I was recently on a writer’s forum where a writer posted that he was writing articles for a penny a word and wondering if that was wise. The other posters shared that they also write for a penny a word, and boast that they can bang out the articles quickly so it’s worth it for them on a per-hour basis.
I decided to run some numbers. Keep in mind that these are all estimates and based on my own sketchy knowledge of how much my expenses are, how many weeks people work per year, etc. Also, keep in mind that freelance writers typically aren’t working on paying work 40 hours per week, so the income I figured for freelancers would be even lower.
The minimum wage here in New Hampshire is $7.25 per hour. If you work 40 hours per week at minimum wage for 49 weeks (leaving some time for vacation and sick days), that’s $14,210 per year.
If you could research and write, say, a 1,000-word article in an hour, that would earn you $10 per hour. If you work as a writer for $10 per hour for 49 weeks, that’s $19,600 per year. But wait…being a freelancer, I pay $1,800 per year for my own (crappy) health insurance, and let’s give a conservative guess of $5,000 annually for expenses, including computer equipment, office supplies, mortgage and utilities just for my office space, etc. If I subtract that from the yearly freelance pay, that’s $12,800 per year — less than minimum wage!
Now, I realize that some people do freelance writing as a supplement to their full-time jobs, or they’re supported by a spouse and their freelancing income is fun money. For me, though, working at a penny a word is simply not sustainable.
Also, why write for a penny a word when, with some thought, you can easily earn 10 times as much: 10 cents per word, which you would earn at some small trade magazines? Then you’d be making $100 per hour.
Writing is undervalued by many. But if businesses that use writing value the work, skill, and knowledge that goes into a 1,000-word article at a measly $10, it’s partly because there are hordes of writers willing to write for that much!
However, I don’t believe that if people weren’t working for these bottom-feeders, wages for writers would rise. There’s no way that someone currently paying a penny a word would raise rates to a much more reasonable $1 per word (or even 10 cents per word!) because writers refuse to work for a penny a word — he would simply disappear.
If you’re a good writer, persistent, and professional, you can earn $50,000, $100,000, $200,000 per year and more. And yes, I do know someone who earns $200,000 per year writing magazine articles and corporate communications.
You also don’t need to start at a penny a word and “work your way up.” My first assignment, back in 1996, paid $500. No, that was not a fluke, and no, I was not just lucky. I pitched magazines that paid a reasonable amount because it never occurred to me that the effort and skill I put into an article would be worth mere pennies. I wrote a query that sold, and I deserved to be paid a decent sum for my idea, skills, time, effort, and knowledge.
Of course, I’m not at the top of the pay scale by any means, though I make a very comfortable living as the main breadwinner for our family. My minimum rate for articles is 50 cents per word, and those articles have to be fairly straightforward and easy. My top rate so far is about $2.50 per word for national magazines. But there are probably people out there earning $6 per word wondering why I put up with such low wages! So the bottom line is that you need to figure out what your work is worth and what’s economically sustainable for you. Just don’t sell yourself short!