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Charging for services: Hourly rates or project fees?

Sometimes it’s better to turn down a job than to take it.

My instincts told me that when I took a gig doing fact checking for magazine articles when I was recovering from cancer surgery. But, it was work I could do during recovery, I didn’t have other work at the time and I needed the income.

The biggest problem wasn’t the state of the copy (which often included factual errors that turned the work into reporting rather than fact checking) or the pay, which was well below my standard rate. The issue was that the pay was an hourly rate rather than project based. Not surprisingly, the gig didn’t last. The publisher was not happy with the time I put into the work.

The problem with being paid hourly is that few people realize that writing is time intensive. Think of it as being like the tip of an iceberg. Above the waterline, you see the final draft. Hidden out of sight below the water line there’s research into discovering who are the best contacts for a story, contacting them to arrange an interview, contacting them again when they don’t respond to the first interview request, conducting the interview and then transcribing the interview. Finally, when that process is completed, the writing can begin. But, it doesn’t end there. Many of my articles involve scientific topics based on interviews with academics. Most prefer to see a story before it is written because they say they have been misquoted so many times. I am only too happy to oblige. Often, the science goes beyond my scope of knowledge.

It’s a process that takes time. Even an editor I currently write for and have known for years when we both worked for another company was surprised when I explained how much time I spend researching, interviewing and writing. And I’m not slow! Thorough, but not slow.

As an example, a story I am writing now has taken two weeks of research and interviews. Not only have I had to find the right people for the interviews, several of them have required repeated calls to set up the interviews. In one case, I reached a person by going through a third party. The publisher for this piece pays a flat project rate. An hourly rate would be out of the question from their business standpoint. That’s not great for me because I end up making pennies on the hour. But, it’s my name on the published article and my reputation. So, I am willing to spend the time to ensure what I file to my editor is a well-researched and reported article.

I’m wondering, do other writers accept or turn down contract work when it’s offered on an hourly rate?

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