Freelance Finance: By the hour, or by the word?
by Steven Threndyle
Recently, a Vancouver-based company called Grizzly Coast Media created a bit of a stir online when it started posting jobs for freelancers that paid $50 for anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 words per story. If you take five hours to write 1500 words, you’re making $10 an hour. In Vancouver, where the typical one bedroom apartment rents for $1900 per month, you’ll be working for an entire month (200 hours, roughly) and not have any money left over to, you know, eat. (Or pay the utilities, such as high speed internet and, uh, hydro and gas).
Indeed, “Time is Money,” is probably the oldest self-help cliché, and in a day and age when writers can track every detail of how they spend their time on a project to the minute, it might be kind of depressing to find out that you only made $10 per hour on that last feature piece for Toronto Life, especially after satisfying endless requests from the fact-checkers.
Freelance writing jobs are split into two methods of compensation; payment by the word (say, $500 for a 500 word assignment—a fairly standard length and fee for a mainstream magazine. Note to newbies: this rate hasn’t budged since about 1987), and payment by the hour, a somewhat more nebulous standard that applies to advertising copywriters, technical documentation specialists, and freelance corporate gunslingers brought in to complete short term contracts. After doing some interviews and research, it’s apparent that writers pretty much fall into one camp or the other.
Speed and efficiency are key
Not surprisingly, whether you’re paid by the hour or by the word, financial success depends upon speed and efficiency. Are your sources easy to get hold of? Is the story lining up with the pitch you presented, or have things gone off the rails because a source introduced some powerful new information that might contradict your entire thesis in the first place? Did the sources have great stories but were unwilling to go on the record, for whatever reason? Were you thrown off kilter when an art director e-mailed you and asked “what kind of photos do we need to illustrate your story? (not an uncommon request these days, especially with smaller publishers).
Meghan Ward, editor and publisher at the Canadian Rockies Annual, a coffee table journal based out of Banff, Alberta, says “I don’t track my hours when I am getting paid by the word. In those cases, it’s up to me to be efficient and I can get a good sense overall if it was “worth it” or not. Usually, getting paid by the word means I’m taking on a gig more as a “passion project” than anything. Travel Alberta used to pay $1/word – a good rate by Canadian standards. It was up to me to do a good job while still being mindful of how long things were taking me. It’s difficult to compare apples to apples when you’re comparing a client with a big budget paying hourly versus a magazine with little budget paying by the word.”
“When I quote on some corporate projects I often take my hourly rate and compare it to a ‘per word’ rate to come up with a final amount, and then charge the client a flat rate based on those numbers. It’s often not up to us whether we get paid by the word, by the hour, or a flat rate. We can assess how much time it will take us based on the payment structure presented to us. In my world, a flat rate is the safest bet. With time, we become more efficient and accurate with our estimates,” says Ward.
Christine Thompson worked as an advertising copywriter for the British Columbia Automobile Association (BCAA) for ten years before branching out into freelance writing fifteen years ago. She firmly believes that “charging by the word to be the worst way to make money because it’s limiting. Writing a 1000 word article for $500 still takes time for research, conducting interviews, writing and editing; it’s not as though i can cram that all of that into an hour or two.”
She believes it’s the way to go for projects that are likely to require numerous revisions from a client. “With a project based fee, I stipulate an hourly rate for excessive revisions and that seems to cover any extra work that I might have to take on.” Still, Thompson is not picky about tracking every minute of her time spent on a project.
New York based freelancer Caitlin Kelly is the author of Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail and a regular contributor to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other A-list publications. While most of her work is commissioned on a per-word basis, she has broken down the process of turning in timely, accurate stories in an organized manner.
“For example, a story that pays me $1,200 typically means I need to find six or seven sources—any fewer that that feels thin or lazy to me. One source should be able to provide me with 200 to 250 words. So the time I have to budget for is: 1) sourcing; 2) what I call the “beauty contest,” i.e., selecting the right sources to use once I’ve found them, since not every source is going to offer what I need; 3) research (how much writing or even video watching do I need to do?) and then doing the 4) interviews; 5) writing; 6) editing and 7) post-submission revisions. So there are seven stages I need to budget my time for. If I want to make at least $100/hour, that’s 12 hours, total.”
Kelly roughly estimates that it takes two hours for finding/vetting solid sources and gaining consent for interviews. From there, she allots four to five hours for interviews including an extra hour for interview preparation time, followed by two to three hours for writing and editing, and then allowing an additional two hours for revision. “Some stories will go a bit faster than that and, rarely, some slower,” she says.
Needless to say, Kelly prizes efficiency and focus when it comes to watching her time. “The problem with sticking to a ‘by the word’ formula is that 1,000 of the right words can mean you still need to bring decades of wisdom on that topic, or enough experience that you can write quickly and efficiently. I know I should track my output more accurately but I’m pretty efficient and I only take on stories I know I can produce quickly enough.”
How to get ahead in advertising
The most lucrative hourly rates are paid in the advertising industry. Writers coming from a newspaper or magazine writing background are at a disadvantage, but journalists and news producers with broadcast and video storytelling might have a better chance, according to Jake Bogoch, a former magazine editor who is now an associate creative director at London-based The&Partnership in Toronto, whose clients include TELUS, Lexus, and Samsung.
Freelance ad copywriters are hired by agency creative directors on a serious time deadline to create a pitch for a client presentation. Bogoch says, “Half the time you’re doing nothing but making ‘meeting candy.’ As in, you’re making ad-like objects (video scripts, headlines, digital and social media tactics) that flesh out a larger presentation that’s being led by a creative director. That creative director hired you because he/she is tapped. So they turn to freelancers—typically people they’ve already worked with and trust and who can work with minimal supervision.”
The rewards for doing so are impressive. “The very best freelance ad writers in the United States command about $2,000 USD per day, while the very best ones in Canada make about $900/day. Even mid-level writers can make between $400-$500 per day, which is still nothing to sneeze at.”
Bogoch says, “The biggest liability for print guys is the dearth of video experience. You need to be able to tell a tight, kick-ass, story in less than thirty seconds. You need to know how to write a script. Most journalists are past the point of interning at an ad agency. Go online and find any resource you can to teach yourself how to think, write, and format properly and come up with a short video. Hire a young cameraman/editor to shoot it. And do it three times. Unless it’s great, it’s rare for a one-off to build trust. Prove that you can do it. You have to position yourself as a master storyteller.”