Finance for freelance writers & editors: How to calculate your hourly rate

(Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay)

As I’m away this week, here’s one I prepared earlier. It’s a rant I had last week on Medium.

When it comes to working out an hourly rate, it helps to know where to start.

When someone offers me $25 to edit their 10,000-word document I can feel myself going cross-eyed.

Apart from being topics of no interest to me when an interest in the topic is a requirement (cosmetics, poetry, ninja kids…), and apart from being quite busy already, thank you very much, $25 per 10,000 words is not really a ‘good’ editing wage.

Think about it, people. It might look good on the outside. But how long does it take you to even read 10,000 words?

It takes me 2 hours. Or 10,000 good words, at least.

And that’s before I start editing or proofreading it.

That’s before I spend time grabbing and saving the file, and printing it if necessary. (Printing also equals paper costs, ink costs, electricity costs, green and red pen costs, time spent looking for green pens…)

That’s before I format the file to a consistent and logical layout (changing narrow margins to regular margins, changing giant or tiny fonts to regular fonts, removing any fancy and unnecessary titivations, removing section breaks, changing header style to body style, changing double spaces at the end of sentences to single spaces throughout).

Yes, most of this is done at the designer or layout stage, but have you tried to read something that’s in sections? Have you tried to edit body text when it’s in header style? It disappears!

That’s before checking it meets the client’s house style.

That’s before I change the language from US English (the default, it seems) to UK English, or Hong Kong English, or Australian English.

That’s before I go through checking grammar, spelling and punctuation.

That’s before I make a clean file and a tracked changes file.

And that’s before I start to check historical or actual facts, such as when food first appeared in tins (cans), or how long it would have taken a coach and four horses to travel from Cornwall to London (clue, they wouldn’t have done it in a day), or whether an unaccompanied lady of good breeding would regularly dash about the English countryside on horseback during the Regency period, and would she even be unaccompanied?

And then, when any hard-copy editing is done, the amendments need transferring to the screen. Or if it’s a screen edit, I have to go through again and check I haven’t missed anything and that I’ve been consistent.

How many hours have we clocked up by now?

The minimum hourly wage in the UK is currently £8.91. This is what our government considers to be a minimum living wage. It works out at around US$12 — $13 per hour. So that just about covers the cost of simply reading that 10,000 words.

Taking into account the time it takes to then do all of the work, which in turn depends on the quality of the work in the first place, and then factor in the years of experience and training and knowledge, and your own personal standard of work, $25 doesn’t even come close. Unless they’re just paying you to read it.

So before you pitch for that work or accept that invitation, make sure you know what your own hourly rate is. Make sure you know what your own word-count rate is. Make sure you know your own worth. And make sure you’re comfortable doing the job at that rate rather than resenting it.

Here, in the UK, the NUJ (National Union of Journalists) has a freelance fees guide that suggests the kind of hourly rate you should be getting as a minimum. Many publications and publishers do still pay these rates, but most can’t afford it these days. So I would suggest that you do the following:

  1. Have a look to see what the NUJ recommends here in the UK. (If you have a similar organisation in your own country, they may also have a minimum suggested fee. If not, use this one as a guide and do a rough conversion on something like Coin Mill.) (Better yet, just stop here and use these as your starting figures.)
  2. Work out how long it takes you to first read 10,000 words, and then edit or proofread 10,000 words, remembering to factor in poor quality raw material ‘just in case’. (I know I can proofread around 5,000 good words per hour, and I can edit around 2,500 good words per hour, so 10,000 words will take 2 hours to proofread, or 4 hours to edit — if they are good words.)
  3. Calculate how many hours per week you have available (or are willing to commit) to do this work.
  4. Calculate how much money you need to earn per hour in order to meet your financial commitments. (Here you work out your weekly expenses and divide that by the number of hours you have available to work in a week.)
  5. Calculate a 10% profit margin, a 20% profit margin, and a 30% profit margin, and then factor that in. (i.e. If you need to earn at least $10 per hour, then your hourly rate including your chosen profit margin is $11, $12 and $13.) The profit margin allows for sickness, holidays, tax, national insurance (or private insurance), health insurance, pension payments, time spent looking for work, dry periods, unexpected car maintenance bills, the cost of replacing hardware, or simply a bit of a bonus for actually doing the work instead of lounging in the sunshine or binge-watching Netflix or reading a good book for pleasure.
  6. Now you have your maximum hourly rate (the NUJ rate) and your minimum hourly rate (your minimum plus your chosen profit margin). If you don’t use the NUJ rates or similar, use the 30% profit margin rate as your maximum. Choose one or the other, or choose something smack in the middle of both. This is your preferred or realistic hourly rate. It is also your negotiable range. And comparing it to the NUJ recommended rate ensures that you’re less likely to unwittingly undercut anyone else. (Because you wouldn’t wittingly undercut anyone else now, would you?)
  7. Multiply the number of hours it will take you to do the work by your chosen hourly rate — for the purpose of this exercise, I’m going to use $25 as the hourly rate. e.g. Using our 10,000-word example: 4 editing hours @ $25 = $100 — hence, I would charge $10 per 1,000 words rounded up.
  8. Now you have both an hourly rate and a rate per word-count. (Page rates depend on how many words per page, and the smaller the font and the narrower the margins the more words per page. I don’t work with page rates for this reason.)

And that $25 for 10,000 words should be at least quadrupled for it to be worth my while. Regular weekly work is negotiable.

Perhaps what I should have said was: “Gee, thanks. I’d love to read your 10,000 words for $25. But if you’d also like them editing, it’ll cost you $100.” (Note: I charge and expect more for writing.)

Why am I making this public? To ensure that the work isn’t devalued by those who don’t understand the ‘going rate’. The more people who go in cheap, the harder it is for people like me to make a living from it. I don’t steal the cookies off your table, please don’t steal them off mine.

The more people who refuse to work for these rates, the more likely the client is to see sense and offer a decent wage. Or some of them at any rate. And if they won’t? Say, “Thanks, but no.”

Regardless of whether or not they can afford your so-called extortionate rates, anything less means that you are paying them to give you work. This is before they start paying late and you’re also losing any interest, or expending time chasing payment.

And the more people who make their actual rates of pay public, or transparent, means more newbies will know what to refuse instead of being afraid to say, “Thanks, but no.”

To work out your writing rate, build in stuff like research, reading, interviewing, visiting places of interest, editing, proofreading, fees for hiring professional editors or proofreaders, retyping, skill, experience, personal knowledge, and so on. Then calculate how many words you can write or type in an hour. And then add it all together.

A version of this story was first published on Words Worth Writing. This most recent version appeared in Writers’ Blokke on Medium.

For more writing tips from me, have a look at my book Diary of a Scaredy Cat available in multi-format from Books2Read (click on the pic).