When it comes to freelance writing, how you get paid can be as important as how much you get paid.

This story was funded by the J-Source Patreon campaign

Disclaimer: During the reporting of this piece, the writer accepted a full-time position with LowestRates.ca.

At the start of 2017, I was laid off from an independent legal magazine — a decision that, first, knocked me off my feet, and subsequently launched me into the precarious world of self-employment. I began freelancing full time, and continued to do so for nearly nine months, gaining bylines, setting my own schedule, and exercising creative freedom. Still, it proved to be one of the most financially trying times of my adult life.

My story isn’t unusual. Mass layoffs routinely reroute the careers of some of the country’s most talented writers and editors. And every time this happens, a new crop of journalists enters the world of independent contracting — at least for a little while. As these newfound freelancers arrive at the inboxes of Canada’s editors, what can they expect?

To get a better sense of the current landscape, J-Source asked 23 publications to provide some insight on how they pay their freelancers. Of the 23 outlets emailed, only eight answered our questions. Another three publications replied, but opted out of participating.

Here’s what we learned:

Freelance rates are rarely fixed

According to the responses we received, publications will make adjustments for everything from word count and complexity to how much experience a writer has. They might increase rates to cover travel expenses and access to information requests; or decrease per-word rates after a certain number of words has been met. Only six publications divulged hard numbers. Among those, rates ranged from 10 cents/word (Maisonneuve) to 50 cents/word (Up Here).

Reader’s Digest’s online rate sits at 40 cents/word. The Deep, a long-form magazine based out of Atlantic Canada, also pays 40 cents per word, but only for the first 4,000 words. Then the fee drops to 25 cents per word thereafter. Its start-up budget came out of a crowdfunding campaign. “That rate was based upon making sure we could take that initial pool and extend it long enough to begin developing other revenue models,” says Matthew Halliday, The Deep’s executive editor.

Generally speaking, print still pays better than the web. But Eva Holland, a Yukon-based freelancer with a vast Canadian print portfolio, says online outlets are slowly catching up. Personal finance website LowestRates.ca offers between $150 and $300 for its online blog posts, depending on experience and type of article.

“Magazine websites are getting better, too,” says Holland. Today’s Parent, for instance, pays equivalent rates for online and print. Editor-in-Chief, Kim Shiffman, says freelancers receive anywhere from $100 to $2,500 per story, based on word count and complexity.

Renee Sylvestre-Williams has been freelancing for over 10 years, and in addition to editorial work, does a lot of ghostwriting, marketing, and branded copy. “Those higher-paying assignments allow me to take on editorial pieces that wouldn’t pay as well,” she says.

Finding those well-paying clients comes with time, though. “Part of the game of freelancing is finding the stories that are better bang for your buck,” says Holland, who, a few years ago, made it a point to stop chasing the $100 stories that were often more effort than they were worth. “I realized a small cheque took just as long to show up in the mailbox as a big one.”

How freelancers get paid matters

It takes a certain type of person to remain comfortable with an elusive income schedule. When I was freelancing, I’d have to accrue debt until I got (an often overdue) cheque in the mail. Then I’d use that money to pay off the debt I’d collected along the way.

Freelancer Katherine Laidlaw sums it up perfectly with this tweet:

Remuneration methods vary across publications. Of our eight survey respondents:

  • Four pay via cheque (TVO.org, L’Actualité, The Deep, Maisonneuve);
  • Three give writers the option of cheque or direct deposit, and sometimes PayPal (LowestRates.ca, Reader’s Digest, Up Here)
  • One pays via direct deposit (Today’s Parent)

Why pay one way over another? Both The Deep and Today’s Parent pay the way they do simply because that’s how their respective parent or sister companies do it. “Our revenue flows through our partner publication, The Coast,” says Halliday, “and then back out to manage expenses.”

Today’s Parent, owned by Rogers Media, lets freelancers invoice using an online system called Flextrack. “We’ve heard that our method of payment isn’t intuitive but works efficiently when used properly,” says Shiffman.

Maisonneuve will sometimes do direct deposit for international writers. “We’re a small team,” says editor-in-chief Selena Ross. “Mailing cheques is the most efficient system for us.”

Holland, who writes for both Canadian and American outlets, primarily receives cheques — and actually prefers it that way. Aside from not wanting to share her banking information with several places, she’s been burned by hidden fees. “PayPal takes three percent of your payment,” she says. “So, I resist that payment form whenever I can, and ask for a cheque instead. I resist wire transfers, too, because there’s a $15 flat fee.”

Most of Sylvestre-Williams’s clients, on the other hand, pay by direct deposit, some by PayPal, and few by cheque. Many of her international clients send payment in the form of wire transfers. When that happens, she’ll ask them to cover the associated fees. If they won’t, then she’ll claim the fees on her taxes.

Delayed payment is still the norm

Most outlets surveyed pay within 30 and 90 days after signoff on a final draft or once the story has passed through fact-checking. Others, like The Deep and LowestRates.ca, boast a two-week goal, and say that sometimes, writers will receive payment prior to publication. LowestRates releases freelance payments  on the 15th and 30th of each month. This way, a writer who files an invoice at the beginning of the month has a good chance of receiving payment by mid-month.

But any seasoned freelancer knows that delays happen. One major hindrance is advertisement revenue. “For a good portion of the year, we’ll generally be able to pay within three months,” says Mathisen. “But if ad sales are struggling, we can fall behind by a couple of months.”

Sylvestre-Williams recalls once waiting a whopping 18 months for payment. Holland’s new record is 8 months. Mine is five.

Freelancing needs to be more sustainable

Because it’s not lucrative, editorial freelancing often requires a significant amount of sacrifice. Holland has been freelancing for over a decade now, and lives in her friend’s basement suite. Admittedly, she’s adopted a more student-esque lifestyle longer than most of her peers.

“I’ve Googled how to file for bankruptcy more than once,” she says. “I earn close to a middle-class income now, but it took me 10 years. It’s definitely something you’re always thinking about: ‘how long is this going to be sustainable for?’”

I carried on for nine months with the help of E.I., and later some part-time technical editing work, before deciding that such a sporadic income schedule was no longer feasible. Last November, I took a salaried job outside of my field for a while so I could start paying back all that I owed.

As editorial staff jobs fade into the night, outlets will increasingly be looking for reliable freelancers. That puts willing writers at an advantage, sure, but if this is the new business model, then it needs to be more accessible.

“Freelancing is a business, not a hobby,” says Sylvestre-Williams. So, it’s worth taking a closer look at how we remunerate freelancers. Pay them an appropriate fee — absolutely — but also pay them in a way that makes this lifestyle viable. Does that mean abandoning the cheque-is-in-the-mail model and adopting electronic payment across the board? I’m not sure. All I know is if I’d had even a couple hundred dollars rolling in every few weeks, well, I might still be full-time freelancing.