was extremely research-intensive. Because the project description was a little vague going in, I didn’t know how much time it would take, so I couldn’t offer the client a flat rate and instead charged by the hour — and it’s a good thing I did. The research-intensive chapter alone took me 23 hours, while each of the other four took only five or six apiece. (When I was asked to turn around a sixth chapter in less than two days, I charged my usual time-and-a-half rush rate.)
Then there’s freelance article writing. Some editors assign an article, then throw in a task that they might view as small but that, more often than not, adds to a writer’s workload — sometimes significantly.
Because of this, I’ve learned that word count isn’t the most important factor in determining how long it will take me to write a particular assignment. Some projects require more than just writing to get the job done. I may have to interview experts, do in-depth research, or, as in the case of this article, conduct a survey. Each of these tasks takes time, but just how much can vary based on the individual writer.
And then there’s the experience factor. While I was conducting the survey, one respondent wanted to be sure that I mention that time is not the factor that matters most. “It’s not time, it’s complexity and expertise,” she stated. “If something is easier, I would charge less. If something is hard, I charge more.”
Breaking down factors that affect freelance rates: experience, time and tasks
Since time is more easily quantifiable, I focused the survey on how long it takes to complete certain tasks, other than the actual writing. More than 70 writers took part. In terms of years of experience, the breakdown was as follows:
I set the baseline by asking how long it would take to write a 1,000-word article on a topic they were already knowledgeable about, meaning little if any research would be required. The participants were also asked to estimate this time based on their past experience writing such articles.
Of all the respondents, more than a third (36.6%) said it would take 3-4 hours, which means they could knock out 250-333 words per hour. What was surprising was the number of respondents who said they could turn that assignment around in 0-2 hours: More than a quarter (25.4%) stated they could write a blazingly fast 500-1,000 words per hour. Even more surprising is that of that roughly 25%, half were those who stated they had five years or less experience, meaning either they picked up some time-management secrets early on in their careers or are producing work that’s of lesser quality compared to that of their more seasoned colleagues. (Based on the study of freelancer rates and quality ClearVoice recently conducted, the latter may be more likely.)
Beyond the actual writing, other factors came into play when estimating how long it would take to complete an assignment. Back in the day, writers were responsible for one thing when they submitted an article: writing it. But today, it’s not uncommon for an editor to also require other tasks, such as providing photos. Although this might seem like an innocuous request, it can significantly increase the amount of time the freelancer spends completing the assignment.
While less than half of the respondents said it would take more than an hour to provide three photos (with accompanying credits and captions), nearly as many (46.5%) said the task could take an additional one to three hours. Considering the average time to complete only the writing portion of the assignment was just under four hours, asking for photos could nearly double the completion time.
The Takeaway: Consider having someone in-house source photos, or pay the freelancer for their time in finding them. If the freelancer provides her own photos, she should be paid for each of them, in addition to the writing portion of the assignment.
Finding interview sources
It may seem obvious that interviewing sources for an article requires extra time, but you may not realize where that time-suck lies. It’s not just the interview itself (and any necessary transcription). Just tracking down solid sources can be a time-consuming task.
We asked our respondents how much additional time it would take to simply identify and find contact info for three sources, for the same 1,000-word interview. A third of the respondents said it would take between one and two hours, while nearly as many said it would take at least three. (Nearly 17% stated a whopping five hours.)
And that’s before they even have to schedule the interviews, transcribe, and organize their notes. In some cases, a source may not prove as fruitful as originally hoped, which may require finding a replacement interviewee.
The Takeaway: Consider whether your article truly will benefit from having cited sources before requiring it in the assignment. If so, know that it will take the freelancer considerably more time, and pay them accordingly.
The next question in our survey expanded upon the base assignment by asking how much time it would take to write the same article, one on a subject in the freelancer’s area of expertise but that would require some research. The example given was an assignment for a travel writer tasked with writing “a travel article about the best Cambodian dishes, although you are unfamiliar with the cuisine and have never been to Cambodia.”
Such seemingly simple research increased the time factor considerably: The average completion time jumped from just under four hours to 6.75. Even the most experienced writers (those freelancing for 15 years or more) averaged seven hours to complete the assignment, as opposed to 3.8 hours for the basic assignment.
The Takeaway: Of course, hiring a freelancer who already has a basic knowledge of the subject is always your best bet. But if you have a trusted stable of freelancers and you’d prefer to assign the article to one of them, be prepared to pay a bit more for the extra legwork.
Sometimes, there isn’t enough data readily available for your particular subject, as was the case with this article. That meant I had to create and deploy a survey before I could even begin writing. I was fortunate enough to have access to several outlets where I could find a large number of respondents, but I also knew that I’d need time to gather enough responses to get some concrete data.
Creating the survey was just part of the additional time required. Afterwards, there was the requisite crunching of the numbers for a deep dive into the data. But since that sort of task varies so widely, I chose to only ask about the amount of time it would take to create the survey, not analyze the data.
Nearly half of respondents (46.5%) said that creating my eight-question survey (which took less than five minutes for them to answer) would require an additional 1-2 hours of work, about the same time it took me. (Although I did spend several days thinking about how I wanted to structure it, time I did not factor into my overall completion of the article.) Almost an equal amount stated that it would take a little less time (0-1 hours, 16.9%) or a little more (2-4 hours, 21.1%).
The Takeaway: Data can make a compelling case for a well-researched article. Be sure to factor in additional turnaround time and, of course, compensation for the freelancer, who should have at least a basic understanding of data analysis.
To close out the survey, participants were asked what additional factors affect how long it takes to complete a freelance writing assignment. They were given three options — transcription, rescheduling with interviewees, editor requests for changes to the assignment, as well as an option to submit their own response — and asked which they most commonly experienced.
As might be expected, transcription was the most common factor, with 40% of the votes. Rescheduling with interviewees and editor requests for changes were deadlocked, each with 25.7%.
One respondent cited lack of clarity in assignment instructions: “Usually the writing assignment is more difficult, in a technical sense, than it was possible to know before agreeing to the assignment.” I’m sure had I included a question about this particular bugbear, many respondents would have concurred.
Other factors include rewrites (which is why some assignment contracts stipulate a cap on the number of rewrites an editor can ask for), fact-checking, and travel/on-site visits.
The Takeaway: Be aware that conducting interviews can be one of the largest factors in completion time. And make sure your assignment is as thoroughly explained as possible, so as to avoid over-taxing a writer with unexpected work.
Ultimately, Consider the Convenience Factor
With all the above in mind, you also have to consider the convenience factor. Not only do these tasks require additional time, but they usually cannot be done concurrently. Interviews, for example, often must be conducted over a series of days, depending on the interviewees’ availability. An assignment that can be done in as few sittings as possible is obviously more convenient for the freelancer.
Turnaround times are part of that convenience. If you really need an article in less than a day, you may have to pay the writer a rush fee, just as you would with overnight shipping or getting a plumber to your house within the hour. A tight deadline may require a freelancer to push other projects or rearrange other items in her schedule, and she should be compensated for doing so.
Also see an equally enlightening article on scenarios when you should pay freelance writers more.