Freelance writing is a fickle business. For example, clients seem to think it’s perfectly okay to ghost you for months until they need something, and then they need you to respond in the next 2.5 seconds. It’s a classic freelancer’s dilemma. You learn to deal.
And then there’s the money. Freelance writing rates are all over the damn place. In the past year, I’ve been paid $1,600 for an article and I’ve been paid $150 for an article.
I’ll be honest: when I was just starting my freelance career, I took whatever I could get. I didn’t have the luxury of deciding what my rate would be. I was just excited to get actual dollars for my words instead of exposure, a form of currency that pays zero bills. As your freelance career progresses, though, you learn to value yourself a little more as your experience and skills grow. But sometimes that means you have to make tough decisions. If Client A wants to pay you $500, it’s hard to say yes to Client B when they offer you $200, especially if you can get more work with Client A. Why would you spend your time to earn $200 when you could spend it to earn $500?
On the other hand, if Client A has a limited amount of work for you, you might seriously think about accepting that lower paying gig. How do know when to accept lower rates? Recently, I’ve talked to a handful of other writers who frequently deal with this same dilemma, so I thought I would share what works for me.
Calculate Your Average Freelance Writing Rates
First, you need a rate. If you work at a 9 to 5, you have a rate, right? It might be per hour, or it might be a salary, but you have some way to value your work and your time. You need that same kind of stability as a freelancer. Again, it’s a luxury you don’t get when you’re just starting out, but as your portfolio and skills grow, you have to start putting a value on your work and your time
This is a whole post in and of itself, but it’s easy to come up with a ballpark figure. How much do you usually get paid for your work, on average? Take your past five or ten posts and literally average out your pay for each. From there, I usually err on the side of earning more, depending on my workload. For example, let’s say my average rate is $500, and I’m so booked that I have to turn down clients. I might decide my freelance writing rate is $800, closer to my regular, higher-paying client. If work is scarce, I’ll usually maintain the average. It’s supply and demand.
Expert negotiators would probably tell me to stick to my higher rate, because that’s how you increase your earning potential, and honestly? I’d agree with them. The thing is, though, there’s no blueprint for making a living as a writer.
For the past few years, I’ve earned six-figures (or close to it) with my freelance writing, and I credit so much of that with resourcefulness and figuring out my own rules as I go along. I did not follow any rulebook for setting rates or negotiating better ones. I just did what seemed like it would work. Don’t worry, I see the irony here. While I’m kind of giving you a few rules to follow, I urge you to use them as a guideline more than anything set in stone.
Come Up With a Minimum
Getting paid a $1 word sounds pretty exciting, right? If you’re writing a 100-word article, it’s a little less exciting.
It’s smart to have a minimum threshold in place when deciding on your rate, especially if you’re pricing your work per-word. For example, if you’re usually paid $0.75 per word, that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to accept a 200-word article that will only net you $150 when you’re used to getting paid at least $400 for an article. Yes, 200 words is a short piece, but as most writers will tell you, fewer words don’t necessarily equal less time. (Today, it took me half a day to write a 500-word article today because it was so research-intensive).
So when you’re establishing your freelance writing rates, make sure you have a minimum in mind for your clients, too. Maybe you don’t work for less than $150 a post. Maybe you don’t work for less than $500. Whatever it is, keep it in mind when you’re hashing out a number.
Questions to Ask Before Accepting a Lower Rate
Again, freelancing is a fickle business. Whatever rates you establish, there will probably come a time where you ask yourself if you should take on a client who pays below your minimum. Maybe you really want the byline. Maybe you just need the extra cash and your other work is drying up.
Flexibility and resourcefulness are crucial if you want to earn a high income as a writer. Sometimes that means bending your own rules to get what you want. Ultimately, you have to do what works for you. For me, sometimes that means taking on clients that pay less than I would like because I see a benefit to my own bottom line. Here are some guidelines I follow.
Is it a new client with a large platform? It might be hard to say no if Business Insider approaches you with a number that’s below your rate. They’re a huge platform, and if your writing is good, other outlets might take notice, which means it could potentially lead to other gigs.
Will it look good on your byline? Bylines give you credibility and help establish your authority as a writer. Don’t get me wrong, with both this question and the one above, there are limits. A few years back, a huge media outlet wanted writers to write for them regularly for a staggeringly low rate of zero dollars. I mean, a byline is great and all, but there’s something to be said for lowering the bar for the industry. Accepting a low or non-paying gig as a writer just feeds into this “writers are paid crap” stereotype.
How low is the rate, exactly? And that’s where the next question comes in. How low are we talking here? Because at a certain point, a client’s rate tells your how much they value quality work. If they pay $50 or nothing!), chances are, they’re not pushing high-quality content. Either they can’t afford it, or they just don’t want to prioritize it. A client like this is not going to look great on your byline, anyway, and as an established writer (or a writer who’s rising through the ranks), you should probably see a super low rate as a red flag.
What do they pay other writers? Negotiating is a must if you want to increase your earning potential, especially with an industry as fickle as freelance writing. WhoPaysWriters.com can help you research how much the client is willing to pay its writers. So even if the client is below your minimum, this research can help you negotiate a rate that’s at least closer to your standard.
Will you learn something new? Finally, what other skills or benefits will you get from this? I’ve taken on lower-paying gigs just because the topic was interesting and I wanted to learn more about it. Granted, I wouldn’t do this work for free, and these clients still paid okay, but what pushed me to give in was knowing I’d have fun writing the topic! It doesn’t just have to be about fun. Maybe the new gig will help you develop new skills or expose you to a new platform. It’s just another question to add to the mix.
These are the questions I usually ask myself, but you can probably think of a few more, depending on your own situation and depending on the client. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, there’s not really an established set of rules for being successful in the freelance writing business. You learn to be flexible, resourceful, and then do what works best for you. Still, it always helps to know how other people navigate these murky waters.