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“What’s your rate?” Answering the trickiest question in freelance writing

By June 9, 2021 23 Comments

If there’s one question that freelance writers hate more than this one, I don’t know what it is. Sometimes when you’re asked “What’s your rate?” it feels like a game where every answer is wrong. If you’re like me, when a prospective client or editor asks you for your freelance writing rate, a million things go through your mind. How much was I paid for similar work? What can the client afford? How much is my work worth? Can I really charge that much?

“What’s your rate?” How to answer the trickiest question in freelance writing

There are four things I’ve found to be super helpful to think about before taking a deep breath and answering this question.

1. Your freelance writing rate can vary

If you are writing feature articles for magazines, newspapers and websites, most likely there will be a set rate.

This doesn’t mean that there won’t be a range, but generally the range will be fixed.

I used to write regularly for a publication where different freelancers were on rates ranging from 65c/word to $1/word.

It was never clear to me how this got decided.

It didn’t seem to be based on a writer’s level of experience or the length of time writing for the publication.

For me, I started writing for the publication for 80c/word .

Then a few years later, the editor told me my rate was increasing to 85c/word.

That’s what the rate remained, despite having asked for an increase .

Recently I’ve had quite a few editors ask, “How much would you expect for this piece of work?”

A few years ago I had an editor ask what I would expect to get paid for a particular article.

I said that for similar articles I am usually paid between 65 – 85c/word.

She replied and offered me 75c/word.

When thinking about your freelance writing rate, a range can work if you like to hedge your bets.

You can always push back and ask what an editor had in mind.

But honestly, I prefer to get these discussions out in the open, and over and done with as soon as possible.

It doesn’t always work though.

I did give a similar range to another editor who replied saying she had a flat $200 rate for all articles.

I declined to write the story, and to be honest I felt frustrated – I wished there was more transparency from the start.

But what if you’re not writing for magazines and newspapers?

Just as my rate varies for freelance writing for magazines and newspapers, it also differs for other writing I do.

For many years, I had about five different hourly rates depending on who I was working with.

My freelance writing rate has ranged from $45/hour to $140/hour.

So, why the difference?

Because some rates were set by a university (hello $45/hour).

With others my rate was lower because I had worked with a particular organisation for years and never once raised my rates (don’t get me started on that).

I had a rate for writing content for non-profits and my rates at the higher end were for corporate clients who had the capacity to pay me more.

While an hourly rate of $140 might seem great, I’ve ultimately found that pricing my corporate services by hour or by word hasn’t been the most business-savvy decision.

I now use value-based pricing, which basically means that you stop charging based on the time it takes you and start charging based on the value of the result it gets for your clients.

Of course, this is really only relevant to copywriting or content marketing work, rather than feature writing.

But it’s meant that I’ve taken on projects that have paid me nearly $400 for 250 words and that have only taken one hour of my time.

And this is how I’ve been able to earn $100K + from my freelance writing each year.

My current freelance writing rates

My corporate rate now varies from $160 – $300/hour (though I’m usually charging by project).

Since the pandemic, my feature writing rates have stalled at between 50c – 80c/word.

Sponsored content is still paying quite well though and just last week I worked on a project for a client for 2.5 hours and billed $650.

So there is highly paid work out there.

2. You can still work with clients who “don’t have a budget in mind”

How many times have you heard this one?

This really relates to when you are writing content for businesses and organisations, rather than publications.

If people tell me they don’t have a budget in mind or are being coy about how much they can pay for a certain piece of work or a project, I used to do one of two things:

·      I gave a quote based on exact specifications (e.g. I will write a 500 word blog post where I interview one case study where the contact details will be provided by the client, one round of edits, two social media snippets and one headline for $400)

OR

·      I gave a range (e.g. $400 – $600 for a 500 word blog post depending on the number of interviews, depth of research required, background information provided, number of rounds of edits and social media snippets)

But I usually found that I was making a big mistake when I was quoting these rates.

I was trying to anticipate how much I thought the client could pay me. 

Big mistake.

The thing is, we have no idea what people can or will pay.

Stay out of their wallets and their budget.

So these days, there’s one question I always ask clients.

This is the question:

What is your budget for this work?

Okay, okay, I know, this is not earth-shatteringly new.

But can you believe that sometimes I wouldn’t ask this (cue forehead slap) and often when I did ask the client would say “we’re not sure yet” and you know what?

I’d accept that answer and write up a content proposal and quote.

No longer. 

Recently I asked a prospective client about her budget.

She said she wasn’t sure.

I said something like: “I understand that these conversations can be tricky, but I’ve found that it’s good to discuss a budget or even a range at the very beginning to see if this project is a good fit for both of us.”

She immediately replied with: “I think it’s in the ballpark of $5000.”

I asked another potential client this at the end of last year and he got back to me with a figure of $8 – 10K.

I’ve found that if people don’t want to answer or don’t want to give a range, I usually don’t want to work with them.

Yes, I know I’m in the very privileged position of being able to pick and choose the work I do, but let’s be adults about this.

I’m running a micro-business.

Most organisations have an idea (however rough) of the amount of money they can spend on a particular project.

I’m sick of playing budget games – the ‘you tell me first’ game and the ‘why don’t you let me know what you have in mind’ game.

I don’t want to waste their time or mine by putting together a content proposal that doesn’t match what they can afford.

I’ve found that serious prospects always (yes always) will have an answer.

And if they are really reluctant to name a figure, I’ll say something like:

I understand that it’s hard to give a definitive number at the moment, but it would really help me work out if we’re on the same page if you could tell me the range of your budget. Like, are we talking $200, $2000 or $200,000?

[Oh, how we laugh at that last figure.]

This works time and again.

Don’t leave that initial conversation without knowing even a rough range that the client can pay.

And if it doesn’t match your expectations or needs, walk away.

I know I’m not usually so forthright with my opinions, but I’ve had enough of wonderful freelance writers (like you) working for peanuts.

If that sounds all very hard-nosed, you can meet people halfway.

If they’re really are not sure of their budget, you can always do what I did recently.

I was working with a non-profit organisation who told me they didn’t have a budget in mind for a piece of content they wanted created.

They did, however, have a sense of how long it would take for me to research, interview, write and edit the article.

This number was based on similar content that had been created by staff members in the past.

They told me the hours they thought it would take.

I took this number of hours and multiplied it by my hourly rate and came up with a project rate.

The great thing about this was, that regardless of the number of hours I took (which was a fair bit less than originally anticipated),

I got paid the full project rate, which ended up coming out at $2/word.

3. Think about if you’re prepared to walk away

Sometimes I’ve quoted rates and people have said it’s more than they were expecting.

That’s why I think it’s always good to get a sense of their budget from the get-go.

Sometimes I’ve been able to meet in the middle.

Other times, I’ve just left it.

As you get busier as a freelance writer and content creator, you’ll have more of a sense of what you’re prepared to accept and what your going freelance writing rate is.

Remember, this is your business.

You didn’t sign up to be a freelance writer to underpay yourself, so set rates that feel fair for you.

4. It’s up to you to decide what to charge

Sure, there are lots of rate calculators and guides out there, but ultimately only you know what you want to charge.

If you earn a living from freelance writing, then it’s likely you know how much money you need to bring in each week or month.

If you are just starting to explore freelance writing or doing this part time, there may be more room to move with your rates.

I know some freelance writers say that if what you’re asking doesn’t make you uncomfortable then you’re not asking for enough!

One of the best things is that much of the time as a freelance writer you get to decide your rate.

And if you don’t get to quote a price, then you still get to decide whether or not you want to do the work.

And to me, the value of that is priceless.

How do you answer the “What’s your rate” question? Do you have any suggestions for negotiating rates?

23 Comments

  • Michaela Fox says:

    This is such an interesting piece, Lindy. And you give some great tips on how to set rates and manage expectations. I like the idea of value-pricing in certain scenarios. But first I need to get better at understanding my value 🙂

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      I’m a big fan of the concept of value-pricing, but for the past couple of months most of my work has come from feature writing so it doesn’t translate.
      I think it’s less about understanding your value and more about understanding the value you bring for clients. It’s a fascinating idea and one that I think has real potential if you have a strong niche.

  • CJ says:

    As a newbie my rates are low, no doubt far too low in reality. But slowly I am feeling that I might be worth a little more, and letting small jobs for almost nothing go. I know it’s better to look for higher paying jobs, but I’m at the stage where I’m still thrilled if anyone will pay me anything! At least I’ve stopped doing free stuff now though, that’s progress.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      It’s a tricky one CJ and I think lots of people start out charging only a little or working for free. Many people have an expectation that writers, artists etc will work for the love of it and it’s a trope we have to challenge. Good for you from moving on from working for free – sometimes it’s good to get clips or your foot in the door, but your time and work is valuable – you should be getting paid for what you do.

  • So nice to hear of someone else who doesn’t always charge the same rate. To me, in a sense, the variation in hourly rate or per word rate is "value pricing" too. Trade magazines will usually place a higher value on your words than a local lifestyle magazine. The same writer might write medical articles and also pet articles. They aren’t likely to get paid the same rate for both. Your writing skills and amount of research required figure into the equation as well.

  • Jack Vawdrey says:

    I only freelance on occasion as I’m working on some personal writing projects for now. But because any time I spend freelancing takes me away from my own projects, it’s that much more important to me that I make what I’m worth. Thanks for the thoughts, Lindy!

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Thanks Jack 🙂 How great that you are dedicating time to your own writing projects. I quite envy that!

  • Chris says:

    This is such a useful article – and blog which I’ve just discovered. So many people offering ‘advice’ speak in vague generalities which doesn’t help much. And you’ve got me seriously considering enrolling for the Australian Writers’ Centre travel writing course … Christine

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Thanks so much Christine. The travel writing course is fantastic – can’t recommend it enough!

  • Lauren says:

    I have a hypothetical question. Let’s say I ‘ve been charging my current clients one rate and I realize that rate may not be enough. So I decide to charge my new clients a higher rate while having my current ones pay the original rate we agreed to. Can I do that?

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Absolutely Lauren. I have a few clients on different rates.

    • Lou says:

      Hi Lauren , My experience is yes , Its called grand fathering or grand mothering ( let’s be equal ) . The reason why I do is because a repeat client is cheaper to get then a new client , also you never want to let go of money coming in . But here’s is a caveat , if the Job expectation significantly change , then yes you should tell them your new prices . For example Im a photographer I had a client that I did product photography for , came back and wanted Video done , would I do it at the same price , my answer was no because video was another level of production .

  • Lou Recine says:

    Hi Lindy
    I know Im late to the party but thank you so much for this article , it really help me think about pricing. While Im a photographer and not a writer , I have the same Issues about prices , Im creating a more flexible pricing structures , for example 1-20 products price per image and 20 + Images change per day .

    Lou Recine

    • lindyalexander says:

      Hi Lou,
      Never too late! I think the pricing ‘stuff’ is an issue for almost all creative freelance types, I’ve also started offering tiered bundles which is working well and offers value for me and the client. Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you found this post useful despite not being a writer 🙂

  • Alexandra says:

    This is so inspiring, Lindy. Too many of us have been over-conditioned into accepting bad rates and under-valuing our work. It’s always been astounding to me how the writing side of a business, whether it’s a marketing company or a publisher, is always the lowest paid in an organisation, even when that organisation goes on about ‘content being everything’! If we are content-led, which we are in the digital space especially, then it needs to be paid for.

    • lindyalexander says:

      Thanks so much for your comment Alexandra, and yes, you are totally right about how on the surface companies say content is everything but then often they don’t want to pay for quality. Let’s change that!

  • Mia says:

    Wow Lindy — this is exactly what I needed to read right now! Thank you for such a comprehensive piece.

    I’ve been a copywriter for years but have only recently gone freelance after being made redundant from my in-house role while on mat leave.

    I’ve come straight out of the gate with high rates for some of my business clients, but have found that I’ve had to meet the market with my real estate copywriting (property listings), as the agents just aren’t prepared to pay more.

    I do want to niche in real estate writing, so I’m willing to accept lower rates to get my foot in the door and build relationships, but only time will tell if this strategy leads to decent rates down the track.

    I want to set a tone of prosperity right from the get go, and definitely want to be bringing in $100k a year (pro rata, as I’m in working part time because I’ve got a young child).

    I know there’s money out there to be made, and clients that will pay what I ask — it’s just a case of finding them!

    I particularly love the value-based model of charging that you talk about, and I recently took that approach to a lengthy doc I wrote for a real estate agency. It was their initial touchpoint doc that they send to people who enquire with them about selling their home. The client made it very clear in our initial meeting that it’s an important doc, so I charged as such and didn’t get any push back whatsoever. Considering they make ~$18k from the sale of a $1.3 million home, paying $2,200 for this doc that will bring them plenty of business is a bargain.

    Thanks again for such a great article. I’m gonna print it out and stick it on my wall!

    Oh, I also love the “if you don’t feel uncomfortable quoting your rate, you’re undercharging.” I think this is SO true! There’ll always be clients that CAN afford you, so just go for it!

    Thanks again and all the best!

    Mia x

    • lindyalexander says:

      Hi Mia,
      Thanks so much for your comment and kind words – I’m so glad you found this article helpful. I was sorry to read that you were made redundant, but well done you for setting your sights high from the get-go. And I LOVE that you charged well for that real estate document – I agree that your rate was a bargain! Keep in touch and let us know how you go with the transition to freelance real estate writing.

  • Hi Lindy,

    I loved your idea of joking about $200, $2000 or $20 000 budget. I might borrow that one!

    I’m a bit sick of everyone being amazed that I get paid for writing. I bumped into an old work colleague who was surprised I don’t do casual work anymore.

    Keep up the awesome info, Lindy.

    Melissa

    • lindyalexander says:

      Yes, do! I think bringing a little humour into it can really help lower the tension around the budget conversation. It’s weird isn’t it that so many people are surprised that we get paid for writing – it seems like such a ‘basic’ skill yet very few people can do it well. Thanks for your comment and kind words Melissa.

  • Brendan says:

    Thank you for writing this blog, Lindy. Your advice is amazing and I particularly liked the point about asking potential clients for their budget.

    I am a freelance writer for an ex-colleague and I do it on top of my full time job. Compared to other copywriters, I’m a bit cheap, but I was willing to charge at her top rate because I see it as extra pocket money. If I was to do it for a living, I’d look for higher paying clients.

    I just got approached by a contact this week about doing some content work for him. When he asked about my rate, I felt so conflicted as there were so many variables. But your tip of asking clients for their budget helped ease that pressure and is what I used in my answer.

    • lindyalexander says:

      Hi Brendan,
      Thanks for your comment.
      It can be really difficult knowing how to approach those rate questions, but I’ve found that asking their budget is really helpful. And I’ve found that some clients fall into the category of wanting to get the cheapest writer out there, but many will share their budget. And if they don’t, sometimes they simply aren’t sure what to expect and they do need our guidance and education about what’s an appropriate rate. Good luck and I hope you landed that extra content gig!

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