Are your freelance writing rates too low?

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Among all the questions I receive, the most common revolve around freelance writing rates. Indeed, that was the driving force behind my desire to write The Science, Art and Voodoo of Freelance Pricing and Getting Paid.

But today, I want to share a quick anecdote about one of the unseen dangers of freelance writing rates that are too low, in the form of someone whose estimate was so cheap that I almost didn’t hire her.

At the request of a client, I needed to subcontract a modest-sized website for a fast turnaround. The client had found a few writers with portfolios, CVs, and experience that seemed to make a good fit, and the best of the lot happened to be working through one of the major freelance job sites. Not my preference, but I’m a good soldier, and I reached out to her. After an initial email back-and-forth, I uploaded the project specs to the interface.

She responded with an estimate that honestly stopped me in my tracks.

It was so jaw-droppingly low, I didn’t think it was possible someone could write that much text for that little money. I contacted her, and verified that she understood all the specs. She did. I did everything but come right out and say, “I suggest you raise your freelance writing rates today, now, starting with this project.”

For whatever reason, she didn’t take the hint. So, we agreed to the rate and she commenced on the project. Now I was concerned that her portfolio was a fraud, and I was going to receive a couple thousand words of gibberish while wasting a week for my client. I was tempted to say thanks but no thanks.

A few days later, I received the copy. It was decent. The raw content was there, and easily edited into shape that was acceptable to the client.

For the record, I charged my client a lot more to edit it than she charged me to write it; to assuage my nagging conscience, I sent her a significant bonus after the fact. And if my client asks me to hire her again in the future, I hope she has read this post, seen herself in it, and raised her rates accordingly.

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  1. says

    Thanks for sharing a perception not often discussed when we talk about low freelance writing rates. It is similar to some clients’ reaction to a content mill reference in a portfolio.

    Professional rates reflect the professionals we are. Don’t send the wrong message with low rates.

  2. says

    I appreciate the comment and the sentiment (and the Tweet!), Cathy. If you put yourself in the buyer’s shoes, significantly lower-than-market rates can imply an inferior product–even when it’s not the case!

  3. Dianne Price says

    What a rare opportunity this writer had to adjust accordingly, Jake! Good for you. The market is confusing, so I have found that most clients are looking to be led a bit and will accept a reasoned explanation for why your rates are what they are. Unfortunately, many “purchasers” are unable to distinguish between GOOD writing and well, writing. When you’re used to paying two cents a word, you are stunned when someone requests a higher rate. I often explain to potential customers exactly what they are paying for and what differentiates my writing from just any writing. Smart people will listen!

  4. says

    Very true, Dianne. As you point out, the key is differentiation–some prospects will recognize the value without questioning, many need a little convincing, and others will never get it. The latter are the ones who’ve had the president’s brother or marketing manager’s sister-in-law write their website copy.

  5. Alex Zamorski says

    Thank you very much for sharing this. Pricing is a difficult thing to master, especially for those just getting started with freelancing, and I think that very few consider the possibility of turning potential clients away because rates are too low!

  6. says

    Happy to help, Alex. I’m not sure you ever “master” pricing, but you definitely get more comfortable and confident with time and experience.

  7. says

    I stumbled on this post’s link in LinkedIn and I really appreciate what you have write. I’m a freelance writer, too, even though only in the starting point and the freelance writing rates are sure do confused me (since I don’t really know the standard rates). Even though I thought I had been paid in decent amount (in our country’s currency’s kind of decent), I don’t really know what others get. But maybe I need to research more to this so I won’t set the rates too low… Thank you for the kind posts.

  8. says

    This has long been one of my hobbyhorses. That everyone and her little sister who thinks she’s a “writer” or an “editor” is willing to work for next to nothing pushes rates down for the relatively few who are experienced and good at their craft. These hobbyists make it almost impossible to make a living, certainly in the publishing world, where people will work just to see their byline in print.

    At a meeting of a local publisher’s association, I met an Indian man who owned a book production company based in Mumbai. When he told me his rates, I was stunned: he could put a book together from manuscript to printed, bound product for less than we could edit the copy — and our rates were hardly astronomical. We simply could not compete with that kind of thing, and we no longer try to do so.

    These days I target businesses and professional practices, whose proprietors apparently expect to pay a living wage. We won’t even consider working for publishing houses or for wannabe writers.

  9. Victoria Hay says

    Heh…Speaking of editing, it would be good if I could punctuate my name properly!

  10. says

    Thanks for your comment, Victoria. I don’t worry too much about the hobbyists, partially because it might drive me nuts, but also because their end users don’t see the value and I’m never going to convince them. (Or I’d regret it if I did!)

    Like you, I waste as little time as possible on prospects who don’t have an adequate budget, and focus on those who “get it.” There are plenty of good folks out there willing to pay for professional content, but you need to be resourceful about finding them and diligent about keeping them.

  11. Henri says

    I’ve always had difficulty in pricing my work. This not only goes for writing, it includes the consulting I do. You have to consider the amount of time you spend on a piece.

    Part of the problem is that people don’t understand the work behind writing. In some cases there is a lot of research. One needs to factor this into your pricing.

  12. Anne Parker says

    What is the rate these days?
    I recently submitted a resume for a freelance job. The ad asks what the applicant’s rate “per word” is. I didn’t answer because I don’t know what to ask. Should I have a price per word for articles? What is the going rate for an article, on average? Finally, what is the average number of words on a double-spaced page? …I thought it was about 250.
    Great comments about this subject.

  13. says

    @Henri, I agree, it can even be trickier with consulting. And yes, you absolutely need to take other factors into account beyond the actual writing, whether it’s research, communications, travel, general business overhead, or even brainstorming time.

    @Anne, it’s a good idea to determine a rate structure for yourself—but there is no “going rate” for per word or per article. In this case, they’re asking for your rate, but it’s also helpful to determine your absolute minimum, “I won’t work for less than this” price if someone else is dictating the rate. As far as word count, 200-250 is what I use.

  14. Anne Parker says

    Thanks so much, Jake. I just needed a reference point to start at. You and the others make a good point – it also depends on who the client is, what is required, etc. This is a very helpful group!

  15. says

    In some cases, writers don’t even realize that what they are charging is too low. Sure, there are published guides out there, but pay scales can still vary widely according to the type of client. You may not realize until a few years down the road that what you quoted was really too low and it left either A) destitute or B) overworked. Thanks for the interesting take on how it looks from the client’s side!

  16. says

    @Anne, thanks for the kind words–glad to be of assistance.

    @Halina, I agree that many writers don’t even realize. I’d say it was a good 3 or 4 years before I had really dialed in my pricing…and even now, there are times when I think, “Hmm, shoulda charged more.” That said, you can’t lose sleep over it, just learn for the next time.

  17. says

    One thing that doesn’t get brought up in these discussions very often is quality… often the client doesn’t have the skills to see the difference between excellent writing, good writing, fair writing, and poor writing.

    In my work as a technical writer I create excellent product documentation at a good rate. But I’ve often been in situations where the objective of the project manager is merely to be able to check the box on the project plan that says “Documentation”. They would be satisfied with the amateur documentation created by a project intern, a programmer, or an engineer when what the readers need is top quality documentation that helps them use the product and minimizes support calls.

  18. says

    Thanks for the comment, Mike. Quality is a tough one, because it’s all but impossible to convince someone about value if they’re not at least somewhat disposed to pay for it. Personally, I tend to be pretty black and white about it: I won’t waste a lot of time with someone if they’re clearly looking for a bargain, because it will make both of us unhappy!