This post was originally published on Yolander Prinzel's blog in 2014. It was relocated to All Indie Writers when that blog was shut down.
When you decided to become a freelance writer, you probably didn't think those old math classes would come in handy. It turns out they will. I hope you paid attention.
Not understanding basic math can cost you dearly, whether it happens through miscalculations or misunderstandings in interpreting data. Let's look at three ways poor math skills could royally screw you over as a freelance writer and what you can do to prevent that from happening.
Day-to-Day Business Finances
When you work as a freelance writer, you run a business. The moment you start accepting payment for your work, you need to start thinking like the entrepreneur that you are. A big part of that is dealing with your day-to-day business finances.
That can include:
- Expense tracking
You need to know what comes into your business. And you need to know what goes out. If you screw up your numbers, you risk ending up with a deficit rather than a profit. Keep that up, and you might end up in debt just to keep your freelance business afloat. Or worse, you'll be out of business entirely.
What You Can do About It:
- Invest in decent budgeting and / or accounting software to help you stay organized and to automate some of the calculations.
- Learn to love the numbers. Think about your business finances in terms of reaching your goals and it's possible you'll find a new appreciation for them (and a better understanding of basic business math as you do more of it).
- Pay someone to love those numbers for you. A bookkeeper just might become your new best friend.
Setting Your Freelance Writing Rates
Even deciding how much to charge clients can involve some serious number-crunching. Here's a list of just some of the important numbers you'll need to figure out in order to set rates that will actually help you reach your goals:
- Your monthly living expenses
- Your monthly business expenses (including self employment taxes)
- Your savings goals (including retirement)
- Your health insurance costs (Proper freelance rates cover everything a salaried job would offer.)
- How much money you want available for investments
- How many days off you want to take each year through vacation time and available sick days (Don't forget holidays!)
- How many working hours you'll have each week
- How many billable hours you'll have each week (Hint: It's not equal to your working hours. It probably isn't even close.)
That can be a lot to figure out. And that's just to determine your bare bones base rate. Then you have to consider:
- How much to pad that base rate to account for realistic slow periods or to allow room for negotiation;
- How much of a premium your experience and credentials justify;
- How much you simply want to earn over that base rate;
- What your target market's price expectations are (and if they don't match your intended rates, you'll need to reconsider your market);
- How to convert your hourly target rate into the rate types you actually want to charge (such as per word, per article, or per project).
I'm sure you can see how much room there is for error. Forgetting a few simple expenses or poorly estimating the number of billable hours you can put in every week can completely screw up your rate structure.
If you fall into the trap of charging too little early on, making significant price hikes later isn't always easy. It can mean dropping all of your current clients and starting from scratch, targeting an entirely new market with higher budgets.
What You Can do About It:
- Use a freelance rate calculator to help you sort out the specifics and crunch the numbers correctly the first time.
Avoiding Problematic Pay Models
When writers suck at math, it can be easier for them to get pulled into less-than-promising pay models like revenue sharing rather than receiving outright payments for their work.
This can be less a case of crunching the numbers incorrectly and more a case of allowing yourself to buy into hyped up hypothetical earnings situations. For example, several years ago there were two content networks (now known more often as content mills) which paid writers a percentage of ad revenue earned on their articles.
It was a bad deal for writers. But the math I would see some freelancers use to try to justify their decisions to write for these sites was astounding. Look. I get it. It's easy to say "well, I earned $2.00 on this article this month, so that equals $24 a year, and I'll keep earning that or more in future years, and over time I'll earn more per article than the pros who are laughing at me now, and neener, neener, neener!"
I've seen writers make that argument over $1.00 per month per article, and even less. No joke.
The logic (or lack thereof) usually goes on to say something like "if I can write five of these articles every day, five days a week, that will average out to around 100 new articles per month; at $1.00 per article per month, that's like getting a $100 raise every single month."
It sounds good in theory. By the end of your first year, you would have published around 1200 articles, and you would be earning at a rate of $1200 per month ($2400 if you were that writer claiming they earned $2.00 per article each month), even if you stopped writing for that site completely.
First of all, these writers usually aren't around very long. They burn themselves out within a few months. That's the thing about business math. You have to be able to apply it practically. Numbers on paper alone mean nothing.
Second, the math is based on too many assumptions such as:
- Every article will earn the same ad revenue.
- Articles will continue to earn revenue at the same level indefinitely.
- The content mill won't ever change its pay model (hate to break it to you, but I've seen pretty much every mill change its model in some way over time, if they don't disappear entirely).
Here's a dose of mathematical reality:
A few years back I was working on a piece about residual earnings sites. One of the biggest sites paying freelance writers in this way accidentally published some of their top earner statistics publicly (it appeared to be meant only for their writers to see). This was a company that boasted publishing content from over 20,000 writers. Yes. Twenty thousand.
According to those documents (which they've since made private again), do you want to know how many actually earned more than $2000 a month? One. How many earned more than $1000 that month? Eight. Yes. Eight out of 20,000. And this was before all of these low quality, "shallow" content sites were slammed by Google (hurting both their search engine rankings -- meaning traffic -- and the ad revenue the writers were getting a cut of).
Now, maybe you're a big fan of statistics and game theory and you think you can come up with some strategy to be the exception to a rather strong rule.
You have fun with that.
But if you're the type of freelancer who needs to know they can earn a living from their writing this year rather than playing games, the math just doesn't work out -- no matter how badly you want it to.
What You Can do About It:
- Know what you need and want to earn before going into any freelance writing gig, and make sure you fully understand the time commitment required to reach those income goals. If there's no contract stipulating you'll be paid what you know your work is worth, walk away.
- If it sounds too good to be true or "exposure" is supposed to hold you over until the pay starts rolling in, don't walk. Run.
- Put the time and effort in up front to start building your professional network and finding the kinds of clients you know you want to work with. Then pitch prospects on your services and seek referrals. As you build your portfolio and larger writer platform, before you know it, prospects will be finding you and getting in touch about better gigs.
Can you think of other situations where math plays an important role in freelance writing? Has a simple mathematical miscalculation ever cost you? What do you do differently now as a result? Tell me in the comments.
Jenn has over 17 years experience writing for others, around 12 years experience in blogging, and about a decade of experience in indie e-book publishing. She is also an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.
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