Setting Rates or How Much Do You Charge?

When I was first starting out as a technical editor, one of my biggest concerns was how much to charge. The idea of setting a rate for my work was exciting and frightening at the same time.

I had no idea where to begin. I’d heard that technical writers earned more than technical editors, but knowing that didn’t help me figure out what to charge for my services. How much was more?

Deciding to be proactive about setting my rates, I picked up the phone and called three technical writers I knew. They referred me to some editors they knew.

The editors were very helpful, although a few of them refused to share rate information. Those who were willing to share rate information also shared some tips about how to present rates to clients. I’ll cover that in an upcoming post.

I learned that rates for technical editors covered a broad range—from $15 to $65 or more per hour, depending on your knowledge, skill, and experience (length of time working as a technical editor).

After talking with two of the technical writers I knew who each had almost 20 years of experience and were mentoring me, I decided to charge $20 per hour. They thought I was experienced enough to charge $25, but I was nervous, so I started lower. Within six months, I raised my hourly rate to $25 because I realized they were right. A year later, thanks to one of my mentors, I raised my hourly rate to $35.

In my next post, I’ll explain how that happened and in a future post, I’ll talk about how to set your rate.

Why Choose Technical Writing?

When I was 12 years old, I discovered Writers Digest magazine. It was the most fascinating thing I’d ever read and I was a voracious reader. I wondered why school wasn’t nearly as interesting as publishing and I devoured every issue from that point forward.

By the time I started working at InfoWorld, a microcomputer magazine in Silicon Valley, I knew everything there was to know about writing and publishing fiction, how the book publishing industry worked, and how much money fiction writers could earn.

Yet, in spite of studying the publishing industry for more than 10 years, nothing I had studied could have prepared me for the differences between fiction publishing and technical writing and magazine publishing. They were the same, yet they were worlds apart.

One of the main differences was that InfoWorld was a weekly magazine. That meant that we had weekly deadlines. So we didn’t have time to do multiple rewrites, over the course of a year or more, as book writers sometimes did. I’m saying “did” because today some books are written in a matter of days and published online almost immediately. Things certainly have changed.

I found working on a weekly publication very rewarding because we saw the results of our efforts in only seven days. Every week we had a brand new issue of the magazine in our hands. Whereas, in book publishing, it sometimes took a year or more to see your finished work. By that time, you’d forgotten the heartache, hard work, and effort it had taken to complete the book because you were working on several other books.

But I digress. Back to why to choose technical writing:

Speed is at the top of the list. If you’re an instant-gratification-type-of-writer, many technical magazines are published weekly or monthly. If you write computer user guides, many companies update their products every 12 months and they often want these guides written within 3 to 6 months. Marketing collateral has even shorter lead times.

Boredom is not much of a factor with technical writing (unless technology bores you) because turnaround times are generally fast.

Income is generally higher, much higher, in technical publishing than in other publishing arenas because of the demand and more specialized knowledge that’s required.

Cutting Edge technology is kind of addictive. If you like knowing what’s going on behind the scenes, high-tech is the place to be, although you have to be good at keeping secrets because you only get to know about the new products after you sign a non-disclosure agreement.

These are a few reasons technical writers and editors enjoy working in high tech. What are some of your reasons?


Technical Writing Is Not for Everyone

Technical writing and editing are not for everyone. In fact, the majority of technical writers I’ve worked with over the years either fell into technical writing or wanted to write fiction. Let’s face it, technical writing is boring, dry, and uninspiring, unless you’re crazy about technology and how it works. Then technical writing is interesting, even fascinating, because you’re often writing about products that are new and about to change people’s lives.

I was one of those writers who fell into working in the high-tech arena. You might say I entered it with more than a little trepidation, even kicking and screaming a bit. I credit the legendary Stewart Alsop II and Apple’s 128k Macintosh computer, with helping me overcome my aversion to computers.

Stewart and I started working at InfoWorld magazine within a day of each other. Stewart was our new editor-in-chief. I was an editorial assistant and knew nothing about computers, except how to make them crash spectacularly (although I didn’t understand just how I managed to do that).

Stewart met with each member of the editorial staff in an effort to get to know his new team. When I confessed my love of publishing, along with my deep reservations that I may have chosen the wrong magazine to work for because of my strong aversion to computers, Stewart encouraged me to give InfoWorld a chance. He told me that as long as I knew how to write, he could teach me about computers. He asked me to give it six months. Although I had serious reservations, Stewart was very certain, so I agreed.

In only three months I was explaining computers to anyone who would listen, thanks to Stewart, his faith in me, and the 128k Mac, Apple’s first Macintosh computer.

When InfoWorld’s editorial staff received a 128k Macintosh to review prior to its release, so we could write about it in time for Apple’s big announcement, I fell in love with it immediately. I’d finally met a computer I could understand. A computer that spoke my language. And it didn’t crash.

A year and a half later, I opened my own editorial consulting business working as a technical writer and editor at such high-tech companies as Apple, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi America, and many more—and I never looked back because technology was finally interesting to me.

5 Things Editors Should Never Say to Writers

Some editors work closely with the writers they hire. Others only speak with their writers when they absolutely have to. And still other editors evolve into a mentorship relationship with some of their writers. No matter what type of relationship an editor has with the writers who work for her, there are some things an editor should never say to a writer:

1. Never Talk About Another Writer’s Faults.
It’s not ever right to talk about another person’s faults. It’s unprofessional and the writer you’re confiding in may begin to wonder what you’re saying about him behind his back.

2. Never Promise a Writer an Assignment in Advance.
Never, ever, ever promise a writer an assignment in advance because it if doesn’t come through, your name will be mud with that writer and with every writers he knows.

3. Never Say You’ll Let a Writer Review Her Work Prior to Publication.
Most editors already know this, however, sometimes they get chummy with their favorite writers and try to do favors for them. Most publications have an unwritten rule that writers, especially freelance writers do not get to review their articles prior to publication. They have this rule for a reason. Adhere to it.

4. Never say, “Sure, I’ll Give You a Raise.”
Only promise a raise if you are certain that the company is going to back you on this.

5. Do Not EVER Promise a Writer a Specific Amount of Work Every Month.
Not only will the writer believe what you say, he will depend on that income and be very disappointed if he doesn’t receive the assignments and the income.

A Cure for Writer’s Block—Part 4

I often find I do my best writing when I’m speaking. It’s easier to tell a story verbally than to write it. There’s something about having an audience that makes the words just flow. My listener laughs at all the right places and I’m infused with enthusiasm.

So when I run into a bout of writer’s block and can’t get the words to flow, I tell my story aloud.

The catch is that there’s not always someone nearby to whom I can tell my story. Fortunately, I use a Macintosh computer, so I have a built-in recording studio in the form of GarageBand. When I’m traveling, I use my phone’s voice memo feature. But my favorite mode of breaking through writer’s block is to tell my story out loud.

I’d love to hear how you eliminate writer’s block.

5 Things Writers Should Not Ever Say to Editors

I’ve sat on both sides of the editorial desk and I’ve learned a few things from being both a writer and an editor.

Writing, even freelance writing, bears similarities to regular jobs. Writers often develop business relationships and even friendships with the editors they regularly work with. However, there are some things writers should not ever tell editors, not even editors they consider friends.

Here are 5 things writers should not ever tell editors:

1. I Hate Writing About This Topic.
Editors appreciate writers who are enthusiastic about their assignments. Although editors know that the most successful articles are written by writers who are passionate about a topic, sometimes they just don’t have a choice. They have to assign a topic to someone who probably is not be interested in it. That’s when they ask one of their trusted writers to help them out. If the writer tells the editor that they dislike or hate the topic they’re going to write about, when the editor needs to assign future articles, the writer may only receive assignments that are in his specialty area.

2. I’m Only Writing for You Until I Get Published Elsewhere.
No one appreciates knowing that they are second choice. Editors know that every writer is looking for their next writing gig. However, only those who are indifferent to others’ feelings would say so out loud. Make each editor you work with feel like they’re the best one.

3. I Only Write Because I Have To.
Editors love what they do and they know that the best writers are those who love to write. They also know that the best writing comes from writers who are passionate about writing and about what they write. So do your best to be enthusiastic, even if you’re only pretending. Who knows? You may talk yourself into liking writing.

4. I Earn More Money Than You Do.
Editors already know this. They don’t appreciate you reminding them. And although technical editors earn more than most editors, they still earn less than technical writers. In spite of the fact that editors already know that writers earn more than they do, they prefer to work with you as part of a team and not think about how much more you earn.

5. Don’t Change What I Write Without Letting Me See It First.
Editors work with many writers. They do not have time, nor do most publications permit their editors to provide writers with a copy of their articles prior to publication.


10 Writing Warm-Up Exercises

I’ve written before about how writers need to treat writing the same way they treat exercise. Do it regularly—everyday, if possible, because the creative muse easily grows rusty and stiff when it’s not used.

To that end, I’ve developed a series of Writing Warm-Up Exercises you can do to get your creative muse revved up.

If you were following me on Twitter (@writersinkwell) several months ago, you have probably done these 10 Writing Warm-Up Exercises. Try them again because this time you’ll write even more. You should know, however, that these 10 writing exercises are only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. I have developed more than 100 of them over the years. Someday, I’ll make all 100 available. Until then . . .

I’ve collected the 10 Writing Warm-Up Exercises I posted on Twitter and now you can read them here in one place. Print this post and keep it on your desk to help you get warmed up each morning.

These exercises work best if you can do them at the same time each day. However, if you can’t, just doing them daily still helps get the creative muse working more easily.

Writing Warm-Up Exercise Guidelines

Remember to set a timer, so your thoughts and your writing are not interrupted by you having to look at the clock.

1. For each exercise, write in what I call ‘Stream of Consciousness’ and do not edit anything. Just write.

2. Select an object on your desk & write about it for 2 minutes.

3. Look out the window and write for 3 minutes about the first thing you see.

4. Write for 5 minutes about the last book you read.

5. Write for 5 minutes about your favorite recurring daydream.

6. Write for 5 minutes about planting a summer garden even if you’ve never done it

7. Write in the first person for 7 minutes about what it’s like to be a pirate.

8. Write 7 minutes about yourself from your pet’s perspective.

9. Write 8 minutes in the 1st person about your life in an 1865 log cabin.

10. Write for 9 minutes about your first day of school.

Write 10 minutes about when you realized you wanted to be a writer.

If you want to be a good writer, whatever you do, don’t stop writing!


Laughter Feeds the Writing Muse

It’s one o’clock in the morning and I really should get to sleep. Yet, I can’t stop smiling and I’m still laughing. I have to write. Now. Why?

I just finished a rather long telephone conversation with a technical support person. I can honestly say that it was the most enjoyable tech support call I’ve ever experienced. And when you have something to write about, it’s best to write while the experience is fresh in your mind.

What does this have to do with writing? Nothing. And everything.

Nothing because I initiated the call due to a problem using one of my devices. Everything because after the man helped me figure out how to correct the problem, I asked him how I could use another feature.

The man who answered my call for help had a lovely British accent, or so I thought—it turns out he’s from Capetown, South Africa—not British at all. And he had a sense of humor, which is much needed by any tech support person who helps me because by the time I contact tech support, I usually am so lost that I’m not very coherent. To each of his questions, I could only answer, “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” laughing giddily at myself. He took my answers in stride and even laughed along with me. I was impressed.

He gently and patiently guided me through the steps to activate the feature I wanted to use, encouraging me at every step by saying, “Brilliant,” to my comments in such a way that by the end of our conversation I actually felt brilliant.

I am grateful for that wonderful conversation with a brilliant man halfway around the world in Capetown, South Africa—Thank you!

You made my day!

Why Is Writing Difficult for Writers?

“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann

Writing is often more difficult for writers than it is for other people because writers, by nature, are perfectionists. We craft our words to put our thoughts and feelings on display for the entire world to see. We bare our souls and that makes us feel vulnerable, so we want to make sure that what we write is perfect, although it rarely is.

Perfection, of course, is an elusive concept. The printers who used Gutenberg’s first printing press were very aware of that. And, although the works they printed often were riddled with typos, they still would deliberately misspell one word in each book they printed because, as they said, “Only God is Perfect.”

Whenever I find myself laboring obsessively over something I am writing, I find it helpful to recall this story about the first printers. It helps me remember to relax and just write. It comforts me to remember that I am only human and that my job is to put those words down in a legible format, so that a good editor can polish my words and make them shine.

The Writing Life, Part 5—Finding Clients

In The Writing Life, Part 4—Finding Clients, I covered how to find clients using cold calls, warm calls, and serendipity. In this post, I’ll cover how to find them using public speaking gigs, published articles, and networking. This is the 5th and final post in a 5-part series.

Although there are probably as many ways to find clients as there are writers, these next three are quite popular with writers who are outgoing and find it easy to talk with people:

Public Speaking Gigs
Make it a point to accept and even look for opportunities to speak in public. Local writer’s groups, seminars, conferences, chambers of commerce, and other organizations often need speakers for their meetings.

These are opportunities that provide you with exposure to a wide variety of people in many walks of life. You never know when you may get a new client just because they or someone they know heard you speak. At the very least, you may find fodder for your next article or book.

Published Articles
I’ve gotten several clients as a result of articles and columns I’ve written that were published in newspapers and magazines. Oftentimes a person reading an article may be looking for someone with your specific expertise or they may know someone who is. The enterprising readers will call the publication or contact you directly if the publication includes your contact information in your byline or bio.

Joining local groups and organizations may provide you with networking contacts in fields you are interested in working in. Now, I don’t mean, join an organization only with the intention of finding work.

I mean join an organization that you are interested in and participate in it as an active member. Other members will see you in action and appreciate your contributions. That type of networking is a soft-sell form of selling and usually results in the highest yields of client leads. Furthermore, it often results in potential clients approaching you, so there’s no selling on your part at all.

This is the final post in this 5-part series about The Writing Life. To read this series from the beginning, click here. I would love to hear your thoughts about life as a freelancer. What in this series helped you? What else do you want to know about freelancing? Please leave a comment here.