The second freelancing contract I ever signed was a nightmare. Why? Well, let’s just get it out right now: some clients are a pain in the butt. It shouldn’t be so surprising. There are great people in the world and there are jerks in the world, and both sorts of people hire freelancers.
This client—let’s call him K—advertised that he needed an editor for very short 2-5 page articles and would pay $10 per project. Now, that sounded pretty good, especially when I was first starting out, because that meant I was making between $2-5 per page, which—even at the lowest—is a nice proofreading rate. I applied, and he got in touch a few days later expressing interest and asked me if, based on my background, I would like to do writing projects for him as well at $15 per project (not nearly as good a rate as the editing jobs, though I didn’t know it). However, he wanted really fast turnaround on these and wanted me to do all the research, and I had my first ghostwriting project going at the time. So, I said I thought I could do better work for him as an editor.
I got no response for weeks. I sent one or two follow up emails, and still nothing. I had completely forgotten about the job when K got in touch again. He said he was so very sorry for the late response, that he had gotten tons of applicants and had decided to go with someone else, but it hadn’t worked out. He attached a sample that he wanted me to edit and send back before he hired me, giving me instructions about how he wanted the pieces to look (bullet points, bold headings, lots of italics for emphasis, and short paragraphs).
As soon as I got to work on the sample, I could tell a non-native English speaker wrote it. I powered on, and it took me an hour to finish the two pages. I sent it back, and he sent me a glowing email saying how wonderful my work was. He sent me the contract for the next project, and I got to work, feeling good about myself.
This piece was basically illiterate, twice as bad as the first, and longer. It took me two hours and started a serious throbbing in my left temple. I sent it back, just starting to wonder if the time was worth the money. I waited for a response for a week, and then finally sent him a follow up message. He sent me back a scathing email saying that this was “frankly disappointing” work, and that I “hadn’t brought any life to the piece” or added anything to give “pizzazz.” I had done exactly what I did on the free sample that he had “loved” so much. But he even had the gall to say, “Other editors I’ve worked with have told me that these pieces are very bad and have changed them completely.” He admonished that he would allow me one more chance to get it right.
I didn’t know whether I wanted to cry or scream like an unleashed T-rex. So I did both. This man was paying non-native English speakers $15 to write these pieces of crap and then paying English-speaking editors $10 to completely rewrite them. I sent him an email back saying that yes, these pieces were, frankly, illiterate and that I had made them read smoothly in plain English, in the goofy, flashy (didn’t actually say this, but I was thinking it) format that he wanted. If he wanted a complete rewrite, he should have advertised as such or told me after that first sample. He responded that we should just part ways, and I agreed. I didn’t get that ten dollars, and I didn’t press for it. I just wanted to never speak to him again, and if he paid me the money, he would be allowed to leave a review on my profile. It would have been the first one I received, and I didn’t want that.
K displayed some pretty common warning signs of dishonest and demanding clients that, because of him, I have come to recognize. Sometimes, I can sniff them out just from their ad. Other times, they show their hand in the pre-contract correspondence. Here’s a list of some of the signs, so you can avoid some headaches.
Client Warning Signs:
- They take forever to respond: Now, if it’s taking a while for someone to initially respond to your application, that’s normal. They probably have a lot of applicants. When they get in touch and express interest and then drop off the face of the earth, a flag should go up.
- Lack of job description: A person who is passionate about their project and wants it done right will be very detailed about what they want you to contribute. If a post just says, “Edit/write some articles,” that usually means they don’t really give a crap.
- Not forthcoming with answers: If you send an email posing multiple questions about a job posting looking for more detail, and they only answer one (or none) of them in their response, that person either doesn’t want to tell you something or they are just too disorganized to go back through your email and make sure they answered all your questions.
- Fluff words: If a job posting is full of phrases like “exposure” “great experience” or “opportunity for lots of ongoing work” without any mention of real compensation, don’t even bother replying. These phrases are not bad in themselves; only when paired with a lack of price should they bring up a red flag. “Opportunity for ongoing work” is a wonderful phrase if there is a price. However, also be a little cautious of this phrase when paired with a very small price per project. This is totally fine if each project takes you about ten minutes (short descriptions, rewrites, small proofreads), but you need to determine exactly what the projects entail and how long each will take.
Ways to Protect Yourself
- Lack of detail: Ask yourself if there is an explanation. For instance, I work with authors a lot, and many are hesitant to reveal too much about their work on public forums. Especially when they need a ghostwriter. They usually have a line at the end of the ad that says, “please contact for more details.” This is a good indicator that the lack of info isn’t a lack of knowledge on the poster’s part, but simply a desire to discuss the project at length in a more private setting with a writer or editor they have fielded through the application process. If there is no real reason for a lack of info, it probably means there is something about the job the person is withholding so as not to turn away applicants or because the person hasn’t given any thought to what they need. Your time is better spent applying to jobs that you can actually determine are a good fit.
- Ask for a sample: If it’s an editing sample, edit it and time yourself. If it’s a sample of writing similar to what the client wants, see if it’s a voice and style you can match, how much research it will require, and try to estimate how much time you will need to invest to do it right.
- Calculate the hourly rate: If it’s a fixed-price project, estimate how many hours you’ll need to complete it (samples help with this), and then divide the fixed price by the hours needed and see if the rate still sounds good.
- Trust your gut: It will try to warn you when you pick up on signs that a client will be demanding or indecisive. Your brain will try to convince you that you need the samples and the money, but trust me, you don’t need the grief. If a client avoids answering questions or starts adding on more and more expectations and responsibilities for the job without raising the payment, go with your gut and decline the offer.
- The exception: If the job is a large project with a great, professional rate that will pay your bills for the next few months, it is up to you to weigh and balance the headache of dealing with a demanding client against the price. Someone paying a very high rate for a long-term project is probably doing so because they know the value of your work, and they probably know exactly what they want, which entitles them to have much higher expectations and be more demanding (within reason). A larger, well-paying project may be worth the trouble of an overly needy or indecisive client, but if you are just starting out and getting smaller assignments, it’s best to just move on and keep your peace of mind intact.