I could tell you stories. Oh, how I could tell you stories!

Stories of intrigue and romance. Stories of great courage and swashbuckling advantage. Sorry… I got this blog confused with my dating blog. These stories are about how my ignorance, impatience, or indignation caused me to screw up freelance writing projects and hurt client relationships.

I hope you’ll learn from my mistakes and use this article as a play-by-play of what not to do with your freelance writing projects.

don't screw up your freelance writing project

Photo Credit: Michal Grosicki

Mistake #1 – Don’t require a deposit.

Maybe you’re familiar with the following sequence of events:

  • You complete a project, down to every last jot and tittle.
  • You invoice the client.
  • You wait.
  • Nada.
  • You send a polite followup. “Hey, just checking in to make sure you received my invoice.”
    The client responds, “Yes, we got it. We’ll process it shortly.”
  • “Oh, good,” you think.
  • More time passes, and your anxiety mounts. Where is the payment? They have the payment link right there. They could click through and be done with it in two minutes flat. What’s the deal?

My mentor Bruce says that money makes people stupid. Money has certainly made me stupid. Back in the days when I didn’t require a deposit, I would paint myself into a corner.

Desperation stinks, and people can smell it on you. Without the cash reserves to tide me over, I would become desperate for money. I would turn up the pressure on situations where clients were slow to pay.

The fact is, certain clients will conveniently forgot to keep up their end of the bargain—i.e., pay me on time—and they will rationalize this self-serving behavior

in two dozen ways.

But as soon as you bulldoze right through the required patience and business etiquette and start asking for your money too often or even making demands, you make things WEIRD.

Clients don’t like demands. Really, none of us do.

Even if you’re in the right, and they do owe you, and they didn’t pay you on time, they can and will spin an alternate story about you, consciously or unconsciously. The next time they need a freelance writer, they won’t hire you.

The best way to avoid these awkward conversations and to avoid losing a client is to establish clear boundaries from Day 1.

Don’t start on the project until the client has paid a non-refundable deposit.

This requirement seems so obvious to me now. Wunderbar LLC is a pay-to-play business. No one on my team works for free, and as the owner, I don’t offer “work advances.” If clients want me to make their projects a priority, then they pay the first invoice. Then, I add the project to Wunderbar’s production queue.

An added benefit of this pay-to-play model is that I avoid most (not all) complications down the road, such as no-pay scenarios. Were the client to go incommunicado later, at least I keep the 50% deposit and break even, more or less.

Deposits help to keep both parties on their best behavior. I get paid, so I start working. The client has skin in the game and wants to finish the project and see ROI.

Further Reading: I have written at length about non-refundable deposits for freelancers. You’ll benefit from reading that post.

Mistake #2 – Don’t use a rock-solid contract.

I hate legalese almost as much as Excel spreadsheets and waiting in line at the post office. But like deposits, contracts help people to be on their best behavior.

Your contract can be the bad guy so that you don’t have to.

For example, let’s say a client asks for revisions beyond the number included in your quote and tries to blow scope.

The vast majority of clients aren’t trying to pull one over on you. Most of them either didn’t the contract closely, or they haven’t kept track of the number of revisions already requested.

It is thus your responsibility to remind your clients, in a matter-of-fact manner, that the contract includes two rounds of revisions. The client has already requested two. Does she want you to open a new invoice? Or would she prefer to move forward with the existing drafts?

You offer two choices, and neither is the I-do-free-work-because-you’re-requesting-nitpicky-changes option.

Sticking to the terms of the agreement doesn’t mean that you’re stingy. Like everybody else, you have limited time in which to make a living.

Freelance writing isn’t a blank check in terms of unlimited edits/tweaks/revisions/unicorn rides, and besides, you’re fighting for the desired outcome: not getting sidetracked by unimportant changes but instead finishing the project so that the client can get the writing out into the world.

By honoring your own contracts, you also avoid feeling resentful of your client later when you’re trapped in a cycle of endless free revisions and perfectionism.

Mistake #3 – Leave the scope vague.

Years ago, a software company hired me to write 20-30 pages of new web content. I wrote the content and got final approval.

As far as I was concerned, the project was finished.

Then, the client changed the design and layout of various page templates. I got the news in an email: “Hey, we tweaked the designs. Can you just condense that all the content? Thanks!”

The smaller problem was this: The new designs had significantly less room for content. On each page 400 words would need to become 200, and despite assumptions clients may have, the process of condensing is never as simple as removing 200 words.

The bigger problem was this: My contract was vague about the scope, word count, revisions, and the approval process.

One client might define a “web page” as a long-form product description with 1000 words of educational content. Another client might thin of a “web page” as

250 words of tight sales copy. Two different types of pages require more or less time and expertise to deliver.

And what about the equally significant time difference between polishing up old content and writing new content from scratch?

Scope creep will bite you in the derrier.

Sure enough, I had to eat the extra time and trim down ALL of those pages. Vagueness in the scope doubled the time I had to put in the project and cut my effective hourly rate in half. Ouch.

When you’re scoping out a project and assigning a price to that scope, be sure to explain what is and is not included.

Here are some areas that your contract should address:

  • What is the cap on the per-page word count?
  • How many revisions does the price include?
  • How do you differentiate between light and heavy editing?
  • Who will be responsible for keyword research?
  • Will you be writing custom meta data for web pages?
  • Are you drafting, editing, and proofreading/spell-checking?
  • What happens if the client changes the designs that you used to make your estimates mid-project?
  • How do you define the end product that you’re selling? A certain number of drafts of a certain number of pages at a certain price, whether or not they feel like those drafts are ready to go live?
  • How will you handle additional payments if the client opts to add to the scope or buy more revisions mid-project?
  • What happens if the client gives final approval then later changes his or her mind?

Be thorough now, and you will protect your profit margin later.

Mistake #4 – Leave the complete payment schedule out of your contract.

If you require a 50% up-front deposit before adding a project to your queue, how will you handle the remaining 50%?

I break up the balance into two to four payments.

After years of waiting for clients to send feedback so that I could finish the project and paid, I decided enough was enough.

Not sending feedback was a stall tactic in some cases. There’s a distorted logic there: “If we don’t finish the project yet, then I don’t have to pay yet, and if I don’t respond to emails, then we can’t finish the project. Genius!”

When a client doesn’t want to cough up the dough, then you are at his or her mercy unless you decide to sue. A lawsuit will probably cost you more money than it recovers.

I wish I could say I had ferreted out a way to get paid on time every time. No dice.

Here is what I have landed: In the client service agreement, I tie post-deposit payments to dates, not project-related milestones. Even if a client goes dark mid-project, I send invoices on the those dates.

Clients are contractually obligated to pay those invoices, and though some folks will certainly ignore your invoices (and legal agreements), they are in the minority.

Invoices get most clients attention.

You can also simply stop working on the project.

If your clients aren’t honoring their side of your agreement, then you are within your rights to prioritize other projects. Your clients aren’t working for free, and they stop working when their clients and customers stop paying.

You’re being practical, not ruthless: “Hey, glad to hear you’re back in the office and ready to finish this project. Go ahead and process those two outstanding payments, and then we can get this knocked out quickly.”

Mistake #5 – Use email to express frustration.

Email is never the appropriate medium for expressing frustration. There’s simply too much open for misinterpretation in emails. It’s too easy to slip in passive-aggressive jabs and to start thinking the other person is a real jerk.

When you are frustrated, pick up the phone. When you sense frustration from a client, pick up the phone. You can lead with this line: “Hi there. I wanted to give you a quick call after I got your email. In it you seemed upset. Let’s talk about it.”

More often than not, the client will backpedal on the aggressive or accusatory language that he used in the email. Or he will apologize. Or he will explain what was going on in his head.

The two of you can work together to resolve the problem instead of using email to exacerbate it.

Or he may dish out more abuse. You don’t want clients who treat you that way. Professionalism goes both ways. You may help your clients, but that doesn’t entitle them to treat you like “the help.”

Mistake #6 – Don’t explain your writing process.

For whatever reason some clients have a hard time understanding that a first draft is just that: a first draft.

I like Peter Elbow’s book Writing Without Teachers (affiliate link). In it Elbow compares writing to cooking. You throw some ingredients into a pot and let them simmer. You taste the stew and add more salt. As the flavors meld, you dial in the herbs and spices.

Writers know that this is how writing works. If your client doesn’t love what you sent over, there is no cause for alarm. You want the client to love the stew, and you can change anything to better fit her taste. Writing for clients, especially the ones with lots of their own opinions, always involves give and take.

Though it’s nice when the client loves your first drafts, not nailing them doesn’t mean that you’ve wasted your time (or the client’s money). Imperfect first drafts mean that you are in the middle of the writing process and that you need to adjust the flavor for the client’s palate.

When I first began writing for client, I didn’t understand why I should have to explain my writing process. They write emails, project briefs, and other stuff everyday. Surely everyone knows how writing works?!

Nope. Many clients think of writing as transmitting thoughts to a page, not cooking a stew. When your first drafts don’t meet their standard, they want to blame a garbled transmission, a critical error.

Sometimes our writing simply doesn’t get the job done. We have to make our peace with that. More often, however, the client simply doesn’t understand the process of writing.

Writers aren’t machines that stamp out staples and iPhone cases. We must synthesize many disparate pieces of information and turn them into a cohesive whole. We’re cooks.

You and I know that one weak spoonful of stew doesn’t mean the whole meal is ruined. Still, we have to communicate how the process works. We have to diffuse in advance a client’s potential freakout moments.

Communicating your process also positions you as the expert. You’ll get less pushback during the project.

Mistake #7 – Don’t start by writing and discussing sample pages.

Like most of us, clients don’t know exactly what they do want until they see what they don’t want.

I give them two or three pages of content then ask for feedback. That sample gives us something concrete to discuss. What do they like? What do they dislike?

I only miss the mark on a few pages, not all of the pages, and later, I can bake their preferences into the remaining first drafts and work more efficiently.

In the past I have made the mistake of finishing a big batch of content, and then after a client took issue with stylistic choices I made throughout, I felt sick to my stomach. I had wasted so much time!

Please don’t do that. Clients appreciate the rationale behind “I’m going to send you 2-3 pages first.”

Mistake #8 – Don’t age for quality.

Finish your drafts. Let them sit for a few days or over the weekend, and when you come back, you’ll notice rough spots you missed before.

You know this. Clients know this too. We all experienced this in grade school with our essays and term papers.

And yet, when our clients have their own deadlines and they need this ad copytomorrow, they forget that we cannot promise the same level of quality if the turnaround doesn’t leave any time for aging.

You have to be painfully honest with them:

“I cannot do my best work in this timeframe. It’s not for want of skill. It’s that good writing involvesaging for quality. That step is an intrinsic part of the creative process.”

You can say this, and clients will be impressed at how much you care. And then they will say, “I still need it tomorrow.”

That’s fine. You can say yes with integrity. You can say yes with assurance that any blemishes won’t hurt the client’s opinion of you.

We all know it’s highly unusual to do our very best work very fast with something big at stake. Writing may be cooking, but writing gains quality and character the same way as wine: over time.

This is sensible, logical. So age for quality.

And if you don’t have enough time to achieve top quality, then set realistic expectations with your client. Better to be a wet blanket in the short term than to cause clients to believe that you lack talent.

Mistake #9 – Miss deadlines.

Always dazzle with responsiveness. Beat deadlines.

That’s what I advise now that I’ve done the opposite and asked for extensions.

Worse, I have asked the client a basic question about the project the day before the deadline: “Hey client, I’ve got a really important question and I can’t finish the project until you give me a definitive answer to my really, really important earth-shattering question.”

I wasn’t fooling anyone. If I had started the project sooner, I would have asked that question sooner. Rather than buy me time, the question signaled that I was getting a late start.

Austin for the loss!

Lack of clarity around the project requirements wasn’t the problem. Mismanagement of my time was the problem.

These days, when a freelancer asks me an “important” question the day I expected to receive the finished product, I roll my eyes and move that freelancer down on my list.

We have our work cut out for us. In order to beat deadlines, we must first fight for realistic timelines. Then, we must manage projects effectively. Then, we must allow for the aging period. Then, we must allocate time for any back-and-forth.

Freelancing is hard. We had all better get used to it.

Relationships die from a thousand cuts. Or they gain strength from a thousand promises kept.

Mistake #10 – Don’t define success.

Have you ever done the right thing for the wrong person?

There was this one guy who wanted me to stuff keywords into these excellent—he even said so!—product descriptions I had written for him.

I tried to explain that keyword stuffing isn’t effective anymore. I dug up and shared links from Moz.com and Search Engine Land to prove that I knew my stuff and was looking out for him. Google penalizes keyword stuffing.

He didn’t listen to a word.

What’s a conscientious freelance writer to do?

For starters, I wish that we had outlined the project requirements in advance in a project brief.

I defined success as “excellent original content,” and in my mind “excellent” would not include outdated SEO tactics that Google would penalize. After all, what good is excellent content if Google buries it on the seventh page of results and no one ever sees it?

Be that as it may, my client defined success as writing that fit his preferences, which include SEO tactics that stopped being effective several years ago.

He was convinced that he knew best. No amount of articles and videos from widely recognized thought leaders would convince him otherwise.

Don’t bang your head against a brick wall if you don’t have to! Use a brief to outline the project requirements and define what success looks like for your client. If they won’t listen to reason and adjust that definition, give them exactly what they want. And start looking for a new client.

One definition of a bad client is someone who will ignore your advice yet blame you for poor results.

A project brief would have saved me time and frustration.

Do you use a project brief template?

You should. If you don’t have one of your own, you’re welcome to use mine. Plug in your name and email address below, and I’ll send you the download link for it.