Forget word rate—What’s your time worth?

Editors have done a great job of training us to think in terms of dollars per word. The more, the better, right?

And for editors and publishers, this paradigm makes perfect sense. The more of a page you fill, the more they’ll pay you.

But I had a minor epiphany recently when I realized the word rate is not what’s key for me, the writer. After all, I’ve had 2,000-word features that come together like a breeze, and, conversely, 500-word-news bytes that are a nightmare to polish off.

What matters to me is how much of my valuable time the story uses up. So for the month of July, I tracked every minute (well, every minute that I remembered to actually turn on the timer). I used a timed-work option that comes with my financial software, MacFreelance, and summed time for each story.

This is a great freelancer exercise to determine what your time is actually worth. And remember it’s not just the time you spend researching and writing—what about pitching, answering e-mails, chasing down that hotshot scientist who’s too good to answer your calls, lying awake at night wondering how this story is possibly going to get done on time, brainstorming you lede, dealing with edits, suggesting art…?

By the end of July, I‘d learned some of my clients pay me better than I realized! Others, not so much.

Freelancing has made me think of my income and expenses in terms of time. Do I buy that new pair of shoes, for example? Well, they’re worth about 45 minutes of solid work. It helps me consider work-related expenses, too. Recently I was considering sending some interview tapes out for transcribing. I figured out how much the transcription service would cost, and how long it would take me to do the job myself (a very long time…I am a sloooow transcriber). Now that I know what an hour of my time is worth, I can accurately weigh the difference between doing the job myself or contracting out for it.

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6 Responses to Forget word rate—What’s your time worth?

  1. Absolutely essential advice, Amber! Even if you don’t want to go through this exercise in detail, it’s worth doing it in the abstract when considering assignments. For instance, an assignment with a low per-word fee — say $200 for a 500 word online story — may make a lot more sense in terms of time and effort than one that pays $1 or more per word. Sure it’s less money, but it’s also less hassle. Plus, how many more assignments could you knock off in the interim if you take on the “easy” project as compared to the more lucrative one?

  2. John Pavlus says:

    I had the same epiphany as Amber earlier this year. But it’s also good to remember that, sometimes, taking the lower-paying-for-time-spent assignment can be generative in ways other than financial. I’m doing one right now that is forcing me to stretch my creative skills in ways that an easier/faster assignment never would, which I’m pretty sure is going to benefit my business in the long run.

  3. amberldance says:

    I totally agree, John. There are many factors, besides pay, that I consider when taking on an assignment. Like the prestige of the publication, my relationship with the editor, what future work it might lead to, and let’s not forget the fun factor!

  4. I think exclusively in terms of time. I know my hourly and day rates by heart, and I often write the same kinds of content for the same clients over and over again because I know exactly what the effective day rates for each are, and I know they meet or exceed my targets.

    To anyone reading this who hasn’t tried operating in this way, try this exercise: instead of accepting that “my income is about x,” try saying “my income should be (or has to be) y,” where y is some value higher than what you’re making now. Divide that by 10 months (the number of months you probably work in a year, when you subtract vacations, holidays and sick days) and now you know your monthly target.

    If you let the target dictate how much work you take on, rather than letting the work you take on dictate your net income, I guarantee that you will either burn out, discover new reserves of productive energy or, and this is most likely, figure out which clients are really worth your time.

  5. I should add that knowing what your income should be versus what it is requires that you first construct a budget. And making one of those is an exercise in asking yourself what your goals really are.

    These core life things (why am I here – what do I want) might seem far removed from the minutiae of productivity, but the truth is they’re all fairly tightly coupled, whether we realize it or not.

  6. mgrady says:

    I agree! Knowing what hourly rates you want, and setting a goal for monthly/yearly income are key to making the freelance life work. I also agree that often other factors weigh in to whether or not a job is going to help you to achieve your goals… prestige, connections, or just fun. So it is important to spend the time to figure out what your goals are!! One thing I would add is to also keep in mind how many hours per week you want to work and also factor that in to your plan.

    This year I decided that adding extra income was less important than adding extra time for more creative work and to explore some new projects. It’s important to also leave time for that kind of planning & development.

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