How Much Is a Word Worth?
Declining pay for freelance writers hurts more than just the quality of the prose
When people who read magazines read an article in a magazine, I don’t imagine they know how much the writer was paid. As consumers, we aren’t responsible for what workers make; market competition and minimum wage laws take care of that. So, as long as we pay for our purchases and we pay our taxes, we’ve done our part. We assume there’s some rationale to the pricing of labor, with industries coalescing around sensible rates that increase over time according to inflation and productivity.
But labor markets don’t always work much like that, and if anyone should know, it’s a freelance writer.
Freelance writers have long tolerated a wide range of rates. Nearly a century ago, a writer named Ring Lardner declared that he would “rather write for the New Yorker at five cents a word than for Cosmopolitan at one dollar a word.” It’s hard to think of another profession in which pay for comparable work can vary so much from assignment to assignment.
One of the benefits to freelancing is that writers can place value on rewards other than money — like being part of a hip new project, like the 1924 New Yorker. But the downsides are many, and as a result, most pros today find themselves still answering the same spiritual question Lardner did, but for a whole lot less cash.
Freelance writers have no collective with which to bargain, they are not subject to minimum wage laws, and their pay fluctuates all the time. For those reasons, it’s hard to keep track of the averages (and few organizations are compelled to try). But back in 2001, the National Writers Union published a report on pay rates for freelance writers. The report figured that to earn the median wage for college grads — $50,000 per year — writers needed to pitch, sell, report, write, edit, publish, and be paid an average of $1 per word for 3,000 to 5,000 words a month. (That’s the length of this article.) Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $1.40 per word today.
Most freelance writers didn’t hit those numbers then, and they don’t hit those numbers today. Based on my reporting, my own experience, and interviews with more than a dozen writers, the current median price for a…