How to Price Freelance Writing:
It’s All About Value

Beach Money

If you go looking for advice on how to price freelance writing work, you’ll find that one thing gets repeated nearly everywhere: don’t lowball yourself. There’s a natural tendency in business to feel like you need every client you can find, and that can often mean settling for a below-market rate in exchange for simply having the work. The standard advice is, “don’t fall into that trap.”

That’s a good, solid idea – as far as it goes. But there’s another aspect of the issue that doesn’t get discussed as often as it should. Namely, that setting rates and making determinations about who to work with should be as much a function of value as it is of price.

Nearly everybody here is probably familiar with how nerve-wracking it can be to come up with a price quote. Price too low and you’re locked into a losing proposition. Price too high and you don’t get the contract. When faced with making those decisions it seems sensible to use the “market rate” as a starting point. If other people are getting $XX an hour, why not go with that?

The problem with a strictly numbers-based approach, though, is that it takes the relationship out of context. A whole host of factors – specific not only to individuals and clients but to each specific situation – can and should exert pressure on the decision to name your price.

Say you’ve done your research on a new project and found that the market rate should be $60/hr. Before quoting that figure, take a step back and evaluate the whole job. Think about the context and not just the work.

In doing so, ask questions like:

  • How much time (if any) will this client be expecting in terms of meetings and/or phone calls?
  • Does this client seem needy?
  • How much (if any) travel will I have to do?
  • How reasonable are the deadlines and time commitments?
  • What kind of client is this in terms of size, philosophy, prestige, industry, influence, etc?
  • What kind of relationship do I have with this client so far, and what kind of relationship seems to be developing? What kind would I like?
  • Is this an ongoing thing or a one-off?
  • How do I feel about this client? Is this “just business” or do I have a more personal stake?

Depending on how you answer these and other, similar questions, the “market rate” of $60/hr could easily swing to anywhere from $100/hr to “volunteer.” That happens because you’re now thinking in terms of value, and not price.

Your worth to a potential client or partner – and theirs to you – should only be determined after a full-field assessment of the relationship. Price is one factor – and certainly an important one – but it’s far from the only factor. Some things are worth so much that getting paid isn’t even a concern. Others are so potentially fraught with pitfalls that only a premium, high-market rate could make them worthwhile.

Make the process of evaluating and coming to a conclusion as thorough as possible. And don’t be afraid to share your thinking with the client if it seems like the right thing to do. It likely won’t change your odds of getting or keeping a given gig, but it will help give you the peace of mind that the ones you lose probably weren’t worth it anyway.

About the Author: Neal Shaffer is the founder of Slant Six Creative, a creative communications studio based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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  1. Ah, the never-ending rate debate. Gotta love it – what else would we talk about otherwise?

    I’m a firm believer in flexible rates based on a bunch of the factors you listed above and more. It’s difficult to price all jobs the same, because they aren’t all the same. Until I learned that, I worked many jobs that initially looked to be like they offered fair compensation but that actually ended up costing me money.

    Evaluating what’s required for a job before quoting a price leaves you feeling better about yourself – and about the job if you get the gig.

    Good one, Neal.

  2. Great insight, thank you. I’m new to all of this. What is a fair market hourly rate, and what are some good sites to look at it to receive fair/balanced information?

  3. Great advice! I have developed a questionnaire that I have all of my potential clients fill out to determine what exactly they want from their project. This even helps me see if they know what they want out of this project! (Free advice: If they have no idea, run far, far away!)

    Their answers illuminate exactly what type of client they’re going to be, the work I anticipate having to put in and a multitude of other things. Creating a client profile sheet is one of the most beneficial things I have ever done. I always hate that feeling like I’m charging way too much or that I’m lowballing myself an insane amount. Considering all of the factors (not just how much you’ll have to write) is some of the best advice writers can get.

  4. Been reading the blog for a long time now. Great post today, because it generated a question I always come back to with most clients.

    Cost aside, how do you effectively demonstrate how much time & resources it actually takes to communicate well to a customer’s target audiences. My current client has never spent money on marketing communications materials. Now that he is, the materials are great, and as an added bonus the entire company even knows how to articulate the co. value more concisely. And yet I am still “not getting enough content done”.

    I always struggle with explaining to company executives doing this for the first time the time it actually takes actually takes to do it right. Any tips?

  5. @Christina — that’s a good question that’s tough to answer in a general way. Each client is different, so it really depends on how they act.

    However, I usually try to make comparisons that they do understand. If they’re a bunch of Alpha males (no offense, you all know who you are) I (nicely) explain to them that they wouldn’t get to the top of their game without practice, hard work and extreme dedication — all of which takes a long time and effort. Very few people just plopped into a role of authority without working their way up through the ranks…doing something right takes time and effort, exactly the same things that are involved in good writing.

    That’s the best advice I have in a general way: put it in terms they understand. Once you get people realizing that yes, writing is a profession, no everyone can’t do it well (this is the hardest struggle), then you should be able to get them to understand that it’s going to take time for you to get something good ready for them. If they want someone to churn out crap content, they can try that only to see that the volume producers don’t necessarily produce anything that you’d want to publish anyway! Hope this helps. :)

  6. Alpha male… hm… no one I know…

    http://www.Writers.ca has some suggested rates posted for the PWAC members.

    And Morgan’s idea of using an analogy is a good one. “Well, if you want to sell apples, you need this, this, this and that, right? If you don’t have that, you have spots and no sales, right…?”

  7. It all comes back to demonstrating value – the topic of the blog to begin with.

    Somehow, I can charge $75 – $100 an hour, yet what I keep running into is that sadly, if they haven’t hired their own writer or marcomm person, they essentially don’t place value on the position and therefore the time (even though they “need it tomorrow!”). I will try the analogy route -thanks for the comments everyone!

    To the other post inquiring about rates – everyone does it differently, but I try to estimate a total project by breaking it up into both strategic and tactical hours. I find that clients without an engine in place have little readily available information (for a case study for example) and a lot of analysis is required to demonstrate a value proposition to target audiences. Its not just about being well written, but the message too. Once you show that this is what you bring to the written exercise, you can justify rates necessary to do this.

    Its just hard to explain how long it takes :) Who can do a case study in two days?

  8. Thanks for all the feedback, folks. Much appreciated.

    @Morgan: great idea with the questionnaire. I hadn’t thought about that but it seems like a brilliant way to solve a lot of problems before they even come up.

    @Christina: you’re asking one of the toughest questions there is. In fact, I recently had to sever ties with a client in part because I didn’t feel like they were holding up their end of the “recognize value” equation. Keep in mind that some folks, unfortunately, may never get it.

    @Megan: the annual AIGA survey is a good place to start when it comes to rates. You can also get a lot of information simply by reaching out to others in your network. You’ll get a ton of good advice just by asking others who have been there.

    Thanks again, folks, and please feel free to stop by my regular blog, bookmark it, pass the word around, etc. Always appreciated!

  9. Great post. I used to have regular breakfast meetings with a group of fellow freelance writers. My non-writing friends thought we talked about craft and the art of writing. Nah, I said, we always talk about money and our crazy clients. Usually, how much to charge and how difficult it was to explain marketing to people who think writing is typing.

    One thing I learned from that group was to do a wrap-up on every project. Kind of like the client profile, but at the end. How many hours did I estimate? How many hours did it really take? Any personality/professionalism issues with the client?

    It helped to measure my return on investment and also, when it came time to bid out a similar project, I had a good baseline for knowing what to charge.

  10. Neal- value in context is as you suggest not an exact science. We are always in successive approximation in how we price our time and gifts.
    My experience has lead me to be flexible, and to develop some red flag qualifiers too. Bad , bad client. It is good to be up on the current rates, know comparables for similar projects, but if there is a project that sets off that secret “Oh my god I get to do this and get paid too? Don’t they know I would kill to do that?”…I’m on it, but with my totally professional hat on and a probably very reasonable price, maybe some scotch.. or at least dinner…
    Seriously, pricing ourselves is difficult. But at the end of the day it is what satisfies our mutual needs at the time. It is a contract of exchange-benefit for benefit that clearly marks both parties as confident professionals. If we have succeeded in that transfer of benefits-us to them, them to us, they’ll be back, and we’ll be very happy about it too. The others, we fire.
    @ Morgan and Christina-I have always noticed too that quantifying the time factor is an integral part of the outline, with transparent wiggle room stated up front. Especially when dealing with those CEO Alpha males. Their necks are on the line, it is just a planning thing.

    And Neal, I love some of your favorite watering holes on your site. Bookmarked. Merci.
    All best, Jan

    @ James Alpha Chartrand- check your email. Merci.

  11. Cara- Love it: “explain marketing to people who think writing is typing”

    And Janice – You’re right “their necks are on the line”, but in this case it really is an issue where a CEO who wants volume vs a CEO who wants good comms that customers care to read.

    The time it takes = the point of it all in the first place.

    Great reads people!

  12. I frequently hire freelance writers. The good ones can charge what they think is fair. It doesn’t matter what the the bad ones charge, they don’t get hired again.

    When I was consulting I kept increasing my hourly rate until I started to hear “no thank you.” Then I would try and stay just below that rate. If “no thank you” happened once in a while I figured I was close to the max I could charge.

    The actual rate seemed more dependent on the economy than other factors. When the economy was strong, during the last dot com bubble for example, rates were high. When the bubble burst the rates came down.

  13. Good straight-forward advice here.

    I think the only thing that is perhaps missing is that if you’re just starting out, then you’re not necessarily “entitled” to charge the “going rate.” That is, the going rate will normally be for someone who has a good amount of experience and lots of past clients to back it all up. But then, when you’re starting out the “I just want the work” mentality kicks in, so working for next-to-nothing isn’t so tough, we all have to pay our dues…

    The biggest stumbling block I had was getting past the “I can’t possibly charge that for a job” but, after doing several jobs where I was working for well below minimum wage, putting my prices up was a no-brainer and easy. If you do a good job, then there’s your value, and your client will have no problem paying it.

  14. Value of each profession is difficult to explain to somebody who isn’t working in it. When you discuss value and prices you need to be aware of the esteem you give to the client and the esteem you want to get from the client.

  15. Thanks again to everyone for the comments and feedback.

    This is an admittedly incomplete take on the subject, as a full treatment could probably fill a book. “Value” is, after all, a somewhat abstract idea. But I do want to emphasize that the point here is less about what value your clients recognize — that’s a highly important but separate idea — and more about how you define it for yourself. There’s no reason to quote an abstract rate just because it’s “market” or because it’s your “standard”. Those rates are often either too low or too high, depending on other aspects of the relationship. I think people get caught up sometimes. I’m suggesting, instead, to take a step back and evaluate things from a more holistic perspective.

  16. Morgan- that is a great idea with the questionnaire. I’m fairly new to the freelance world, and rates are my biggest “woe” right now. Can you give me any ideas that you put in your questionnaires? Thanks in advance! Angela

    http://immaculateconception.wordpress.com/

  17. Great post and terrific dialogue. This is an ongoing topic of discussion for writers. We discuss it regularly in a creative group I belong to.

    But if you think explaining the value in copywriting is tough, try doing it for PR.

    Thanks, Neal.

  18. Morgan,

    I also think the questionnaire is a great idea. Do you have different types of questionnaires for different projects? If you wouldn’t mind sharing some examples, that would be much appreciated.

    I have run into situations with new clients where I think I’m pricing fairly – only to find out mid-project about those pesky “unforseen details” that can make me want to pull my hair out. Even with contracts, I can’t assume that clients really read them – or even understand them. Questionnaires could help pick out some of those unforseen details beforehand.

  19. Here are some important things I ask about with every questionnaire I give to clients:
    -background on the project
    -launch features (is this multi-stage, all at once, timed releases, etc.)
    -where will this content live (online [how many sites?], magazine, newspaper, etc.)
    -who is the audience
    -do you have any current content strategies in place (have you before if you don’t now)
    -what do you expect from this content and what is the purpose of it (the objective, the message, the talking points, etc and selling, informing, creating a brand, etc.)
    -what challenges do you foresee with this content strategy
    -is there anything specifically you’d like NOT to have mentioned

    Then, depending on the client, I’ll ask more in-depth questions like:
    -what is the profession, disciplines and interests of your intended audience
    -what do you believe the audience expectations are for this content
    -identify three areas of subject matter that makes this content strategy unique

    The goal of all of this is to get a good understand what the client wants and to have them think about this project themselves. One of the worst things is when you get a client who hasn’t really thought something through — but they know they need content, so they say, “let’s hire someone to write for us.” Yeah, great plan, the only thing missing is, well, you know…a plan. ;)

  20. Mucho thanks, Morgan. This is quite helpful!

  21. Yes, Morgan, very much appreciated

    http://immaculateconception.wordpress.com

  22. Also for freelance writers from Europa is this very useful. Whem I´m working under the marketprice I don´t do my job professionaly.

  23. As an editor, I once asked an old friend and former college classmate to write a short article on his adventures covering baseball in Central America. I could only offer $100 for the piece, so I was appealing to him on an old-buddy basis. I was frankly a little surprised when he said he’d do it. He’s never one to underbid his services. I was even more surprised when I received the article about 45 minutes later. Then I did a little calculation. It probably took him about a half hour to actually write the piece, which contained no research beyond his lurid recollections. It cost him nothing in terms of additional travel expense, etc., and I paid on acceptance. So, at $100 for the article, he was making about $200/hour. Later on, he told me that he always considers how long it will take him to be the most important factor…that, and how much it will cost him to produce the piece. He said he would love to do $100 stories like mine all day long.

    One other factor that other writers have mentioned to me is the resale value of the article. If you write an article for $100 or even less, you may be able to sell it again and again, thus making it a good deal more lucrative. Same thing applies to commercial copywriting assignments. There’s a good chance that the information you gather can be re-used as articles or in other copywriting assignments.

    The idea is to look at the information you obtain asraw material for your writing factory.

  24. I am a copywriter from Chennai, India.
    As some of the comments point out, the debate on pricing seems endless. I am not sure whether or not the scene is much different in, say, USA or UK, from the one in India, but I would imagine it’s more or less the same everywhere.
    Going through the questions Neal is asking us to ask ourselves, I wonder if they are relevant to every assignment that comes one’s way. For, in the last several years of my freelancing stint, it is seldom that I have had a steady flow of work from any one client. But even so, a happy client is most likely to give you leads and also in some cases back them up with a strong recommendation. For this reason alone, it makes sense to develop a relationship with a first-time client.
    In reference to Morgan’s answer to Christina, I can recall many instances from my Ad Agency days when I had succeeded in making the client understand what it takes to come up with good work and effective solutions.
    If any of you are interested in knowing more of what I have learnt about freelancing, you may check out http://triologue.blogspot.com/
    I thank you Neal and all the others for sharing valuable insights.

  25. Just wanted to let everyone know that I’ve posted a companion piece to this, and you can read it by clicking here.

    Thanks again for all of the feedback. It’s very much appreciated.

  26. I am a copywriter, and am always called to do freelance work. My problem is to find out what the market rate really is – my freelance clients quote a number, which is not always the right money. And the market is so fractured, so diverse, arriving at a common ground is very difficult. So, then, what should I do?

  27. @ Neal – Bet you didn’t realize you’d opened Pandora’s box, did you… ;)

    In the end, folks, finding the right rates for what you do involves deciding on the level of your skills, your experience, your abilities, your value, the results you can produce, your flexibility…

    There is no “set” rate for writers. We all try to find the magic number or guidelines, but there are not. Factor in worldwide differences in economies, dollar values, cultures, etc, and you’ll soon realize that finding THE rate is impossible.

    My suggestion? Do what feels right for you. Quit stressing over it. Find a number that works, and sleep well at night. If you want to adjust higher or lower, just do it. Find the magic number for YOU.

  28. I have been a freelance writer for many years and have also been involved in technical writing and proof reading.

    Every project was unique and consideration had to be given to whether the project would bring repeat work or recommendations.

    So the rate charged would be different everytime to reflect the value I gave and the future value that it would bring to me.

  29. Uh oh Neal… you’ve opened up a can of worms with the “value” word.

    Because once you actually start thinking about value delivered to the client, the whole idea of billing for your time goes out the window.

    In my opinion it’s crazy. (And yes, I’ve done it many times.)

    Time invested is irrelevant to your clients. What do they care? Unless you’re billing for your time. But that’s really putting the focus in the wrong place. It’s putting the focus on your investment, not what the client is getting.

    And then you’ve got another problem. There’s only so much time in a day. So now you’ve effectively capped your income.

    The only way you make more money is to work more. Of course you can “raise your rates,” but you’ll still have a cap… it’ll just be a little bit higher. Eeekk…

    If you’re in business for yourself, you’re taking a risk that 98% of the people in this world would never consider.

    Why shouldn’t you be rewarded for being willing to take that risk?

    Charging for VALUE takes time. You have to develop the skill of articulating the value you’re REALLY delivering to your client.

    Because unless they perceive that there is huge value there, no one is going to pay for it.

    You have to stop selling your services and start selling the RESULTS of your services.

    That’s what your client is really buying.

    The first step (which I struggled with) is that you actually have to believe in the value you bring to the table.

    Not YOUR value… or even the value of what you do…

    What’s important is believing in the value of what your clients GET because of what you do.

  30. In the direct mail business, we sometimes charge per piece mailed or arrange for compensation tied to results. The “results” thing is a little risky because you’re really only responsible for one element of a direct mail package (the copy itself), while the results could be ruined by a bad list purchase, faulty design, ill-timed mailing, postate prices, etc. That said, if you can get with a very competent company that has people who know what they’re doing, results-based compensation is a real possibility. You get to charge more because the company isn’t risking as much as they are when they simply pay you for your work or time. I’ve had some writers ask me how I could trust a company to tell me the truth on the results. I suppose I could ask for an official report or something like that, but the bottom line is that I would not work for a company that I felt was so sleazy that they’d beat me out of a few bucks just because they had the opportunity. The truth is that the copywriting expenditure in a DM campaign is pretty minor compared to the cost of postage, printing, etc…especially when you consider how important a good copy platform is. If you can produce winners, the client will keep coming back to you no matter what you charge…as long as it let’s them achieve their objectives.

  31. One other thing: freelance writing in any of its many manifestations is a business. And part of launching a business is making a business plan. I just posted a five-part series on my website (www.writingformoney.com) on how to make a business plan for a freelance writing business. Please feel free to check it out.

  32. Advice that helped: “Don’t discount your work. Create value added instead.”

    What can you add that your client might appreciate? For example, my normal turnaround timeline for a project might be 48 hours. When negotiating with a client who might just be testing the waters, I might offer him a 24 hour turnaround – no discussion about higher fees for the priority service, or discounting!

    Never deliver too quickly – makes the work seem too simple!

    The questionnaire really works, and so does adding in the final ratios. Keeping track helps you to estimate future projects.

    I’ve also been known to offer 3 levels of service: If you want it ALL, from scratch, price is X. If you already have copy in place, and need editing, additional examples, etc, then price is Y. If you want me to clean up what you already have, punch up the copy, then price is Z.

    Do what works for you:)

    - Maggie