3 reasons freelancers should NOT be paid by word count

3 reasons freelancers should NOT be paid by word count

I’ve come to the freelance arena again (part-time) after several years in full-time permanent employment, and one of the things I’ve seriously flirted with is the idea of charging for my work not by the word but by ‘the effort’.

I’m not sure if this would work, but I like the thought.

Word count has become the de facto valuation tool, because it’s easy. Everything is quantifiable and therefore accountable, and each party knows what’s expected. You want 800 words, I want $800 – let’s do it.

I don’t think that works so well anymore, and here’s why.

1. The Internet is space-rich

Word counts had their place when everything was done in print. Magazines and newspapers had a certain amount of space to fill, and they needed to know that the article they got from you would fit. The Internet has changed that (within reason). As an online editor, I’m not concerned if a piece assigned out at 1,000 words comes in at 650 or 1,500. What concerns me is the quality of the piece, that it answers questions posed in the brief, that it achieves its aims. I hate seeing writers puff and pad simply to hit a word count. It’s something I won’t do as a writer, and I shouldn’t lose income as a result of my adherence to sharp, tight, quality writing.

2. Writing is nearly always the easiest part of being a journalist

Many writers, at least in non-fiction, find writing – putting words one after another in an order that conveys their thoughts reasonably accurately – easy. It’s often why they consider the job in the first place. The hard part is what comes before that – conceiving and structuring ideas, researching topics, arranging and conducting interviews, sourcing pictures, checking facts. I find these non-writing aspects of an article the most time-consuming too. Word count is not an accurate measure of the time/effort that gets spent doing those things.

3. Freelancers often have to spend their own money

These days it’s rare that an assignment comes with an expense budget. Several mainstream travel publications and platforms don’t accept articles that result from press trips. Want to write about the top 10 hotels in the Maldives? Great – but research is either second-hand, done from your desk, or expensive if you decide to go. Word count again fails as an accurate measure, and the ‘effort’ I make to provide first-hand accurate info should be taken into account.

I’d love to hear your own thoughts about this, and any experiences writers have had, good and bad, using word count to value their work.

6 thoughts on “3 reasons freelancers should NOT be paid by word count

  1. I agree with you. If I do serious research into a topic, I try to get as many articles out of it as possible. Sometimes this isn’t possible, but with a bit of effort it usually can be done.

    1. Hi Steven, yep that’s another good point. No freelancer can survive or should be expected to survive on one idea, one sale – but the trade is so competitive these days that’s often how it works.

    1. That is a problem – though any site that’s willing to pay peanuts probably looks like peanuts too – and do you need to be associated with that?

  2. I’ve never been comfortable with being paid by word count. Or strictly by the hour. (How do I charge for ideas that arrive in my head–or anyplace else–in the middle of the night?) I prefer to be paid based on factors like how much research I’ll have to do and how much time–generally speaking–it will take. Yes, writing is usually the easy part unless I’m covering an annual event I’ve covered before.

    1. Thanks Don – it does seem that the Internet is slowly moving editors and freelancers towards a project fee, rather than a pure word count fee. Will be interesting to see how far that goes!

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