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March 1, 2022
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A freelancer’s guide to negotiating pay rates

So, you pitched a killer story idea and an editor wants to assign it. Time to get cracking, right?

Not so fast. Before you start writing your magnum opus, you’ll want to confirm the pay rate. Some editors include this information in their assignment letter, but others will wait for you to ask about pay. If you’re dealing with the latter kind of editor, don’t be shy about asking. And if you’re underwhelmed by the answer, definitely try to negotiate.

Here are some strategies you can try using to negotiate pay rates for your freelance work.

Do your research

Before pitching a website or magazine, get a feel for whether the pay rates of the publication are even worth your time. Does this publication pay in “exposure” (translation: you’re writing for free) or does it have a robust freelance budget? Do they pay you in word count?

Resources like Who Pays Writers?, the Contently Rates Database, or ASJA‘s Paycheck (accessible to members) are a good place to start. If you happen to know someone who’s a contributor, they should be able to give you some intel.

This can be helpful information if you sense an editor is low-balling you. But don’t out your source by saying “So-and-so told me you pay them $2/word!” because you may lose the assignment and the trust of your colleagues. Keep that information close to your chest.

Also, check out the Freelancers Union website for a variety of resources that are helpful to freelancers including a customizable contract should you want one when a publication does not have one of their own.

Try the TEA method

Author and freelance Kelly James shares a smart negotiation strategy on her blog: thank, explain, ask (TEA for short). Thank the editor for the assignment, explain why you’re asking for more money, then make the ask.

For example, “I’m so glad you liked my pitch about Medicare fraud. This is a complex topic that will require a lot of reporting time, so is there any room in the budget for a higher fee to reflect that?”

Negotiate other aspects of the assignment

Editors don’t always control the purse strings, so sometimes they can’t offer more money. However, there are non-monetary things you can negotiate, too. Consider including some of these in your negotiation:

Length

Maybe the editor wants to assign a 2,000-word feature but their budget doesn’t reflect that length. Might an 800-word piece for the same fee be more realistic? Just make be sure to discuss the scope of the piece so the editor doesn’t expect the substance of a 2,000-word feature crammed into 800 words.


Scope

Some publications require freelancers to collect and edit photos, write captions and social media posts, or perform other tangential tasks. If the editor is willing to remove those tasks from your plate and reassign them to an intern or editorial assistant, the assignment might be more worthwhile for you, because you’re spending fewer hours on it.


Timeline

Maybe the editor’s proposed deadline will require you to turn down higher-paying work. If that’s the case, see if you can finagle an extra week rather than more money so you can juggle multiple projects more easily.

Rights

Some freelance contracts can be very rigid about rights, but if the pay doesn’t justify signing away rights to the piece, see if you can amend the contract to retain the right to reprint the story elsewhere or remove any restrictions on covering that topic for competing publications.

You won’t know until you ask

As long as you’re respectful and professional, it’s unlikely that the editor will rescind the initial offer, even if they can’t give you more money or adjust the scope of the assignment. That leaves it up to you to decide if this particular job is the right one for you, knowing that what they are offering is all there is.

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