Freelance Tips: Billable Hours and Invoicing

Billing can be awkward but it shouldn’t be. Successful freelancing requires you to properly value your time, bill for that time and follow-up on invoices (hopefully infrequently since you have such great clients that they pay promptly).

How to Measure Your Time: This Hour Has 45 Minutes

Don’t be stingy with yourself. Decide, based on your work load and/or the type of work you are performing how you will block out your time in units.

There are numerous ways to bill. I’ve encountered the following:

  • Hourly (I usually will bill down to half hours) 
  • By the job
  • By the word or page
  • On retainer

The Editorial Freelancer’s Association has some very helpful guidelines for what to charge.

When charging hourly I always start the clock at 15 minutes to account for emails that I received related to the job but didn’t account for previously. When I was editing numerous small projects for two companies I took to breaking down my hour by 15-minute increments with a 30-minute minimum per day per client. This is not always practical or profitable but it worked for that particularly complicated scenario.

I have known freelance and contract employees who literally hit a timer on their desk when they get up to go the bathroom and pour themselves a coffee. This is a ridiculous practice. You are an adult who deserves paid bathroom breaks and a refresher. However, if you get up and drive 30 minutes round trip for the coffee or take a break to watch the latest Netflix offering? You’re a price gouging jerk.

And seriously, charge at least $30/hour for anything you do. If you’re not making that the project is probably costing you money. You gotta pay for that coffee. And the electricity. And your health care! Oh, and by all means? Charge more than that, particularly in areas where you have expertise. You will not get me to edit anything about construction or architecture for less than $50/hour as a freelance editor. And I will save you time and embarrassing errors on that project, I promise you.

If you take on a project that pays a flat rate be sure that the size and scope (for page counts/word counts) follows the EFA guidelines I linked above. And be mindful of your time! Work as efficiently as possible to ensure you are maximizing your hourly take. The same goes for working on retainer or contract. This is your chance to manage your time so effectively that you net the highest dollar per hour you can. Treat yourself like the qualified professional that you are. I often find that a project editor will contact me and offer me a flat rate and I can say, “Can you go $50 higher?” and they sometimes can. If you do this on every flat-rate project you will net more money in total at the end of the year. I’m a big believer in keeping a detailed spreadsheet of invoices and income broken down by year, quarter and month. It helps you set goals and know when to step it up.

Reasonable companies expect their freelancers to make money from projects. If your clients don’t expect you to make a living wage then you need new clients.

Sending Invoices: Thank You Over and Over

When you send an invoice will depend on the arrangement you’ve made with your client. If I edit a manuscript or any one-shot deal I send an invoice with the edited document. So if I edited your book you would get an invoice from me along with your completed manuscript. However, I always note that I am available for whatever else might be needed. I don’t go back and charge them to answer a couple of questions if they have some. However, this might not work in every situation. You need to manage expectations. Make it clear what you’re willing to do and what it might cost up front. There should be an expectation/ballpark of what a project is going to cost (and this is another area where those EFA guidelines come into play).

For some of my regular clients I had a standing agreement to send a monthly invoice with a list detailing all of the work I did over the month for them.

Send a professional looking invoice with a pleasant note thanking the client for the work. Thank them every time you send an invoice, even if you send one every week. Generally invoices are submitted via email so you should have an invoice template you use (there are many freebies online and even included in MS Word if you don’t where to start). Save it as a PDF before sending it to your client.

I put “net 30” on all of my invoices unless there was some other arrangement. And I will say that if your client can’t abide by a net 30 there had better be a good reason! Try not to let too many invoices pile up from the same company. If they are not regularly paying you on time but expect you to continue to take on work and meet their deadlines? That’s a red flag! Turn down more work until they pay you! You’d be better off looking for new clients than working for one for free.

Collections: Don’t Make Me Break Your Legs

I have never had to deal with this, in all honesty! I think it’s because I’ve taken on mostly publishers that understand how to work with freelancers. I haven’t done that many self-pubbed manuscripts or had individual writers as clients. Indeed, the best way to avoid having to become a collections person is to consistently work to improve your client list.

I’ve had late payments and people I had to cajole. So at the first of the month I review for any outstanding payments. I don’t contact anyone until it’s been 45 days since I sent my invoice. That gives me 30 days plus so I know for sure that I would have gotten the payment in the mail if they’d paid me at 30 days out.

At that point, I send a gentle reminder, usually along the lines of: “Hey, Susie Q, just following up on Project X. I hope you had everything you needed from me. Please let me know if you require anything else as I’m always available. I also wanted to  make sure you got my invoice and were able to process it without incident. Thanks again for everything!”

That almost always works for me. If I still don’t see any payment at 60 days I follow-up with another polite but decidedly more pointed email. I assume there has been some error and I ask if they can fix it. I say something like: “If this is not an oversight, can you give me some idea when payment might be sent?”

That opens the door to politely let me know what’s going on behind the scenes so I understand where I stand, where they stand, and how we might come together.

At 90 days I would probably threaten to lawyer up in the politest way I knew how. And I’d also know that I would not be looking for work from them again because I simply can’t afford go months on end without getting paid.

It Was 20 Years Ago Today…I Changed My Life

For years I thought 1990 was the most pivotal year of my life. I turned 18. My father died unexpectedly and my entire life (such that it was) fell apart. Losing my father set in motion a long and exhausting chain of events that, when I put them in a list, sound a lot like a ridiculous Victorian or Gothic novel updated for the grunge era that included schemers, liars, cheats, and endless betrayals (complete with a pop soundtrack by Nirvana and 10,000 Maniacs).

But now that I’m older (wiser?) I know that 1993 was the more important year, because it was the year I started to put my life together.

My initial attempts at pulling myself out of the toxic spiral of grief and betrayal were unsuccessful (I wasn’t ready? Or the crazy people I surrounded myself were of no help?) but when I moved to Mackinac Island on July 17, 1993, it gave me the time and distance from my troubles that helped me remember that my life was actually my own—and I could take charge of it.

By the end of the summer I’d discovered truly wonderful lifelong friends, had the perfect summer romance, realized that I could stand on my own (and that I liked it that way), and I started to truly grow up and move past the dark years of drama and trauma following my father’s death.

Mackinac Girls


So here’s a snippet of my journal from July 19, 1993, my first entry in two weeks after declaring, “I need to get out of this town before I go insane.”

Note: I’ve kept the angsty melodramatic tones intact but removed some passages about my family drama and all the Douglas Copeland books I had read recently. 

Life flies by like some insane butterfly, constantly making unexpected dips and turns. Right now I’m sitting on the top of my bunk bed at Corby dorms, above Ryba’s Fudge Shop on Mackinac Island.

Saturday morning I took the Arnold Ferry and arrived on the island, my luggage ridiculously pulled behind me.

So far the people are nice, I guess, but I always crave the familiar, except when I’m in the familiar. Except things aren’t so familiar at home afterall…

I guess it all got to be too much at home…so I’ve resigned myself to living here for now. A long thin room with four girls in two bunk beds. Public facilities prevail.

My self-proclaimed “dorm alcoholic” roommate Paula (from Flint, no less) told me that a girl showed up to Corby a few weeks ago, took one look at the bedrooms, turned around and left. “Not even here two hours,” Paula said. It’s probably a fib but it makes for good copy.

I’ve been scooping ice cream. My wrists are sore just writing this. I reek of sugar sticky scream, especially Blue Moon – the scourge of my existence.

Yesterday, Paula and I were at the marina watching the sailboats come in. The winner, The Windquest, was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

Starting to read The Color Purple today. Will switch to using a purple pen.

Social Media Best Practices: Dealing with Public Tragedies and Deaths

Social media management needs to follow a kind of etiquette.

Generally, when national tragedy strikes and the white hot media spotlight focuses on it–like the murder of little schoolchildren in Sandy Hook–I reschedule or delete all previously scheduled social media efforts. I don’t want the brands I manage to seem insensitive by continuing on with any level of self-promotion when all eyes are riveted to a murder scene and their hearts are breaking at the thought of so many children dead in such a brutal way.

Taking a step back is just polite.

In a break with many others on social media, I also refrain from tweeting out or making a Facebook status sharing our heartfelt sympathies. It’s not that we don’t have heartfelt sympathies–we absolutely do!–and it’s fine for individuals to address those personal feelings. But when your social media handle represents a specific brand? You’re still calling attention to your brand! You’re saying DORITOS IS SUPER SAD ABOUT THIS!

Which is still saying: DORITOS is exploiting the tragedy of dead children to mention its super tasty and salty delicious crack chip. It’s tacky. It’s gross. It’s ineffective. No offense to Doritos; it was the first thing that popped into my head.

If there is a way to personalize it and use your audience to draw attention to a cause? That might be excusable. For example, if something awful happened in the town that houses your brand’s headquarters? Perhaps you could draw attention to charitable efforts the company is undertaking and encourage your followers to do the same.

Recently I’ve also seen some really inappropriate use of hashtags on Twitter. This floored me:

Cory Monteith’s Death: How TV Shows Handle the Loss of a Star #RIPCoryMonteith #Glee

— Hollywood Reporter (@THR) July 15, 2013

The Hollywood Reporter using #RIPCoryMonteith as a way to drive page views to a story about other dead TV stars. I thought that was pretty disgusting, actually. The man’s just died. You can debate the cultural merits (or lack thereof) of people using RIP as a hashtag–I’m against it, for the record–but clearly fans were using it to, you know, send out their public condolences, and not to drive page views to their magazine’s related content on the death of a popular TV star.

If it seems rude to do it in person? It’s more rude to do it on Twitter (despite what so many anonymous trolls might lead you to believe). Nobody can hear your tone of voice online so it’s important to ensure your brand’s social media face is a polite and kind one (unless your brand is being an insensitive jerk).

Throwing Away My Childhood #1: Magic Moves Barbie


So when my mom moved out of my childhood home she dropped off like everything I ever had at my house. And I’ve gotten rid of A LOT of it, I’ll have you know. And, recently, I started unloading more in my desire to not end up on one of those depressing shows about hoarders.

MagicMoves Barbie

So I unloaded this “Magic Moves” Barbie from 1985. It is a testament to my crazy that I had a ton of Barbies and I kept them in their boxes as a storage mechanism. So most of my old Barbies have many of their original accessories at the bottom of the boxes they came in.

I thought this doll was particularly pretty but the really awesome thing about her is her “magic” move!

In my mind? She is the Serena van der Woodsen of Barbie dolls. And that’s saying something.

Writers and Editors: We’re All Inbound Marketers Now

So I’m an editor by trade. That means that I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about SEO optimization despite the fact that my job description makes me sound suspiciously like an inbound marketer. And I didn’t even know what an inbound marketer did until I stumbled across a webinar on YouTube a couple of weeks ago.

I write very little in the traditional B2B trade magazine sense. Of course, I edit copy for two magazines. But I post articles to our content management system (we use Joomla) on a near daily basis across two sites. I write SEO meta data and keywords. I manage and generate all of our social media content (that’s two Facebook pages, two LinkedIn groups, two Twitter profiles, a Google+ page, and a Pinterest page–there might be more I’m forgetting, honestly, and I’m always looking for appropriate ways to grow that presence).

The crux of this is that social media drives traffic to our websites (which gets readers to actually read the great content we produce) and also helps our sales people sell ads on our website. I am lucky to work for a company that cares more about content than the typical B2B (who, in my experience, cares a lot more about sales that content). We generate great content for readers in our niche and we want everybody who might care to read it to find it.

And that’s a whole new world.

I’m in a weird hybrid position. I’m not a coder but I need to understand everything Joomla offers to my small company (we’re small enough that we fit around a large dining room table). I’m not exclusively a social media manager but I need to maximize our efforts because we don’t have the luxury of expensive analytics or a team of people to manage it. I need to understand SEO writing and optimization so that I don’t waste my time (or the time of my co-workers) with pointless efforts.

I’m half editor, half inbound marketer. And the problem I’m facing is the gap between those skills.