Cents per word or bucks per document?
September 1, 2010 2:30 PM   Subscribe

Per hour, per word, per document, or for the project - how to price a writing job.

So I've been asked to do some writing for a new business. Internal procedures, basic stuff about the company, about 20-30 documents in all, although the number isn't fixed.

He's new to working with a freelance writer and this is my first time taking on such a large job. What's the best way to charge for this - per hour, per word / page, per document, etc.? He seemed fine on a per-hour rate ($20/hour), but there's still a chance to change that. Freelancing MeFi's, any thoughts?
posted by chrisinseoul to Work & Money (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
If you were writing non-fiction journalism, per-word is the normal approach, but corporate freelancing is usually a per-job cost. I'm not a freelancer but I estimate writing projects all the time for my work. I usually work out how many work-days it will take me to do, add 1/3rd and then quote a per half-day rate for amends. In 95% of cases, this usually adequately covers the work.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:14 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I’ve been freelancing for a little over a year and a half now.

From your basic description (the client is new to this, as are you), do the first 2 documents on an hourly rate at least (perhaps the entire project).

My rationale is as follows: a person who is “new” to working with freelancers may not be clear as to what he or she wants until there is input from other people, etc., and you may end up doing an endless round of revisions.

If at all possible, I would ask at the start of this project if he/she could
1) Give you a sample document of what they would like (if they don’t have a sample, point to a document, webpage, etc that comes close and describe why he or she likes it);
2) Create an outline as to what the first project will include and deadlines (client will give you documents by date X, you will return the first draft by date X) - you may want to have a clause that states if this client does not give you the documents needed, move the deadline up;
3) Have one person be the point person for revisions (if there are 20 people at the company and they all have opinions, then he identifies the important changes that should be incorporated.

Sometimes a fixed fee is fine (I do accept this for a lot of my work), but I really don’t like doing that unless all of the above is followed plus a clause that states one or two rounds of revisions. It is also important to see how this person works, because he or she may hand it back to you and decide that you should put in 20 things that were not in the outline, which would be a change in scope. If this client is easy to work with and follows the above parameters (follows the agreed upon outline, doesnt hand you all the material on day 10 and expect you to return it on day 12, is organized,e tc), moving forward you can accept future projects on a per project fee, but to make sure it works well for both of you, I would do the first 2 documents hourly.

Also, $20/hour is a low fee …you may want to revisit that fee with future clients.

posted by Wolfster at 3:32 PM on September 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

I go per word (usually 2 - 5 cents, YMMV depending on the currency of where you are), plus extra fees when the clients want me to do revisions. All of this is written into my contract at the beginning, so that there are no surprises. For example, for a job like this, I would probably charge three cents per word, plus a flat fee of $100 - $200 each time the client wants me to revise.

$20 per hour is criminally low.
posted by shamash at 3:36 PM on September 1, 2010

$20 an hour may or may not be low, depending on your own level of experience, the quality of the work produced, the client's needs, and - most crucially - what the client is expecting to pay.

Everybody is always like "Freelancers can charge at least $100 an hour! Yippee!". This is true, in so far as it's a far more common going rate, however what people always forget is that is the kind of going-rate that goes for qualified, experienced journalists or writers with years of _relevant_ experience. When you charge somebody that kind of money, not only are you committed to producing a certain standard (high) of work, but you are also committing to liaise with the client in a professional, corporate way. That kind of rate also means that the client shouldn't expect any/many problems, and if there are problems - and they're legit - you will probably have to do some work for free.

Charging at the higher rate brings a raft of extra responsibilities and expectations freelancers may not want, or be able to supply - and this cuts both ways, too. The client may not have the knowledge and experience to exact the kind of work that $100+ an hour should reasonably produce. This can lead to frustration and negative experiences on both sides.

Typically, you can expect large companies; organisations with money, experience and resources to pay this kind of money. To expect a small business with little experience to pay that kind of money can be more trouble than it's worth.

I don't say this to belittle or impugn your own experience and ability - I have no idea how qualified you are, and you could be totally awesome. I just say it to add some context which is often woefully lacking in these kind of discussions. Before you start charging high prices, it's best to ensure that you can supply the product high prices demand, and that the client both has the means to pay, and understands the rationale for paying high prices in the first place.
posted by smoke at 4:50 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I work as a contract copywriter, and generally speaking, in your situation getting paid per word is not the way to go. You need to figure out how many hours it is going to take you to do 20-30 documents, and how much you would like to get paid per hour. $30 seems like a reasonable hourly rate if you ask me.

You need to try to estimate
a) how long it will take to discuss each document (including sitting in on meetings or interview staff) with your client so you can get started
b) how long it will take to write a first draft of each document for review
c) how long it will take to revise each document based on feedback
d) how long a subsequent draft will take to write and then review
e) a contingency of 15% of your original estimate of total hours

You can do a couple of things from here:

a) Calculate the total estimated number of hours, multiply it times your hourly rate, and present the total as your lump sum estimated cost for doing the project. It's important to explain the kinds of activities and the final outcome or product the client will get for this lump sum.

b) Quote an hourly rate that seems innocuous, like $20.

I prefer "a", because then you're never need to worry about haggling over hours, and you never need to worry about waiting to be called in to do work... In one case, I have had a client start me on a project in May, stop work, and continue in September. It's not ideal, especially if you are trying to balance workload.

The downside is that clients will sometimes balk at a "big" number, so it's important to gauge how much they are willing to spend, and come really really close to that number.

In your case, you may want to "stage" or "gate" the project; maybe quote for 5 articles, so the lump sum is not so scary. If possible, try to overestimate (by about 10%) the number of hours... You can always overquote a slightly higher number, but if you lowball, clients are rarely interested in paying your a higher rate.

Another advantage of the lump sum method is that it makes the hourly rate almost moot, as you can bill a few more hours if you feel that the client is underpaying you.

However, always be sure to tie what you bill with tangible results. Be sure to track every 1/4 spent working with a client (but try not to nickel and dime)...
posted by KokuRyu at 4:56 PM on September 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Just want to jump back in and support KokuRyu's advice, and second his suggestion for option a). The key to successful client interaction is to set and meet their expectations. Clients hate surprises.

When I was freelancing, how I would typically do this is by framing it something like the following:

"Okay, so what you want is X, Y, Z and a few A's and B's, by the end of DATE. I did something similar for client P, where I produced several X's and Y's, and some Q's and R's, but no Z's or A's and B's. That project took about six weeks, and R hours. Because you're project is a bit different, I think it will probably take about Q weeks, and come in somewhere around YYYYY dollars. [this can be higher or lower, it doesn't matter, all you're doing here is giving the client an idea of 'market rate']

"If that's too much for you, we can drop the A's and B's, or I would produce this slightly different type of X, which would bring it round to XXXX cost. If you want something a little more in depth than that, in the past I've also done X, Y, Z and A, B, C. The client was really happy with that work and I can show you some samples.

"Why don't I put this all into a document for you, so you can see the outcomes and costs all laid out together, you can make a comparison, and then decide what you like the sound of? I can send that to you this afternoon, then how about we meet on Thursday to discuss what you'd like, or if there's a different requirement you might have as well."

It's really important in any relationship like this to make the client feel empowered by your expertise, not cowed by it, and to set expectations. And for the love of all that's holy, unless something truly exceptional happens, stick to or come under the budget you give a first time or newish client, no matter what.
posted by smoke at 5:43 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

In general terms, getting paid per hour has the least risk and potentially the least reward, because you get paid no matter what's produced. Getting paid per word is a little more risky, because it may take you longer than you think to get the right words down. Getting paid per project (turnkey) is the riskiest -- if you are fast and good, and the project is very well defined, then you can make very good money; if you are new to this work or the project is pretty loosely defined, then you could wind up working long hours for very little money.

Having said that, people who write corporate procedures usually don't get paid per word because it rewards the wrong thing -- wordiness, when precision and conciseness are needed. Given the looseness of the project (you aren't even sure how many documents) and given that you might be new at this, I'd recommend billing per hour.

If you are an independent contractor in the US, and you believe that (hourly rate) = 1.5 * ( ( full-time annual salary ) / 2000 ), then your rate is roughly equivalent to $27,000 a year if you annualized it.
posted by Houstonian at 6:07 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've only been paid per word when writing freelance articles for smaller magazines, and I would have been lucky if I made $5 an hour. I wrote for industry publications and I was paid per piece; I made about $10 an hour. Later when I was starting out as a Japanese>English translator I was once again paid per word, but that was source (Japanese) rather than output, and I got paid about $20 an hour (which is too low, I might say). I then started doing corporate comms for blue chips and script rewriting, and while I was paid per word, it was a *very* good rate, and I was earning about $50 an hour (and there was a lot of work).

While I think requesting an hourly rate (as opposed to my suggested lump sum/output rate above) is acceptable, you really are not going to get paid for all the work you do unless you meticulously keep track of every conversation with your client; you may appear to be nickel-and-diming.

Getting paid per word is, in your situation, just insane.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:01 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I suggest a per piece or per project rate with one free revision, and an hourly rate for additional revisons. You should spell all of this out in a contract in advance. This approach will give you an incentivize to work faster, and it will keep you from hassled about taking too long to complete a project, and thus costing too much. (This happened to me, and believe me, this client had a lot of nerve considering that I bent over backwards to accomodate him and that I made so little money from him.)
posted by mintchip at 10:30 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: From the OP:

Sorry for the long delay; the project unfortunately fell through and the point of how to pay became moot. Other places I've worked with since then had no problems paying by the article, so long as you accept their rates. Until / unless I get to the 'professional copywriting' level, I suspect the amount of negotiation possible is fairly small. Thanks all for the answers - I've marked this resolved for now.
posted by chrisinseoul at 10:22 AM on October 7, 2010

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