“What’s your day rate?” It’s the little question any freelance journalist who’s transitioned into content marketing or corporate writing fears the most.
When I started freelancing, in addition to writing for media companies, I took on a few content marketing gigs and was asked for my day rate. I struggled to know what to say; as a journalist, I learned to think in per-word parlance. Sometimes I get a flat fee, but that’s often a rounding up (or, in many cases, down) of a per word rate.
At first, when asked for a day rate, I’d try to poll the handful of freelancers I thought would be comfortable sharing theirs with me to determine my own. It was far from an exact science, and being the nerd that I am, I figured there must be a way for me to find actual, hard data. By aggregating my assignments (a mix of feature writing, content marketing through Contently, and direct-to-client gigs), could I find out exactly how much my time was worth?
I was also curious to see how different publications stack up against each other. I figured all of this information would be useful when thinking about how to set my day rate in the future.
To make this even more fun (I did say nerd), rather than take on yet another tracking tool, I decided to hack the existing productivity apps I already use.
The tools: Trello + PomodoroDone + Zapier
I use the project management app Trello to handle my workflow and am a devotee of the Pomodoro Technique to get my work done. I set a timer for 25 minutes and focus solely on one task, then take a five-minute break. I repeat this another three times and then take a longer break. I find it deeply effective for getting writing done.
You can, of course, use any timer or clock for this, but I especially like the Pomodone app, which links up with Trello, so you can set timers for the specific task you’re working on. To gather and dump the data from Trello and PomodoroDone into an editable spreadsheet, I used Zapier, which is an app that connects other apps (confusing, I know, but I’ve never been a fan of being forced to use new tools for the sake of it).
After all this, what did I actually find out? The data confirmed a few things I already suspected, chiefly that a high per-word rate doesn’t always translate to a high hourly rate.
As my data showed, the work I do for one client at a pretty average per-word fee translates to a very healthy per-hour rate. That’s because I rarely get edits on those pieces and they are quick to turn around. In comparison, an outlet I write for at a higher per-word rate requires many more edits, significantly lowering my hourly rate. Point is, don’t be wooed by publications that pay a $1 per word, because you won’t necessarily make a “good rate” from it.
I also found out that writing more words doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get more money. On the face of it, a longer per-word piece would mean a bigger payday. Except, in reality, it doesn’t quite work out that way. Big features, for example, require additional sources, often go through more rounds of edits and just generally take more time to write.
For instance, one longform article I worked on had taken so much time, I’d actually stopped tracking it in my spreadsheet because I knew the hourly rate for it would be so low. Candidly, I’m not writing those stories for a huge fee—I’m writing them because I believe they are important stories. And, also candidly, I’d rather not think too much about how badly they pay.
The (slightly depressing) conclusion
Which brings me to the most disappointing, but ultimately unsurprising, discovery I made in this exercise: by a long shot, my most poorly paid work came from journalism.
My highest hourly rate, earned with a piece of branded content completed through Contently, was ten times higher than my lowest, which was for a piece of journalism for a major international publication. But again, I don’t do journalism for the money. If anything, understanding that I can make a decent living through other means makes journalism a viable income channel for me.
This was something I realized when I examined the other end of the spectrum. I had data for the one content marketing project I did during this period which was paid by the day. And while yes, this conclusion is drawn from very limited data, that project turned out to be the highest paid work of the whole lot. By tracking the work, I realized it took me substantially less time than both the company and I had originally estimated. So that day rate, in effect, more than tripled.
When I averaged all the day rates in the spreadsheet, I was shocked by how high the figure was. Now, I definitely don’t plan to quote my day rate simply as the highest figure on that spreadsheet, not least because my data is far from perfect. I sometimes forget to run my time-tracking app and there are the odd anomalies in my spreadsheet where something hasn’t synced up properly. However, precise methodology was far from the point of this experiment.
What I took away from it was a much clearer understanding of what my time is worth. I wholeheartedly believe it’s vital for anyone, especially the self-employed, to share rates. But I think it’s just as important for freelancers to also understand how they’re already making their money.