The Writer’s Guide to Negotiating Like a Pro

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It’s only Tuesday? Why do I feel like last week just blended into this week? I had a weekend — a good one — but I came to the desk yesterday with a list that seems to grow instead of shrink.

In a recent client negotiation, I realized just how far I’ve come. Once upon a time, I might have taken an offer that paid much less than I’m used to just to secure the job. These days, that’s not happening.

Part of that is because better clients have come along and have proven my rate is fair by hiring me for multiple projects. That in itself gives you enough confidence to shoot down low offers.

But what if you haven’t proven yourself yet, or what if the offer in front of you comes when you’re two weeks without any clear sign of another gig? How do you hold firm to your rates? Should you?

Yes and no. You should hold yourself to your rates — in other words, you shouldn’t immediately take a huge cut in your hourly rate just because the client says so. You should own your rate in your head and in your resolve.

Only then can you negotiate. And yes, you should negotiate when you and a client aren’t on the same page.

That doesn’t mean you, charging $100 an hour, should waste your time trying to get a client to pay more when they’re starting out at $20 an hour. Sometimes the gap is just too vast and someone is going to end up giving up too much (usually the writer). But if the client’s price is within shouting distance of yours, just a little negotiating could net an agreement.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when negotiating:

Know your bottom line. It would be great if clients would all pay our rate without question. However, clients and companies have budgets, just like we do. So it helps if we keep a minimum rate in mind. Ask yourself how low you can go. Also, try to define what you would do for that price, and if there are other projects, such as blog posts, where you’d accept a low flat fee because the job is much easier. If you know it all in advance, it will be easier to come to an agreement later. And it helps you vet out the clients whose projects just will not fit your needs.

Own your BATNA. BATNA is your Best Alternative to Negotiating an Agreement. For writers, this could be simple. If you and the client can’t come to terms, you simply don’t work together. However, easier said than done, isn’t it? But if you mentally prepare yourself prior to any client meeting or negotiation, you’ll be in a better position to walk away from jobs that aren’t for you.

Ask about budget. Instead of waiting for the client to bring up money, ask. I’ve found that asking a client “What kind of budget are you working with?” is an easy opening to the topic of price. Plus, instead of trying to guess what price to quote, you’ll see just how much they can pay. They may quote lower, but that’s part of the negotiating process.

Create a collaboration. Negotiations can be much more than just getting down to the money. It’s a great time to build trust, which can help negotiations go smoothly. Use terms like “Let’s” and “we” to create the idea of a collaborative effort. “How can we work best together?” or “Let’s see what you need and how I can help.” In fact, I find that the word “help” is a great trigger word. If your client comes to you with a rate that’s far off your usual rate. “I want so much to work together on this, and I think we can find a happy middle area. I need your help. Let’s put our heads together…” Anything that creates a bridge between you can make the difference.

Counter with kindness. Instead of saying “You’re out of your mind” or “you’re joking, right?” try injecting some cordiality into your response. “Oh, I see. Unfortunately, I charge a good deal more for that sort of thing.” Or “Well, it’s quite low compared to my usual fee, but let’s see if there’s something we can do to make it affordable to us both.” Then come up with some alternatives, including handling a portion of the project instead of the whole thing.

When in doubt, give yourself time. It’s okay to tell a client you’ll get back to them with a rate once you’ve gone over the project parameters and done some math. Don’t assume because you’re on the phone with the client asking that you have to answer immediately.

Say no without emotion. I don’t mean be cold, but certainly don’t get flustered and upset. Even if you run into a client who’s pushy and rude about your rate, your response should reflect the facts, not the nastiness. “I’m seeing we’re probably not going to reach a common ground. But thank you for getting in touch, and good luck with the project.”

Writers, where in the negotiating process do you have the most issue? Success?
Have you had a negotiation go really well? What did you do that worked especially well?
How have you handled the negotiations that didn’t go so well?

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  • Diane August 25, 2015 at 11:04 am

    My negotiations usually go very well and if they start to haggle downwards too much, they get the "thank you for thinking of me and good luck with the project". My (now) husband worked out my minimum hourly rate, including a profit margin. He worked out 3, actually – the bare, break even minimum; a 15% profit margin; and a %35 profit margin. I went down the middle. I never, ever quote the bare minimum any more and I usually quote the middle. But if I don't need the work, if I'm too busy but not too busy to say so, I'll go for the top end. If they're happy to pay that – and I find many are – then I go with that.

  • Cathy Miller August 25, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    Diane, I use a very similar approach. It's a hold-over from a class I took on negotiating a looong time ago.

    I work on a project basis. I created a spreadsheet that calculates a total project fee based on my preferred rate and on my bottom line rate. Even my bottom line has built-in profit. I know anything in between is also acceptable.

    Generally, there is enough of a range that the client also finds it acceptable. The other approach I often take is offering a couple of options. The lower-priced one offers fewer services but may still fit the needs of the client.

    Lori, you are right. It takes a bit to get to the point where you are comfortable walking away. Funny as it may sound, that mindset brings me more peace. 😉

  • Paula Hendrickson August 25, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    I needed to see this today, Lori. Last week I applied to a job listing seeking writers who are knitters. That's me. (And Nikki!) The don't pay well at all – $11/hour, and 10 hours per week – but I want to write a bit more about knitting because I want to start selling a few of my patterns soon, and I thought I could make $110 extra dollars per week by carving out some time in the evenings or weekends.

    I wasn't surprised to hear back. They want pattern descriptions written, or re-written with more flare. Fine. Then the kicker: The guy said most of their writers are able to knock out a 75-word pattern description in about 6 minutes. Even I can to that math. They're offering $11 for 825 words. I just brought out the calculator for this part…. that's .01333333 cents per word. Thanks, but no thanks.

    I've been trying to think of a polite way of rejecting the offer.

  • Lori Widmer August 25, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    Diane, wonderful to see you here! I like what the poet did — good idea for us all!

    Cathy, another excellent way to handle it. And that mindset does bring more peace — I agree.

    Wow, Paula. They actually call that an offer? I wouldn't be too concerned about being polite to people who are devaluing your skills from the start. Moreover, I don't think I'd even waste a response on them.