As I sat completing an article for $700, I realized that it had only taken me seven hours to write, or a hefty $100 per hour. Later that day, following an editor’s notes, I completed a $100 article, which had also taken me seven hours, or a not so hefty $14.29 per hour. After reprimanding myself for taking on the assignment, I once again recalled my promise to no longer take on those poor hourly rate projects unless there was the potential of something much bigger and better to follow.
Freelance writing is a business, and like all businesses, if you are doing this full time, you should always be cognizant of the bottom line. To do this effectively, you need to first have a realistic assessment of how much work you can generate and how much money you are hoping to earn in a given year. According to a survey by the American Society of Journalists and Authors, 30% of freelancers (out of 444 respondents) earn over $50,000 per year, while a US Department of Labor survey showed the median income for staff writers, as of 2006, was just over $46,000. With than in mind, you might take $50,000 as a reasonable goal. Then, it’s time to punch some numbers.
Let’s start of by assuming that you can put in a “typical” 35-hour work week, and I’ll admit that I’m often a little short of that (despite working late at night) thanks to driving my two active teenagers to after school practices (cheerleading, basketball, wrestling and so on). As is the case with most freelance writing, you’ll spend about ten of those 35 work hours generating new work, following up on queries, making phone calls, reading and sending emails and, at least in my case, looking for papers, CDs and even old 3″ disks. Nonetheless, after deducting ten hours for generating work (and paperwork) you will spend the remaining 25 hours a week researching, writing and editing. These are your “billable” hours, which comes to 1,250 billable hours a year (25 x 50) allowing for a much needed two weeks of vacation time. Sounds very lawyer-esque when you talk “billable hours” doesn’t it? Now you can figure out your hourly rate by simply dividing $50,000 by 1,250 hours. It comes to a nice round $40 per hour, which means;
1. You want to look for projects that you can do for that rate (or more).
2. I’ve got to get this article done in 90 minutes.
Now comes the most intriguing part – figuring out how long it takes to write an article, web content, promotional materials or even a book. After all, if an editor says “I’ll give you $400 for the story,” you need to estimate whether or not you can complete it in roughly ten hours. I’ve gotten into the habit of maintaining a computer list of how long I work on each project. In time, by doing this, you’ll become pretty good at guess-timating how long a project should take, including research, interviews, writing, editing and rewriting. Of course, you’ll also need to factor in the good editors from the ones you’d like to drop a house on for making you do excessive revisions.
The trick I’ve learned is not to get suckered into a project that sounds easy but will take more time than anticipated. Guidebooks, for example, can be a killer. Years ago, I wrote a guidebook called Volunteering in New York City. How hard could it be to write up 200 places in which you could volunteer in the Big Apple? Surely there were many options and each write up would take a half hour at best. What I did not account for was the fact that numerous people did not respond to the first, second or third phone call and, when they did, it was often like pulling teeth to get the answers necessary for the book. In the end, I was working for about $11 an hour, which wasn’t good even back in 1994. Today, unless the pay compensates for the extensive amount of research, a guidebook can pay one of the worst hourly rates. Conversely, those hard-to-find websites with solid financial backing that hire freelancers for brochures (if you’re familiar with the format) and corporate work can often produce the best hourly rates, along with certain specialties, such as medical copyrighting or specialized technical writing.
Yes, there will be occasions where you will dip below your anticipated hourly rate to write for a magazine you simply love or for a client with potentially higher paying work down the road. You’ll also find a few jobs that bring in a higher rate to balance out your scorecard. It’s not unlike a retail business where certain items are sold at a small markup to draw in customers while other products are sold at much higher markups to make money. Doing the math, keeping track of your hours, staying on top of hourly rates and saying “no” to those killer projects will keep you happy and in the money.
Rich Mintzer is a journalist and author of over 40 non-fiction books. He also consults on book proposals with new authors hoping to land book deals. (rsmz – at – optonline.net)