There has been a lot of discussion lately about how little freelance writers are paid or are not even paid at all. It all got me thinking about one of the more common payment schemes for freelancers: pay-by-the-word.
For those of you who aren’t in this world—you lucky bastards—here’s how it works. I’ll pitch an idea to an editor. The editor will say, “Joe, your idea is brilliant. We accept. I can’t believe how lucky our publication is to have you. You’re so handsome.” Then we’ll agree on a word count, for example: 600 words. The editor might say, “OK, we pay 50 cents a word.” That means that for a 600-word article I’ll be paid $300.
If it’s a personal essay, I can probably knock it out in a day. Let’s say I spend an eight-hour workday on it—outlining, writing drafts, revising and so forth. Three hundred bucks divided by eight hours means I make $37.50 an hour.
But what if it’s not a personal essay? What if it’s a heavier story that requires—I’ll grab some numbers out of the air here—1 hour to write the pitch, 1 hour researching the story, 1 hour researching sources and reaching out to them, 3 hours conducting interviews, 3 hours transcribing interviews, 4 hours writing and 2 hours revising for the editor. You can quibble all you want with these numbers—oh, that’s too much time transcribing!—but the point is, a reported story will take more time. Three hundred bucks divided by 15 hours means I make $20 an hour on that story.
For writers, there are two problems with the pay-by-the-word scheme. The first is that it assumes all stories are created equal. This is problematic. As our example above shows, all stories are not created equal. Some can be written relatively quickly. Some take more time and effort. Can you spot the incentive?
The other problem is that pay-by-word assumes that all writers are created equal. If an editor is offering 50 cents a word to every writer, it means that the most talented writers who are earning those 50 cents a word are getting the same amount as their less-talented counterparts. So the best writers are penalized and the lesser writers are rewarded by this one-size-fits-all system.
What I prefer doing—and some publications are open to this—is simply quoting a rate. I calculate how many hours the story will take and multiply that number times my hourly fee. This is what other professionals do. They give an estimate and a rate. As far as I know, freelance writers are the only professionals who charge for their services so arbitrarily. It’s like paying a carpenter by the nail.
Pay-by-the-word persists, I think, for two reasons. Writers are terrible when it comes to talking about money. Many of them feel guilty or are afraid to negotiate for more money, which is insane, but true. Instead of telling an editor, “My time is worth $25 or $45 or $95 an hour or I can do this project for $700,” it’s easier to say, “I agree to write that piece for 75 cents a word.” It’s a negotiating dodge, and it lets everyone save face.
Editors prefer a blanket payment scheme because it’s one less decision to make, and it helps with budgeting. If a publication has a 5,000-word news hole every month, and it pays 75 cents per word to fill that hole, it can estimate how many stories it will need and how much they will cost before those stories are ever assigned.
Publications suffer under this rigid pay system as well. I’ve worked for pubs that overpaid because of pay-by-the-word. They pay the same for reported pieces as they do for TV show recaps or lists. They’re overpaying for those TV show recaps and lists because those are faster and easier to write than reported articles.
Pay-by-the-word discourages reporting, does not reward more talented writers and adds an invisible siphon to editorial budgets.
If there’s a logical defense for this pay scheme, I’d like to hear it.
Photo by Philip Taylor