Paying a Freelance Writer: What you need to know

by Julie Rutherford

By Holly Leber Simmons

Writers are notoriously undervalued. Online writers’ groups are filled with horror stories about prospective clients who expect to get something for nothing, or for very little. Lest you doubt, here are some real-world examples from professional freelance writers, many of whom have decades of experience and/or advanced degrees:

Freelance Writer
  • “Can we pay you less money per piece, but give you more work?” — No. Like anyone, a freelance writer’s time is limited. If we fill up more hours with underpaid work, that leaves less time for work that pays well.
  • “Can you do this free writing test?” — No. An experienced writer will have a portfolio of work that shows their skills and style. If you’re looking for something very specific, contracting for a trial piece is okay, but you should absolutely expect to pay for it. You wouldn’t ask a dentist to fill one cavity for free to make sure you like their work first.
  • “We can’t pay you, but you’ll get great exposure.” — No. The joke writers make is that exposure is what you die of on a mountaintop. “Exposure,” whether it’s being tagged for your many social media followers, or simply having the name of an impressive-sounding company in our portfolio, doesn’t pay for rent or groceries.
  • “Can you add on another interview/Q&A/sidebar/SEO keyword analysis? — No. This is called scope creep. It’s like going out to dinner and asking the waiter to throw in a dessert for free. If you need additional material or sources, you should expect there to be an associated fee.
  • “Why would I pay you $X an hour for a job a monkey could do?” — No. Just no.

Want one key to getting off on the right foot in your relationship with a freelance writer? Don’t expect bargain basement prices.

There is no standard industry practice for how or what to charge. Different writers charge differently, either by project, by the hour, per word, or on retainer. More writers are moving away from charging by the hour, especially when we hear this red-flag sentence: “It’s really easy, so it shouldn’t take you long.” That punishes a writer who is able to be more efficient.

Think of it this way: You aren’t paying for their X number of hours of work on this project, you’re paying for their Y number of years of experience. That said, retainer agreements are typically based on an average number of hours per month. Many writers will charge per piece or per project, and different factors can affect the price, such as including more interviews.

“But what if I have a very small budget?” You may ask. That’s absolutely fine. No one has unlimited resources. In that case, you and the writer can work together to adjust the scope. This might mean an article with two interviews instead of four, and you line up the sources. It might mean a monthly, rather than weekly, blog post. It might mean coming up with 5 possible taglines instead of 10.

Of course, sometimes your needs simply won’t match and that’s okay. But attempting to find common ground via scope adjustment rather than asking for a rate reduction, or expecting gumball machine prices from the get-go demonstrates that you respect the writer’s time and value their skillset.

Bearing this in mind could be the beginning of a beautiful collaboration between you and a freelance writer.

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