How to write

How to budget for, plan and measure writing output

There's a great article in Slate today about the growing trend to measure journalists' productivity by the number of column inches they produce. While that sounds reasonable, in fact, for most kinds of writing it is a bad idea. It got me thinking about how to budget for, plan and measure writing output.

  • Avoid perverse incentives. Don't base your incentives on word count or copy inches alone. Why? Well, a lobotomised monkey could bash out 1,000 words in a few minutes. I know that at full tilt I can type about 1,000 words in half an hour or so. But are they the best possible words in the best possible order? No. Kinsley's kicker pretty much says it all: "So, that's 1,003 words. Can I go to lunch now?"
  • Expect good work. (Encourage excellence.) If Woodward and Bernstein had been under pressure to file copy - any copy - to meet productivity goals, they wouldn't have broken the Watergate story and they wouldn't have exposed Richard Nixon. And it is hard to imagine that Donald Murray (guru of mine and author of Writing to Deadline) would have got a Pulitzer if his editors had only looked at quantity not quality.
  • Allow for research and editing. My rule of thumb is "One-half, one-third, one-sixth". Approximately half my time is spent researching and interviewing. One third is spent proof-reading and editing. Only a sixth is spent actually writing. This is a guideline that I used when I wrote computer games (designing, testing, coding).
  • Don't do free pitching. Yesterday I was asked to do some free pitching (i.e. free work in the hope of winning a larger assignment). See my previous rant: If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. I said that anyone who agreed to do two days free work with no notice is either woefully underemployed (i.e. not good enough) or willing to prioritise new business over paid work from existing clients (i.e. heedless of deadlines and client trust).
  • Agree a specification, a word count and a budget. See Better briefs for writers. In my experience, without a clear brief, proper research and a professional relationship on both sides, you'll get bad copy. And bad copy costs big money.
  • Don't budget by daily rate. I can quote you any daily rate you like but unless you come round to my house and watch me work, you have no idea how long it takes me to finish your job. The daily rate is a convenient white lie and agencies seem to quote the daily rate their clients want to hear regardless of how long the work actually takes or the bill at the end of the day.
  • Use a transparent pricing mechanism. I generally work on fixed price against a detailed specification. I have a per-word rate that encompasses research, writing and editing. But because the word count and rate per word are fixed, my customers get a very clear, easily-budgeted price. This works very well for me because my regular customers can easily plan and budget my projects without having to come to me each time for a quote and without any awkward haggling.
  • Learn to work well with writers. A little understanding goes a long way. See my article: Working with writers. It also helps to understand what causes good writers to produce bad copy.

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Matthew Stibbe

Matthew is founder and CEO of Articulate Marketing.