Copywriter Focus: The UK Minimum Wage in Pence Per Word

Popzazzle | Monday, 19 October 2020 |

"Paying a copywriter per word is like paying a stunt driver per mile. You're overlooking the true investment of the task, and decanting the value into something that doesn't actually have any."



Photo by Fikret tozak on Unsplash

By Bob Leggitt
© Popzazzle
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Freelance Copywriter required - £10 per hour!”, boasts the agency's ad. But is the work really freelance? And does it really pay £10 per hour? Both questions can be difficult to answer. And that cloudiness is in many cases loopholing the UK minimum wage.

For UK copywriters over the age of 25 – which is the majority – the minimum wage here in October 2020 stands at £8.72 per hour. But if the work genuinely does qualify as freelance, there's no obligation on the hiring party to meet or exceed that rate. Technically, the freelancer is selling a service, rather than receiving a wage or salary, so it's up to them what they choose to accept.

Free rein for hiring parties to beat down freelance copywriting rates to 1p per word then?...

Not quite. Normalising 1p and 2p per word copywriting creates a false economy, which was perfectly illustrated by the collapse of Demand Media's “content mill” trade. Demand Media Studios exploited Google's poor quality control in the 2000s, to flood the leading search engine with masses of very low quality articles. The strategy was initially a roaring success, but as Google refined its algorithms, the market collapsed. Most of the articles were eventually deleted – as good a hint as you'll get that this cheap, thoughtless content had been rendered not only impotent, but also actually harmful to a domain's search status.

There are agencies who don't care, and will, to this day, sell on thoughtless, useless and worthless content for 3p per word. It's okay for them. It's your domain the content is going to devalue – not theirs. But the very display of these prices can also have a negative impact on market rates, and drive down the prospects of fair pay for good, low profile writers.

FAKE FREELANCE


The dynamics of freelance copywriting are often very different from those of other common sole trader services, such as plumbing or window cleaning. Copywriters are much more likely to be working exclusively for companies rather than private individuals, and that can toughen the power dynamic. Add to this the fact that copywriters are frequently monopolised by one agency or even one client, rather than working a series of genuine one-off jobs, and “selling a service” starts to look a lot more like working for an employer.

This doesn't necessarily categorise the work as employment, but it certainly pushes things in that direction. And if the conditions do shove the work status across the employment line, the hiring party must pay the minimum wage.

Defining employment, as distinct from freelancing, can be difficult. But one fairly reliable test is whether or not there's scope for the writer to exercise free enterprise. Can the copywriter increase their rates next week, or are they contracted to working for the same rate over a certain period of time? Can they work for whoever else they have time to work for, or are they prohibited from working for certain brand rivals? Are they required to work a notice period? If a writer is unable to fully exercise free enterprise, they're probably in employment. And in the UK, the employer is required by law to ensure that they receive the minimum wage.

WORDS PER HOUR


Paying £20 for a 1,000-word article and saying "Two hours is ample time for 1,000 words" is not making sure the copywriter gets the minimum wage. Not when the requirement is for commercial quality copy.

Sure, it's possible for a writer to bash out 1,000 words in half an hour. I've actually tried this and it took me 28 minutes to ramble 1,000 words off the top of my head – no pause for thought. It's technically readable, albeit blighted by a couple of uncorrected typos, but it has absolutely no value whatsoever. If any business were to publish that on their site, they'd be truly humiliating their brand.

Given another hour and a half I could have written about a topic at a quality which: a) would still do the recipient brand no good, and b) either would not be accepted, or would ensure I was never given any further work by the hiring party. The reality is that it's not possible to write a 1,000-word article to commercial standards in two hours, and the agencies know that.

The end recipient is not expecting a spin on a Wikipedia entry. They're expecting the writer to...

  • Read and assimilate a demanding brief.
  • Conduct adequate research and undertake fact-checking.
  • Conceptualise a unique angle (something most people can't do even when given infinite time).
  • Plan an SEO-viable title.
  • Structure and write an engaging post – again with additional consideration for SEO.
  • Tone-tune the post and make sure it flows.
  • Edit the post.
  • Proof read the post (ideally after a break of half a day).
  • Very possibly read post-submission feedback and revise the post accordingly.

The time it takes to type the actual words is almost an inconsequence.

GETTING SPECIFIC


Paying a copywriter per word is like paying a stunt driver per mile. You're overlooking the true investment of the task, and decanting the value into something that doesn't actually have any. In-demand copywriters have traditionally fought back against this by substantially increasing their rate per word. But that system breaks down when you're trying to assess a fair minimum. There has to be a correlation between the fullness of what an agency or client requires, and the allowance, in hours, that a copywriter is given.

With a 1,000-word post (and I've written hundreds of them), the realistic timeframe for commercial quality copy, with all the thought and journalistic investment it entails, is a full working day. Which establishes a minimum payment rate of around £70. Anything less than that is, realistically, below the minimum wage when the writer is above the age of 25.

There will be people who'll argue that I'm slow, and that two hours is enough for “most writers”. But look at their blogs. No posts for two and a half months, and the last one comprises 564 words. If it genuinely only takes two hours to produce 1,000 words of commercial quality copy, would these agencies' blogs not be a little better stocked with value-packed articles than they are? Surely a content marketing company could set aside one member of their team for two hours a day, to add a blockbustin' article to their own blog?...

I'm sure they could. If it took two hours. But it doesn't. It takes the whole day to produce high impact – even longer if you're not imaginative. Which is why they don't have the time to do it. Some blogging agencies don't even have blogs... I know! Blog content providers who don't have blogs. Whether or not you want to describe that as wilful evasion of scrutiny, it certainly mocks the claim that high quality, substantial content is something you can churn out in an extended lunch break.

And there's more telling evidence of the reality in Orbit Media's survey of blogging statistics – a detailed study that compiled feedback from nearly 1,300 bloggers. One of the headline trend conclusions was that posts are getting longer as the search engines prioritise greater substance. No surprise there. But guess what?... As post length has gone up, posting frequency has significantly dropped. Today, with a post length average hovering around 1,100 words, only 3% of bloggers manage to post daily. And not a single blogger in the entire 1,279-person sample could manage 2,000 words per day. None.

The idea that 1,000 words of competitive copy is a half-day (or less) task might be common in “freelance agency” rhetoric. But it is absolutely not supported by real-world blogging stats. Bloggers universally need more than a day to produce 2,000 words, which logically means they universally need more than half a day to produce 1,000.

THE REALISTIC MINIMUM WAGE IN PENCE PER WORD


Using a study like this, we can vaguely visualise a rate per word as a minimum wage, even though the actual typing of the words is only a fraction of the copywriter's time investment. Based on the evidence that almost no one in serious blogging can maintain a posting rate of above 1,000 words per day, we can confidently set a time and motion maximum of about 1,000 words in an eight hour period. For an over-25, eight hours at the current minimum wage is £69.76. Let's round that up to £70, which gives us 7p per word.

It can realistically be argued that 6p is acceptable (although I'd argue against it), but 3p per word? No. With an expectation of commercial quality copy, that is categorically below the UK minimum wage for a writer of 25 or over. So next time you see an agency advertising content at 3p per word, think about the ethics. Think about the economics. Given what it takes to produce commercial quality copy, 3p per word is realistically around £3.75 per hour. Almost certainly less if you're buying fewer than 1,000 words, because some of the required work investments take no less time for five hundred words than they do for a thousand. The conceptualisation, title-planning and structure development for example.

Plus, of course, if the agency is selling at 3p per word, the writer probably received 2p or less. Which is about £2.50 per hour. What standard of labour would you normally expect for £2.50 per hour? I'll leave it there.
Bob 'Interesting' Leggitt is a print-published writer, multi-instrumentalist and twice Guitarist of the Year finalist, Google-certified digital marketer, image manipulation expert, virtual musical instrument builder, "Twitter detective", and author of successful blogs such as Planet Botch, Twirpz and Tape Tardis. | [Twitter] | [Contact Details]