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6 Ways Freelance Writers Can Protect Themselves from Bad Clients

You’ve probably heard the horror stories about freelance writers getting taken to the cleaners by bad clients who:

  • Insist on paying under-market rates
  • Are a pain to work with
  • Don’t pay on time… or at all

None of us want to get taken advantage of or live in misery working for dishonest, cheap or unprofessional clients. In my four years as a freelance writer, these are the techniques I’ve used to avoid falling into the “bad client” trap.

Don’t Get Taken Advantage of by Bad Clients 

The following strategies fall into two categories:

  1. Avoid bad clients altogether by recognizing them ahead of time and scaring them off.
  2. Sidestep unprofessional client behavior once you’re under contract.

By creating and adhering to certain practices in your business, you can discourage difficult clients from wanting to work with you, and learn to recognize the danger signs of prospects that spell trouble.

Your policies can also set the tone for professional interactions. Start off a professional relationship by clearly setting out your policies and then following them.

Here are six specific ways you can create policies that scare off bad actors and garner professional respect from your good clients.

  1. Get a Deposit Up Front 

Charging a deposit before you begin work is a great way to screen prospective clients, because the cheap and dishonest clients usually aren’t going to want to pay money up front. So if a client is unwilling to pay a deposit, this should be a red flag for you.

Deposits also provide much-needed cash flow on the front end of a project. When you take into account the fact that it can take weeks or even months for a project to be completed and then go through billing and payment, having some of the money up front can do wonders for helping you keep your own bills paid on time.

How much should you charge as a deposit? It’s really up to you. My policy is to charge 50% up front to start the project, and 50% upon project completion. I sometimes modify this depending on the client and situation, but I especially charge all new clients a deposit to make sure they’re serious.

  1. Charge More 

Another way you can scare off shady prospects is by charging at or above a healthy market rate for your services. If you rely on freelancing to make a living, this is not optional; it’s essential.

Even if you’re freelancing as a side hustle, it’s a good idea to charge what you would if you were a full-timer because you only have so much time on the side to dedicate, and because it’s a good way to eliminate cheapskates.

Know that if you charge rock-bottom prices, you will get rock-bottom clients. Your prices should be fair for the quality of writing you do, but not cheap.

  1. Use Your Own Contract 

Having a contract is another way to scare off prospects thinking of cheating you, and there are other benefits as well:

  • Whoever writes the contract sets the terms. While you want your contract to be fair to the client too, you can have your terms already in there and all the client has to do is say yes or ask for a specific change.
  • A contract gives you leverage in case of a dispute. It’s helpful to have something in writing to point to if things start to get off track, and which gives you leverage in court if needed.
  • Using your contract saves you time. It’s faster to fill in the prospect’s information in your own template and send it off than it is to read through someone else’s 10-page contract.
  1. Follow Your Own Policies 

Once you decide on your policies and put them in your contract, make sure you follow them. For example, if you have a policy that says you will bill the client seven days after delivery (regardless of whether they’ve responded to or approved your work) follow through and send an invoice on the appropriate date. Charge late fees if necessary, according to your contract terms.

  1. Know When to Cut Your Losses 

If you have a client who is slow to pay, not paying, not responding or any other warning signs, don’t keep working for them in the hopes that things will get better.

Stop work mid-project if necessary until they are current on their payments. And if they’ve been a real pain to work with, consider whether it’s worth taking any future projects from them.

  1. Trust Your Instincts 

In addition to these practical strategies, I encourage you to let your intuition guide you when deciding whether to say yes or no to a project.

You may notice behavior that sends up red flags such as:

  • Hardball negotiation tactics
  • Chaotic and disorganized communication
  • Over-the-top requests
  • Rude or simply unprofessional behavior

But sometimes there won’t be anything concrete to point to as to why a situation doesn’t feel right. Trust this feeling. The force is strong with you!

For more on this topic, Anne has a great post on reasons why you might want to say “no thanks to a freelance writing gig.

How Do You Protect Yourself? 

Now it’s your turn. Share in the comments and tell us: What have you done to protect yourself from bad clients and unprofessional behavior?

Sara KornAbout Sara Korn – I’m a freelance copywriter, ghostwriter and content writer who loves finding creative ways to write content that gives both readers and clients what they want. Freelance writers can learn my step-by-step pre-writing strategy in my recent post on the Eminent SEO blog.

{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Max

    Really informative post, Sara. I definitely think it’s right to write your own contract before working with a client. So often I see friends/colleagues burned by companies looking for cheap content.

  • This is a perfect guide for all the freelance writers out there. Everyone should check out this post. Everything is explained so properly in detail. I absolutely loved this post. Hope it helps everybody the way it helped me. Thanks!

  • Mohd Aswad

    Yup. Its true. We do need to clarify about our terms to the client. This will help to prevent us from facing bad clients in the future.

    Thanks for the post

    • Glad it was helpful Mohd. It’s definitely worthwhile to take some time to think about what terms are important to you before jumping into working on a project.

  • Great post, Sara. I definitely think it’s right to write your own contract before working with a client. So often I see friends/colleagues burned by companies looking for cheap content.

    • I agree… I always right my own contracts or letters of agreement.

    • So true, Max. There are so many companies looking for cheap content that it can feel like there are no good-paying gigs out there. They’re there, they’re just harder to find, so persistence and standing by your value is key to success.

  • Thanks for this helpful post.

    • You’re welcome.

      • I’m glad you found it helpful Andrea! It’s great to be able to share this wisdom and help other writers avoid these problems.

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