5 Signs The Writing Client Isn’t Clear On The Project & Why You Should Walk Away

by Anne Wayman

missing the writing targetDo you ever walk away from an offer of freelance writing work?

If you don’t, you probably should, or at least be prepared to do so. This is particularly true when the potential client lacks clarity about the writing project their offering to you.

Here are 5 symptoms that a client isn’t clear on the writing project they want you to write:

  • Can’t tell you clearly why they want the writing done. If you’re to do a good job writing what they want you need to know why they want this particular piece of writing done. The reasons can be almost anything, as long as they are stated clearly and you understand what their aiming at. Without this clarity you’re likely to find you simply can’t please them.


  • Can’t or won’t tell you where the writing will appear. Sometimes potential clients think they need to hide details from everyone, including the freelancer they hire. It’s totally okay if someone asks you to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but that should free them to discuss the project with you completely. If they aren’t they probably won’t give you the information you need to complete the writing job.

  • Seems not to care when the project is complete. When a potential client is vague about when they want the project complete warning bells go off in my mind. If they don’t care, why should I, and since final pay is usually tied to project completion, I want to know, at least roughly, when that will be.
  • Insists on an unrealistic deadline. On the other hand, a client who thinks a writing project can be completed in a flash is also unclear about what they are asking. Sometimes the solution is to charge a hefty surcharge for the fast turnaround. Often a better choice is to walk away from a project you can’t do well.


  • Is unwilling to give you details on how and when you’ll get paid. You’re a professional and you should be treated professionally, particularly when it comes to pay. If the client seems reluctant to talk clearly about how much and when you’ll get paid, walk away.

A potential freelance writing client who exhibits any of these symptoms needs to get their act together before they hire you. Although your questions about the project may help them get clear, it’s their responsibility, not yours. Make sure you can work with a client before you take them on; your writing business will benefit from your clarity, and so will you.

How do you screen clients?

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Image from http://www.sxc.hu

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Reader November 11, 2011 at 10:42 am

The typos in this article begin 3 words in (that happens, I know) but they continue as long as I could continue reading. So I’ll try to say this nicely: Find an editor to help you get your good ideas out.

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James Allen August 28, 2014 at 7:12 am

I’m curious why the OP didn’t see fit to correct the obvious error Reader was kind enough to detail?

Or, at least, point out his own error: capitalization is incorrect within the sentence.

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Anne Wayman August 28, 2014 at 9:14 am

James, what does OP mean? And whose capitalization?

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Suzanne November 10, 2011 at 12:51 pm

When starting out, and interviewing, it can be really hard to say no to these. I had one group that tried to hire me to write an article with a subject matter expert who was refusing to cooperate! They couldn’t set up a time for him to talk to me within a reasonable time before the deadline, so I told them I couldn’t accomodate their schedule. Another time I was writing something for a doctor who had me sit in his office and write while he came in and out between patients! Fun stories…..

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Anne November 14, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Suzanne, you’re right, experience helps.

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Charlotte Rains Dixon November 9, 2011 at 1:39 pm

I recently worked with a business client who couldn’t get clear on what, exactly, she wanted in the copy I wrote for her. No matter what I wrote, it wasn’t right. The interesting thing was that her business reflected this lack of clarity, and is headed toward failure because of it. She paid me, but it was a frustrating experience, and so in the future I’ll be on the lookout for this type of confused client.

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Anne November 14, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Charlotte, you nailed it. Of course, once in awhile we get the chance to help someone toward clarity.

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Lori November 9, 2011 at 8:58 am

That second point alone is a deal-breaker for me, Anne. If they’re not disclosing something – even after I’m giving them a NDA, there’s something not right about it.

One time I worked for someone who didn’t tell me he wasn’t the end user. I knew because he was lousy at hiding it, but he was definitely hiring me to do the job he’d been hired to do. We had a contract and nothing more, so whatever he did with that copy – taking out all attributions for starters – fell directly on him should he get accused of plagiarism. I was never so glad to see the arse-end of a client before.
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Anne November 9, 2011 at 12:13 pm

And it’s so silly to try to hide something like that… chances are you would have been happy to do the work knowing that – instead he created an enemy, or close. sigh

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Grady Pruitt November 9, 2011 at 3:54 am

I’d agree with Maura. If I were getting paid to write for someone, I’d probably insist on a deposit, though I’d probably do one anywhere from 10% to 50%, depending on what I’m doing, who I’m doing it for, and what sort of relationship I had with the person. The other tips you have here are also important to keep in mind. I know I am not the most punctual person, but I do try to get things back on time or within a reasonably short time. At the same time, I wouldn’t sacrifice the quality of the work I do just to meet an unreasonable demand. That sort of thing should be looked at from the start.

Thanks for sharing!
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Anne November 9, 2011 at 11:58 am

Grady, yes… the clearer you and the client are in the beginning, the better.

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maura casey November 8, 2011 at 5:14 pm

I ask for a deposit of at least $500 before I write a word. If they are deadbeats, they will object, in which case, I won’t work with them.

Nearly every time I haven’t asked for a deposit I’ve regretted it.

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Anne November 9, 2011 at 11:57 am

Maura, you’ve worked it out well. Good for you and thanks for posting this.

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