A few weeks ago, I decided to ask women writers on Twitter about money. I wanted to know how much they got paid per article, what they were asking for, and if there was any negotiation involved in their process. We know that women earn less than men pretty much as a rule, and we’re often told that at least some of that blame lies in our reluctance to negotiate, or to advocate for ourselves. But in an industry like freelance writing, where there is little transparency about what anyone is making, it can be nearly impossible to even open the conversation. What is a normal number, and how much of that is a result of negotiation?
I simply don’t believe that women are as unpolished in the salary-commanding department as common business wisdom would have us believe. I think that we may be less aggressive when it comes to demanding certain things, and that many of us may need to overcome socially-ingrained cues to take a more passive role in the workplace, but I don’t think that means we don’t advocate for ourselves. And particularly in an industry where everyone is making something wildly different, and nothing is available to compare on Glassdoor, a fundamental key to that advocacy is knowing what the market rates even are.
So I spoke to women to find out about their specific negotiation tactics, what they were making, and where they are in their writing careers. Unsurprisingly, nearly everyone who responded said that the key to their current rates was negotiation, and nearly all seemed to have worked up their rates slowly over the years, not unlike the gradual raises one might get as a staffer. This all pretty much echoes my experience, where every jump in per-article rates came from a distinct decision that I was raising my value, and the occasional decision to walk away from a project if it didn’t meet it.
Condensed for (relative) brevity, my breakdown is something like this:
I’m currently 26, and published my first ‘real’ article in March of 2011. When I first started writing, I did it for free, several articles a week. I wrote for a few different publications, including a few big-name ones, that never paid me (at least in part because I didn’t yet have the nerve to ask). I do have one email record of an editor at a big magazine telling me that there was no budget for my article at that time, but I was still interested enough in “exposure” that it felt worth it to me. Looking back, this was dumb, but so was I at the time.
After about six months of writing for free, I started charging for my articles, and my first rate was $25 a piece. This gradually increased over the next few months, until I was brought on as a staff writer at a publication, where I switched to salary.
I barely freelanced during my years at my old employer, but I did do some copywriting here and there, most of which came through the website Contently (I’d check it out if you’re looking for copywriting gigs). The average pay for those was about $450 per, and the highest I ever got was $750 per 500-word post for a large brand. At the time, I only had a couple thousand Twitter followers, and these rates were many times more than what I could make for editorial writing. In that way, copywriting is generally much less tethered to your personal platforms, and much more about your ability to produce the content in a way that the client likes.
Towards the end of last year, I left my staff position to go freelance and pursue TFD full-time. At that time, as I knew I would be doing a lot of freelancing, I formed a personal LLC in addition to TFD’s, both for tax purposes, and so that I could take on more projects. (Many publications and brands are picky about working with LLCs as contractors for longer-term or larger-scale projects because, from a legal and tax perspective, it’s a lot less risky on their end.) My personal LLC was an up-front of investment of about $1200, because I did it through a lawyer, but one that I consider worth it.
As I jumped back into the pond of freelancing, it took a few months to really figure out my new rates, particularly given that I could only take on a limited number of projects per month while running the site. When I first left my job, I was doing more articles (maybe 25 or so a month), at a rate ranging from $100 per post at the least, to $350 for my best-paying client at the time. As the year went on, I started doing fewer and fewer (now I’m at about 10 freelance articles per month), but increased my rate. Now, I don’t do articles generally for less than $250, and cap out at $600 for a more involved piece. (Only one client pays that rate, and rarely, for what it’s worth.) I also occasionally take on larger-scale copywriting work, which tends to be a flat rate for several pieces, often in the $1,000-$2,000 range. This work is of course to supplement my income from TFD, as well as occasionally get more visibility for TFD, so it’s something that I have the benefit of adapting to my schedule, depending on, say, how many clients we had that month on the site. If I were relying uniquely on freelancing, this breakdown would likely be different.
It’s also worth noting that I’m not a journalist, so I don’t do reported/investigative pieces, and therefore likely put in many fewer hours than someone doing a lot of research per-post would. This means that my hourly rate breaks down quite favorably, and there are times when a post I finish in less than an hour will earn me $300. But I’ve also spent ages reviewing and editing a post with a client, only to earn half that. I’ve gotten more savvy about which projects seem like they might be a drain on my time and resources.
In general, the key to my rate raising quickly and significantly has undoubtedly been my ability to say no. Several times, I’ve said no when a client wouldn’t meet my rate, only to have them come back to me. I always start the negotiation on the higher end, and let them come up to meet me, until we find something we are both comfortable with. I also sometimes do pieces for little or no money, if it means a direct benefit for TFD. But those I consider wholly separate from my freelance life. All in all, asking for money is of course essential, but just as essential is arguing for the rate you are comfortable with. If I had never done that, I might still be getting $25 an article, thinking that just having broached the money conversation was enough. Yes, I have a relatively strong social platform and my own site/community, but even at a fraction of my current following I was able to raise my rates, even if it meant doing things like copywriting to supplement my income.
Here are more women writers on the strategies they’ve used, and where that’s gotten them in terms of payment.
“I’m a blogger and personal finance writer — I charge $200 to $400 per article. A huge jump from a year ago, when I made $25 to $75 per article. Usually I get it, but someone recently negotiated from $400 to $350. I accepted.
I focused on start ups and companies, and NOT other bloggers. I also started to really believe in myself and stop low-balling my skills. I’ve started to aim higher than normal, so that even if we negotiate down, it’s still at a number I’m comfortable with. In addition, I explicate how I will add value to the client, such as sharing posts on social media, introducing clients to others in the finance community, etc.
I also recently raised my rates for the new year and let people know I was being more selective with writing clients in 2016, so that I could provide the most value to current clients. I reviewed our accomplishments over the past year and asked for 10 to 25 percent more. All of them said yes.
In some cases, if a negotiation doesn’t go the way you want, you may have to walk. I remember earlier this year when I was still writing $40 posts, I asked one client for $5 more per post. They said no. I didn’t leave right away, but knew that I had to stop accepting low paying work and focus on higher paying clients.”
-Melanie Lockert, 31, freelance writer and founder of DearDebt.com
So, it varies wildly. Tech tends to pay well, feminism tends to not pay well at all.
[Popular feminist geek culture website] has a serious ethical problem with not paying freelancers. I wrote a piece for them that went ridiculously viral, didn’t get a dime. To be fair, their editorial team is excellent and underpaid, and I knew that going in. But they aren’t a first choice. [Large feminist website] only pays $100 a piece.
[Gaming site] tends to pay $250 to $300 a piece. Not great, not bad. Magazine work has paid about $800 a piece for me, but those take a ton of research. Tech is where the money is. I can count on $350 to $500 a piece easily — and just for 500-600 words.
The most I’ve negotiated was $1200. [Major city newspaper] paid $800. [Financial newspaper] paid nothing.
The ones that seek me out I can negotiate with. But, most writers don’t have editors asking them to write for them constantly. Passion pieces that I pitch usually do well traffic-wise, but you’re coming to them first. The pay is lower. I would say, it helps a lot if your editor trusts you and you have a reputation for bringing in traffic. If I negotiate, my message is usually that the traffic of the piece is worth the investment from the publisher.
When I left journalism school, I found it hard getting a straight news job. I worked in tech a few years, and found more writing work than I could accept. Find a specialty that you can speak to authoritatively.
-Ellie*, mid-30s, prominent writer on tech and feminism
So, I typically ask for (and get) anywhere between $100-$250 an article, depending on what the publication is, the topic of the article, word count, and how much research (if any) is involved.
Once in a while, I do work for a client I have that pays less than I usually get ($60-$80 an article), but I’m more flexible and understanding with them because they’re a smaller publication without a big budget, and I’ve had a great working relationship with the editors for years. Plus, I genuinely love the work they do. I’ve never worked for free since I’ve become a professional writer, but I wouldn’t be opposed if the publication was a byline I really wanted, or if the publication was new and run by people whose work I respected and admired.
-Jackie*, 30, freelance writer
I don’t do as much article writing for clients anymore, but my base rate is $350 for a 1,000-word, well-researched, narrative essay.
I’ve been doing this for over a decade, so that makes a big difference. When I was starting out, I absolutely took articles for $50-$100 (and a few horrible Demand Media articles for $20-35 when desperation times hit) to build my portfolio and credentials…to stair step my way to being able to say “I don’t get out of bed now for less than $350.”
-Elisa Doucette, 35, owner & managing editor at Craft Your Content
I’m a journalist, and pretty much exclusively do reported pieces, with the occasional op-ed. I try as much as possible not to get into the ‘thinkpiece economy,’ both because I don’t really like doing those pieces, and because they tend to pay much less. I generally demand a minimum of $400 per article, and have gotten all the way up to $2,000 for a very involved piece for the prestige magazine of a popular online writing platform. I haven’t actually done print yet, though I’m in the process of negotiating a piece with a men’s magazine right now which, if I land, will be my new highest rate.
I came up in a very traditional way, in that I worked at a NYC-based independent newspaper/website, first as an unpaid intern, then a paid intern, then a staffer. My salary there topped out at $32,000/year (for an extremely demanding schedule), which wasn’t good, but it did enable me to really start my freelance career with the platform, network, and experience I needed to command a good rate.
-Kate*, 29, freelance journalist and occasional editor
I’ve only negotiated twice, and both times were with recognizable web publications. For the first time, this pub that I was regularly writing for wanted to repost something I wrote for another site. I asked if I could get paid the same amount I get paid whenever I write for that site, which was $200, but I only got $75.
For the second time, the regular rate for op-eds was $100. I requested $150 and got $125. I took it anyway. I don’t regret both times because I wanted the money and I’m not a full-time freelancer, so that may have to do with my lenience on these issues. However, I will admit that I should be more aggressive. When I hear my fellow writer friends tell me that I need to push more, it’s hard. I’m a black, female writer and I’m afraid that if I push too far, my writing opportunities will plummet, since the industry is very small.
Morgan Jerkins, 23
I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually had to negotiate up a rate, but I do selectively not work with publications that I know aren’t going to pay me a reasonable amount. The last time I wrote for below my rate (which is $200, at least for a piece with little or no reporting), it was because I hadn’t had a chance to write outside my full-time edit job in a while. In that case, they gave me a range of what they pay writers, and I suggested the higher amount was fair. It was also a question and answer, so I didn’t feel like I deserved that much more. In general, I think 50 cents a word is a minimum for a reported piece, though I’ve tried to work more with places that pay a dollar. Even though a dollar per word seems magical in this age, as a writer who has had a lot of pieces killed, I feel like it’s good protection against significant income loss (assuming they have a fair kill fee as well).
I think I don’t negotiate as much because I’m still a young writer, not because I’m a woman. That said, as an editor, I’ve seen male writers with much less experience than me negotiate for more (even though I know they’ve written for free in the past few months for male editors).
-Tonya Riley, 22, associate editor at a media startup and freelancer
So, a couple facts for context: I’m in my second year as a paid writer, I’m not a journalist, and I’m currently still on the hamster wheel of ‘content creation’ for several websites that do a lot of aggregated content and viral write-ups, in addition to ‘articles,’ that are mostly personal essays and lists. I have about four that I write for, and my rates vary depending on the site and the kind of content I’m doing. I have one Buzzfeed knockoff, essentially, that pays me a flat fee of $25 for viral write-ups, which are usually videos or a quick news story, and I can do as many of those as I want. I tend to probably do about eight a week, and they make up the majority of my writing.
Then I have a rotating cast of three websites for which I write lists and essays, sometimes under pen names, and those tend to pay somewhere between $75 and $125 per article. I used to get paid $50 at most of them, but earlier this year I went back and renegotiated at all of them, and got at least a $25 raise at each. My argument was my engagement on my articles, my increases on social media following, and my consistency with filing on time and without errors. Now, I’m able to make a total of $600/week on writing, which means I no longer have to work a side job. My next goal is to renegotiate with my current sites, and start doing longer/more researched pieces for more prestigious publications.
-Nat*, 24, freelance writer
My current rates are anywhere from $325 to $500 for a longer-form blog post. I have one client I work for $150 per post, but they’re much shorter, and require way less research. I tend to not work with clients if they’re budget is underneath my rates since it creates unnecessary tension and makes them think they can buy you out at rates lower than what you ask.
I don’t really do much negotiation, but if a client requests to go down on price, I won’t just lower the price for the same work proposed and call it a day. (Gotta stand your ground and command respect, you know?)
But I do understand what it’s like to be limited by an office budget, so most commonly, I tell them I can reduce word count in proportion to my rate (if I feel it makes sense for me), or depending on the offerings I’ve worked out in the proposal, I try to do some give and take there.
-Chelsea Baldwin, 27, founder of Copy Power