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.