PB Note: Great guest post from freelance medical writer and author Laurie Lewis. I must confess, I have been less than rigorous in always keeping track of my time. But, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that getting a handle on exactly how your time gets split up between different project-related tasks could give you some extremely valuable insights. And she shares where those insights can lead (i.e., to higher fees, in some cases). Thanks Laurie! Enjoy.
When I began freelancing a lifetime ago, I used the most basic time-tracking method, simply noting when I began work for the day and when I ended. The best I could say about this practice was that it resulted in a logbook I could show the IRS, if I ever was (gasp!) audited. But to manage my fledgling business better, I wanted a different kind of record: a log that showed how I filled my day. So I started to log by task. More than two decades and many gray hairs later, I continue to keep task-based logs because they are so useful.
Suppose I’m beginning a new assignment. After discussing it with the client, I surf the web for a while and find a couple of good background resources. I spend an hour reading them and make a few notes. Break time! After a trip to the gym and a healthy lunch (not really, but I did say suppose), I get back to work.
More Googling, a few false leads. As I read the good material I’ve found, I realize I might want to take the assignment in a slightly different direction. I call the client to run the idea by him, but he’s not in so I leave a message and follow it up with an email. While waiting to hear back, I start to organize the paper. I see several gaps in my research, and I spend more time surfing and reading until I quit for the day.
My logbook shows that I worked from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a two-hour break. But my project log shows that I spent 2½ hours surfing, 2 hours doing background reading, 1 hour organizing my thoughts, and a half-hour communicating with the client. Four distinct tasks in a single day!
When you keep records like this every day for every project, you have a wealth of information about “what you do when you do what you do”—information you can use to manage your business better and earn more money. Here are a few personal anecdotes.
The client is always right, except when he isn’t
A client asked me to do a two-day job. I thought he was off base on the time it would take, as well as an appropriate fee. I checked old task logs for similar projects and confirmed that he hadn’t sized up the job accurately. I presented my case, listing all the tasks I’d have to do besides writing (research, develop tables, get quotes from experts, prepare a reference list—you know them as well as I do). Impressed, the client gave me a week to do the job and doubled the fee.
Why the 45-minute interview takes 3 hours
I might spend the whole day on interviews and talk to just two people. I often clock more time trying to reach interview subjects than I spend actually talking to them, and my log sheet notes the time-sapping activity with the entry “attempt to schedule interviews.” Post-interview tasks include going over notes, reviewing tapes, maybe transcribing. Logging these tasks separately gives me a good idea of where interview time goes.
From my task logs, I know to allow slightly more than an hour to transcribe a half-hour interview. I have to plan on as much time to edit my own work as to prepare the initial draft, more if I haven’t done all the research before I begin writing. Knowing my working pace has helped me juggle multiple clients. If I have a looming deadline and I’ve only finished the first draft when another client calls, I’ll ask for a distant due-date for the new work or reluctantly turn it down if a close deadline is set in stone.
The secret to successful project rates
I saved the best for last. When I calculate a project rate, I rely on logs from completed jobs. They remind me of the tasks I may have to do and the time each task might take. With many years of logs, I have enough information to anticipate three scenarios: the cream-puff job, the typical one (as if there were such a thing!), and the job from hell.
What kinds of work logs do you keep?
How do you use the information in your logs?
Do you prefer to log on paper or by computer?
If you use a computer, what software do you like?
Do you keep track of your hours when you work for a flat fee?
I got an email from a commercial writer recently voicing a common concern:
The one sticking point I keep running into is not knowing how many hours a project will take me to complete (and the obvious quoting struggle related to that). Do you know any resources where I can find that information? By trolling other writer’s sites, I can sometimes assume an average if they list their hourly fee along with project fees, but it’s not always consistent from writer to writer.
Project estimating. A common dilemma, no doubt. And a serviceable analogy is learning a sport like tennis. If you ever started taking tennis lessons when you knew very little about it to begin with, there seemed to be all these things you had to remember: foot placement, keeping your racket level, stepping into each shot, keeping your eye on the ball, following through completely, and about 10 more.
To a beginner, it all seemed overwhelming. How in the world am I supposed to remember all this, much less do them all well? But, if you stuck to it, it all became second nature, automatic.
Same thing here. You’re new at commercial writing. How can you expect to be an expert at it right out of the gate? It’s like a tennis novice wanting to know the “secret” to being to do all those things perfectly the first time he sets foot on the court. Just not realistic.
I DO touch on some nuts-n-bolts about this in The Well-Fed Writer (p. 173). Here’s the Cliff Notes version (and DO check out the passage for a more detailed version):
Break a job down into its component parts: research, background reading, travel, meetings, brainstorming (a.k.a. “concepting”), interviewing, writing, and editing (you won’t have all these in every job). Then assign a time figure (i.e., X hours) to each category. Then multiply the total number of hours calculated by your hourly rate to get a flat fee estimate (which can be a range that varies by 10 to 15 percent—e.g., $1,500–$1,700, $3,600–$4,100, etc.).
(NOTE: What should your hourly rate be? Arrive at that number based on your experience level, and by asking fellow writers in your market what they charge. Or by calling ad agencies and design firms, which routinely hire copywriters, and as such, will have a very current idea of what writers in their market charge. And while you’ve got these folks on the phone, ask what they look for in a writer they pay X$ an hour.)
Don’t know how much will be involved in each component part? ASK the client. You can’t know how many meetings until you ask (OR until you make your preference known for, ideally, one, which is all you should need). You can’t know how you’ll be gathering your source material until you ask. You can’t know if there will be any interviews, background reading, or research until you ask. No one expects you to be clairvoyant.
Furthermore, no two brochures, direct mail campaigns, newsletters, case studies or web sites (or any other project) are the same. Take a marketing brochure. How many pages? What format? How will you get your source material? Every one is different. And questions are the only way to get accurate parameters.
Bottom line, learning accurate estimating is a function of both asking questions and gaining experience. Questions will only take you so far. Sure, you can break down a project into its component parts, and figure out exactly what will be involved, but assigning an amount of time to those individual components takes practice.
Just know you’ll probably get it wrong in the beginning—shooting too high or low, and hence, losing a bid, or eating hours on a project you do land. But, in time, with more and more projects under your belt, you’ll get good at it.
And a note about posting rates or a price list on one’s site. Neither ever struck me as a particularly good idea (but that’s just me). Posting an hourly rate—especially if it’s reasonably high—can scare off clients, who don’t have a sense of how many hours a given project will take, and may imagine the worst-case scenario.
Sure, you want to run off the wrong kinds of clients (the ones who want that brochure for $150), but listing your hourly rates can give pause to legitimate prospects as well. And here’s the clincher: good clients don’t expect to see rates posted.
Ditto for price lists. The kinds of clients we want to work with know that every project is different so posting a list of prices for different project types isn’t necessary. And as I note in TWFW, because you know that every project is different, you’d have to provide such a wide range of prices (e.g., “Marketing brochures: $500-$2500”) as to render that list pretty meaningless. I suggest skipping it.
What estimating advice/tips can you offer to those starting out?
What’s the process you follow to accurately quote a project?
Are questions as crucial in your estimating process as they are in mine?
Do you include a price list or hourly rate on your site? If not, is your thinking similar to mine? If you do, how has it worked out?
Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.