Freelancers, stop thinking about what your work is “worth.”

In freelance groups I frequent, I see a lot of commentary about “demanding what you’re worth.” It’s clear from these conversations that this exhortation is meant to be an empowering one to the advice-seeker, an encouragement to value oneself and insist that the market see that value too.

There are a lot of low-paid gigs out there, after all, and many freelancers feel affronted by this state of play. The idea of demanding your worth is about much more than just wanting to fill one’s wallet; it’s a cri de coeur against the sense that employers consider freelancers cheap and disposable.

Now, I’m all for empowerment. But the bad news is that a “give me my worth!” mindset is a poor one with which to actually negotiate pay.

The problem is that the idea of “your worth” implies a value judgement beyond monetary value and gets emotions too tangled up in what is essentially a business question. Low pay comes to feel malevolent and dismissive — even offensive — instead of being simply what it is: an indicator that you shouldn’t accept that gig.

If your sense of your own worth — or even the worth of your work, if you want to get more specific — is tied to a specific rate of pay, you cut yourself off from a broader understanding of the dynamics of pricing and how to conduct business strategically. Yes, your work is “worth” something in the market, in that you can get a certain amount of pay to do it, but that is a function not of the inherent worth of you or your work but of how much employers are willing to pay for a product or service they desire.

Yet when I hear freelancers talking about their “worth,” it is clear that the word in that context refers to something much more personal than simply how much the market values their output in monetary terms.

In my experience, the best way to proceed instead of getting stuck in this mindset is to be very specific with your numbers. Calculate exactly how much you want or need to make per hour by working backwards to what you need to make each month or year. Then approach each negotiation with that internally held hourly rate as your bottom line —  what you could consider your monetary “worth.”

Next, quote flat-rate prices based not on what you think the company will think your work is “worth” but on what you think the company may be willing to pay for the result they are looking for. This will hopefully be higher than the baseline amount you want to make — and therefore higher than your own sense of your own monetary worth. If the client wants the deliverable badly and you work fast, your hourly rate can be much, much higher than your baseline goal.

How you determine how much a client might be willing to pay will be based on a whole lot of clues such as things like how big and well-resourced they are, how urgent and high-profile the work seems, how much trouble they’ve had with this same work in the past, etc. You can also see if you can tell whether they really want to hire you specifically or if they’re looking at a bunch of writers and focusing more on price.

It’s a lot of guesswork, but those things can inform how much you think the company will be able and willing to pay. Determine your quote based on those things, then be ready to negotiate down to your baseline. If they want to go below your baseline, refuse the work and look for a different client.

This process is all about business: Working to make what you want to earn match what they want to pay, if possible. It’s a process that doesn’t imply anything about how much you or your work is worth to them as an independent concept, but simply how much they potentially value the result or product they are looking for.

Ironically, approaching pricing this way is far more empowering than looking at pay through an emotional lens. The more you successfully negotiate pay that brings in more than the hourly rate you’re aiming for, the more you’ll realize you have what it takes to make a go of freelancing. And that’s worth a whole lot.

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