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Anne Wallingford, WordSmith


Freelancer's FAQ



Clients—they're our source of assignments, but sometimes of roadblocks as well.

In a nationally attended teleconference led by Margaret L. Moser, participants in the Editorial Freelancers Association's (EFA) New Freelancers (NFL) affinity group from as far afield as Florida, California, and Alaska learned about red flags warning them of such roadblocks and how to respond to them from Laurie Lewis, former EFA co-exec, former co-leader of the NFL affinity group and author of What to Charge: Pricing Strategies for Freelancers and Consultants.

Although clients have a vested interest in their projects, Lewis cautioned they also may have little understanding of the services provided by editors. Omens of “trouble down the road” are often revealed as verbal red flags. Lewis provided a list of these warning signs.

    1. Client says, “We don't pay a lot, but we can offer steady work.”
This red flag may be a particular hazard for new freelancers. Positive and negative aspects of this situation include the following, If you're looking for “steady work” and want to commit to, say, 10 hours a week, this kind of arrangement could be beneficial.

  • Accepting a low rate means this client will expect to continue paying that fee.
  • Doing most of your work for a low-paying client leaves you no time to search for more lucrative assignments.
    2. Client says, “We need you in-house 40 hours a week.”
This stipulation turns an assignment into contract work (“permalance”) and raises several concerns:
  • If the assignment's short, say two to six weeks, it may be okay.
  • This situation turns you into an employee, but without the benefits.
  • The assignment leaves no time to prospect for other clients or projects, and limits the variety of material on which you're working.
  • Working exclusively at the client's premises may affect your freelance status with the IRS.
To resolve this, propose working parameters, such as working the first two weeks at the client's office, then completing the project from home. Suggest a split schedule — working two days per week at the client's location and three days from home.

    3. Client says, “It's in pretty good shape.” This trap catches new and experienced freelancers. Clients virtually always think this about their documents — and have little concept of the work that editors perform.

    4. Client says, “It shouldn't take long.” This could mean a short turnaround, or you may be immersed in the editorial equivalent of “Waiting for Godot.”
    Lewis advised freelancers to ask clients about their expectations regarding the projected number of hours or the amount of work to be accomplished in an hour. If they have budgeted 20 hours for a project that reasonably could take longer, you may end up in a financial bind.

    5. Client says, “I haven't seen it yet, but it's in pretty good shape,” and might add, “You can just do a fast edit.”
    In this case, either run for the hills or review red flags 3 and 4.

    6. Client says, “We should have the manuscript ready for you in two days and we need it back by the end of the week.”
The client is tying a rather loose availability date for the material to a definite delivery date. Lock this client down with an agreement that, if the material is not ready for you when anticipated, your delivery date will be adjusted by the same amount of time.

    7. Client says, “I need this proofread.” Many clients don't understand the difference between proofreading and the various levels of editing. In most cases, these individuals actually need a copyeditor. In some instances, clients may be trying to obtain a “cheap edit” by calling it proofreading.

    8. Client says, “We've had another freelancer work on this, and s/he wasn't very good.” Although the previous freelancer may have been unskilled, this raises concerns about the client's abilities and expectations, such as:

  • The client may not be able to articulate expectations in a way you can understand.
  • The client may expect you to turn garbage into gold.
  • The client may not respect freelancers.
  • The client may be so invested in the material that s/he takes editorial changes as a personal affront. Beware the client who tells you, "My secretary and my wife read it, and they think it's wonderful."
Again, break down the assignment with the client to get a clear list of expectations. If this can't be done, it may be prudent to walk away.

    9. Client says, “I inherited this job.” Lewis said this red flag is common in a time of downsizing. The warnings it raises include:

  • The client doesn't know much about the project and may not be able or willing to get you the details you need.
  • The client doesn't care about the project, won't assume ownership, and won't be diligent about follow-through or with processing your invoices.

    10. The issue isn't a client's words — rather, it's the lack of words. If clients dither, are inarticulate or are unresponsive, your progress will be stymied. If you can't get them to talk to you at the beginning of the project, you won't get the details or feedback needed later.
      When clients don't express clear expectations:

  • You have no way of knowing, and delivering, what is needed.
  • If the client doesn't like the work you turn in, s/he'll blame you for a bad job.
  • The individual(s) with whom you're dealing may not be the ultimate client — and may be getting unclear instructions from above.
    11. Insufficient client data. Reputable clients should have no objections to providing names of an individual contact and organization, along with an address, e-mail, phone number, and fax number.

    12. Documenting the assignment. Some clients seem taken aback when you request a contract or letter of agreement. However, you should get a formal contract, a letter of agreement or at least an e-mail detailing the assignment before starting work. If the client doesn't provide this, send an e-mail laying out the project as you understand it, including an overall description of the work to be done, the work stages, fees and dates (including turnaround for client feedback and timing of payment). Mention the need for renegotiation if the schedule changes.
    Request a client response by saying, “Please get back to me by MM/DD with confirmation or any questions. If I don't hear back from you via e-mail by this date, I will understand your confirmation of the above terms.” You might also leave a space for the client's signature and request a fax of the signed document.

Attended by both “newbies” and seasoned freelancers, the session illustrated that these cautionary red flags are common to clients all over the country. As Lewis pointed out, we editors often must morph into educators — to help clients and ourselves understand exactly what is needed on any given project.

The article “Red Flags for Freelancers” first appeared in the Editorial Freelancers Association newsletter, The Freelancer (Vol. XXXI No. 5. May–June 2007).

The content for this article springs from the broad freelance experience of writer/editor Laurie Lewis, whose medical and corporate communications work appears in print and electronic formats. Lewis is the author of What to Charge: Pricing Strategies for Freelancers and Consultants, which may be purchased at Laurie Lewis can be contacted directly at .  

Article author Pat Davies is a writer/editor with 18 years' experience—staff and freelance—in educational materials, Web sites, business documentation, nonprofits, and more. Davies may be reached at

© 2007 Pat Davies. All rights reserved.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007 updated Tuesday, August 07, 2007