Hourly rate for copywriting – Why it’s better for clients

June 13, 2023 •
Photo of Dr Hook for feature image of copywriting hourly rate post

There’s an old Dr. Hook song that explains how to levitate. Here’s the crux:

“I want you to raise your right foot.

Alright, now raise your left foot.

No, no, no, no, don’t put your right foot back down!”

That’s how copywriting usually feels.

Copywriting is both creative and analytical. Often at the same time!

Just as levitating is the ability to raise your left foot without first putting your right foot back down, copywriting is the ability to be both creative and analytical at the same time.

Before I can get started on a job, I have to interview the client to extract as much useful information as possible. Then I have to process all that info, and structure it in a document that I can come back to, days, or even weeks later, and still understand.

This is all very analytical. Especially when it’s technical or otherwise complex subject matter (which most of my work is).

But at the very same time, I have to be creative. I have to play make-believe, and pretend I’m the reader, being exposed to all that info for the first time. This tells me what questions they’ll be asking, and what they’re likely to find confusing or overwhelming. (It’s critical that I do this immediately, while I still know very little about the subject matter. Because once I learn too much, it becomes much harder to see things from the reader’s perspective. Still possible, but harder and slower.)

And while I’m doing that, I also have to be creative in a different way. I have to leave the door open to spontaneous inspiration. For the profoundly simple, but generally elusive, light-bulb moments that tend to strike out of the blue and in between thoughts.

Then I have to write something. Anything. Sometimes it’s a headline, sometimes a call to action, sometimes an introduction… Sometimes it’s just a description of the lightbulb.

It doesn’t really matter what it is, so long as I make a start. It’s almost like a free association exercise.

And when I write, I have to let the words come; I can’t force them. Because the real magic happens when the words just flow out of my fingers, in a state called ‘creative dissociation’.

But writing’s not entirely creative, because even as I let myself float in the words and feelings (and lightbulbs), I still have to consciously tie it all back to the subject matter.

Plus, as an added bonus, my brain’s pretty structured. It wants to tell a story from start to finish. It wants to be logical.

And then, of course, I have to deal with any problems in my draft. When it doesn’t convey quite the right message, or it’s too wordy, or the structure’s wrong, or the voice is wrong, or one of a million other writery problems has occurred.

I usually try to write first, edit later, but sometimes the problem is so big it becomes a roadblock, and I have to fix it immediately. I couldn’t continue writing even if I wanted to.

When this happens, I need to focus on the problem, and think about grammar and punctuation and sentence length and rhythm and rhyme and reading age and learning models and communication paradigms.

Obviously that’s all decidedly analytical.

And that’s just the writing side of things. I also have to think about a whole bunch of (mostly) analytical stuff like UX and neuroscience and eye-tracking and SEO and content strategy and animations and design and photos and illustrations. Oh and the client’s legal department. You can never forget the client’s legal department!

It’s a very delicate balance

I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that I’ve never done anything that requires as much mental gymnastics as copywriting. Sometimes my creative and analytical sides can work together. Sometimes they need to work together. But sometimes they can’t even be allowed to know about each other.

It’s a delicate balancing act that’s required on every single job.

Fear upsets the balance

Now throw in some fear.

Watch the house of cards come tumbling down then! Nothing shatters a zen state faster than a good bit of fight or flight.

Why talk about fear now? Because working to fixed prices is always scary.

Fixed price means fear

What if the job takes me three times as long as I expected? Unless I work every night and weekend, my income’s going to be a lot less that month! How will I pay the mortgage?

When I work to fixed prices, that fear’s always on my mind, even though I almost never take longer than expected. So it’s much harder to maintain the delicate creative/analytical balance required to write great copy. Orders of magnitude harder.

Hourly rate means no fear, more speed

When I work hourly rates, on the other hand, that fear’s not there. Knowing the mortgage is covered, I can just do what my client’s paying me to do, and do it quickly.

But doesn’t this mean my client ends up paying more? Won’t I just take my sweet time, dragging out and gold-plating the job?

No. Because:

  • I want more work from you! If you’re not happy with me the first time, you’re hardly likely to come back.
  • I want your testimonial. I rely heavily on word of mouth to win new copywriting business, so your testimonial and good-will are priceless.
  • I almost always finish hourly rate jobs faster than expected, because I’m not distracted by fear. So you pay less than expected. (Whereas if I quote a fixed price, I have to quote based on the worst-case scenario, and you pay the fixed price, even if I finish faster than expected.)

What do you think?

I know copywriters and copywriting clients all have their own opinions and preferences when it comes to pricing. Do you prefer fixed price or hourly rate? Please comment below.

Feel free to comment...
comment avatar
Paul McDonald wrote on June 14th, 2023

It’s always the case, anybody giving fixed prices is going to make sure they are covered. Often leading to a higher price than for hourly rates.

comment avatar
Glenn Murray wrote on June 14th, 2023

Yep. Business 101.

comment avatar
Rose wrote on July 3rd, 2023

I'm all about the fixed price. But it's taken me YEARS to get it right. And I've only been able to do it by making many mistakes along the way (jobs taking longer or being quicker, as you discuss) and being really strict with using a time tracker so I get a realistic steer on pricing. I find doing this keeps it really fair for both me and the client. I also like that now I can say here's my price, it is what it is. It's removed so much haggling and back and forth negotiating. My question, if you're charging this way do you only bill at the end? So you don't do % up front and then % at project end? It's just one hit for the client?

comment avatar
Glenn Murray wrote on July 4th, 2023

Thanks for your comment, Rose! I agree that a fixed price has a nice element of certainty to it, for both writer and client. I spent years doing fixed prices too, and I still do them. So I'm pretty accurate most of the time. But these days, in particular, I'm getting more and more complex work, and it's getting harder to nail it down. Re your question about charging a % up-front: I do this for hourly/day rates for new clients, but for existing clients, I just invoice them afterwards. Some I just invoice monthly.

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