Writers Worth: Favors, Barters, and Your Writing Worth

If you know Nancy Oliver, you love Nancy Oliver.

I met Nancy about four years ago through LinkedIn. We got to talking and pretty soon, we were sharing funny, wicked little emails that only the two of us would understand.

We became fast friends. And whenever an email comes in from her, I stop what I’m doing and read it immediately. She’s that kind of fun.

She’s also been around the freelance writing block a few times. Nancy is one of those people who can spot bullshit miles out without a telescope. In this post, she uncovers the mother lode of bullshit, and her shovel has some pretty sharp edges.

Favors, Barters, and Worth

by Nancy Oliver

Your worth – whether it is per hour or per drop of
writing/editing sweat – can be calculated. It depends, however, on where you get
your evaluation. To your parents or to your partner, you are beyond price
(let’s hope). In the real world, however, you should always have a fixed
minimum in your mind. This number will come in handy when you hear from the
friend who has written “a little something” she wants you to “just look over.”
Sometimes, you may be asked for a straight-up
favor. A good friend had just begun one of those accelerated master’s degree
programs. She’d had her first paper bounced back to her with the instructor
commenting that her footnotes/endnotes were not in the proper American
Psychological Association format and to redo the paper with the 55 of them
corrected. I got a text: “Would you look over/format all of my papers in the
APA style for me for the rest of my time in this program?” Uh, no. Although my
stand is considered controversial on many a LinkedIn forum, I do not believe in
editing (in whatever capacity) any document where the writer is receiving a
grade for the work.
Sometimes, you will be asked if you are willing to
barter. These questions always present something amusing … and seldom in my
favor. It is sad to hear the offer, and sometimes I spend longer than I should
dwelling on the ridiculousness of it. There is a part of me that wants to say
to them – “How insulting!” and “Are you kidding me?” – and then run, run, run
True story: An acquaintance I had not heard from
since 1979 found me on LinkedIn. When last we chatted, I was a college senior and
she was a secretary in the Journalism Department who was taking classes at
night. We had limited associations then (did we ever even socialize together,
though?), but “something compelled” her (her words) to “reach out” to me. It
didn’t take long for her to begin the barter banter.
“I have a project – well, two actually – that I
would like to get your thoughts on. One is non-fiction; the second is a romance
novel I’ve written. You know I’ve become a nutritionist, right?”
“No, I was unaware. Good for you!”
“And I’ve had so many nice comments from my
private clients. They’ve been impressed with how much I’ve helped them. So, I’ve
written a book on nutrition. It’s a bit under 40,000 words. I know it’s a mess
grammatically. Would you be willing to do whatever it needs to be polished up
for publication? Here’s what I’m offering you. My usual hourly consultation fee
is $90 an hour, and I am willing to offer you 30 minutes of free nutrition counseling
in exchange for your editing. We can talk about the novel later, I think. If
you don’t think that’s enough, what about if I sweeten it with 10 percent of
the profits?”
Just to kill time while I considered my response,
I picked up the manuscript and started to flip through it. Her footnotes and
endnotes were not even completed and were in no real format. Example: Bivins, page 53. Hmm. She’d neglected to
mention the footnotes and endnotes not being completed. Grammatically, the
manuscript was beyond nightmare. I
could see that it would take more than two readings to catch all the errors.
Meanwhile, in my ear, she was endlessly buzzing about what a seller it would be
when it got polished and published.
“Well …”
She sits up brightly, leaning forward slightly
with eagerness.
“I can see that you have put a great deal of hard
work into this book.” Remember, Nancy, no
negative words
, I thought.
“Yes! You so
get me! I did put a lot of work into
it. We are going to be great together!”
“It seems, though, that my work schedule is so
hectic that I don’t anticipate that I’ll be able to get to this for, say,
eighteen months or so.”
“Eighteen months? Good grief! You couldn’t just
squeeze in this little book?”
“Well, I charge double my usual hourly rate for
“It’s not an emergency … exactly. Would that fee
just be part of the barter… or come from the profits?”
I gulped. Did I just let out an audible sigh? Remember your special yogic breathing, Nancy.
“Honestly? My editing of this book will take much
longer than what a 30-minute nutrition consultation would pay for. And – unless
you are dramatically different from any other writer – there won’t be many, if
any, profits from a first book. Now, if you were going to offer something more
equitable, I might have to reconsider. You did mention there’s a romance novel,

“Like what?”
“Let’s see. What about paying someone to paint the
exterior of my house?”
“Good grief! That would cost hundreds and hundreds
of dollars.”
“Actually, it could cost thousands and thousands.
By the way, it needs scraping and sanding, too.”
“Yes, getting the exterior painted would be a
waste of your money unless the painters were also willing to do a first-rate
prep job of scraping and sanding. Not all of them are. Some just want to
pressure wash before they paint.”
“Yes, you know, it’s sort of like polishing a
manuscript. You have to scrape off what you don’t need before you can put on
the final touches. I have been getting some estimates on the sanding and
painting. I can just pass those over to you now.”
“What are you saying?”
“Gosh, I’m sorry. I thought you were willing to
barter. When you barter, it is like for like. Thirty minutes of your
consultation time comes to $45. Just the nutrition book alone could take ten
hours of editing time. I can’t work ten hours for $4.50 an hour, so I’ve
offered up a fairer barter!”
“Well, I can’t afford what you’re suggesting here.
Pay to paint your house! That’s just crazy talk.”
She ultimately decided to let her dad read the
manuscript while he was resting his recently broken foot. She called recently to
tell me that her manuscript had been “accepted” to be self-published.
Do I care? Nope.
Do yourself three favors. First, if you don’t walk
every single day, start. It’s good for clearing the head and strengthening the physical
and the emotional heart. When you feel better physically and psychologically,
you are less apt to second-guess yourself.
Second, buy yourself a cheap mp3 player or use
your smartphone (not my preferred
device for listening, but you may prefer it).
Third, go to iTunes and TED and search for anything
Brené Brown has said on courage, vulnerability, and shame. If you’re a writer
first and foremost (and even though I make most of my serious money editing, I
still consider myself, primarily, a writer), hook yourself up with Elizabeth
Gilbert’s TED talks and podcast sessions on her 2015 Big Magic. The podcasts and TED talks are free.
Your walking time will fly by as you listen to
these fascinating women talk about you and your creative self. You will learn
that each one of us has deep doubts about our own value and a serious case of
“who do I think I am?” In fact, Gilbert
has said so many things that resonate with me so personally that I told a poet
friend of mine recently that I think of her as “Liz.”
It is perfectly OK to give yourself permission to
tell others that you are worth more than $4.50 an hour. Heck, say $45 or $145. Brown
says, “Choose discomfort over resentment.” It just takes a belief in yourself
and your abilities. Don’t act so surprised! You might be a better partner to
yourself than you thought would be. Just give yourself the chance to believe

Nancy Oliver sometimes writes and sometimes edits. Even though most of her “folding money” (as her granny would have said) comes from editing these days, she will always think of herself first as a writer. She has been renovating her family homeplace since time began.

About the author




  • Susan Johnston May 27, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    I've learned to be very wary of barters. When you barter, the other person often will not value you the same way they would if they were paying for it. If they don't follow through on their end of the bargain and you've already done your part, you don't have much leverage. If you need a web designer or a hair stylist or whatever else, just pay for it and you'll get more attentive service. I've learned this the hard way.

  • Cathy Miller May 27, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    Nancy so good to "meet" you. I can see why you & Lori hit it off. Love your true story. The sad thing is your acquaintance still doesn't get it. So many don't. I bet she wouldn't try to barter with the painter.

    Also love that her SELF-published book was "accepted." ☺ I share your love of daily walking. However, I don't use electronic anything. I live in a rural area and love nature's entertainment. ☺ I have cheering sections of goats, horses, dogs, birds of all kinds, even the occasional llama.

    LinkedIn is my go-to place. I'll see if we can link up. No bartering needed. ☺

  • Sharon Hurley Hall May 27, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    So good to meet you, Nancy. Great story – funny how those barter offers never come out in your favor. I'm a walking fan, too, but like Cathy, I usually go for silence and nature to help clear my thoughts.

  • KeriLynn Engel May 27, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    Funny post 😀 Too bad some people don't understand the value of a writer/editor's services.

    I've done bartering a few times, but you have to be really careful about spelling everything out & making sure both parties get fair compensation. I always use a contract, even with bartering.

    I did some barter work to build up my portfolio in a new service I wanted to offer. Both times for stuff I would have paid for anyway! And both sides were very happy with the deal 😀

  • NancyOliver May 27, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    Gosh! I appreciate all these kind comments! As a dear (but clueless) friend of mine says: "Barter is as barter does." Er, what?


  • Lori Widmer May 27, 2016 at 1:13 pm

    Susan, great seeing you again! Would love to catch up and see what's new in your world.

    I too have become wary of bartering. My first barter with a web designer went beautifully because we did trade like-for-like. However, it's been more than a little dicey since then. Not everyone values your skills or even understands what they're worth, as Nancy points out.

    Cathy, I loved that part, too. Because it's so hard to get a self-published book accepted…NOT.

    Sharon, we think alike. Silence and nature — the best reset button.

    Keri, I hadn't thought to use a contract with a barter! Great idea.

    Nancy, huh? LOL I don't get that, either.

  • Paula Hendrickson May 27, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    I love how you handled that situation, Nancy. The house painting analogy is great – I just had the trim painted last year and had sticker shock at the estimates, but like you said, the prep work is everything. In my case the workers spent a full day scraping and sanding before opening the paint (it was the kind with the primer in it). And after the painting was done, they spent a few hours touching up and scraping paint from the windows. Once I saw everything they did, I understood why it cost more than I'd expected. The problem with editing is, unless the client uses the Track Changes they seem to forget how bad the original copy was.

    So you're on LinkedIn, Nancy? I'll look for you there!

  • Devon Ellington May 27, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    Good for you! Great way to handle that situation.

    When I lived in Seattle in the mid-80s, we were all broke artists, so we bartered goods and services that had fairly equal value. Where I live now, it's very similar == someone offers something worth $10 or $15 and expects a 100K novel without punctuation edited. Um, no.

    I have said to people, "That's insulting" or "You're kidding, right?" I do not regret burning those bridges. Sometimes you need to burn the bridge or they follow you across.

  • Ashley Festa May 27, 2016 at 8:46 pm

    What a hilarious story, and how sad that it's true! I love your house-painting illustration about what an equitable barter would look like. While her book was "accepted" for self-publishing, she might soon be surprised at how measly those profits turn out to be. If it were me, I'd probably be "compelled" to "reach out" to her later on and see what your 10% would have been if only you had been willing to barter! 😉

  • Lori Widmer May 31, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    Devon said: "Sometimes you need to burn the bridge or they follow you across."

    Great quote — who needs the low-ballers in their lives? If they're worth keeping as clients, they'll show you their respect at the outset.

  • Nancy Oliver June 3, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    All the LinkedIn requests: Thank you, and I am responding. If you are reading this later, I am always available.

    Ashley and Devon:
    I have found that being a freelance editor/writer provides me with no end of amusing anecdotes when I get together with friends who work the ol' 9-to-5 thing. So… even though dealing with this type of "potential" (ha!) client can be torturous and ridiculous, it also serves a purpose. I always have a story!

    Thanks, Lori, for this opportunity.

  • Lori Widmer June 3, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    Nancy, our stories make them want our jobs even more. 🙂