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Standardizing Freelance Writing Rates

Read Time: 8 min

There's been a lot of buzz about standardizing freelance writing rates lately, between the freelance writers' manifesto, Yuwanda Black's Should Writers Earn a Minimum Wage?, and some commentary on the Content Done Better blog. It's an interesting topic for anyone in the freelance writing field, and I'd meant to comment on it previously. I think there are a few good points, and a few bad, on both sides:

The Good

  • The Freelance Writers' Manifesto(2 writers attempting to help the general freelance writer population on the unfair wage issue... much like we're trying to educate new and underpaid writer here at SFW)
    • Patricia Skinner and Allison Landa are bringing attention to an issue that's of major concern to freelance writers.
    • Their intentions are good from what I gather.
  • Content Done Better Blog (I don't think it's much of a secret that I tend to disagree rather strongly with much of what Carson has to say. But in this case he makes a few good points.)
    • Carson Brackney addresses the issue of "fair wages" versus experience level.
    • He also touches on the issue of choosing an arbitrary dollar amount ($25 / hr), and the impossible reality of that happening.

The Bad

  • Freelance Writers' Manifesto
    • I do feel that the $25 / hr minimum is kind of pulled out of thin air. Personally, I consider that to be far too low for any true professional writer to be accepting, even as a minimum for their writing. I haven't been around as long as most, but my writing (whether business writing and press releases to articles - aside from writing for my own websites) tends to fall into the $100-500 / hr range. I don't see myself being willing to work for much less than that unless I'm offering some kind of bulk discount or retainer discount to a client. So in my case, and in the case of many professional freelance writers, I think the manifesto would serve no real purpose.
    • The concept of one minimum wage disturbs me a little bit too, especially when described in an hourly basis. My expertise is in the business sector (more specifically in marketing and PR). If I'm writing a short article from my education and experience, it might only take me 30-60 minutes. If a general content writer is hired to write the same piece, more often than not, it would take them much longer, because of the research involved. On top of that, quality wouldn't likely compare, and one is completely unique, and the other would often be regurgitated Web research. If I spend one hour on that piece, and they spend 4, does that mean I should be willing to accept a minimum of $25, whereas they would be able to demand a minimum of $100? Not likely. In reality, my minimum is about 10 times that much. I'm not knocking the idea. I know it was developed with good intentions. I'm just failing to see how it could apply to reality. Even if it's just applied to new writers, or those who are currently underpaid, I don't think an hourly rate structure in and of itself is really appropriate, given the simple fact that you have niche writers who actually know their subjects, versus general writers who will write about anything, but who would spend more billable hours on research.
  • Content Done Better Blog
    • I have to admit, what turned me off the most in Carson's blog was his first post / interview on the freelance writers' manifesto. When I read an interview, I expect a question, and an answer, with additional comments reserved for the closing of the interview. I don't want to read additional follow-up by the interviewer, with additional attacks or comments, when the interviewee isn't able to respond. The "getting the last word" on every interview question, especially when his points were generally already made in the questions themselves, slightly set me off. I'm not attacking Carson personally. I'm sure he didn't intentionally do that at the time. But I did mean to address a few of those points made:
      • "My question, however, is why a writer who is happy working at rates others may not like should jeopardize his or her workflow for the "greater good?" - While I can understand this point, you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that most writers earning $.02 per word (as an example) are truly happy with those rates. If they say they are, it's often because they haven't experienced better. Give them a few assignments at $.20 / word and then see if they're still interested in maintaining the low-rate workflow, where they have to write ten times as much (sacrificing personal time, family time, time for their own writing or other projects, etc.). I'd wager that most would finally recognize the problem, by seeing what their efforts can be worth (obviously assuming they can actually write). I don't think the problem is with the lousy writers who really can't pull their weight. Unfortunately the fact of the matter is that we've got a lot of strong professionals (even English teachers, those with doctorates, etc. - whose samples I've seen are beyond well-written), who are taking these low rates because they simply don't know any better. If a group movement helps them (even if perhaps the concept could use some tweaking), then any writer serious about their work would simply be a fool to not care about the "greater good" if it would benefit them as well.
      • "To be frank, I don't think there is a good chance of sufficient participation. Why? Well, because there are people who, because of the nature of the global economy and the aforementioned host of individualized variables, won't feel the need to participate." - The whole "global economy" or "global market" issue is one of my biggest pet peeves in the writing community. Why? Because it's a ridiculous myth that some writers (and certain client groups) like to mention as a sort of excuse as to why quality writers aren't paid decent wages. I've already written at length about my feelings on the existence or non-existence of a "global market" for freelance writers, so I'll just leave it at that for the time being.
      • "...in the bigger scheme of things, the raw supply and demand situation will have a far bigger impact on pricing. Charging what you "think" you are worth is a great place to start, but the market will eventually determine what your work is worth." - Assuming a raw supply and demand will eventually determine what a writer's work is worth is again working under the assumption that there's one market for writers. It's another topic I went into at the link in the previous question, so I won't delve too much into it here. The simple fact is that a writer does have the ability to determine their own worth to a very large extent, because they have the ability to choose which actual writing market they're going to enter. If they can't cut it, they'll learn and improve, or they'll find another market. They definitely need to be prepared to make adjustments and improvements (as anyone does over time), but simply saying it's in the hands of the market is beyond foolish for anyone interested in truly being a professional writer and making a solid career of it.
      • "I would never touch a job for a half-cent per word. However, if I worked eight hours at a rate of only twenty words per minute on a project at that rate I would make $48. That is miserable for the amount of work done. However, it is still more than nine times the $5 figure. At a penny per word, that comes out to $96, which if you do that for a year is around $30K. Obviously, I am not recommending anyone aspire to being happy as a full timer for $30K. However, it is more than a little unfair to use $5/day horror stories as a rationale for $25/hr. universal base rate." - I can understand the point Carson was trying to make, but example here is pretty faulty (as is the $5 / day rationale for choosing a $25 / hr rate, just to be fair). First of all, the vast majority of writers aren't spending 8 hours a day actually writing. There's a huge difference between hours worked and "billable hours", and crunching the numbers incorrectly is ridiculously common among writers, and giving an example where that's being done isn't fair to your own arguement. On top of that, he isn't accounting for the simple fact that most writers taking those rates seem to fall into the "general Web content writer" group, meaning they don't often just sit down and write. They have to spend time researching. With the average billable hours (out of a typical 40 hour work week) for independent professionals often guaged at 22-23 hours per week (the rest is administrative time, marketing, finding clients, etc.), that already cuts you down to 4 hours of actual writing per week. Figure with that group of writers heavily focusing on research, it's even more realistic that only half of that would be spent actually writing - putting that yearly rate down to $7500. Even in a situation where writers completely neglect administrative work, and actually work on client projects for 8 hours per day, they'd still have to spend about half of that time researching and discussing the projects with their clients. Even then, you only have $15,000 / year ($20,000 on the generous side), and not even including the added self-employment tax, any business expenses (overhead might be low, but it's not non-existent), covering their own health insurance if they have it, etc. When you account for all of the realities, it really does start to look like slave wages, especially with the sheer number of work hours involved to make it happen. I'm not saying the arguement couldn't be made... I'm just saying I think that was the wrong way to make it.
      • "Content Done Better (my operation) bobs and weaves through a variety of writing projects. Some of the copywriting work pays extremely well. Some of the straight content work I do probably falls under the "fair wage bar" you and other Manifesto advocates might set. I know other writers who approach the business from a similar model. Why should anyone fear the "low end rut" when others are out there making a living and aren't stuck?" - I think maybe a point was missed. Getting "stuck in a rut" wouldn't apply to that particular case, b/c Carson is already in higher markets, and simply choosing lower-paying gigs from time to time (what we like to refer to as "filler" work). That's entirely different than a writer who ONLY takes extremely low-paying gigs. In that case, there is most definitely a "rut". I'm not saying it's impossible to break out of it, but it's extremely difficult. A lot of writers get themselves into this so-called rut, because they assume taking the extremely low-paying gigs will help them to build a portfolio to find higher paying work later. The reality is often very different; that portfolio will simply breed more low-paying gigs. Many of the high paying clients online or offline wouldn't touch a writer with a ten foot pole, if those were the only samples they could show. They want to see that you respect your work, know its value, and know something about working with a publisher through your experience. Most don't understand this (and I'm not saying it's the case 100% of the time, but it is very often), and then they struggle to get out of the low-paying market. It's because they get themselves into a sort of catch-22 situation: they need time to query better publications so they can earn enough money, yet they need to spend all of their time on low-paying gigs once they're in that "rut", because they need to make ends meet. Undervaluing yourself from the start makes it nearly impossible for a lot of freelance writers to improve their situation, b/c they simply can't afford to stop writing even long enough to research and query better options. If you're lucky enough to have been one of them, or were already in other markets and making a simple choice to take lower work from time to time, that's fine and your option. But trying to deny that a "rut" exists based on individual experiences is nothing more than that: denial, in my opinion.

That's more than enough on this subject for now. I'm sure some people will agree with at least some things I've said, and I'm positive plenty will disagree wholeheartedly. That's completely fine, as this topic is definitely subjective in a lot of ways. All of us are more than willing to discuss anything from rates, standarization, "sweatshop writers", a "global market", and more if you have your own thoughts to share.

3 thoughts on “Standardizing Freelance Writing Rates”

  1. I think you misunderstand the concept of minimum wage, it doesn’t mean that every writer will be paid that amount no matter how much experience they have. If you are as good as you think you are than you can charge or it. It would be nice for new writers to have a starting point at least that they can measure their work against.

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  2. I didn’t misunderstand anything at all. We’re not talking about minimum wage as it applies to full-time employment. We’re talking about standardized rates, and pulling an arbitrary number out of thin air for new writers. Why is that stupid? Because someone who only cares enough about their own work to charge $5 per article, has absolutely no business competing for five times that much with writers who actually deserve it, just because someone said it’s the minimum they should earn. If they want to earn that rate, it’s their responsibility to learn how to properly target the correct markets, and market their services effectively. New or not, if they can’t do that, they shouldn’t be freelancing. No one hands you anything in this game, and anyone wanting that needs to stick to the more heavily-regulated full-time employment option. If you don’t want $5 per article, it’s your job as a freelancer to do the planning before you even start working, to know exactly who to target (and who not to). Those who don’t “get it” die off, and the rest are left better off for it. Might not be a “nice” way to look at it, but it really is a case of survival of the fittest. Your starting point is what you can justify based on your value proposition – nothing more, nothing less, and unrelated to what everyone else is charging.

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  3. A few thoughts hit me as I read your argument. I have to admit they are pet-peeves and sometimes I feel like a salmon swimming upstream as greater portions of main street appear to be moving with the current. The first thought is why are we so quick to adopt “standardization?” I think you can substitute another “s” word very easily – socialism. Why is it necessary for all of us to make the same “equitable rate?” I don’t want to be equal. I don’t want to produce “standard” work. I want to succeed on all levels and be the best at what I do; including making the best rates among the competition. Why should I be content , as a 23-year veteran in advertising/marketing/pr/printing, to make the same hourly rate as someone just entering the marketplace?That idea of standardization violates Darwin’s law of survival of the fittest and in fact is its antithesis. My second thought is that I learned very quickly, when I moved from employee status into the freelance market, that anyone can stay busy if they give their services away for free. And the third thought is that if you do not value your work and set a value on it – no one else will. It’s as simple as that. There is a reason every industry, every occupation has a learning curve.

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