How do technical writers charge?

This series is all about pricing technical writing work, and in this final part I’m looking at the different types of payment model.

How do technical writers charge?

Freelance technical writers are usually paid using one of the following models:

  • Per word – each word in the copy is paid for at an agreed rate, e.g. £0.50 per word
  • Per hour – ideal for the shortest jobs, e.g. £50 per hour
  • Per day – good for short jobs of a day or two
  • Per project – best for longer jobs (and often a good way to secure a discount)

Payment per word

This is the one payment model I truly dislike.

Write words = get paid. Fine.

Write more words = get paid more. Huh?

It’s like counting sweets in a jar, and that’s not the right approach.

The pay-per-word model encourages the wrong sort of behaviour. Instead of honing their copy, writers might – might – churn out text to hit a maximum word count.

Responsible writers do not think this way – I certainly don’t – but the temptation to play the system is there.

Big word alert: commodification

Commodification means turning a service into a commodity – a thing to be traded.

Turning words into commodities means that clients have more of a reason to perform a price comparison and then pick the cheapest writing option.

But words aren’t just like sweets in a jar. And cheaper isn’t always better.

Words are not commodities

In part 1, I mentioned the 2016 PCN survey. Those figures reveal that only 9% of respondents take on per-word-payment jobs, and only 2% of respondents say this is their preferred approach.

So, the next time you offer a per-word payment to a copywriter, consider that there’s only a 1 in 50 chance of that being what they wanted.

Tweet it, share it, tell people about it. This is important.

Words are not commodities.

Tweet this

Payment per hour

This payment model is more like it, but it’s only to be used for very short jobs. Otherwise, the costs are going to be huge and no client will want to pay for days and days at an hourly rate.

I tend not to charge an hourly rate, because my jobs are usually quite long – almost always at least a few days (and sometimes weeks and months).

If I did charge an hourly rate for technical writing services, it would work out at around £70 plus VAT per hour.

Here’s an alternative scenario in which per-hour rates might make sense. Some clients want to pay a retainer to secure writing and editorial services for a number of hours per month. In this case, setting aside a handful of hours for that client could be done at lower than the headline hourly rate. A typical example might be a client who wants a writer to produce a regular monthly or fortnightly blog or email newsletter. (Yes, technical writers can do that sort of thing, too – we’re often pretty good with organising and structuring content for such tasks.)

I like the idea of taking on a bit of retainer work, so I’m going to suggest this more often to clients from now on. If you’re a technical writer who offers this sort of service already, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Payment per day

Most clients are aware that jobs can take a while and so they expect freelances to quote day rates. Technical writing work that I can do in less than a week is usually charged at my day rate of £350–£450 plus VAT per day.

Per-day rates can be lucrative for technical writers who take on contract work, which is often carried out on a client’s premises. In such cases, jobs could last weeks – perhaps even a couple of months – and this can work out very well for the writer.

I don’t do any on-site work, so long jobs like this would have to be done from home (as per all my other projects). I’d save the client some money by applying the final payment model, which is …

Payment per project

Remember that PCN survey I mentioned? A massive 70% of respondents to that survey have worked on jobs where there was a flat project fee.

This flat-fee approach suits me best. I assess each job and give my clients a firm quote that shows exactly how much their project will cost if they hire me.

No extras, no hidden charges.

Just one fee they can put through payroll, safe in the knowledge that I’ll take care of their whole project.

Project fees mean large amounts of money changing hands. Some copywriters I know insist on a deposit of 50% before any work is done, to protect them from clients taking their content and running away without paying for the service. (That’s not the only reason: clients can have legitimate changes in their life circumstances that mean they can’t honour their agreement to pay the writer.)

Generally, I don’t ask for a deposit, though if a really large project came along, I’d need some major assurances (not just a Purchase Order) before agreeing to work for months without ongoing payment.

Why payment per project works out cheapest for my clients

If I know that I’m going to be working with a client for a while, I can feel a little more comfortable about giving them a discount. We’re going to talk to each other more often. We’re going to email each other more often. We’re probably going to Skype each other (I love Skype).

The exchange becomes less of a transaction and more of a relationship.

As above, I don’t provide a commodity. No. I work with people who see the value in what I offer them. When I explain to them the benefits that good technical writing can bring to their business, it’s usually easy for them to see that value.

Clients are already aware of my headline prices when they get in touch with me, so project discounts come as a welcome bonus. (Diligent prospective clients who read this post will now know that a discount is on the table for longer pieces of work – well done if that’s you!)

Anyway, here’s an example of what I mean:

Say that I think a technical writing job is going to take 6 days.

My day rates would mean this job works out at £2100 to £2700 plus VAT.

But as a project fee, I might take off as much as 15%. That drops the price to £1785 to £2295 plus VAT. I’m not saying that’s cheap – people who want ‘cheap’ won’t be interested in what I offer anyway – but it’s still a good saving on the per-day equivalent.

Let’s wrap up

Phew, got there. If you’ve read through all 4 parts of this series, well done. I was originally planning to write the whole thing as a single post. Glad I didn’t end up inflicting that on anyone!

In this series, we’ve seen an indication of what I charge for technical writing services and how this compares with the charges of general copywriters. There’s been a discussion of why freelance technical writing is so expensive and also a look at the research a tech writer has to do to produce good quality output. And in this final part, we’ve considered some different payment models, from per-word (boo!) to per-project (woo!).

So, that’s it for now. I plan to say a lot more about the topic of pricing in the future, but I’d love to hear what you think. Whether you’re a writer, a prospective client or just someone who got lost while looking for an Experian credit report (it’s Espirian – pronounced ESS-pih-ree-unn), please leave me a comment and let me know what you thought of this series.

You can also catch up with me on Twitter and through all of the other usual social channels.

Read the other parts in this series

  1. How much does technical writing cost?
  2. Why is technical writing so expensive?
  3. Do technical writers need to do research?
  4. How do technical writers charge?

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Thanks for reading, John Espirian


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