What’s a word worth?

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the suggestion of the ever-helpful C., whose blog Small Dog Syndrome is consistently sparky, a meditation on the value — literally — of words.

She asked me to talk a bit about how the writing business has changed, but what’s as interesting to me is how much, in some ways, it hasn’t, for centuries. The English majors here, or lovers of the classics, will know that Charles Dickens used to write really long novels, partly because he was paid per installment of each book, each installment being 32 pages in length.

Dickens was, in some unlikely way, a blogger — he created demand for his writing by offering it only as a serial, published in pieces, making his audience wait, hungrily, for the next bit, and the next.

In journalism, as long as I’ve been doing it which is, God help me, more than 30 years, we are still paid by the word. Yup. Every single word.

I have a pretty clear set of metrics now what’s needed to produce a readable 1,00o to 3,000 word magazine or newspaper piece.

This usually means one source per 250 words, so when I write a 2,500 word story, as I’ve been doing the business section of The New York Times, I have to find and interview, usually, at least 10 people, sometimes more. If I am paid $1/word, low for magazines but high for newspapers, that’s $2,500.

My job is not only to hit my final word count but to estimate efficiently how much time I need to research, interview, write, revise and answer all the editors’ questions — additional time I can’t predict but have to build into my estimate. I aim for an hourly rate of $100 to $150, so let’s call it 20+ hours: 10 interviews at 60 minutes each; three for Internet and other research and seven for writing, revising and editing.

Obviously, each of these is flexible — only the final payment is not!

The larger challenge, and this is very much a result of the Internet, is that rates are so low and stories are so short — when the most you can earn is $700 or $300 or maybe $1,500 — do the math.

If you want, and need, to earn $30,000 or $50,000 or $80,000 a year, (which includes paying the full 15% of your Social Security tax, normally 50 percent of which your employer pays, and saving for retirement as you have no 401(k) match), you will be producing at a rate that can quickly exhaust you.

A few years ago, big magazines in the U.S. were paying $3/word, and you could get a long assignment — I did a piece for Glamour maybe 15 years ago that, then, paid $6,000. That size check, now, is very difficult to attain — at $1/word you’re literally having to work three times as hard for the same income.

I recently turned down two assignments, one from a Canadian newspaper whose chain would have re-used my story nationally for no additional pay and from a college alumni magazine, one for $300, one for $350. I’m getting to the point I don’t want any assignment worth less than $1,000. Exceptions might be made for editors with whom I have an ongoing relationship — i.e. repeat sales and no revisions.

Writing books is a little different, if only because you’re expected to produce 80,000 to 100,000 words for most books — e-books and self-published works might be different and some authors do quickies of 30,000 words. And book advances are challenging indeed; typically 1/3 to 1/4 when you sign your contract, another payment when you turn in your work (usually a year later); when the book is published (another six month wait) and, as happened with “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, the final payment came a year after publication.

Not exactly an advance!

Of course, the essential problem, for writers in every genre, remains:

Which words are the right ones?

25 thoughts on “What’s a word worth?

    1. People have such fantasies about “being a writer.” It is lucrative for a very small minority, and talent/hard work are only a small part of that. I know some people who make a lot of $$$ but, for me, their work is unreadably banal.

  1. I dream of $3 a word. Not kidding. Here in NZ, top magazine rate is around 50 cents NZ per word (40 cents US). When I wrote book reviews, I’d get $120 (less tax, less expenses) for a 400-word piece which might involve 10 hours reading the book and maybe another 2-3 mulling it over and actually writing the piece. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t do it now – in one sense it acted as ‘advertising’, which was how I justified it to myself…but if I’m going to donate my time, I can find better things to donate it to..

    I’m always intrigued at the way ‘word count’ is used as a ‘goal’ by many writers – it isn’t, of course, it’s an editorial tool to quantify commissions. The goal, as you say, isn’t to achieve x-number of words. It’s to do so within cost, time….and to make sure the words are the right ones (the hard part). The inevitable problem of the profession. Thank you for putting it so succinctly in this post!

  2. First of all, thank you for the lovely shout out! Second, thanks doubly for your thoughts on the matter, I found it fascinating – Dickens as a blogger, brilliant and enlightening!

    Between graduation and finding what I thought would be a one, maybe two year job, I supported myself on freelancing. And it was peanuts compared to your fees – I was thrilled to make $100-250 per job! But literally a month after I was hired at the university, October 2008 hit and suddenly no one was willing to pay me anymore – there were plenty of frantic young things willing to work for free, even though I had more experience than many of them. I can only imagine what this shift has looked like from a 100% professional perspective. Thanks again for taking the time and effort to give it! Les mots justes, indeed…

    1. Part of the challenge is demanding better rates, and knowing where to find them. I’ve worked for low rates — i.e. 50 cents a word — but only recently on projects that are really easy/fast and that offer a lot of repeated work. But if someone wants a one-off for $300, I would rather use that time to seek out a better-paid client or gig. Or just read a magazine and relax.

      Some writers can afford to work for a lot less simply because their rent is $400 or $600 or $800 — not the four figures ours is because we live in NY. I have a post lined up on the cost of living, and it will lay out some of our expenses…I’m curious to hear what others are paying for theirs. In Toronto, when I was your age and freelancing, my rent WAS $300 and I had no expenses beyond food, rent, telephone. I wish! But many freelance rates are still stuck at 1970s or 1980s levels — and it’s appalling. No one would take a staff job now at a 1987 salary, but publishers get away with paying crap to freelancers. The NYT CUT its rates on a column I wrote twice at $750, now paying $500 — for all rights. Then I see my work showing up, without pay, in the IHT and China Daily after they have re-sold it.

  3. Words are slippery things, worth everything and nothing, at the same time. I am glad you know the value of your work, and hope other writers are paying attention.

    Loved this post!

    1. Thanks! It is an ongoing issue to decide when to just say “NO!” to a crappy pay offer. I could certainly have used the $650 I would have earned — but I know myself well enough now that I would be so angry (at them and myself) I’d rather just re-focus my energy on markets that will pay decently. That’s a new attitude for me.

  4. I consistently appreciate your insight into the real challenges of living as a writer. For me, it’s a hobby. While I occasionally get paid for an education-related piece, it comes out to usually comes out to about 10-20 cents a word! I can’t imagine trying to pay the bills at that clip.
    Do you think the internet/blogging has helped to flood the market for certain types of writers/genres that give publishers a huge advantage in keeping pay low, because many people will write for free (hobby) like me, or to simply get published outside a personal blog?

    1. Thanks!

      Yes and no.

      The recession, writ large, has forced traditional print publishers (mags and newspapers) to trim budgets, but print veterans like me (all due respect!) fear little from newbies or bloggers trying to break into print. I see a sort of triage kick in, that people whom editors know are 100% trustworthy (accurate, reliable, meet deadlines) will continue to get the better paid work as no editor wants to jeopardize his or her job in this economy by turning to an unknown writer. I’ve produced more than 100 NYT stories and have had only one correction. That’s a very rare thing and it reassures new-to-me editors I will treat them accordingly.

      I have not been very diligent chasing new markets, but have done so in the past few weeks as I have to broaden my income stream.

  5. Nemesis

    Which words are the right ones?

    My favourites were always, “Payment due on receipt.”

    ‘Back in the day’ we had a very simple formula for accepting commissions, Ms. Malled… Three criteria, of which we would normatively insist on at least two being satisified… In no particular order:

    1. Generously remunerated.*

    2. Loads of fun.

    3. Reputation enhancing.

    * Oh yes… we adamantly declined all ‘work for hire’ deals. On those rare occasions when, for some proprietary reason, an institutional client felt the need to exercise ownership in perpetuity we would normally offer and receive an ‘AllRights’ buyout on the basis of doubling/trebling our fee… Rather harder to do now, I suspect – as ‘word on the street’ has it that eking out a living in editorial is one tough racket these days.

    Did you know that, in TheGoodeOldeDays, publications like Time/Forbes would top up your per diems with enhanced/bonus space rates if a picture/story editor decided to expand your piece?…

    By contrast – I will admit to having a ferocious argument in the early 80’s with a certain picture editor at MacLeans who shall go unamed… on the basis of his refusal to honour an invoice that included a 4$ sandwich lunch (consumed on location whilst ‘staking out’ a story that should have been billed as a full day but was generously reduced to a half day). It all worked out rather well in the end, though – as I was so f***ed off by that episode that I went to NYC in search of ‘greener’ pastures… and found ’em!

    1. I shot photos in the 1980s and had a Macleans photo director — maybe the same guy — who told me he would not assign to me (as a single woman) because he had male photographers with families who (?!wtf) needed the income more than I did. What a jerk.

      Yeah, work should be fun, lucrative or good clip. Right now, I have clips up the wazoo so I just want $$$$$$ and fun.

  6. Marlo Heresco

    I’m late replying – was up to my eyeballs yesterday in assignments…but I wanted to comment.

    Love Dickens…

    I would have to say that depends on what your goal is outside of getting paid. First of all, I have to admit I find it impressive that you can sit still for 2,000 to 3,000 words. My attention span simply does not allow for that amount of concentrated time before I MUST move on. So thank goodness people like you exist. It gives the rest of us something meaty to read.

    I don’t think putting a dollar figure on words is always an accurate way to go about business these days. For example, I write for 3 magazine, all of which offer different rates and have different expectations. The magazine with the largest expectation, which is 1,200 words, pays the lowest BUT they are the fastest growing women’s health magazine in the nation with more than 10 million visitors per month. My extended payout: invaluable exposure.

    I can write that 1,200 article in the same amount of time I can write a piece half that size for an unfamiliar company. Why? As you mentioned, no revisions. They are picky I will admit, but I have their guidelines memorized and rarely am asked to revise. That itself adds a dollar value to my time.

    From what I’ve read, mostly among grumbling forum posts, I seem to earn above average for a freelance writer. That’s not to say I earn millions a year – far from it – but keep in mind that a writer who earns $100 a month and a writer who earns $2,000 a month will make up this median for ‘average’. With that being said, I earn about the same amount of money writing 40 pieces a month as you do writing one – and we invest about the same amount of time.

    The big difference it seems is that my 40 pieces are distributed through 3 publications. I normally write 9 am to 1 pm Monday thru Friday (yesterday I worked until 4:30) and enjoy a healthy salary, not to mention a lot of free time. I prefer to write 500-word articles as opposed to lengthy and tedious assignments. I also prefer to work a little every day – I like the disciplined routine. So of my 40 or more articles per month, very few of which are returned for revisions (not because I’m a stellar writer but because I know their guidelines inside and out and enjoy the perfectionist side of my personality), I feel that my time, energy,and efforts are well spent and appreciated by the magazines I write for.

    I may earn less per piece or per word than you but I have a constant flow of work, write for companies that ALWAYS pay on time (a BIG plus), and see my work is distributed across various publications for maximum exposure.

    1. Good points, all.

      People work for different reasons, and those can change at different points in life. I am guessing, (and have a blog post going up soon on this topic), that your cost of living in Mexico is also a fraction of ours in New York. That alone influences how I choose to work — and have to work. Would I prefer to work a lot less? Hell, yes! I’m not in love with work for its own sake, unlike many people I know. I’d rather have more leisure and would like to travel much more often for pleasure — but that costs $$$$$.

      I also write longer pieces for a few reasons: 1) the pay (I would rather write one piece for X than five for the same rate); 2) they interest me more; 3) they keep me in trim for book-writing, where each chapter is usually 4,000 to 5,000 words. If you never write long, you have no idea how to structure longer pieces; 4) they have multiple themes and layers, which also keeps me interested and (one hopes!), readers as well.

      I’m also at a point I don’t need “exposure.” I’ve been “exposed” to every editor that matters to me, so that goal has been met. So, now, it’s about the $$$$$ and the intellectual satisfaction/fun.

      The interesting thing about writing for pay is how many ways there are to do it. Glad you’ve found a system working so well for you!

      1. Marlo Heresco

        You’re right in that my cost of living is less than yours in N.Y., that I can agree without even have resided in your city (or state), but that’s because I steer clear from ‘tourist’ Mexico and live as a local. BIG difference. Thank goodness for that or I’d never be able to afford myself.

        I’m also many steps behind you in that I do want the exposure, at least proper exposure that counts, but even outside that I still prefer smaller pieces over large articles and can say that I am the only writer I’ve ever ‘known’ that does not have the desire, any desire, to write a book – of any kind. I write articles. It’s what I’m good at. Writing a book does not interest me, which probably explains my lack of interest in tedious assignments. So, unlike you I don’t need to be ‘trim’ for book writing – however, I very much enjoy reading lengthy pieces and read so much that I don’t even have television (true story). I’m not adverse to reading long pieces, just writing them.

        Writers come in many forms, sort of like mechanics. One guy specializes in tire rotation, another person is an expert in oil changes, while another knows the in’s and out’s of transmission repair – yet, they are all titled mechanics. You’re right, there are numerous ways to write for pay. It’s finding that ideal method that often proves the biggest challenge. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Enjoyable as always! 🙂

  7. Excellent post: informative and honest, as usual. I just met a young journalist here in New Zealand and she said local newspapers would pay 50 to 100 NZD for a short piece that would take about 4 hours of work. It’s not much. I guess you can expect more for longer pieces, but the best option seems to work full-time for a newspaper to start with.
    Have you ever worked full-time for a publication? Do you prefer to be a free-lance?

    1. http://caitlinkelly.com/resume/year.htm

      I’ve worked for three big dailies and a couple of magazines, all on staff. I miss working at a newspaper — I really enjoy the teamwork and the excitement of producing a well-read daily. I enjoyed magazine work as well, which taught me how to edit and think conceptually about ideas. I love the freedom of freelance life…I can take off whenever and wherever it suits me and I really value the wide variety of projects I can choose to take on. But, and it’s a perpetual problem, I really hate the financial insecurity of freelance, never knowing when I will get paid.

      Right now, I’m owed more than $4,000 that’s nowhere to be seen and I’m having to rely on a high-interest line of credit in the meantime. I also dislike not having anything steady to count on, not having any idea what I’ll make each month or year. I’ve never been able to earn as much freelance as I have from my best-paid staff jobs. Last year, FT freelance, I barely made 50% of my last staff salary from 2006. I find that difficult, both financially and mentally. Freelance, I feel like I work way too hard for not nearly enough income.

      But I definitely would not go to work anywhere for anyone for less than 50% more than I now make on my own, more likely double. My freedom has value to me and I am able to define my work, not having to adhere to someone else’s notion of what I’m (only) capable of. If I want to grow or acquire new skills or add a new revenue stream, that’s entirely up to me. One thing I like about freelance is that I control my income by the level of my output and entrepreneurship — I’ve doubled it in two years. Almost no one with a “real job” can do that. Most are grateful for crummy 2 to 3 percent annual raises.

      1. Thanks for the detailed answer, Caitlin. To access such insights on journalism and writing is valuable to me. I can imagine the perks of working freelance, and I think I’d also enjoy it once I’m established as a journalist. I was a freelance language teacher in Zurich until I moved to new Zealand and my financial struggles were similar to the ones you describe. So the insecurity won’t come as a shock at least.

        By the way, I’m half-way through On Writing Well- love it!

      2. Some freelancers make a lot of money — they have a steady gig and they focus on highpaid work like corporate writing.

        Love Zinsser! I’m trying to get up the nerve to ask him for lunch, as he lives in NYC.

  8. Pingback: article writing 101 « Lynn Daue

  9. Pingback: article writing 101 | Lynn Daue

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