How long will it take you to write this?

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How long does it take you to write something? How you answer this question may be one of the most important decisions you make…

Our society lavishes praise on anything involving time and money. Is something expensive? It must be really good. Did you take a long time to do something? You must have worked really hard on it.

Sometimes these values deserve kudos. I know any book represents hundreds of hours of work, and I respect that. I’m also prepared to spend a little bit of extra money for good quality Gortex clothing because I live in Vancouver, where it rains a lot.

But other times, these values need to be queried. Here’s the one often bugs me: “How long will it take you to write this?” I don’t resent the question if the client is trying to figure out my turnaround time. That’s completely legit, of course.

It just bothers me when they’re trying to figure out whether it’s less expensive to choose me or to select writer X, Y or Z. So if I (theoretically) say I charge $100/hour they’ll compare me to the person who charges $125 vs $75 vs. $60. (And then the $75/hr writer will likely win — regardless of quality — because clients prefer to pick in the middle rather than at the extremes.)

But when people ask this question, you have to answer it. Here’s what I suggest.

First, acknowledge it’s reasonable. Say something like, “good question.” And then add, “It’s not always easy to answer,” which is also true.

Then, spell out every step in your process. I often describe the research I do, the interviews I conduct (and why I’m so good at them because of my journalistic background), the work I do identifying the key audience, my mindmapping and my comfort with rewriting (which is always included in the price.) I’ll even handle what clients call the “approval process” (but which I always call fact-checking) if they want.

Once you’ve done that, then take the conversation in an entirely different direction by saying something like: “But it’s not really about how long it takes me to write. It’s more about why I write this way.”  Then you can tell the story of how you developed your own writing process.

I always like to tell clients that I started 39 years ago in a struggling family-run weekly newspaper (“struggling” is important because I don’t want to sound like Patty Hearst). Because I helped sign the cheques for this business, I also developed a tremendous respect for people who worked hard. Then I moved to a daily newspaper and managed a department of a dozen other writers. I was a “born” editor but when I left the daily business I recognized that I still didn’t write as quickly or persuasively as I wanted. So I spent hundreds of hours researching the writing processes of others, practicing and generally schooling myself in how to write better, faster.

Then I ask them some questions about the job they’re contacting me about. Why is it important? Who’s going to read it? What do they want to accomplish with it? What difference will a well-written article make to their bottom line? How many people do they think I’ll need to interview for the story? (Their answers to these questions will often reveal clients who will be too difficult for me to work with and I’m happier saying good-bye to them right away. Many years ago, I took a job where the editor wanted me to interview a dozen people for a 500-word story. I never made that mistake again!)

Finally, I explain why I prefer to quote per job rather than per hour and I offer to get back to them with a flat rate within 48 hours.

Remember: any “job interview” is always a two-way street: The client should figure out whether you’re the right writer and you need to figure out whether they’re the right client. This decision shouldn’t be made on a how-much-you-cost-per-hour basis, even if it ultimately comes down to price.

If you already have a job in a corporation, you may still face questions about how long it will take you to write something. I suggest you always over-estimate the time by at least 25% so you can deal with unexpected emergencies. It’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver.

How do you manage to figure your your writing time? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment by July 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the very useful book The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.