This Writing Life--Mark Terry
Thoughts From A Professional Writer

Writing 201: Business Essentials
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August 5, 2005
All right class. My occasional columns, Writing 101, focus on writing nuts and bolts. I'm going to also write occasional columns I'll dub Writing 201 on the business of writing, focusing primarily on freelancing, not fiction.

One of the reasons for this is that I'm taking stock of where my career is. I have been getting articles published and paid for the privilege since 1993. In June of 2004 I went down to 2 10-hour workdays on my job so I could write fulltime the other 3 (or 5) days a week. It went so well that in October of 2004 I quit my dayjob to become a fulltime freelance writer. I love it. Still... I have a lot to learn about things, and there's a whole week's worth of possible topics involving tracking your income closely so you can pay quarterly taxes and the matter of scheduling your vacations around your tax-paying. But, ahem... enough of my mistakes for now.

I want to talk about the direction of your writing career, ie., what to focus your writing efforts on. Skipping my novel writing for the moment, the majority of my writing is for trade journals, typically in the medical, biotechnology areas, though I've broken into practice management (for physicians) and some small business and consumer subjects. It's good to specialize. My pay rates for magazines runs from about $100 per article to my highest paying at 85 cents per word. I've recently picked up some in the 40 cents per word range, which is good. Still, you've got to write a lot and keep up the constant pressure to make a living at this. And I'm sure I'm obsessing because I have a large Visa bill and nobody has paid me in about 3 weeks, despite the fact that I'm owed about three or four thousand dollars for work completed.

The point being, as I'm coming up on one full year of writing fulltime, it seems like a good time to examine the direction of my career and decide if I want to continue with these types of market, which I am very comfortable with, or shift direction a bit and try copywriting or technical writing. I have a science background and I've written extensively for two of the major trade journals in the pharmaceutical and biotech industry, so I'm thinking strongly of putting some efforts in trying to break into the pharmaceutical technical writing. I've done a tiny bit of it. One simple reason is this: money! [Do I sound crass and money-fixated? Tough! I've been called worse.] Consider that pharmaceutical technical writers can routinely charge anywhere from $75 to $175 per hour depending on their credentials and experience, why do you think I'm considering making the effort?

Okay. Take away message. Here's an important calculation to consider. How much money do you want to make? Decide on how much money you'd like to make a year. I'll throw out a round number--$50,000. Divide that by 2080, which is the number of hours you would work on a "real job" at 9 to 5. That gives you a base "hourly" rate. In this case, approximately $24 to $25 dollars per hour. Then, because you're a freelancer and you have overhead, insurance, no paid time off, sick days or retirement, multiply it times 3. That comes out to $75 an hour, which is a rate you should try to hit in order to make $50,000. Keep in mind that you won't be working 2080 BILLABLE hours as a freelancer. 1000 to 1500 is more likely. (If you're lucky).

In my case, that $75 per hour seems rather high, but anywhere from $40 to $75 would be reasonable, but there are too many factors involved for me to go into that, but one of the important factors is: What will the market bear?

But by looking at this as a guideline rather than a rule, and giving some realistic thought to what your goals are, at least you have some direction. And it will make you look at those $100 magazine articles you spend 5 or 6 or 7 hours working on in a very different light. I was recently contacted by a magazine that wanted me to write an article with less than a week's lagtime, about 800 words, and they paid a whopping $50. I politely declined. I would have done it years back to get clips, but now my time is very valuable and time spent on that (less than $10 an hour, probably) is time taken away from more important and better paying work. It's brutal out there and you have to treat your services as if they are valuable. Don't give them away.

Mark Terry

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