The True Value of Writers

Historically, freelance writers were paid by the word. It seemed to make sense. You wrote an article that was twice as long as another, you deserved to get paid for it. This is a fallacy, as all decent writers know. It’s easy to write lots of words; but what’s harder is to make an impact. And writing should all be about quality, not quantity. They should be paid for the value they create.

Having sat on both sides of this table, I know that it isn’t quite as straightforward as this. Situations vary and so does the need for quality writing, which is why writers need to be able to adjust to the client to ensure they make a living wage. If you’re being paid thousands for writing a speech for a CEO, you’re likely to put in more time and effort than the two or three blogs that your friend asked for help on as a favour for his startup.

The challenge is that quality is much harder to measure than word count. Unfortunately, the over-supply of content has often reduced the pricing spread between good and bad work at the very time when top quality writing should command a premium.

Writers should always be paid a flat fee. This way they know what the expectations are and calibrate their efforts accordingly. Alternatively, they should have a stake in the revenue associated with their work, although this isn’t always easy. Here’s an idea: why don’t newspapers and magazines pay their special report writers a percentage of the ad revenue? That way there is an incentive for first class writing and a chance to outperform financially, while the media outlet hedges their risk.

But there is more to this than just dollars, pounds and Euros. What about self-worth? Freelance writers for media that are paid by the word are invariably paid less than someone who quotes a flat fee. I can’t prove that but it seems clear to me that if a seasoned writer quotes a fee of – for the sake of argument – $5,000 to write a bylined article for a top bank executive, that is easily signed off. But if the same writer quotes $6 per word for the same piece, it both cheapens his craftsmanship and seems somehow expensive. That’s because being paid by the word implies that the only effort involved is the actual writing of the words and sentences. There’s more to making a good cake than baking it. That’s often the easy bit! Do not underestimate the value of creativity, research, knowledge and experience.

As I’ve said to many clients, “Do you think that the writer of Nike’s ‘Just do it’ slogan got paid by the word?”

While many people appreciate the value of an advertising copywriter, this understanding of quality has not spread throughout the writing universe. It’s time to go back to basics – let’s pay people for the value of what they are writing, not the length of it.

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