In most circles, it’s considered unsophisticated, uncouth and uncultured — and all of the other shameful “un” words — to talk about the money you make and the way you make it.
I don’t care. Let’s talk about it.
As a freelancer, the matter of money involves a labyrinth of considerations, factors and variables, for which there is no universal solution that works for every writer or for every situation. But those elements can add up differently depending on who is doing the freelancing.
I’m a part-time freelancer. My monthly freelance income is approximately $2,000 and is made up of a small handful of light-lift pieces and/or a couple of more in-depth features that come with more handsome price tags. Freelancing isn’t my main source of income, but it’s a nice disposable chunk of my income. (Full disclosure: I’m getting paid $1,000 for this piece.)
The subject of getting paid, and how much, is a big topic among the freelance community, and one that has a lot of perspectives, backed up by a boatload of passion.
“A fair rate of pay takes into account the hours it takes behind the scenes — or at least takes into account our expertise,” said freelancer Emma-Claire Wilson. “We are no different than ‘contractors’ in other professions, only contractors charge far more than ‘freelancers’ are expected to charge.”
“Pay us like professionals who provide a service you need that requires skill,” added freelancer Steph Coelho. “Consider all the unpaid labor that goes into the work we do. And no, we won’t work for exposure.”
Well, some of us don’t work for exposure, but some of us may, or might, or have. We’ll get to that later.
All writers have their own method, their own logic and their own vantage point when it comes to the monetary value, or lack thereof, of what they should or should not expect to be paid for their work. Some have a set per-word rate. Others factor in degree of difficulty. For others, it just comes down to “do I have the time to add that onto my plate?”
When I began freelancing, I was lucky. My first pitch sold and I accepted the offer: $250 for an 800-word reported feature with a requirement of three sources. At the time, this landslide of riches was more than I expected for my 50th pitch, let alone my first.
Plus, I was very eager just to get some experience under my belt and I craved the opportunity to learn the ropes. Fast-forward to present day: I am still eager, I know how to tie the ropes, and now I expect to be paid decently for that knowledge.
My commission model is rooted in cost per word and is strongly swayed by a few consistent and powerful winds: the amount of under-the-hood work that is required for the piece, my passion for the content, the value of the perspective I bring to the table, the household item that might need to be repaired in that moment and the name of the publication I am writing for.
That’s how I do it, but that doesn’t mean that’s how it’s done. Like I said, it’s different from writer to writer.
“Freelancing and I kind of discovered each other,” said Taayoo Murray, a full-time freelance writer based out of New York City. “I wanted flexibility in my schedule. Having a teenage son home from school with no one there, and the potential of minimum supervision while attending high school in New York City, wasn’t something I wanted. Freelancing for me was the solution.”
With bylines in Business Insider, Health Magazine, Parents and more, Murray has been freelancing for seven years and has made it her sole source of income for about three of those years. As with many freelancers, Murray navigated through the do’s and don’ts of the industry via the ole learning-by-doing method.
“Unfortunately, a lot of what I did was trial and error,” said Murray. “I learned a lot from the freelancing community on Twitter. Following other freelancers in your niche is very helpful because not only are you exposed to other writers, you get to see which publications are commissioning freelancers, so you can possibly pitch them.”
Starting out in her freelance career, Murray wrote blog content for a parenting website, making $10 a post. “No one should be paid $10 per blog, but the pieces were not hard hitting and didn’t require any interviews or even links to studies,” she said. “I was glad at the time to be published.”
Since then, Murray has grown in her craft and in the methodology to which she applies a monetary value for her work.
“For the most part, I do pieces ranging from 800-1,800 words,” said Murray. “These pieces will have a minimum of two expert sources and links to credible research. Right now, my rates for these start at $400 an article for online pieces. I don’t quote per word or hourly. I will take a commission that pays per word, if the minimum is $1 per word. I don’t take hourly assignments. It’s difficult for me to quantify the time I spend on a piece, because from the moment I’m assigned, I often spend odd time brainstorming, researching, reading. It interferes with my creative process if I have to be logging time.”
Murray stands firm when it comes to the matter of her rate, and she’s never afraid to bring her negotiating game to the table — especially for a piece she is interested in.
“Most editors will tell you their budget when they reach out. If I like the topic and the publication, but the rate is low, I will attempt to negotiate,” Murray said. “Most times the editor agrees. If they can’t, I politely decline, state my rate and ask them to get in touch when their budget increases. I have had two instances where editors came back within two to three months with increased rates.”
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is a writer/editor and an SPJ Freelance Community board member who has been freelancing full time since 1984.
Much like Murray, Thaler-Carter’s first freelance gig was not a wallet buster, but it was a beginning. “I started freelancing back in high school, when I wanted to write about events and thought the local weekly would be more fun and profitable than the school paper,” said Thaler-Carter. “They paid $15 an article — which is what some outlets offer nowadays.
“I use a certain amount per word as my ideal writing rate, and a per hour as my ideal editing/proofreading rate,” said Thaler-Carter. “My process involves identifying how much I need to earn to cover my life’s expenses — mortgage and condo fee, utilities, professional memberships, insurance, groceries, travel, entertainment, etc. — and doing my best to find work that pays well enough to more than cover those expenses.”
While Thaler-Carter says she has a threshold of what she will accept from a publication, she won’t dip below that set payment range, but she’s more than happy to exceed it.
“I’ve accepted lower-than-ideal per-word rates for assignments that I can do so quickly and easily that the hourly rate is worthwhile,” said Thaler-Carter. “And I’m always glad to accept more than expected for a dream project.”
Erika Hardison has been a full-time freelance journalist since 2018. She made the move to full time while in the second trimester of her pregnancy.
Her first writing assignment came by way of social media. “I was active in a Facebook community called Binders, which is a network for women and non-gender–confirming journalists who often don’t have whisper networks to find work,” said Hardison. “I was able to connect with an editor directly, and be commissioned for a story.”
Starting out, Hardison was earning roughly $200 per story, and she was, in a word, “thrilled.” At first. “But then I realized there were journalists with the same amount of experience as me who were being paid two, three times the amount I was being paid,” she said.
As Hardison’s portfolio grew, so did her methodology in determining the monetary value of her work.
“I have a baseline number for opinion essays, research articles and interviews,” said Hardison. “I evaluate how much of my resources I need to complete the piece and the timeframe I need to send it. Opinion essays, while not requiring a ton of research, need to have a structure that makes my opinion/argument strong. Those types of hot takes usually require quick turnaround. However, hot takes are often published to drive up traffic about a trending topic, so if an offer is too low, I negotiate. For research articles, I tend to find that the editor/publisher has a set budget for the project, and the turnaround time is reasonable considering you may have to travel, research, interview and transcribe afterward. Those tend to be higher overall, but it’s more time consuming, so you have to factor in the hours you’re working to determine if the rate is reasonable.”
Another important factor for Hardison when it comes to rate of pay is the uniqueness of her perspective and the vulnerability that the piece requires.
“I absolutely charge more for pieces that require a more personal take or coverage,” said Hardison. “This is especially true during Black History Month when some editors scramble to find Black writers at the last minute.”
While freelancing is a business, for some freelancers there are other factors that lead them to pop open their laptops every morning, or in late hours of the night. Being lowballed on a pitch or an assignment never feels great, but when asked about the last time they felt their work was valued and undervalued, Murray and Hardison didn’t mention dollars and cents or late payments; they talked about shares, feedback and freedom of voice.
“Value for me is not just expressed in monetary compensation,” said Murray, “but also in the tone of emails, timely responses and even acknowledging my work on social media. About two years ago, I did a piece for a major parenting brand. The editor never shared it or even liked the piece when I shared it, even though I tagged her. I’ve seen her share and gush about other writers and pieces, so I felt very unseen.”
The triumph of an article well received and the opportunity to maintain one’s voice are great value adds for many writers. While no one looks to work for free, sometimes writing the words just for the good they may do, is a plus.
“I was working with a Black woman editor for a legacy publication on a topic that was important to me,” said Hardison. “She didn’t edit out my voice or tone and I felt like she really appreciated what I presented.”
“I do occasional pro bono work for causes I believe in,” said Thaler-Carter, “but I choose those projects.”
Most of Hardison’s pro bono work is on her own terms. “All my passion pieces go on my personal zine,” she said. “If a nonprofit reaches out that aligns with my personal politics and needs a writer, I would consider taking a pay cut for the greater good.”
So perhaps the right way of getting paid as a freelancer is to evaluate your worth, your time, your effort, your perspective, your product, your life expenses and the parts of writing that bring you the most joy. ,
Angela Hatem is an Indianapolis-based freelance writer with bylines in National Geographic, HuffPost, Business Insider and NBC News. Find her online at AngelaHatem.com.