The Numbers Game

When I was in college, the last thing I wanted to do was become a professional writer. Not because I’m not good at it, and certainly not because I don’t enjoy it. No: the reason why was because I intuited the writing market was a numbers game I could not win.

Of course, life has a way of getting in the way. When the only thing you can get people to pay you to do is write, you become a writer. But the numbers game is still there.

The reason why it persists is that most writers are functionally innumerate. Creativity is more important than logic. But there are ways to figure out how much you’re worth, and how much you need to be worth, and they don’t involve gradients or differentials or even integrals. Just basic arithmetic.

Working Down: What Do I Need To Make?

Like just about anybody else, a writer needs to have an idea of how much they’d like to earn in mind. (And I don’t mean “more than J.K. Rowling” here.) This is because, from the figure they’d like to earn, they can deduce how much they want to earn — on average — in a given week.

It’s the same principle as analyzing a salary into a budget. How much are you getting paid a year? Since a working year is effectively fifty weeks in the United States, divide the offer amount by fifty to get your weekly gross. For example, somebody making $30k a year makes $600 a week; somebody making $100k makes $2,000 a week.

Because you are trying to make numbers work without the luxury of working documentation — such is the way of the freelancer — you will need to budget yourself. Over time, I have budgeted myself such that I live comfortably with an outlay of >$1,500 a month. But that’s because I have a dirt-cheap room, utilities included, with purportedly free internet, and no car, so I can put more spending towards eating well and working at coffeeshops … at least when I can make this budget. It also helps me see the room I have to deal with debt service.

By figuring out how your annual target breaks down monthly and hence weekly (a week is 1/4 of a month, here) to make your numbers work, you’ve figured out your quota — that is, how much you must make in order to break even from a budgetary perspective.

Working Up: How Much Am I Worth?

Every serious writer knows that job ads advertising 1¢ or 2¢ a word is a scam. If you know how much, on average, your words are worth, then you also know when you’re getting hoodwinked or getting a good deal.

Say, for example, your annual target is $50k. This is a nice round income target of $1k weekly — an admirable effort, and probably more than the salary you’d get from copywriting at that level. From this, we can deduce that you need to make $200 a day (remember, a workweek has five days!).

Now … how many words do you feel comfortable writing in a day? Sure, you may say, writing is like coding: paying by the line just incentivizes bad code. But the fact of the matter is: clients are looking for a certain amount of space to fill. And while some clients are willing to pay by the hour, they’re hard to come by: It’s much more common to be paid by the post, or by the word. And even when you’re paid by the post, you’re expected to make a certain word count.

At production, I can usually write about four 500-word articles a day. This works well for both me and my clients: If I have that much workload then I am consistently making my daily bread. It also allows me to assay the net value of my words.

If I am making $200 a day writing 4 500-word articles, then I am making $200 a day writing 2,000 words, or my words are worth about 10¢. Because I know this is the mean I want to distribute my actual pay rates around, this also allows me to take on clients valuing my words both to greater and lesser degrees, depending on the quality of the client and how badly I need the additional work. (I currently need additional work badly.)

By contrast, if I were trying to make $200 with a client that only paid 2¢ a word, I would need to write a whopping 10,000 words a day — laughable!

Budgeting

So, by understanding our quotas and capabilities, we understand our net value. Finally, I want to address the budget.

When I budget, I follow a 25 x 4 rule: in any given month

  1. The first week pays ongoing bills (rent, utilities, transportation, communications)
  2. The second week goes into debt service
  3. The third week goes into savings
  4. The fourth week goes into “slush” — that is, my free $$$.

I live by myself with no real tether, so this isn’t a difficult budget to develop. It’s also allowing me to clearly see what I need to have, based on the 80/20 rule: namely, that of the $4000 a month I would want to have under this budget, about $3200 would need to come from the same 20% of clients.

What this means is that, if my best client — who I can usually get ~$500 a month from — represents part of the 80%, then I would need five other like clients to make my bills! And from that, I can also see that I would need about 30 clients total … not an easy task. (I’m less than 20% of the way there.)

But I can draw all of this knowledge out of knowing what I need to make, and how much effort I can fairly put into making it. That is, I know how to value myself and my work. This was not an easy lesson to learn.

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