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Friday, May 21, 2010

Forget per-word rates

So, what are you making per word for your magazine articles? $1/word? $2/word? $0.40/word?

Who cares? I only care about what I make per-hour.

Per-word rates are the norm in the magazine world. This figure, multiplied by word count, tells you how much you’ll make for writing a particular story. But it may not tell you whether it’s worth it to take it on. The real question is how much time the story will take—the assignment amount divided by the number of hours you put into it gives you your hourly rate for the piece.

Knowing how much time an article (or any other project, for that matter) will take gives you a concrete idea of the return on your time. And those $1/word and up assignments can be mighty misleading. Sure, it’s a bigger check than writing for a market that pays a lower per-word rate. But are you really making more money?

For example, let’s say I do a 1,000-word story for a national magazine that pays $1.50/word. Fair enough—I’m getting paid $1,500 for my work. But what happens if between researching and writing the query, writing an outline (per my editor), researching the article, finding sources, doing interviews, transcribing interviews, writing the piece, turning in the piece, revising the piece (per my editor’s request), finding new sources (per my editor), interviewing those sources, turning in the final revision, submitting my backup material, answering additional questions from the editor (say, nine months later…it happens), I’ve put 25 hours into my story? That means I’ve made $60/hour on that story.

Not bad, but here’s the thing—compare that to a 1,000-word piece on the same topic for a smaller magazine that pays only $0.35/word. Yet I know the editor and my query is just a short paragraph. The story requires some background research and several interviews, and takes me a total of five hours to write. (No revisions requested! Yay!) That a total of $350, for five hours’ worth of work—or $70/hour.

At first glance, the $1,500 piece looks like a better assignment—and it is a bigger check. But my experience has been that national markets (and I’ve written for more than 50 of them) expect a lot more work from you to earn that higher rate. In many cases, I’ve found that regional magazines, trade publications and specialty magazines actually pay better per-hour than their national counterparts. And that makes them worthwhile markets for me.

What about you? Are you tracking your time…or just your dollars?


  1. Kelly,

    I use, a free service, to track my hours

  2. Susan, thanks for sharing this! Great idea. I still do it the old-fashioned way; just note the time on paper and keep track of how long different projects take. Years of private practice as a lawyer makes it impossible for me *not* to track my time--you're always supposed to be billing *someone*!

  3. Good post Kelly. This is so important to think about. I know so many writers who get caught up on the dollar-plus-per-word rate and often end up with more headaches. It's important just to be aware of where your time is going and what the payoff will be.

  4. Excellent post, Kelly, and love the new blog!

    As you know, most of my work is blogging these days, and people always ask if I make enough to live on. The answer is yes, and it's because I'm now focused on the hourly rate rather than the per-word rate. It really does make a difference if you shift your thinking that way.

    When I think back to when I wrote mainly for magazines for $1.50-$2 a word, and yet the headaches were a daily occurrence. Querying, interviewing, writing, re-writing, hounding accounting departments for payment ... I'll take blogging any day!

    The key is working with a stable of editors and online publications who assign and pay regularly. And if they don't, there's always another blog looking for an entertainment writer.

  5. Thanks for writing this. I have been thinking about this last week. I do alot of writing for regional parenting magazines and am able to sell the reprints. Since I often make sales months after I submit an article, I didn't realize how much I was making per article. Last week I talleyed up what I had made per artice and was shocked at the per hour rate. I make a lot more per hour on these than I thought because they only take a me a few hours to write and don't require a query.

  6. Jennifer, my experience with regionals has been very similar to yours...and I like having that steady stream of stories to reprint, too. Plus there are fewer headaches, I've found, with regional mags compared to nationals.

  7. Jane, thanks for posting! For those readers interested in blogging, Jane is a very successful blogger and also offers online classes on blogging at I'm still working my way through her material, and it is excellent.

  8. Kelly, I love the new blog. I'll be visiting regularly.

    Freelance per-word rates have remained fairly stagnant for several decades (track down a Writer's Market from the '50s or 60s if you doubt it), so figuring out the hourly breakdown of your earnings is a better way to see if your income is keeping pace with inflation. Focusing on per-word rates can be depressing when you realize they never seem to go up.

    I know some writers who say they would never consider writing for less than $1/word, but I'm open to lower per-word costs when the pieces aren't as labor intensive. One of my clients (a website) encourages e-mail interviews, which eliminates several hours of transcribing per article. That makes their lower per-word price acceptable to me.

  9. Hi, Paula--

    You're exactly right. When I speak about freelancing, I mention that national magazine rates started at $1/word in the 60s...and now? Yup, still $1/word while everything else has gotten much more expensive. I too have met writer who won't take less than a $1/word (or some other arbitrary rate) but to me that's short-sighted. And like you, I love it when I can do email interviews...a big time (and finger) saver. Thanks for weighing in! :)

  10. Kelly, an excellent post and will be reading your blog. I prefer to write for small publications that may pay less but will give me more assignments and will allow me to reprint my stories for other publications. As you post, the rate per hour is important, but another factor is that in small publications, you are not just another writer, but a valuable resource for your editor, and odds are greater that you will be seen as a reliable resurce and sought out by readers of the publication- as well as the sources in your story- to write about their companies and interests. Marvin Glassman