The Abstract Mathematics Behind Freelance Writing

Marey_-_birdsAbout two and a half months into new motherhood, looking to get back into the swing of things, I applied to several blogging gigs. The editor at one publication, with whom I had been in contact in the past, emailed back almost immediately, saying she thought the rates might be a bit low for me. She did want me to know, however, that they were hiring for another position that paid a bit more.

What followed was a lengthy back-and-forth—10+ emails—in which I asked about rates, frequency, word count, the proportion of pitched pieces to assigned pieces, etc. I agonized for days over what I should do. In the end, I decided against the gig I’d initially applied for and took on the alternative the editor had suggested to me.

But I swear, it wasn’t about the money.

My approach to freelance writing has shifted many times over the past fifteen years. As a total noob, my first few clips were unpaid, as all I cared about was building up my portfolio and experiencing the thrill of seeing my byline in print. Later, I was thrilled to land regular blogging gigs that paid me $10 per post. This helped me bulk up my portfolio even more, gave me more experience and credibility as a writer, and opened doors for me at other publications. Over time, however, I became more business-minded, focused on the bottom line, driven by the need to pay my bills and impatient with those publications unwilling to pay what I saw as professional rates. When quoted what I considered to be insultingly low rates, I responded thusly:

“I am typically paid at least $X per post. Please keep my information on file in the event your budget grows to allow for professional rates.”

Sometimes, this email was met with echoing silence, or with an expression of regret. Other times, I got the rates I was looking for. And this was how I slowly built up my freelance writing business. I felt that those publications willing to pay my rates were the ones who really valued their writers. The others? Not worth my time.

I recently read a great piece in Salon by Laura Miller about how editors are needed now more than ever. But what really leapt out at me was a point she made on how little the labor of writers is valued by readers:

“Consumers who demand that the price of e-books be slashed to less than half the hardcover list price reveal a belief that the work and expertise of a writer are worth less than a handful of paper and cardboard.”

In recent years, I’ve really been struggling with how my writing should be valued. Oftentimes, the writing that is the most fun or fulfilling to write is not the best paying.

Which is why I need to ask an obnoxious number of questions every time I consider a new permalance gig or one-off project.  There is no single rate or simple equation to use when considering all work opportunities. To give you a better idea of how this plays out in my own life, here’s a glimpse of the strange, intangible mathematics I must work through every time I consider something new:

  1. What is the per-post or per-word rate—or flat fee—connected with this job?
  2. How long might it take me to complete each post or edit that manuscript or write that essay?
  3. If it is a regular writing gig, do I need to pitch every new story idea? Can I write with abandon about any old thing? Do I need to write a certain amount of posts per month? Will my editor come to me with assignments? This all has an effect on the time commitment.
  4. Is there additional research or reportage required? This also adds to the time commitment. Plus, reportage means I have to interact with other human beings. This adds to my anxiety/stress levels.
  5. How many round of edits will I typically have to go through? This also adds to the time commitment.
  6. Do I need to hit certain traffic goals, promoting my work ceaselessly on a large variety of social media platforms? This also adds to the time commitment. Plus it makes my head spin. Plus, if I have to spam my followers on the regular in order to meet traffic goals, I feel sleazy. I want it to feel natural.
  7. Taking into account the time commitment (writing time + frequency + ease of coming up with new ideas + extra legwork + editing + social media) and the pay rate, is it possible to meet my own financial goals? Is there a chance I’ll make the hourly rate I’m aiming for?
  8. Does the publication have a significant readership, or will I be writing into the void? I don’t want to write into the void. I write to make a connection with readers.
  9. Will this project or assignment or regular gig help to strengthen my brand or establish my credibility within a niche or get me closer to my long-term goals?
  10. Will the work be fun? Or will it be formulaic, causing me to burn out within a matter of months?
  11. Will the work be challenging? But not so challenging that it’s stressful? But not so easy that I get bored?
  12. Will I be able to manage the work while simultaneously taking care of an infant?
  13. Will I be able to manage the work while simultaneously taking care of an infant and teaching yoga and continuing work with my other clients and making sure my household does not devolve into complete chaos?
  14. Will this work help to make me a part of the literary community? Because I totally want to be a part of the literary community.
  15. Will this work make me feel fulfilled?

Does this list make your head spin? Are you surprised that things are not so cut and dry? Can you see how some of the items might be more important when considering some gigs, while other items might grow in importance when considering other gigs? Have I thoroughly confused you yet?

Fifteen years into freelance writing, my values are constantly shifting. And so is the balance of the work I take on. At the moment, my main moneymaking clients pay me a decent salary, challenge me, keep things interesting, and constantly express their appreciation for the work I do. But the readership is limited, and I have to conduct many interviews (which is exhausting for an introvert with social anxiety). My yoga work doesn’t pay a lot, but it’s fun and it’s fulfilling and it’s made me part of a community I now consider to be a sort of second family. My blogging gigs vary where pay rates are concerned. Some of them pay only a nominal fee. I do them mostly because they’re fun and they keep me writing at a time when it seems difficult to string together a coherent thought.

And then there’s the gig I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

The one I originally applied for sounded like a whole lot of fun, but the pay was small and the time commitment was huge. The frequency of blog posts would have been high, and I would have had to come up with ninety percent of the story ideas myself. Which is difficult when you feel brain dead.

The one I decided to take on didn’t sound quite as fun, but I’ll only have to do one or two posts a month. These posts will be assigned by an editor. And while there may be some interviewing required, the low frequency of posts ensures it will still be manageable. Plus, it’s a site I admire. Sometimes, I just want to be a part of that.

So how do you decide a project is worth it for you? Unfortunately, I can’t give you a simple equation. It just doesn’t exist.