Why you shouldn’t charge by the word

I never charge by the word — for writing, for editing, or for anything.

The principal at a PR firm recently hired me to write articles for one of their clients. I will be working with the firm and the client to create articles of about 1500 words appropriate for placement in business publications, based on the client’s existing research and content.

I charge $2000 per article.

“How would the price change if we did shorter articles, say, 800 words?” asked the PR person.

Not at all, I replied. (And I still got the work.)

Why does cutting the length of the article in half not result in a price reduction?

There are two ways to price freelance work. Neither is by the word.

There are two basic ways to price the work that people like me do — by the value to the client, and by the level of effort required. Both are reasonable. And neither one is paid by the word.

If we’re looking at the value, imagine that my article for the client appears in Forbes, Inc., The Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review, or a trade publication. Which is worth more: a 1500-word article or an 800-word article?

I’d argue they’re worth about the same. If the article gets the point across — that this person is an expert worthy of respect and influence — it makes no difference how long the article is.

Suppose, instead, that I price by the level of effort. To create this article, I need to spend time interviewing the client, research the content, think carefully about the hook for the article, assemble content in to a fat outline, and then write it. I then need to review the content with the firm and its client and revise it based on their feedback. I may also have to rewrite it based on feedback from the publication.

Most of those activities take the same amount of time, regardless of the length of the article. Research for a 1500-word article is pretty similar to research for an 800-word article. Yes, writing and revising the longer article might take a little longer, but that’s far from the most time-consuming part of the job.

In fact, figuring out how to write the shorter article might take more effort.

When pricing, my rate accounts for my expertise. This kind of article is the kind of work for which I’m well suited, based on my background. If you hired me to write a memoir of your cancer treatment, I couldn’t charge this much. And you should hire a different writer, since I’m not an expert memoirist.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that I did price by the word. I might be tempted to write longer and spend less time on revision to get paid more. The client might be tempted to assign a shorter article to pay less. In fact, the length ought to depend on what’s appropriate for the publication, not on which one generates a higher fee. Pricing by the word distorts the incentives.

Imagine paying a graphic designer by the pixel, and you start to see how perverse this idea is.

I don’t price editing or ghost writing by the word, either

Pricing by the word seems to make sense for editing. For example, if you ask me to edit a 35,000 word book, it seems clear that that’s going to be a lot less effort than editing a 75,000 word book. It just takes longer to go through more words.

But even here, I don’t do a strict per-word price. Some 75,000 word books are extremely clear and well written and don’t require much effort. In some 30,000-word books, every sentence and paragraph needs careful attention and editing to untangle the problems and fix them. So the price is going to depend on the text.

I never price a book editing job without reviewing a chapter first. Only then can I get a good idea of how much work is involved. (If the piece is in bad enough shape, I might pass on the job outright — there’s no point in expending extraordinary effort to turn something awful into something blandly bad.)

This can confuse people, but it’s how professionals work — by the job, the value of their expertise, and the value of the result.

On one book I ghost wrote, I quoted a price based on my expertise (exactly aligned with the client’s needs on a technical topic), the level of effort I expected, and the value to the client. The client approved that quote. The contract then went to the client’s procurement department in India, which informed me that on a per-word basis, what I was charging was higher than traditional costs for such work, so I should lower my price.

I said, “Fine, if you can find someone who works for that amount and they are the right writer for you, please hire them.”

I ended up getting that job on the exact terms originally quoted, and producing exactly what the client wanted. After all, the price is the price. The client overruled their own procurement people.

I also occasionally write very valuable short copy — say, the short description a company puts on its Web page and press releases. I might produce 70 words for that. But those 70 words might require extensive meetings with the company and eight rounds of revisions.

Should I price that at $140, a generous two-dollars-a-word? Or should I price it at the thousands of dollars it is worth to the company, also reflecting the hours of effort and revision it requires?

What pricing by the word says about you

If you price by the word, you are telling people that your work is interchangeable with any other writer. You are a generic, replaceable, fungible resource. Your words are no better or worse than anyone else’s words.

This might be a fine way to get started as a writer, but as soon as you can, you need to start pricing by the job — and pricing those jobs by the level of effort required, the value for the client, or both.

To boost your rates, develop expertise that few others can match. Build a reputation and get referrals from delighted clients. Quote once and don’t negotiate. And put in a level of effort that makes clients sing your praises.

Get off that pay-per-word treadmill as soon as you can.

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  1. Your run-in with the procurement dept was funny. Typical. What people need to know about procurement people is that many of them get bonuses, or certainly recognition, for the “wins” they deliver. A win is the difference between the original quote and the new reduced quote. So you can respond as you did, or inflate your quote, and be prepared to reduce it so they get their win. A stupid game, I know.