Three Ways to Determine Your Pay Rate as a Writer

Portrait of mystery unrecognizable monk in robeThere’s no fucking mystery behind setting writing rates, though nearly everybody treats it like some sort of sacred secret that requires lots of chanting monks and decoder rings to unlock.  It’s not, it’s actually very simple.  In fact, it really just comes down to one simple question:  “Am I making a living wage?”

Let me define the term “living wage” real quick, just in case you don’t understand what that means.  It means you’re able to eat, you’re able to shelter yourself, you’re able to afford transportation and you’re able to provide those things for your dependents, whoever they might be.  This does not mean that you’re necessarily able to afford a new car, the best, freshest organic produce and meat from bison, cows, chickens and fish who had personal manicurists and masseuses or that you’ll live in the swankiest neighborhood in town.  A living wage is about survival.  Are. You. Surviving?

Of course, no one wants to work for a living wage for long, that’s why we hone and perfect our fucking craft.  We learn and we improve to get the fuck out of the duplex with the crack whore who seems to work all day and all night, to buy a car that won’t leave us walking, to better ourselves and our station.  It’s the way of business, and you are a business.  Don’t forget that.

As you gain experience and build your portfolio, you’ll be able to demand higher prices.  This is where most writers stumble.  They’re no longer being offered a pay rate, they’re being asked, “What is your rate?”  Pick a number, any number.  There are lots of different ways to determine what you should be asking for pay, but I’m going to give you three winners, provided you promise to read this blog post before you ask me what I think you should charge.

#1.  Ask Around…

Seriously.  You don’t live in a vacuum and neither do other writers.  Didn’t we talk about networking with other writers at some point in the past?  If not, it’ll be coming, so just imagine now how lovely that blog will be.  Ask your writer friends — find out what they get outside of the fucking content mills.  If most of them are getting $50 for a blog post but they’re significantly more experienced than you, you might want to start a little lower, say around $35.

They may direct you to one of many papers that has attempted to aggregate this information.  This one, compiled by Lynn Wasnak is actually a great stab at collecting wage information.  The biggest problem is that the data is now at least five years old (it was collected based on 2009 and 2010 rates).  Times have changed considerably, Google has made it near impossible to hire ESL scabs and pretending that what they produce is high quality content and the economy has strengthened, so what I’m saying is that her carefully collected information is basically useless today.

But, you can use the exact same methods that Lynn did to collect her massive pile of data and simply ask your fellow writers.  “Hey, what do you get for a 500 word blog post?”  Easy peasy.

#2.  Decide How Much You Want

Once you’ve got a decent writing portfolio, a LinkedIn that you’re proud of and have a wad of social media followers, you may be able to command a decent rate if you’re a decent writer.  At that point, it might be a good idea to just sit down at the dinner table one night and figure out what it would take to make the kind of money you’d really love to earn.  This is all going to depend on your location — cost of living and all of that varies widely across the US, let alone across the planet.

So, let’s say you want to net $35,000, but still want to have time to spend with your kids (you must still be realistic in this scenario).  Start with your $35,000 and break it down into a monthly chunk ($35,000 / 12 = $2917ish).  Totally doable.  If you’re spending 20 hours a week, four weeks a month writing, that’s a total of 80 hours of writing a month (20 * 4 = 80).  Divide your $2917 by the 80 hours and there’s your rate!  ($2917 / 80 = $36.46)

Keep in mind that you’ll be spending a lot of time doing administrative duties like accounting and arranging new contracts, fighting yourself to get to work and twirling in your chair, so make sure you’ve got that time covered.  But with as little as a $36.46 per hour rate, you could easily be making $35,000 a year if you’re focused and learn to prospect efficiently.

#3.  Raise Your Prices

This is what I do.  I started this life as a Journalist, so I had a base pay rate I expected to get (it wasn’t much, but it was pay).  Since then, I’ve been creeping it ever upward to try to find the top.  So far, I haven’t.  Let me explain that better.

I have a bunch of clients that I love with the burning passion of a dying sun, but sometimes I get tired of writing all the time and kinda wish I was retired or dead.  That’s when I institute a pay increase for myself — mostly in an attempt to shake loose the stragglers who’s rates are already verging on being too low for my high and mighty status.

So far, I’ve mostly managed to only attract new clients as I’ve raised my rates.  Very few have actually left over this.  I don’t recommend this method, but I’m sure that there HAS to be a point where you raise your rates until you can hear the sound of laughter and knee-slapping.  I’m positive.  It’s a free market, you’re free to raise your rates to whatever insane place you like.  Go for it, shoot for the moon.

As of this writing, my rate is at $50 an hour.  I know that’s low for a copywriter, but understand that I live in the Missouri Ozarks and that’s a huge pile of money for this area.  I’m happy with it, my clients are happy with it, and we all have agreed that it’ll do.  I don’t have to hunt for clients, they come to me — and that’s worth a TON by itself.  Prospecting can be exhausting.

Applying Your Writer’s Rate

Now that you have some ideas for setting your rates, let me finish this blog up by telling you exactly what you can do with those rates.  DO NOT, UNDER ANY FUCKING CIRCUMSTANCES, GIVE HOURLY RATES AS BIDS.  Only chumps hire creatives by the hour and only creatives who are planning on ripping somebody a new asshole charge by the hour.

You’ve written a blog, you know how long it takes — that’s how you price that.  Most of us can knock one out in an hour — so for me, a 500 word blog starts at $50.  For you, it might start at $35 or whatever it is.  Obviously, the content does matter because research can vary, but you know how long that takes, too.  A quick Google around can give you that piece of the puzzle.

That’s everything I know about pricing yourself.  Now go away and price something.  If the world laughs, laugh with them.