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Five Magic Phrases: Tips for Negotiating Like a Pro Featured

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Five Magic Phrases: Tips for Negotiating Like a Pro

Writers who are new to freelancing are often too afraid to ask for more than an editor offers. Thrilled to be making any money at all, new writers typically agree to whatever figure is proposed. I was no exception to this rule, but once I’d built up my credits, I realized editors weren’t about to offer me a raise if I continued to play the role of doormat writer.

Once a writer has some experience, the bottom line becomes more important. Especially if one aspires to write full-time, “trivial issues” like prompt and appropriate payment start to matter when you depend on your writing income to pay the bills.

Until you’ve tried negotiating, you may not realize how much you’ve been undercut. An editor’s first offer is rarely the maximum amount he or she can actually afford to pay you; as is human nature, most editors will try to get good writing at the lowest possible cost. Your job is to convince those editors that paying you a little extra for your piece will be worth it. How?

The answer may be simpler than you ever imagined: you just have to ask. In over four years as a full-time writer, I’ve gotten exactly what I asked for in every case except one—and even in that case, I was able to get the editor to spring for a 10% increase. In other words, every single time I got up the nerve to negotiate, I wound up with a bigger paycheck.

Remember that everything within a contract is fair grounds for negotiation; your goal should be to sell the fewest rights for the highest fee, payable quickly after submission. You can also strike better deals for the inclusion of a bio-note or advertisement for your business, extra payment for extra services (like photos and sidebars), and a high kill fee if such terms are necessary.

It’s always slightly uncomfortable for a writer to ask for more than an editor wishes to spend. But, with a few key phrases under your belt, you, too, can significantly increase your income.

The Magic Phrases

  1. “That sounds a little low.”

A timeless classic. This follows a golden rule of writing: keep it simple. No matter what figure is proposed, just state those five words and then shut your mouth. Since no one can stand uncomfortable silences, your tight lips will force the editor to say something in response. Either he or she will make a new offer, ask you what you need, or tell you that’s the best they can do. If it’s the latter, employ one of the next phrases.

  1. “To make it worth my time, I would need…”

This one lets you take control of the situation. If you’ve already figured out approximately how much time and effort this piece will require, you should be able to determine how much you expect to be paid for it. Make sure that you’ve done some research and that your figure is in the realm of what that particular market typically pays. (Asking for a figure that’s 20% more than their average payment for an article of your word count and scope is reasonable; asking for 200% more is not.) Don’t bother mincing your words; just state your figure and let the editor decide whether or not to meet your demands.

  1. “Considering the amount of research required, can we agree to…”

You can end this open-ended statement with a higher fee, less rights, or other “barters.” Heavily researched pieces often have potential reprint markets. If an editor has asked for all rights, or exclusivity in any way, use this as a bartering chip. Mention that you can only give them exclusivity if they’ll raise the fee; otherwise, you’ll accept the fee for one-time rights (or whatever rights you find suitable) only. You may also barter for free advertising space, links to your website, etc.

  1. “I’m expecting more for this piece.”

Another simple statement that forces the ball back to the editor’s proverbial court. Again, follow this one with silence, and allow the editor to come up with a new figure. This statement introduces the possibility that you could decide to sell the piece elsewhere if the editor doesn’t meet your requirements.

  1. “Can we work on that?”

For pop psychology fans, this one brings the editor onto your “team.” By using the word “we,” you’ve asked the editor to partner with you in coming up with more acceptable terms. This question opens the door to a variety of improvements; you may choose to talk about fees, rights, word count, sidebars, kill fees, etc.

Whichever phrases you use, keep in mind that your tone and professionalism will matter. You must convey the impression that you are self-confident and aware of the value of your work. And, with a few successful negotiations to your credit, you may be able to stop acting and start believing.

Originally published in Writer’s Digest, 2001. Reprinted with permission.

Jenna Glatzer is a nationally-published freelance writer and the editor-in-chief of Absolute Write ( She is the author of Outwitting Writer's Block and Other Problems of the Pen and Words You Thought You Knew: 1001 Commonly Misused and Misunderstood Words and Phrases, as well as lots of other books that you can find here:

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