Copywriting Q&A: By the Minute? The Hour? The Word? How You Should Charge

How you should charge for your copywriting servicesDiscussing rates or salaries is uncomfortable for most people. Of course, as a copywriter, you also have the added issue that you  can charge for copy projects in a couple of different ways. Oh, and some of those ways mark you as a complete amateur. Nervous yet? Don’t be—I’ve got the solution for you right here. Read on…

Today’s question comes from Nick S. who asks, “I’m starting to look for freelance clients, but how do I charge? Is it by the word? Or by the minute? Help!”

First, a quick, short answer: For freelance projects, you should only ever be charging by the hour and by the project. (And by the project is better—we’ll come back to that.)

Other types of writers—editorial writers, mostly—do charge by the word. By copywriting is very different from editorial writing. In fact, you’re often trying to take a long message an condense it into shorter, easier to remember copy. If you charge by the word, you’ll penalize yourself for being good at copywriting.

At the same time, too, a lot of what makes you valuable as a copywriter is the thought you put into the concepts and copy. If you charge by the word, you’re not making anything for that at all!

By the minute? Well, you could try to charge by the minute…if you want to make yourself crazy. Really: Imagine trying to track what you do on a minute-to-minute basis. Doesn’t the very idea of it just make you want to slam your head on the desk?

So, to recap, don’t charge by the word or by the minute. Doing either one of those will mark you as an amateur immediately. And that, of course is a problem because, first, companies and clients don’t want to hire amateurs and, second, because some unscrupulous clients may even try to take advantage.

Now, back to by the hour or by the project. You can charge by the hour when the project is on-going and you can’t really tell all of what it will entail. (Just make sure your hourly rate is calculated to cover any extra nuisances or work.)

But when you’re offered a project—a task with a definite beginning and end—it’s much better to charge by the project. Charging by the project involves you calculating how many hours it’s going to take you to create the project and then lumping that together into one sum.

Earn a Great Living as a Writer

Charging by the project also allows you factor in things that you need to get paid for without clients raising eyebrows. For example, you should be paid for meetings and quick calls and all of the other little things that happen outside of actually writing (not to mention concepting and editing). But clients tend to feel a little nickeled and dimed if you report those in your charge-by-the-hour invoice. Project pricing just means they never have to see it.

Project pricing, too, means that you can pad your prices just a bit easier. Now, I’m not suggested that you should rip off your client. But if you can tell that a client is going to be extra difficult, if it’s a rush project, or if this work is going to prohibit you from taking other work, you might want to factor that in.

And, of course, instead of having to go through all of your notes and calculate all of your hours at the end of a project, billing by the project makes it quick and easy to send out your invoice.

Now, if you’re freelancing, you’ll probably have the ability to charge by either the hour or the project. If you’re contracting, though, it’s more likely that the company will only be open to paying you by the hour. And that’s fine. But if they start suggesting that you charge by the minute or the word, run for the hills!

Your turn! How do you usually charge for your projects? Have you ever had any unusual experiences with it? Let us know in the comments below!

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  1. Ken Norkin says

    Great advice, Nicki.

    I’ve been a firm believer in project-based fees ever since I began freelancing in 1991.

    Most clients prefer project billing because it eliminates surprises. You have told them up front that X work will cost Y dollars. No surprises when the invoice comes. If, on the other hand, you bill by the hour and only give the client an estimate (as opposed to a quote) you run the risk that your actual hours will exceed what you estimated. Then what do you do? Bill the client for more than they’re expecting? Do know this: Even when you say “estimate,” the client hears “quote.” Do you reduce the bill to match your estimate and short yourself? Well, then you turned it into a project fee anyway.

    Besides eliminating surprises in the invoice, project fees allow you to earn more money than you would by billing hourly for the same amount of work. If you think a project might take 16 hours, try pricing it equivalent to 20 hours. WIth a flat fee, you’re not telling the client how many hours the job will take, just how many dollars it’s going to cost. If the project takes you less than 20 hours, you will yield more than your hourly rate. Your goal is to price projects high enough and then work efficiently enough so that you are consistently earning at or above your hourly rate.

    Of course, you still run the risk that a project — through no fault of the client’s — will take you more hours than covered by your flat fee. In this case, you suck it up, bill the quoted fee, and learn how many hours this type of work really takes.

    And that gets to the most important point in all of this: Even if you bill by the project, you still need an hourly rate and you need to track your time so that you know how many hours it actually takes you to do different types of projects. And tracking time effectively does in fact mean tracking to the minute, so you can round up to the fraction of an hour at which you bill. You can do this with any number of low-cost project-based time-keeping apps for computers and smartphones. One has the easy-to-remember name of StopWatch. There are also plenty of low-cost project-based time and billing applications for PC and Mac that combine time-tracking with professional invoicing. The advantage they offer over word processor invoicing is they track your receivables (what you’ve billed for which you’re awaiting payment) and can run all kinds of useful reports on your billings, productivity and profitability. For example, you might be able to look at the hours worked and dollars billed for each client to see which clients are your most profitable and which are getting work at below your hourly rate (so you can do something about it).

    And how do you set an hourly rate? That’s a message for another time.

    • Nicki Krawczyk says

      Hi Ken,

      I agree wholeheartedly. I think it’s very tempting for new copywriters, especially, to want to bill by the hour because they think it will be easier but, as you note, it’s actually much more complicated. And I agree with your point about quotes as well; I don’t know about you, but I’ve actually never gone back to a client with a higher number once I’ve discovered that a project is going to take me longer than I expected! That’s part of the reason it’s very important for writers to be sure to estimate in concepting time, editing time and meeting time, as well as get a clear agreement as to the project’s scope, don’t you think?

      Thanks for commenting!

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