How much is your writing worth?

February 1, 2018

What is your writing worth_Sarah Lentz
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How do we decide what our writing is worth?

What should a freelance writer charge? 

I usually dread this question. Let's begin by pointing out the obvious: pricing depends, in part, on the following: 

  • skills & experience
  • writing style (this does matter)
  • what we're writing (lifestyle blog posts, white papers, etc.)
  • how much your client trusts you and your writing ability

I'll be upfront, though, and tell you I'm ashamed of my previous answer to the question of how a freelance writer should decide what to charge. 

I'm ashamed not only because I believed it myself but because I actually encouraged other writers to believe it.

I thought I was being more fair-minded and more considerate of my clients' needs, but -- as I eventually realized -- I was being a chump. That belief only made me a target for clients who wanted top quality writing for a pittance. 

These clients were businesses that could have managed to pay more than a few pennies per word. Not only did they expect top quality writing for slave labor wages (which is what it amounted to, when the total pay was divided by the time it usually took me to write what they wanted written), they expected unlimited revisions at no extra cost -- even when the revisions meant re-writing the piece according to revised and substantially different instructions.

How long would you continue to work for someone like this?

For me, it depended on what I honestly thought my writing was worth. 

I have had good freelance writing clients (one of my favorites was a ghostwriting client for a gig that lasted a few months) though they were in the minority. I'd like to change that. 

And here's where I blew it when given the chance to help fellow writers earn what their writing is worth -- what many, many clients out there are willing to pay them for their best work. 

I once argued -- in a comment on a popular freelance writer's blog -- that what the client thinks our writing is worth is something we should take into consideration when deciding for ourselves what our work is worth.

I wrote that a few years ago. I even added that the writer's estimation of the value of his work is only half the equation, which implies that the client's estimation forms the other half and should, therefore, be just as important as the writer's. 

So, if a writer thinks his writing is worth at least fifty cents a word, but the client disagrees and says it's worth one tenth of that, at the most, the final price should be the average of the two values -- or (50 + 5)/2 = 27.5 cents per minute (a rate which both parties would likely reject).

But when I tried to apply this "fairness model" for myself, the client's opinion of my work and its value became more important than my own -- even if I knew other writers were earning far more with writing like mine, and even if I knew my work deserved more than a particular client wanted to pay.

Ultimately, what lay behind my earlier belief was a lack of confidence on my part and an unwillingness to assert the value of my work in the face of those who didn’t want to pay more than a few pennies per word but who still expected “top quality writing.”

And the lack of confidence was, in part, due to my lack of experience as a freelance writer. I hadn't yet become fed up with clients who expected the best for a penny (or a few pennies) per word. 

The dim appraisal of my work from these bargain-seeking clients made me doubt the value of my work -- even as I worked to hone my skills and improve the quality of my writing.

I know I can write well (though there's always room for improvement), but I was letting other people decide for me what my writing was worth.

And what's worse -- what burns more than that -- is that I was encouraging other writers to do the same.

Fortunately, my comment was never published.

At the time, I thought it was  because the moderator didn't think my opinion deserved to be published, because it differed from all the others. I'm ashamed to think I regarded it as a case of "elitist groupthink." I assumed those other writers just couldn't relate to writers like me, who couldn't afford to pass up those low-paying gigs. 

It was money, after all -- money we needed. If I had to hustle longer and harder to earn as much as these writers earned in one hour, . . . well, that was just my lot for the time being.

And I felt, then, that my circumstances made me someone they didn't want to acknowledge. I was a leper or a vagrant of the freelance writing universe. Better to pretend I didn't exist. Engaging me wasn't worth the trouble. 

That's how I thought they saw me. Or maybe that's just how I saw myself -- at least in part.

In any case, I'm grateful my comment was never published.

Because I was wrong. 

If you decide to let someone else decide what your work is worth -- and they decide it’s worth less than you think it’s worth -- their negative (or lesser) appraisal of your work’s value can seem a lot louder and more convincing than your own.

A professional knows he’s good at what he does -- and that his work deserves what the market pays skilled professional writers for their work.

A newbie -- who is anxious to start earning money for his work -- might be tempted to think that if he's willing to work for peanuts at first, then eventually his clients will see that his work is worth more and will pay him accordingly. 

Unfortunately, this isn't how it usually works. 

If you don't think your writing is worth more than slave wages, you're not going to ask for more than that, because you'll always be more afraid of losing a paying client than of being paid less than what more market-savvy clients pay other writers for writing of the same or even lesser quality. 

A "lucky few"?

But a fear that has haunted my mind before -- and that likely has occurred to many freelance writers -- is that there aren't enough of these golden clients out there for all of us. According to this fear,  a few "lucky" freelance writers find these star clients and make a decent living with their work as a result, but the rest of us (who are legion) aren't so fortunate. 

Is this another 1% vs. 99% situation? Are most of us freelance writers doomed to obscurity and to "side hustle" pay rates? 

Are we just the "less fortunate majority" -- the invisible and unmentionable legion of writers who are stuck with clients who pay us less than ten cents per word and who act as though they're making a huge investment in us?

Should we just accept being treated as though we owe these clients for the opportunity to get paid anything for our work -- because, after all, they could easily replace us with other writers who are willing to work for less?

It only takes one person to make you feel like someone whose work could easily be done for less money by legions of other writers. 

Who are you to argue, after all, if you haven't found one of those magical clients willing to pay you the kind of rate that would elevate your freelance writing to more than a mere side hustle? 

If you can earn more per hour as a lunch lady (for a totally random example) than you can with your writing -- and the former gets you out of the house (and bathing) more frequently -- it's tougher to convince yourself that this freelance writing thing can work.

This is why it pays to network with other freelance writers -- especially those who have found clients that pay them about ten times (or more) what you've been able to earn so far. 

If you can learn from them how they found these clients and scored those writing gigs, you're that much closer to earning a full-time income with your writing. 

And this is why I joined The Freelance Writer's Den

This isn't a sales pitch. I know the Den isn't the only place to network with more successful freelance writers. I joined because I thought it was worth checking out, and because I can manage the $25 a month -- at least for the moment. 

I'm watching and reading as much of the Den content as I can, so I can apply what I learn and start earning more before $25 a month becomes too much (though I hope it never does). 

Right now, I'm enjoying their Bootcamp for Den newbies and their "Escape the Content Mills" course. 

Because I refuse to believe that only a few freelance writers are "lucky enough" to get clients who pay them well -- and that the majority of us poor saps are doomed to work for pennies per word. 

What's this "luck" business, anyway? The writers I know who are earning good pay with their writing aren't doing well because they're lucky. They worked hard and learned how to make the most of their writing ability and how to find the clients who would pay them well for it. 

So, for the same reason that I've read books by other, more successful self-publishing authors -- to learn what they know about earning a full-time income as authorpreneurs -- I'm seeking out fellow freelance writers who write the same things I want to write and who have found clients able and willing to pay them well for it. 

Self-defeating

Too often, my tendency to play devil's advocate -- especially when I run across something that just begs to be taken apart and analyzed for all it's worth -- has led me to suggest things that have (understandably) made people angry. 

The weird thing is I don't always agree with the stuff that flies out of my mouth, and sometimes I want to stomp on my own tongue when I speak up and make a fool of myself. I'm not afraid to admit when I'm wrong, because I value truth and a logically sound argument more than being right all the time.

And I'm wrong a lot. And unfortunately for my ego, I don't always keep that to myself. 

Sometimes, though, I just can't stop myself. I feel a need to turn things on their head to see what's underneath. Sometimes, I do this because I pick up on a tiny flaw in someone's reasoning, and I feel a need to take it apart. 

And when I do that, I tend to switch off the empathy and focus on the argument in question. It's been known to backfire.

Sometimes, I'm just in the moment, and I want to understand something better, and I say the first thing that comes into my head -- because it's the first tool that I grab hold of in order to chip away at the rock.

But sometimes, it's less about any of that than about my own fears.  And one fear is that my writing isn't worth what I want it to be.

I still recoil inwardly whenever I hear someone say the words, "I'm worth it." I cringe, because I've spent most of my life trying not to be expensive. I didn't ever want to hear someone say -- or to even get the impression someone was thinking -- I was more trouble than I was worth. I didn't want to ever be described as "high maintenance." I felt as a child that I needed more than other people needed -- and more than I had a right to -- so I did my best to be as independent as possible, to make up for needing more. 

Though I come from a loving family with great parents (seriously, I wish everyone was as blessed as I am in this regard) somehow I convinced myself that I needed more than I should need.

I hated asking for help (still do). I didn't want to cost anyone anything, so I made do with less, and I tried not to put anyone out. I don't know how much of this can just be chalked up to my personality, but I do know I find it more difficult than some types to forget and forgive past injuries. I want to forgive and to forget, but since the latter can be all but impossible (without some form of chemical intervention), the former is made more difficult. I remember, and the pain feels as fresh as it did the day the wound was inflicted.

On the other hand, since I value relationships and real peace of soul, I'm always glad of a genuine reconciliation. When there's discord, I'm always at least vaguely uncomfortable with it, and I don't wish evil on those who have hurt me. 

I just find it harder to be around them and to pretend as though nothing has changed. It doesn't mean I won't try to make things better, if I can. 

[That said, if someone goes too far and is obviously intent on causing pain, I'm more likely to cut him or her out of my life -- not to cause them pain but to shut down the means through which they attack me or those closest to me. Life is better when you don't have to dread the next email or phone call from someone bent on tearing you down.]

I have to believe I'm not the only one with a happy childhood who struggles with the fear of being regarded as "overpriced." I'm inclined to think it has more to do with my personality and the way my mind processes things, as well as my own pride. I don't believe it's unfixable, though. 

I've spent much of my life trying not to cost people more than I assumed they thought I was worth -- or, really, more than I thought I was worth. I can blame no one else for this. 

But it shouldn't surprise me (or anyone) that I rebelled against the idea that I should insist my work was worth more than what some clients thought it was.

I did everything I could to avoid the words, "Your work isn't worth that much to me." 

So, of course, I didn't ask for more than a particular client wanted to pay me. And I froze up whenever someone asked, "What are your rates?" or "How much do you charge for ____?" 

I wanted to ask, "How much do you think it's worth?" I wanted to make sure they wouldn't say, "Ouch! That's too much . . . ."

I assumed the pain of hearing (or reading) that would be worse than working for far less than I could earn with my writing. 

Turns out that while those words do sting, they also provoke something in me. As badly as I want to avoid being seen as "high-maintenance," it still makes me angry when someone implies that I am or that someone else is. 

Call it a visceral response to anything that savors of injustice -- or call it an emotional response to an attack on my ego. Whatever sounds more convincing. My pride is definitely more than a bit player in this drama. 

The takeaway here is that I eventually decided I was wrong to let random strangers decide what my work was worth. And it seemed appropriate to share this on a blog that is all about helping fellow writers earn more with their writing. 

So, how do we decide what to charge for our writing?

For one, we do our research. We choose a niche that pays well -- more than "once-a-week latte" well -- we learn how to improve our writing for that niche, and we find the clients who will pay us well to write the material for that niche. 

It sounds straightforward, but . . . where to begin?

As it happens, I'm learning how to choose my niche (though I've been slowly zooming in on that for the past month or so) and how to find the right clients for that niche with what I'm reading and watching in The Freelance Writers Den.

I've also been watching the videos for the Work-at-Home School Summit with Caitlyn Pile. 

Online is my favorite place for continuing education (which you might have guessed from my previous post on Udemy courses

Your turn

Have you ever had a client who made you doubt your writing ability?

Or maybe a client who made you angry enough that you cut your losses and raised your standards from then on out?

Comments welcome -- as always -- here and on Facebook, where this post will be shared. 

Take care, and thank you again for taking the time to visit and read. 

Perhaps you'd like to learn a little more about The Freelance Writer's Den? Take a peek, if you're curious. No pressure. If you do check it out, though, let me know what you think.

Questions are always welcome, too. And if you have a story of your own you'd like to share, please do!

How much is your writing worth? I'm ashamed of the answer I once gave to this question... #freelancewriting #writerslife

By Sarah Lentz

Writing and designing book covers are two of Sarah Lentz's favorite things. She lives in Minnesota with her husband, their four kids, and two messy but adorable guinea pigs.

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Marjory Harris

    Good advice! It’s also a good idea to have a contract that specifies that while corrections are free, substantive revisions will cost $[]. Charging what you believe is fair frees you to be available to those clients who agree you are worth what you say. Even if there are low- or no-cash-flow times, you come out better in the long run.

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