Avoid Loser Writing Clients With This Quickie Checklist

Carol Tice

freelance writer tries to find ideal client Bad clients are the bane of every freelance writer’s life.

Once we get one, we tend to feel stuck. It can take ages to find a better client and fire that annoying, low-paying client go.

I actually heard recently from one writer who’d been writing for one underpaying client for 12 years. She wanted to know how she could get a raise out of them. After you’ve been their doormat for over a decade, that’s going to be tough.

Please, don’t do this!

Luckily, there is a fairly simple way to avoid getting stuck in long-term relationships with bad freelance writing clients. It has to do with getting in touch with how you feel when you’re offered a gig.

Call it your Martian antenna. Your spidey-sense. Your inner homing pigeon.

But whatever you call it, you have an instinct within you that can help you detect bad client situations — and I’m going to teach you how to use it right now. It’s one of four critical factors you want to see to feel confident this is a great client for you to take on.

1. Listen to your gut

Writers have instincts about whether a client is going to be good for them. Unfortunately, in our rush to book another dollar of income, we often ignore them.

Instead, I want you to focus on what your gut tells you about the client.

When you’re talking to them, do you feel relaxed? Are you having a good time? Or do you feel sort of nervous and sick to your stomach.

Do they seem sort of crazy? Like a big bullshitter?

Most importantly, could you imagine yourself working with this person over a prolonged period?

If the answer is ‘no,’ you want to pass.

For instance, I once got a reach-out from a guy who wanted to do an initial Skype conversation. I dial him up, and the guy wants to free-associate with me about his vague writing project ideas, while Rush Limbaugh blasts on TV in the background — and he walks his treadmill, in a sweaty t-shirt. I thought he was a bombastic blowhard, and I quickly passed.

I prefer people who treat me professionally, so my “gut” said no on this one.

Another gut-check moment is if you ask about a contract or an up-front deposit, and the client balks. This is a big red flag that they don’t deal much with freelancers, and won’t be a pleasant experience for you.

When you only work for clients who make you feel good, life is good. And you tend to earn more. You’ll do better work for clients you like, and who you get a good vibe from. So tune in to what your gut is telling you about the client, and follow its lead.

2. Qualify your prospect

Besides relying on your gut instincts about whether this is a growth opportunity for you and you like the client on a personal level, you need to research your prospect to see if they’re a good publication or company to work for.

This doesn’t have to take days to do, thanks to The Google (as we old bags like to say). Google “problems at X company” or “X magazine sucks” and see what comes up. Can be a real eye-opener sometimes.

Also, be sure to ask around your network – anybody worked for this client before? How slow do they pay? How well?

Finally, if it’s a company, return to The Google to check them out on Hoover’s or Manta, or find them in a local business journal. See if you can get a sense of annual revenue, or of subscriber numbers, for a magazine. Read a magazine’s advertisers’ guide and find out if readers are plentiful, or well-off. You want at least one or the other.

Find out how long this prospect has been around. For a company, you want at least $1 million in revenue — and $10 million is better. $100 million, even better. I recently spoke to one writer who said she was marketing to small businesses with $100,000 in revenue. Honey, that’s just too small to have any kind of a serious marketing budget.

3. Think reputation

Next, to make sure you’ve got a great client on the hook, consider how important reputation is to them.

Could they not pay you, without damage to their business? Are they shadowy figures that only do business online, from some far-off land? Ask yourself if a well-placed tweet about your overdue payment would cause them big trouble.

I prefer to look for companies and magazines that have worked hard to build their reputation, and are motivated to keep it.

For instance, one current client of mine is a mergers-and-acquisitions consultant. It’s critical that he uphold an impeccable reputation, so that clients trust him to sell their businesses and get them the money they need to retire. It would be unthinkable for him to stiff me on $1,000 he owes me — it’s just not worth the reputation risk.

That means I can relax and enjoy the gig. I’ve got no worries about payment.

4. Ask this question

Finally, as I look back on my favorite gigs — the wonderful editors and companies that paid super-great — I find they have one thing in common. It wasn’t so much the great pay, though that was usually there.

Here’s the key question to ask to find out if this is really a client with terrific potential to help you career:

Is there an opportunity to learn something new here?

Nearly every great client I’ve had provided me with opportunities to stretch my skills. They pushed me, forced me to dig deeper, to do one more interview, to rewrite it one more time, to learn a new writing style or project type.

At Forbes, for instance, they actually put on training Webinars for the blogging crew! I love them for it. I’ve learned a ton from them about how to get a big audience for a blog post, and it keeps me engaged and excited to write for them.

I’ve had other clients where they offered me the opportunity to learn new types of writing — to write my first case study, special report, and white paper, for instance.

Many writers avoid these “stretch” gigs, worrying that they won’t be able to pull them off. That’s not the right attitude for a successful freelance writer.

Instead, think of yourself as a first responder, like the firemen and medics who run towards the fire, while everyone else flees. This is your role as a freelance writer — you should be compulsively drawn to the challenge of executing a tough assignment.

Nearly all the really great-paying assignments require this sort of daring.

So take the tough gigs. Keep learning. When you think you’ve learned all you can with a client, it’s probably time to start looking to replace them with one that will challenge you in new ways.

How do you avoid bad clients? Leave a comment and add your tips.

Freelance writer tries to avoid the bad clients


  1. Fabienne Raphaël


    Thanks again for this great article. There is no way we can go wrong if we follow these steps.

    I particularly like the 2nd tip: qualify the prospect. Unfortunately, we can tend to accept a non-qualified prospect in slow or stagnant periods of our business. Long term though, it might make us lose time and money. Plus, it won’t be a good experience at all.

    I had an experience with someone who wanted to parter with me on a project, but forgot to show up at his own office, for the appointment. If I had taken the time to do some research and go through my network, I would have known that it was not worth it.

    Moral of the story: do your homework!

    Thanks Carol!

    • Carol Tice

      Right on, Fabienne — I hear from too many writers who get an email from someone named “Joe” (no last name, no company name, no address or company URL)…and then they waste hours creating a bid, maybe taking a Skype meeting, only to find out it’s a real low-pay opportunity.

      • Ashley Denefield

        I just had that experience a couple of days ago. I went through an extensive process and took a Skype meeting only to find out the job (when I analyzed the hour to dollar ratio along with the length of the project) would end up being about $12 an hour. No thanks. (40k for a completed project sounds great right?? It was a trap).

        I think it’s easy for newbies to cave-in when the desperation lump begins to form. However, I’ve learned that if you’re dedicated, professional, and produce top-quality content you will be just fine!

        • Adeline Yuboco

          I completely agree with you Ashley!

          One of the reasons why I think there are loads of clients out there that are only willing to pay pennies yet demand superb content is because there are lots of other writers out there that are willing to do it. I recently had an experience where the client told me that out of the different writers that he interviewed from my country, my rate was by far the highest. Way, way, way, WAY above the average that other writers from my country are asking. He was asking me to lower my rate to a measly $1/hour. Can you believe that? I simply told them that if you want quality writing, you have to be willing to pay for it.

  2. Bonnie Nicholls

    Excellent post. I’ve been full-time freelancing for six months, and I’m learning to do this. I recently passed on a potential client who I knew wasn’t a good match for me (personality). A couple of other potential clients I won’t work with because the work would be a one-off, isn’t the type of work I would want to do again (resumes), and the pay would be low. As for your last question, that is crucial in building my business. If I can learn something new to add to my arsenal, then I’ll do it and might eve charge less just for the opportunity. Of course, if you’re working with a company with a good budget, you don’t have to charge less, because they’ve hired you for the ability you’ve already shown through work samples. I can usually figure things out.

    I keep telling myself that this is all part of the learning process and not to beat myself up for any mistakes I might make.

    • Carol Tice

      Yeah — you want to stop thinking in terms of “I might even charge less.” Instead think, “I might even charge MORE.” When you start qualifying and finding better clients, you can stop underpricing, because these clients are not about price — they’re about finding the right writer for the gig and getting the result the client wants.

  3. Susan Sommer

    Good advice. Thanks. So what’s the best way to “reject” a potential client if they have approached you and you don’t think it’s a gig for you? I’m meeting soon with a potential new client who found me on EFA and his emails are very clipped and sparse on info. My gut is giving me a red flag about his communication style or skills. If I decide it’s not a project for me, how should I tell him? Refer him to another possible editor?

    • Carol Tice

      It’s not a big deal, Susan. Say, “You know, I think this just isn’t a fit for me.” I try to refer them if possible, if they’re not a total nutjob.

      At this point, I get leads via email nearly every day and pass on about 95% of them. I refer them to the Den job board link: https://freelancewritersden.com/hire-a-writer. 😉

      So what’s EFA?

      • Sherri

        Love this question: “Is there an opportunity to learn something new here?” I think if you keep this in mind it will keep you from being stuck in the same ole, same ole.

  4. Kevin Carlton

    Hi Carol

    All else equal, why on earth would someone pass up on an opportunity to learn something new?

    The more you learn, the more you have to offer. And the more opportunities open up for you.

    Yet I know so many people who just don’t wanna get their hands dirty and work outside their comfort zone.

    Worst of all, I hate it when writers say a particular project’s too boring for them.

    I think it was Linda Formichelli who once said you can grow to love any gig if you really care about it. I’ve certainly found that to be true.

  5. Julie Anne

    I had my share of tough times with bad clients. I would wind up frustrated because I didn’t listen to my insticts. I advise other people to not work for people against your better judgment. You deserve better.

  6. Perry Rose

    I’ve had my share of idiots…even from big companies. But I took on the job anyway, as long as I got the 50% upfront.

    I never pass on anyone if they are willing to send me a check.

    A lot of the times it didn’t work out, but I was ok with it, because I still got paid good money for the time I put in. I just moved on to the next project.

  7. Mitch

    Great article, Carol.

    Just recently “lost” a brand new client who paid VERY well.

    Funny thing was: I felt a huge relief.

    In fact, after the interview, they said they didn’t think I was the right resource for their company.

    And I was so happy! I thanked him for saying so and I meant it!

    What I did not tell him is that I felt EXTREMELY uncomfortable during the interview. Something wasn’t right.

    Anyway, the money would have been nice but I really feel like I dodged a bullet.


  8. Cassandra

    I’m just starting to work my way into the writing world, but I’ve been a freelance artist (digital art and jewelry) since about 2010. Usually I’m working for younger people who just want some custom art, but I’ve also had a couple bigger, longer projects.

    I do agree that if a client gives you sparce answers (or doesn’t answer your questions at all) or has really poor grammar, that’s usually the first tip off. Not always, but usually. Others will micromanage to the point where you should be able to read their minds– and there is a difference between wanting to work with them because it’s a challenge, and feeling like you can never please them, and you kind of cringe with every correspondence you have with them. I can’t explain what one person types back that makes me feel a certain way, but my gut has rarely been wrong about the outcome of the commission. Definitely listen to your gut! I know I should more. It can mean the difference between getting paid or having the experience be a waste of your time.

    I definitely like the Google tip for freelance writing. I never thought to specifically type in “— sucks,” which is what unhappy reviewers would report. 🙂 Thanks!

  9. Peggy Carouthers

    Great tips as always, Carol. This is well-timed, too, since I’m currently reaching out to new clients. Thanks for the advice.

    • Carol Tice

      Glad I could help, Peggy!

      Personally, I’m addicted to learning, so I just gravitate to gigs that sound really challenging and at the outside edge of what I’ve done before…and I think that’s been the secret to earning a lot. 😉 You keep building new skills.

  10. Jessica

    You know it’s funny, because nearly every assignment I was getting in the beginning had to do with areas I had little experience with or using a medium I’ve never used before, and if I hadn’t just closed my eyes and jumped in I never would have learned how to do it. Even so, though, I still struggle with the idea of submitting for work that I feel I don’t know how to do. Guess I just have to get over it!

    • Carol Tice

      I’ve gotten plenty of weird offers in my time, Jessica, where I had no idea why they called me. For instance, once I got called to write a recruiting package for nurses by a hospital! I’d never written healthcare as a reporter, or written for hospitals, or been a nurse — I really had no connection to either the industry or the type of writing called for. So I got to learn a lot!

      That willingness to just say “What the heck!” and dive in anyway can lead to some great pay and opportunities.

  11. Amy

    Great advice Carol.

    I love that this starts with listening to your gut. Every time I bypass myself, for money, experience, or whatever other reason, I regret it. Also, qualifying quickly and before saying yes. I think in general, freelance writing is like dating. If you’re desperate, or willing to run around with anyone, you’ll pay the price. If you step back and check companies out, it’s worth it.


  12. Katharine Paljug

    You’re so right with your first point about going with your gut. Every time I’ve ignored a bad feeling about a new client, I’ve regretted it. I’m trying to get better at listening to my instincts!

  13. Pooja

    Hey Carol,

    Wow – this one really hit a chord with me:

    “Is there an opportunity to learn something new here?”

    It’s an essential question most of us forget to ask, esp. when we’re new. Because when you’re just starting, you care about the pay, and would take up any assignment in any niche that’s remotely interesting or value-adding to your future.

    Guilty as charged! Thankfully, I’ve had this hammered into my head in the 4+ years as a writer 🙂 Oh and I also say “No” so much often now.

    Great tips as always.

    Thank you!


  14. Betti Patterson

    Hi, Carol.
    As usual, I get the absolute best advice to be found anywhere from you. So true!
    Thank you.

  15. Terence Collins

    I qualify clients early on on my website by saying “You know I may not be the best fit for what you need. Let’s have a focused 20-minute conversation to discover if we’re a good fit.”

    I believe this accomplishes 3 things:
    1. Shows my professionalism
    2. Shows I am NOT desparate and am willing to decline work
    3. Allows me to exhibit my knowledge and close the deal

    Great post, Carol. Thanks for your always great ideas.

    • Carol Tice

      I love your approach, Terence! At this point, I’m saying something fairly similar to prospects as well. “I don’t take on many new clients these days…so please tell me more about exactly what you’re looking for and when you need it by, so I can tell you if it’s for me. If not, I’m happy to refer you someone.”

  16. Taylor

    Oh Carol! I read this post months ago. And I took on a client against all my better instincts. Now I’m wondering if I’ll even get paid for my work. I knew it was a hot stove and I touched it. I’m going to be WAY BETTER about qualifying clients, plus I need to write my own terms and conditions. It’s half my fault for allowing there to be ambiguity.

    • Carol Tice

      We all learn as we go on how tough we need to be on setting boundaries with clients, Taylor — sounds like you learned a lot on this one. 😉


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