Establishing Your Rates

It’s always tough trying to establish your rate as a writer. Often we don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we’ve achieved. Put those doubts behind you and assess your experience with a matter-of-fact approach. Here are some questions to ask yourself and things to take into account:

* What is your background as a writer? Are you just starting out or do you have 15 years of experience? Even veterans have difficulty establishing rates, especially if they’ve taken a break from the writing world: having children, going back to school, exploring other careers, retiring and then re-entering the workforce… There are many reasons why a writer would stop writing. If you’re just starting out, find out what the average writing rate is in your area. Generally, the more experience you have, the more you can charge.

* What is the assignment? Find out what the average rates are for writing various projects: press releases, annual reports, brochures, articles, books, web content, etc. A good place to start is with the book Writer’s Market, and for Canadians the Professional Writers’ Association of Canada and their article on What to Pay a Writer. Other countries will no doubt have the same type of organization. Try googling “writer’s association” and your home town or country. Certainly you’ll find resources on association sites.

* How long will the project take to complete? If you have experience, you may know the answer to this for short-term projects, but first time writers may not. You can always write a sample and see how long it takes! However, some projects can be long-term, like a book or an annual report, so writing a sample isn’t possible. Charging per hour or per page is the best way to work for longer term work, but your client may not be comfortable with this and ask for a flat fee. It can be arranged, provided that you come up with some parameters: Establish a maximum number of pages of content for that fee and once that is reached you will charge per hour for work over and above the specified maximum. Include one revision and any revisions outside of that will be charged by the hour. Make sure to sit down with the client to hammer out as many details as you can about the project. Get them to sign off on an outline!

* Per hour, per word, per page, per project? It all depends on how fast you work and what the project is. If you’re just starting out, you will probably lose money here and there until you learn the ropes. Generally, writing is not charged per word, but per hour or per project. Per-word and per-page rates are usually for editing and proofreading work. Again, find out the average rates in your area and your client’s area, then come to a happy middle ground.

* Is your client a big corporation or a small business? Unfortunately, small businesses don’t usually have a marketing/communications budget. They won’t be ready for a rate of $85 an hour. You may need to find out what their budget is for a project and see if it’s worth it for you to work for that fee. If you don’t have a lot of experience, you might need to bite the bullet, or you may be a veteran and can’t find much work so you take what you can get: people gotta eat! If the budget’s on the lower end, try to up it a bit: usually clients and vendors alike leave room for negotiating.

* NEVER work on spec. Working on spec means that you are working on a speculative basis, meaning you write and the client pays you IF they like the work. NEVER do this. That means you are working for free. Your time and effort are valuable and you are providing a service. Working on spec is NOT the same as writing a query letter to a magazine to see if they are interested in your story. A query letter is a summary of your idea and a brief bit on your credentials, not the story itself.

* Ask for a retainer up front. Especially with new clients, it’s wise to invoice for partial payment up front. This could mean a third of a flat fee or charging some initial hours. This should be discussed before you embark on the project.

* Always have a minimum fee. Clients will come to you with smaller jobs, perhaps needing you to read through a paragraph they’re adding to a website or taking a look at a couple of bullet points for a flyer. The act of reading through the piece could be a fifteen minute job, true, but you will need to discuss particulars with the client, understand what the purpose of the piece is, who the audience is, how it will be presented, take these into account while reading the piece, write out your thoughts and corrections, make an invoice, add that to your files… in the end, you’ve spent an hour or more on the work. Not to mention that your expertise is required, and that’s not free. So, establish with your client that a minimum of one or two hours is required. If they don’t understand why you’re charging that minimum, you can explain it to them.

Melanie Lefebvre