How much do freelance writers make?

How much are freelance writers really making in 2021?

When I first started freelance writing, I was happy with any work that came my way. I was young and living on the cheap, and if I made $100 a day I considered myself lucky. Nowadays, that would be a tough salary for a freelance writer, even at the start of their career.

Now, almost 10 years into my freelancing life, I look back on that newbie writer with the same kind of head-shaking fondness as a college senior looks at a freshman.   

Assuming a five-day week, $100 a day works out to $500 weekly, which is $26,000 a year. The required annual income before taxes to earn a living wage in Boston, where I am based?

That would be $31,736, according to the living wage calculator

So was the stereotype true? Was I, as a writer, doomed to spend my life working for a poverty wage? How much do freelancers make on average?

It took a lot of digging, but I finally found an answer. No – not all writers are scraping by for pennies. But what the average actually is, and who’s in that range, varies more than I thought it would. 

There is no “typical” pay rate for freelance writers.

If you search for “How much do freelance writers make per hour?” you’ll find a range that’s so broad, it’s barely useful. 

  • Payscale reports a pay range of $10.31 to $53.79 per hour for freelance writers.  
  • ZipRecruiter has an even broader range: $5.29 to $193.03 per hour

Averages do help to narrow it down a bit.

  • On Payscale, the national average is listed as $23.67 per hour.
  • ZipRecruiter, gives an average hourly wage of $31 per hour but specifies that most writers’ salaries range between $17 and $35 per hour
  • The US Bureau of Labor Statistics gives an hourly wage of $29.89 per hour, but that includes all “writers and authors,” from penny-per-word writers to bestselling authors. 

ZipRecruiter’s average is well below the median for its range, but PayScale’s average is right in the middle. So where do the majority of writers fall in comparison to that average?

Freelance rates: The experience factor

In 2018, talent marketplace ClearVoice published its most recent survey of more than 500 freelancers. It showed that for 91 percent of freelancers, rates were close to evenly distributed between $21 per hour and more than $100 per hour. Only 9 percent earned $20 per hour or less. 

ClearVoice 2018 Freelance Writers Pay Survey
The ClearVoice 2018 Freelance Writers Pay Survey (click image to view full infographic)

Narrowing down these numbers based on experience level, ClearVoice showed that fewer experienced writers made low-end pay, while more were earning top-level pay as they gained experience. 

Among beginners, defined as those with zero to three years of experience:

  • 25.7% earned $1 to $20 per hour
  • Only 4.3% earned more than $100 per hour
  • The most common pay range was $21-$40 per hour (32.1%)

At the intermediate level (3 to 7 years of experience):

  • 6.1% earned $20 per hour or less
  • 19.1% earned more than $100 per hour
  • The most common pay range was $41-$60 per hour (26.1%)

Among professionals (7 to 15 years of experience): 

  • Just 1% were still earning $20 per hour or less
  • The percentage of $100+ per hour earners stayed about the same at 19.2%
  • The most common pay range was $81-$100 per hour (31.7%). 

And by expert level (15+ years of experience):

  • 1.5% were earning $20 per hour or less
  • The most common pay range was $100+ per hour (40.8%).

In 2019, the writer resource company Make a Living Writing ran a similar survey. Athough they didn’t categorize results by experience level, they found that 38 percent of writers earned less than $20 an hour, most of those being in the $0 to $10 per hour range. However, they also found that 10 percent earn $50 to $75 per hour and 9% earn more than $76 an hour. 

Average Hourly Rate for Freelance Writers

Because this website tends to target less experienced writers, this survey may have skewed more toward freelancers at that level. There were definitely many part-time writers responding. Results showed that 45 percent of respondents identified as dabblers, earning little to nothing, while only 25 percent were full-timers. 

Content type matters too. 

Your income as a writer also depends on what kind of content you’re producing. White papers tend to pay the highest rates at $100 to $200 per hour. Next in line is a three-way tie between technical writing, ghostwriting, and ad copywriting, which pay $40 or $45 to $100 per hour. 

When we’re looking at content type, however, it’s harder to make comparisons because many project types aren’t billed per hour. They’re billed by the word or by the project, which means that the same payout could mean a different hourly rate for someone who works quickly and someone who works more slowly. This site approaches things from a business’ perspective, and offers some useful per-project rate indicators.

“How much do freelance writers make per word?”

Whether a project pays by the hour or depending on the amount of content produced depends on the freelancer, the client, or both. Almost 60 percent of ClearVoice’s 500 respondents said that they charge per word or per hour based on the client’s preferences.   

In all, 88 percent of ClearVoice respondents charged per word at least occasionally. Of those that did: 

  • 25% of those who charged $0.10 per word or below were beginners. 
  • 25% of respondents charged between $0.76 and $1.00 per word.
  • More than half of experts said that they charge at least $1.00 per word. 

Charging per word is smart for a number of reasons. First, it means that when you start to work more efficiently, you end up earning more per project. It also frees you from the constraints of having to document your work hours and instead ties your compensation directly to your performance.

Payment by the project

Some clients pay writers not by the word or by the hour, but by the project. This is common for projects like website landing pages, pay-per-click ads, and email campaigns, in which the profitability of the final product determines the content’s value.

SEO coaching and strategy development, for example, can earn a copywriter up to $500 an hour. Writing an SEO-optimized website can net between $1,500 and $3,500 for five to six pages.

A full pay-per-click campaign can run up to $2,500 for up to 10 ads, a landing and welcome page, and a welcome email, plus campaign management fees. A single sales email can run $250 to $2,000, but a newsletter usually caps out at $750

The same holds for websites, the most lucrative pages are those related to sales and lead conversion. A subscription page can bring in $450 to $4,500, whereas an information page usually nets no more than $750.   

Why does sales copy make so much more?

Many writers confuse content writing and copywriting, but knowing the difference is key to optimizing your income. Copywriting is defined as the creation of promotional text. That includes everything from emails and catalogs to the slogans you see on highway billboards. 

Compared to freelancers in general, many of whom write content which is not directly sales focused, copywriters are higher earners. A 2016 survey from Copyhackers showed that in 2017, 73 percent of survey respondents earned between $50 and $149 per hour or at least $1,000 per project.   

CopyHackers' Hourly Rate Survey

Copywriting brings in so much because it is sales-focused. When a company’s revenue is directly tied to the writer’s results, the company will naturally be willing to pay more for great results. The cream rises to the top of the writer pile and can earn $100,000 a year or even upwards of $200,000.  

Of course, that’s annual salary, which is a whole different ball game.

Copywriting vs content writing: Thinking annually

Copyhackers reported that in the copywriting world, less than 50 percent of professionals earned $50,000 or more, but that number had been up from prior years. More recent data from Glassdoor suggests an additional increase, placing the average yearly pay at $60,296. 

That’s higher than Glassdoor’s quoted average of $42,120 per year for freelance writers in general, but it isn’t higher than ZipRecruiter’s annual salary average of $63,830 per year.

ZipRecruiter’s range is broader, too. Glassdoor’s overall range runs from a low of $20,000 to a high of $100,000, but ZipRecruiter sees freelancers making $11,000 to $401,500. Its data suggests that most writers make between $36,000 and $72,000, which is still a pretty broad range. 

It’s hard to be specific about annual salaries because, as we have seen, some freelancers do this part-time and even as a hobby while others are full-time professionals. Also, the best freelancers charge high rates that the big publications and companies can afford, while newbies often work for a few cents a word and are hired by companies that place a lower premium on quality.

Fantastic pay and where to find it

Where to find that fantastic pay?

Freelancing can be hard to break into. Many newbies work for what we freelancers tend to call “content mills.” These companies provide low-cost content to clients and often compensate their writers with even lower rates (if you’re looking for some of the best content mills to work for, we’ve written about that here).   

A writer’s next step is often what’s known as a “bid site,” the most well-known of which is Upwork. These kinds of sites are usually a client’s market because the client posts the job, accepts bids, and then selects a writer at his or her own discretion. Often, they choose the lowest bids. That’s part of why the average, as reported on Glassdoor, is just $17 to $22 per hour. 

Because content mills pay so poorly, and because the low pay makes turnover high, content mill work is usually pretty easy to get as a freelance writer. It can be a good way to cut your teeth, but you need to look elsewhere if you want to actually make a living.     

Where are the big-time payouts?

That’s the question that freelancers spend many of their unbillable hours trying to answer. Most writers and coaches seem to agree that to get paid the best rates, you have to send pitches. How to do that well, and which clients to pitch, is a topic that every writer’s publication has touched on at one point or another.
There are many free newsletters that you can sign up to receive that send out names and contact information for freelance writer jobs. Freedom with Writing and Make a Living Writing are two popular options. 

Of course, to land those high-paying jobs, you have to prove your worth. Very few people are earning top rates right out of the gate unless they have a strong portfolio and niche subject matter expertise on a lucrative topic.

Am I on track?

Naturally you want to end up with well-paying gigs and a stable clientele, but it can be discouraging to compare yourself to that if you’re just starting out. To give you a more realistic idea of what you should be earning, here are some hypothetical peers that represent a variety of career stages. 

Content-Mill Clara, the raw beginner is just out of college, first month freelancing. She’s getting her feet wet and in the process earning about 5 cents per word. It takes her an hour to write a 250-word article, so she’s bringing in about $12.50 an hour.

Lowball Louie, the relative newbie has left content mills behind but is still inexperienced. He’s now claiming jobs on bid sites at the low end of the scale. He’s charging 10 cents per word and bringing in about $20 per hour. 

Mid-Career Maeve has seven years of freelancing under her belt, and she’s ready to charge rates that reflect her experience. She’s just upped her per-word rate to 40 cents a word and her hourly rate is now $60 per hour. 

Expert Elaine has been a freelancer for 20 years. Elaine knows that her experience is valuable to her clients. She charges $1.25+ per word and $150+ an hour, depending on the amount of research involved in a project. 

(If you’ve noticed that the more senior writers are all women, that reflects the current state of the industry. Unlike many other professions, it’s not only a female-heavy field, but its women tend to charge more than men!) 

Finding your freelance rate

The Take-Away – Finding Your Rate

You might have to start on a content mill or bid site to pay your dues. But as soon as you’re in a position to set your own rates, look at how much others at your career stage are making, based on what projects they’re taking on. Use this list as a starting point and remember that you’ll be charging less if you’re just starting out. 

Think within that range, but also calculate how much you need to make per hour to live comfortably. Then add 25 percent on top of that, since you’ll be paying about that much to cover all of your own benefits and self-employment taxes. 

Then add in another 10 percent for things like home office expenses. Traditionally, employers pay for electricity, gas, and printer ink. You’re paying all of that yourself. 

Now you have an hourly rate that you can quote to publications and companies that want to pay by the hour. Many if not most will charge by the word, so figure out how many words you write per hour. The best way to do this is to record your productivity for a few days.

Remember, some projects are more time-intensive than others. You might want to record your output for a heavy-effort piece and a light-effort piece, so you know how much more to charge if there are higher expectations like extensive research or multiple interviews.

And no matter where you are in your career, remember that you’re the first one who has to know what you’re worth. Ask for what you deserve and do it confidently because as a freelance writer, your livelihood depends on it.