Here’s a starting question when setting out to write something for money: how much do you need? That is, how much do you need from this piece of writing to pay your bills for the time it will take you to write it, and maybe give you a little extra to cover the days when you don’t have a project going?
The way to start is by figuring how much you spend every month. Divide by twenty, (assuming you don’t work weekends) and you know how much you need every work day. Then you know how many days you can work on a given piece of writing. (Most of us have no idea how much we spend every month; I address solving that problem here.)
Once you know how much you need a piece of writing to pay you, it becomes clear why the old dollars-per-word formula is a trap. Sure, a magazine that pays three dollars a word is, in theory, better than one that pays a dollar a word. But that’s not the most important calculation. What’s really crucial is the total dollar value of the assignment. Writing short can be harder than writing long — cramming complicated ideas and hard-won anecdotes into a thousand words can take longer than spooling out a leisurely three thousand. So regardless of how much a magazine says they pay per word, ask how many words they want. I’ve made easier and quicker money writing five thousand words for the Los Angeles Times Magazine at a dollar a word than writing seven hundred and fifty words, at $3.40 a word, for Rolling Stone.
You really need to be hard-headed about this. If you need $6,000 a month to live, that’s $300 a work day. Say a magazine wants to pay you $1,500 for a piece — fifteen hundred words at a dollar a word or three hundred words at $5 a word, it doesn’t matter. Right away you know, up front, that you can afford to work one week, Monday through Friday, on the story. Work a week and a day, and already you’re losing money. That’s how you go broke, and end up finding yourself in another line of work.
Remember too that if you spend all five work days on the research and the writing, you’re not leaving any time for the inevitable rewrite or rewrites. So if I got such an assignment, I’d do all the research and writing in four days and save one for post-editorial work.
And if, when the editor assigned the story, I thought I couldn’t do a proper job in four days (because remember: your story has to be good), I’d tell her so. And if I couldn’t get more money out her, I’d think hard about declining the assignment. To take an assignment for too little money means either doing a mediocre job or losing money, and either path leads straight to a day job.
It’s been argued that for writers starting out, there is value in clips — that it’s worth taking a money-losing assignment in order to build up a portfolio. That is a complicated question I take up here.