How much should I charge? Pricing tips for freelance jobs

February 18, 2014

By Sarah Webb

The email and real-life conversations between freelancers are littered with this question. The answer is rarely simple. It's often a process.

NASW's Words Worth (members only) and ASJA's Pay Check (members only), and Who Pays Writers? are rates databases for different types of projects. Colleagues can help you with their experiences with similar clients and jobs. But not every writer's fee structure looks alike. More experience, an impressive portfolio, multimedia skills, or a deep science background can add to your value for certain types of jobs and clients. If you're brand new, you often can't get the same fee as someone with decades of experience.

Roadsign reading "money"
Don't answer the question too quickly

It can be really easy to throw out a simple number like $1.50/word or $100/hour or $2,000 for the project, but it can help to take a little bit of time to consider the job. For an article, the client will probably quote an initial rate, but careful research can help you think about negotiating those rates up. (And consider the rights clauses within a contract. Those may change how you want to price a project. More on that in chapter 22 of The Science Writers' HandbookBesting Bad Contracts, and our virtual mentoring session on contracts.)

Other clients may want you to work on multiple parts of a project: research, writing, editing, content development, web development, or multimedia. Sometimes someone will approach you about a project, not sure what an appropriate fee might be. With that sort of project, you'll probably need to take your interview skills in a new direction and ask the client a whole list of questions about the project, the timing, and their expectations.

You can even ask, "What's your budget?" With that information, you might learn that you could charge a bit more than you thought. Or if you realize quickly that they have high expectations and shallow pockets, you might figure out that you'll never reach a rate that would work out for both of you. In a small budget situation, you might be able to offer to do less, but for a fee that a client can afford. (For detailed tips on how to price a complex project, check out Laurie Lewis's excellent book, What to Charge: Pricing Strategies for Freelancers and Consultants.)

Crunching the numbers

Here's how I think about pricing a project.

Step 1: The magic number for me is my hourly rate. But I don't tend to look at one number. Instead, I look at a range. What's the minimum that I need to make to keep my business running? What's a median number that I'd like to get on most jobs? What's the maximum that I can expect to earn for a lucrative project or one that requires specialized expertise?

Step 2: Track my time. The most accurate data on how quickly I work and the profitability of a project comes from my experience, so I found a time tracking software that I like and use it religiously. (I now use Office Time, which is available for Windows and various Apple devices. You can also take advantage of time tracking functions in project management and billing apps and software such as Fresh Books.) Whatever app you use, make sure it has a report function so that you can look back at time totals for completed projects and calculate your hourly rate for those projects. As I've collected data about different types of projects over the years, those numbers have become a valuable resource that I use to compare new projects to completed ones. It's also a great way to check back after a project is done and see how well I estimated.

Step 3: Size up the project. I take the information that I've learned about a project and the data from similar projects and think about how long it will take and what skills are involved. Is this work that any writer could do well? Or do I bring something special to the mix? (I'm a Ph.D. chemist, so if I'm working on a project that is pulling on my chemistry expertise and my writing experience, I'll take that into consideration.) Here's where I also bring in data from writer colleagues or writers' databases so that I can figure out what fits with market standards. If I'm incredibly busy and would need to work nights and weekends to complete a job, I might price the work a little higher, that way if the client agrees, the long hours come with an added reward.

Step 4: Think about how to present the price. Though I'm most interested in my hourly rate, it's not the most important number to a client. They want to know how much a project is going to cost, which often makes a per-word or project rate more useful. Because I think about my rates in terms of ranges, I have a good idea of how far I'm willing to negotiate.

If the fee for a project falls below my normal ranges, I ask myself other questions. Is it a job that brings other intangibles that make up for the money? Can I make up the money elsewhere? If the answer to either of those questions is "no," the project and I probably aren't a good match. Even if I'm not busy, I am better off spending my time pitching new projects or looking for other, higher paying work.

Not all price quotes lead to projects

Hitting the Goldilocks sweet spot of pricing takes practice, and not getting the project might be frustrating. That's okay. However, if you get every job you price, you probably aren't charging enough. If you never get the job, you might be charging too much. A friend who works for a communications consulting firm once told me that he and his colleagues aim to get 50% of their proposals accepted. That sounded like a worthy goal to me and made me feel a lot better about the times when my price quote isn't accepted.

How do you decide what to charge?

Sarah Webb is senior science writer for the Krell Institute and a freelance journalist and editor in Chattanooga, Tenn. Her work has appeared in Nature, Discover, Science News, Chemical & Engineering News, and many other publications.

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