Why What You Earn Per Word Doesn't Matter

How much do you charge per word? How much should you charge per word? Really, it doesn't matter. When it comes to freelance writing rates all that matters is your hourly rate and whether or not it's enough to help you reach your financial goals.

Why Per Word Rates Don't Matter

Per word rates aren't a good tool for comparing writers or gigs for one basic reason. All gigs are not created equal. This is what baffles me when I see magazine writers who are used to $1.00 per word or more scoff at per word rates like $.25 or $.50 for completely different types of gigs. When people do that it's sometimes out of sheer ignorance of the differences of the job. Let's look at an example.

Let's take a $1.00 per word magazine feature, assuming 800 words. Your total pay would come to $800 for the project. But that project might take you 12 hours over the course of two weeks to write when you factor in interviews and other research and changes after editorial review. You earned around $67 per hour for that project.

Now let's look at an online writing gig. I'll even give you a specific example of a common project of my own. I have a specific client who generally pays $130 per blog post based on old bulk rates negotiated. When they order an article of 800 words, they're charged double that rate -- $260. These blog posts of that length take about an hour and a half to two hours to write and almost never require edits. They're usually beginner-level material or opinion pieces suited to blogs, and they're generally also in my direct specialty areas, making them relatively quick projects. That comes to a supposedly abysmal $0.325 per word. Yikes.

But hold on. What does that come to as an hourly rate? $130 - $173 per hour -- averaging nicely around my $150 per hour target billing rate. That's significantly more pay per hour than the magazine writing gig at a higher per word rate. And to get that bulk rate the client orders ten posts per month (most often around 400 words, with the same hourly rate range). That brings the total earned to $1300 per month and 10-15 hours worth of work. If they order fewer than ten articles they pay more per post, bringing the hourly rate up even higher.

The real perk is that ten articles over the course of the month is far from pushing burn out level. We're not talking about being forced to cram several articles in every hour of every day just to earn a mediocre rate. To make it even better, it's often easier to land these gigs than magazine writing gigs, especially if you're a new writer. The market is ever-growing.

Now that's not to say that there's anything wrong with magazine writing or the freelance writers who prefer the gigs. I'm just saying that before you automatically assume a gig isn't as good as yours, look at the numbers that actually matter. You might very well be earning less than you think. Per word rates are inherently misleading because they don't account for the actual work involved. Hourly rates do. That why I always suggest starting with hourly rates when setting your freelance writing rates and then convert it into your target per word rate.

Of course there are limits to that. There's a difference between a gig with reasonable expectations where you can earn a significant hourly rate and one with too little pay for what's expected of you. These are things like mill work or the cheap webmasters who want to pay $10 per article with a long list of requirements. These aren't sustainable long-term career options for freelancers who need to make a living out of their writing. And they require relying heavily on single clients or very few, putting you too much at the mercy of third parties. You can only go for so long before the constant breakneck pace catches up to you. You can only go so long before you get discouraged by a lack of actual growth in your freelance writing business. So yes, there are gigs that do pay far too low in per word rates. But that's because the same gigs pay too low in hourly rates, either forcing people to sacrifice marketing time to artificially inflate their billable hours or eventually burn out because there's no time left to pursue better freelance writing jobs.

So before you automatically assume a gig is a bad one because of a per word rate, figure out what you're really earning with those high per word rate gigs you take on. And then compare it to the hourly expectations of the other gig. Sometimes you'll be right and the lower per word rates will be a terrible deal for you as a professional writer. But in other cases you might just be surprised at how much more you could earn during your billable hours. Maybe it's time to look at things from a different angle.

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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4 thoughts on “Why What You Earn Per Word Doesn't Matter”

  1. Well reasoned and stated, Jenn. It seems to me that a lot of people get up on their high horses about never charging based on hourly rates, but the fact is that you *are* ultimately working at an hourly rate. Your client may not know it, and it may not show up explicitly on the invoice, but it’s there if you care to reverse engineer it.

    On a related subject: I received a curious email the other day from an editor that I’ve done a lot of work for over the years. It was a broadcast to her entire freelance stable that said she figured it would take about 40 hours to do the $1,000 project. (No word count given.) I politely declined, but my thought bubble was, “Is anyone *really* going to take that job?” From a marketing standpoint, seems to me it would have been a lot more appealing if she had said 4,000 words for $1,000, and let people figure out the time value for themselves…

    • Yeah, way to devalue her own project a bit there. Yikes.

      And you’re right. While I wouldn’t charge an hourly rate for freelance writing projects, you can’t set any other rate form effectively without having a target hourly rate in mind. It all comes down to knowing how long certain projects take you, and what rate of pay would make it worth that time investment. If you don’t know those simple things going in, you’re being flat-out irresponsible in setting your own rates. You don’t have to charge hourly. But you can’t ignore it either.

  2. You say potato, I say potahto 🙂

    Great post for putting it in perspective, Jenn. Most of my work is done on a project basis. I hate hourly billing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t figure the length of time I think the project will take when I am calculating the project fee. And, yes, I have a bottom line hourly rate in mind, too.

    • Me too. Hourly billing makes very little sense for most freelance writing projects. It’s usually better for the freelancer to charge per project because then the better you get the more you technically earn hourly — never having to actually raise rates on the client side. Occasionally you’ll screw up estimates and eat the cost. But you’d have to really be doing something wrong for it to not even out in the long run. Hourly rates on the other hand immediately pit you against the client with them wanting more crammed into less time, and you wanting the ability to do your job right. Sure, some clients won’t get that anal about it, but it all comes down to marketing. Something might very well be worth thousands to a company based on the real return your work provides. But if they found out it only took you three hours for the project, suddenly that value risks changing even if your talent and hard work nets several times your price for them. Why kick off a relationship in that position? It’s just not logical. Most writing doesn’t revolve around time invested (like consulting might) — but about the end result.


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