How to Convince Prospects You’re a Pro Writer

Carol Tice

How to convince clients you're a professional freelance writer. Makealivingwriting.comDo you worry that you don’t come across as a professional writer — that prospects can smell you’re new here?

We’ve been talking about this lately on the Freelance Writers Den.

It seems that when writers are afraid of being revealed as a greenhorn, they tend to clam up.

But that’s exactly the wrong thing to do.

Seasoned pro writers ask loads of questions before they get started on a project. Here are a few questions that didn’t get asked by me and my writer friends recently that led to grief:

  • What’s the deadline?
  • What sort of sources would you like to see in this story?
  • What’s the most important message you want to communicate in this piece?
  • Who is the audience for this piece?
  • Were you wanting a light rewrite of this, or a complete overhaul?
  • How many Web pages will I need to write?
  • What’s your budget for this project?

If you hired a plumber, you wouldn’t expect him to start laying pipe around your house without some pretty detailed instructions about exactly what you wanted done, when you needed it done by, and what you could pay, right?

As a freelance writer, you’re a contractor, too.

So ask questions.

If you get halfway into the project and have more questions, ask them, too. Editors will not bite. They’ll actually respect you for being up-front with your concerns.

Professional writers learn to present themselves professionally by…you guessed it…asking lots of questions!

Questions prevent train wrecks, where you turn in something so far off the mark it gets killed, or the client never wants to work with you again.

One more key thing to know:

Pros make mistakes, too.

If you’ve had an assignment go south on you and end badly, know that it’s happened to every writer out there.

Not every client turns out to be a fit. Some turn out to be certifiable and impossible to please. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out, and it’s not your fault.

Sometimes, it is your fault.

Once, I committed an atrocious error in a story about a major retailer. I was totally devastated. Then my editor said, “You know, I think you’ve written 500 articles for this paper since you came here. One of them had a big problem. That’s a pretty good track record.”

We’re not doing brain surgery. Nobody died from your mistake (hopefully!). You will often be forgiven. And in any case, no one mistake is likely to spell the end of your freelance writing career.

I actually had a situation recently where the first article I wrote for one Fortune 500 client was thrown away, and we started over with a new topic. I was mortified.

But they kept working with me.

There’s nothing to do but your best. Forgive yourself when you screw up.

And ask more questions next time.

Ever gotten in trouble because you didn’t ask a question? Leave a comment and tell us what happened.

Join my freelance writer community.


  1. Artem Gordinsky

    Thank you Carol! Makes a ton of sense to me:)

  2. Luana Spinetti

    Oh my! That’s relieving, Carol. 🙂 I’m a question-asker when it comes to work: both in writing and art commissions, I will ask a tons of questions to my committee until I know I’m doing what they expect me to do.

    I used to think all that question asking to be unprofessional and a sign of insecurity, but I’m proven wrong here and I’m SO glad I was!

    Thank you for more pearls of wisdom, Carol!

    ~ Luana S.

  3. Susan Johnston

    With magazines or websites, it’s smart to ask if there’s a house style guide you should follow. And when writing website copy, I usually ask “do you need meta data as well?” before sending a quote. I’ve found that some of my clients expect this but they assume it’s included so they don’t remember to ask. This question also shows that you’re web savvy.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Susan —

      Love your new site on WP — and the article you linked here…but I can’t find the social sharing buttons!

      • Susan Johnston

        You’re right, Carol! Still a bit of a work in progress. I need to add that, fix some of the permalinks, and update the blog as well.

        • Joseph

          Hi Susan, you have a great looking new WP site! 😉

          You may want to check out the “sexy bookmarks” plugin if you haven’t decided on something for social yet. TweetMeMe is also a good option for adding a Tweet button before and after posts.

          Feel free to send me an e-mail if you have any other questions. Congrats on the site! 🙂

  4. Bill Swan

    I’m in the middle of this very thing with a new non-profit. While they do know what their goal and mission is, I keep asking questions about the foundation of their work and the amount of work they would need from me. You would be surprised when questions show how firm of a grasp the prospective client has on their own project, or pieces of it.

    • Ruth Terry

      Thanks, Bill, for mentioning nonprofits… My experience working with nonprofits over the last year is that *even when they provide an answer* further on down the road I learn that the person I’m working with has…

      1) Not actually thought through ANY of these questions, they just gave me a number, date or expected audience off the cuff… then inevitably keep changing it.

      2) Not communicated these expectations to other staff my projects affect and/or found out if work is being duplicated. I’ve had a lot of work wasted. I still got paid, but still kinda felt like a waste of time…

      3) Asked me to produce something outside their responsibility—you’d be surprised how I’ve put together a promo piece for Fundraising, only to find out that’s really Marketing’s responsibility. In some cases, *the fundraising staff didn’t even know*.

      A lot of this boils down to internal communication, organizational culture and change management… Any ideas on questions to ask to get that info up front?

  5. Laurie Boris

    I ask a lot of questions…which once prompted a prospective client to respond, happily, that he was looking for an inquisitive mind in his writers. Great info, Carol!

    • Carol Tice

      Exactly — when you ask a lot, it says, “I’ve done this before, and I know what information I need to gather here. I know where the pitfalls are, and we’re going to avoid them.”

  6. Rajesh Rao

    I have goofed up recently and even just before i read your article. A major goof up. I allocated the same set of articles to two different writers and the other set that had to be allocated was left untouched. And when time came for submissions, the numbers didn’t add up. i am sweating like hell. And then I read your article. I was relieved a bit.


  7. Ruth - The Freelance Writing Blog

    Some of my best learned lessons were bourne from my worst mistakes. I have a prepared list if questions that I review at the start of each new project. After a couple of years of doing this, I still sometimes feel green. But often I think that works to my advantage – better than fancying myself a know-it-all.

    • Ruth Terry

      Hi Ruth!

      I work mostly with nonprofits (see my comment above), so my situation may be a bit different from yours, but I wanted to share anyway… After some real doozies, I started a similar list, which I plan to add as a short survey to my website’s contact form.

      My thought is that if I embed questions in the contact form—so “I can learn more about your needs and serve you better”—I can ask things that in person might put clients on the defensive and/or elicit an off-the-cuff response. So far, I’ve brainstormed the following:

      Tell me a bit about your agency’s culture.
      Have you worked with consultants/freelancers in the past and what type of work did they do?
      Briefly describe the project you need help with.
      What is the budget for this project?
      Is this a stand-alone project or this there potential for ongoing opportunities?
      Does your agency have a standard contract they are required to use with freelancers?

      I want to keep it as short as possible, but any additional suggestions anyone has would be lovely.

      (Btw, not sure about the wording on the last one, but I just started working with a hospital and realized that the my Client, the director of a sub-sub-sub department, has to go through the hospital’s HR/Legal department and can’t hire me under my usual terms. Not a crisis, but I sure wish I’d know this BEFORE I budgeted for my standard 25% retainer and anticipated paydates.)

      Thanks for reading my massively long comment!

  8. Tiffany Barry


    You have no idea how amazing it was to see this in my inbox this morning! I took on a client for a small bio service at the very end of last week, and it ended up turning into a major web content project. I was excited that something so small turned into something much bigger, and I completely forgot to ask all my questions before beginning. I felt like a newb all over again! Needless to say, this week has been a tough one, and my nerves are frayed, but this has helped me take a few deep breaths. I messed up and made it harder on myself, but it happens, and I can only go forward from here.

    Thanks for posting this! Judging from the other comments already left, I think we’re all happy to have the encouragement!

  9. Karen Banes

    Great advice Carol. I think for me the chances of making mistakes increased with my experience. The first few assignments I got I was so careful with, checking every fact a dozen times, following every intruction to the letter, double checking I had followed instructions and then checking again. I probably drove my hourly rate down to next to nothing I spent so much time on those early assignments! As I grew more confident I wasn’t so careful and managed to make a few (thankfully fairly minor) mistakes. I think we need to do that occasionally to remind ourselves how important attention to detail is.

    • Ruth Terry

      Hi Karen,

      I definitely hear that! This week is my one-year anniversary for freelancing/consulting business and I’m re-evaluating what worked, what didn’t, etc.

      My goal for the upcoming year is to automate as much as I can. This year, I spent SO MUCH TIME checking and rechecking documents and feeling insecure about contracts, etc. I also built a relationship with clients/got myself invested in projects WAY too fast, which caused problems down the road when expectations weren’t met. (Turns out even if expectations aren’t communicated, they’re still apparently there…)

      Though I don’t want to lose the personal touch, I plan start referring new business/nonprofit clients to the contact form on my website (see other comment abv) and I’m also considering putting a sample contract up too. I’m happy to negotiate terms, esp for top-tier clients, but I need to get it all out there UP FRONT so there’s no surprises later…

      @Carol: thanks for this well-timed post! I’m really appreciating reading comments from folks who are a little further along with their businesses than I am 🙂

      • Carol Tice

        My pleasure. Don’t know if I’m in favor of sending prospects to a form on your site or throwing a sample contract at them off the bat…OK, I do know I’m against it. Too impersonal.

        Once I’ve TALKED with prospects, then I email them out my questionnaire as a starting point. I think you want to keep the personal connection in it, while just being better organized. I think clients actually like that, once they have connected with you on a personal level.

        • Ruth Terry

          @Carol: Thanks for the feedback. Perhaps I could get the best of both worlds by establishing the personal connection, then sending a link to the questionnaire, available online. That way I don’t lose the personal touch, but I can capture the data in a usable form.

  10. Carol Tice

    I too have a list of questions I’ve put together to remind me what to ask…it’s really a great idea as it preserves the learning from client to client.

  11. Ayo

    Great post Carol.

    I have always had doubts about asking too many questions. I have copied and saved your sample questions, they will help me.

    Warm regards.

  12. Gloria A

    I haven’t gotten in trouble for not asking questions (nurses are notorious for getting to the nitty gritty of things), but I have for not being able to get answers. A client has expected me to magically read their mind about what they want for their site: “we deal in XYZ and want to bring in more business….” That’s like saying “I write and want to bring in more business.”

    Can’t get them to cooperate and give me hints. They’ve rejected 50% of what I’ve written for them as “we don’t do that…..,” but they won’t help narrow down the focus. I get paid whether they accept or reject, but it’s like throwing darts to figure it out.

    • Ruth Terry

      Hi Gloria,

      I can completely relate to what you’re saying. I recently had a nonprofit client discontinue my grant writing services when grants management moved to another department. I had a great rapport with my initial contact, but she was always pretty scattered, disorganized and—bc the organization was in a constant state of change—unsure of what she needed.

      At the end of a year of “throwing darts”, I couldn’t really demonstrate an ROI for my services, because so much of my work ended up not being used. I’m really not sure what the answer is. So far all I’ve come up with is thinking of/presenting my work as a “product” more than a service. I have enough clips/samples now that I show clients my portfolio and have them pick the thing that’s closest to what they want. If nothing else, maybe they’ll get a better idea of what they *don’t* want.

      Good luck! I’m eager to hear other people’s thoughts on this…

  13. Cindi

    Thanks, Carol. This answers some questions and eases some jitters. I am a naturally curious person (big surprise, I know), but my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth in professional situations. The plumber example put professional questions in perspective for me. The comments about making a list in advance are a value-add.

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