One of the questions that a lot of new freelancers ask me is, “How do I figure out how many words I can write?” Several freelancing contracts will address the concept of “word count,” because it’s easier to pay rates by the word than by the project. From a business standpoint, you might often hear authors, freelancers and editors setting rates based on “cents per word.” A publisher might offer anything from 1/2 a cent plus royalties to 6 cents a word on the high end.
Before the contract is signed, there might be a period of negotiation for when the project is due. Here’s where things can get pretty sticky, especially if you have a day job. Many freelancing contracts are 20,000 words. While this may seem like a daunting figure, 20k words is equivalent to one-fifth of a novel or 40 pages in MS Word.
One page in a typical word processing software program is equivalent to 500 words. The easiest way to estimate what you can write is to do two timed tests. The first test would be to pick a topic you feel you know everything about and write one page. When you’re satisfied with your draft, check the time. Now you have an ideal estimate for writing 500 words that you can use as a foundation for your assignments.
The second test would be based on the other extreme; choose a subject you know absolutely nothing about. The goal of this test is to include the time it takes to research your topic. For example, say you were going to write a one-page article about free MMORPGs. If you were doing your research online to gather links, calculate how much time it takes for you to review sites like Kingdom of Loathing, Game Ogre’s List of MMORPGs, or the Free MMORPG list. Then, write your one-page article as you normally would and determine how much effort it took you. This combined time turns into the upper end of your word count range, and will help guide you for those assignments you’re not 100% sure how to budget your time on.
Tying Word Count to Work
Remember, that the keys to estimating word count is really three-fold. One, it serves as a negotiating tool for you to determine how much you’d like to get paid. Two, it helps you manage your time better and three, it creates a layer of professionalism that you will need to be successful.
Some freelance writers, like Marc A Vezina are forthcoming about what they can and cannot do. Others, like myself, prefer to keep some of that information off-screen. However you choose to bring your word count estimate to market, remember that the more realistic you are, the better off you’ll be in the long run.