You can’t be a freelance writer without clients. But you can’t enjoy your job as a freelancer if your clients make you want to rip your hair out. You are fully in charge of your freelance writing business, and you have the power to only work with clients who bring you joy by making projects pleasurable. The project may be challenging, but the client never should be. But, finding good clients is sometimes easier said than done, especially when you’re first getting started and wading through job board postings while you build up your network and credibility.
So how do you avoid the nightmare clients—the ones who can’t seem to decide what they want, want you to deliver at impossible speeds, change their minds halfway through the project, and/or dodge payments?
1. Define Your Ideal Client
In order to find good clients that hit all your preferred check boxes, you first need to define those check boxes. If you don’t define your ideal client, you will 1) waste time clicking on job posts and scouring the websites of companies/individuals that won’t totally mesh with your services 2) be more likely to strike a deal with a client before realizing there’s something about them or their project that’s going to drive you crazy.
All freelancers want/need their clients to be communicative, trustworthy, pleasant to speak with, and willing to pay professional rates for high quality work. From there, your preferences will depend on your niche and your personality. You may need your client to be highly organized in order to do your job and/or keep you sane, while another freelancer may thrive in a bit of semi-controlled chaos. You may need your client to be highly engaged in the project in order to do your job properly, while another freelancer may just require or prefer the client to give them the bare bones of the project and then step back.
Think about the sort of relationship you will need with your client in order to best do your job. Also think about the personality type of your ideal client. Finally, decide which aspects of your ideal client you could live without if needed and which aspects are total deal breakers if not present.
2. Read the Signs
Once you have your ideal client check boxes in place, you can start checking them off or seeing warning signs early.
You want your client to be organized? The job posts you respond to should have clearly defined sections about what the job entails, what the client is looking for in a freelancer, and exactly what they want you to include in your proposal. If you’re cold emailing and you get a bite, you should be able to judge the client’s organization level fairly quickly once communication begins. How long does it take the client to respond to you? Did they answer all of your questions about their needs or the project? Do they have material to give you? Or did they offer to gather materials for you? All of those things will let you know what type of client you’re dealing with.
But let’s talk about some of the common warning signs that a potential client doesn’t meet the four main check boxes: communicative, trustworthy, pleasant, and willing to pay professional rates.
If a job post only gives 2 or 3 sentences about the project, you’re probably not dealing with a communicative client. The posting doesn’t need to be super organized into bold headers and fine details, but it needs to at least define what the project is, what the client wants the freelancer to do, what their budget is, and what requirements they want their freelancer to meet. If they don’t have these things, they probably haven’t really thought the project through and haven’t bothered to give much thought to what hiring a freelancer entails. They are likely to be a bit wishy-washy while they figure out what they want, and they probably won’t be very helpful during the course of the project. They may even end up being the nightmare client who won’t give you any clear answers about what they want no matter how many times you ask or rephrase the question, but then totally flip out on you when you deliver the final product because “This isn’t what I wanted!” OR They may just have no idea what freelancer writers (in any niche) really do or how much they are paid, in which case, replying is just a total waste of your time.
If a job post says something like “I don’t have a huge budget” or lists the budget as “to be discussed,” be cautious. Look at the rest of the posting. Does this person appear to know what they want from their freelancer and understand the value a freelancer can bring? Then it’s probably worth responding just to see. You may be able to negotiate a fair price that fits the client’s budget. That “to be discussed” could just mean they want to talk more about the project parameters and your experience before they define a price. However, if the post barely gives any info and gives one of these red flags concerning money, don’t waste your time crafting a proposal; that person is paying peanuts. If you see anything like “This _________ is going to be HUGE! You’ll get tons of exposure!” just run for the hills and never look back. That person wants free work.
Personality rarely comes through in job postings, but once you start discussing the possibility of working together and further defining the parameters of the work, you’ll be able to get a general sense of that person’s attitude just in that back-and-forth.
If you’re cold emailing, you can’t start reading red flags until the potential client responds to your pitch, so make sure you have a good amount of correspondence with that person before finalizing a contract.
3. Trust Your Gut
You have instincts for a reason. If something feels off to you, if your gut is screaming that you aren’t going to click with this client or that the client seems a bit flighty or dodgy, listen. You’re usually right. I had bad feelings about a few of my first clients, but I was brand new at this and I wanted to get those first few payments in the bag. I either didn’t get paid nearly enough or the client turned out to be a nightmare to work with.
One time it was both. This client’s job posting was pretty detailed, and he was pleasant enough in his correspondence. I was supposed to proofread two-page articles for $10 a pop. That wouldn’t have been bad at all … had the articles really only needed proofreading. The test edit I did (unpaid), took me nearly two hours it was so horrible. Frankly, the writer was nearly illiterate. The client said he loved my test, but then he suddenly went quiet for nearly a month during our initial correspondence. Then he came back and said he’d hired someone else (and hadn’t notified the other applicants), but they hadn’t worked out. There were red flags all over the place, and I got a hinky feeling in my stomach every time I talked to the guy, but I wanted to put the job on my resume. Big mistake. The free edit I did was apparently fabulous, but when I did the exact same thing for money and it came time to pay up (after he went silent again and I prodded him with an email), he said it was “frankly disappointing” and would need to be redone. When it came down to it, he wanted to pay me $10 to totally rewrite an article he’d paid a non-native English speaker to write for $15. No thanks!
And I could have avoided the whole situation if I’d just trusted my gut.
4. Solid Communication Before the Contract
Having at least two or three emails back and forth before finalizing a project deal is essential. I’ve already talked about using initial communication to gauge the client’s personality and sniff out warning signs, but you also need to make sure you’re hashing out as much of the project scope as possible before beginning work.
You need to understand exactly what the client wants. Sometimes the client doesn’t have the full vision of the project in mind yet, and they need you to tell them exactly what they need. Sometimes they think they want one thing, but after assessing the material, you realize they need something else. For instance, I have had prospective ghostwriting clients who thought their existing material was near publishing ready and that they only needed me to make a few additions, when it fact the whole book still needed a lot of work and had numerous plot holes. If you just take a client’s word for it when it comes to the state of existing material or if you only get a vague description of what work you’ll be expected to do, you may end up underselling yourself. You may also work up a contract that is too vague and does not properly denote exactly what you are responsible for at the agreed upon price. Some clients will take advantage of that (whether knowingly or not) by adding on new elements to the project that you had not anticipated.
Without proper communication beforehand, even a pleasant, well-paying client can become a stress headache. But if you take the proper steps to protect yourself and to get to know your potential client, you can make sure you only collaborate with people who value your work and make your workday a pleasure.