Here’s Why You Have Crummy Freelance Clients

Carol Tice

Why you have crummy freelance clients. Makealivingwriting.comHang around the water cooler with writers, and you’ll hear a lot of gripes about their freelance clients.

Since we have a “Water Cooler” forum in Freelance Writers Den, I get to do that a lot.

The stories are colorful:

“Get a load of this guy’s laundry list of requests for my content — which he wants done for a pittance!”

“Can you believe how little this website offered me?”

Yes. Yes, I can.

The world is full of business owners looking to see what they can get for nothing. The problem is, many writers suffer from low self-esteem — and are only too happy to oblige.

Writers like to blame their clients for their low pay or dull assignments. They love to skewer clients’ annoying personalities.

What writers don’t seem to love so much is doing the work to get better clients. Because mostly, it’s work you have to do on yourself.

Do you see a pattern?

Now, anyone can get one bum client. If you freelance for very long, it’ll happen. We all make mistakes.

But if you find it’s happening over and over again, then you’ve got a problem. It’s time to look at your attitudes towards your freelance writing career, and make some changes.

What do I mean by changing yourself to get better clients? Here are a few big reasons why writers end up with crummy freelance clients, time and time again.

You don’t trust your gut

Ever get a writing offer, and have a strong feeling, in the depths of your soul, that the gig will be a nightmare — but you take it anyway?

Then it’s time to get in touch with your feelings. Your gut-check on a prospective client is probably right on.

If you have a viscerally negative reaction to the idea of a gig, it’s unlikely to pan out well. You need to pass!

You may feel desperate for work, but remember, taking a bad gig robs you of marketing time to find better clients. It also often sucks you dry of self-esteem.

Instead, take a page from Bonnie, a Den 2X Income Accelerator student who recently described to me why she turned down one writing gig:

“It was for a national organization that depends in large part on volunteers who are changing constantly. No, thanks!

“I do think it’s a great opportunity for someone who’s into communications strategy, audits, surveys, etc. For someone who thrives on turning chaos into clarity — and working with multiple personalities — it would be ideal. I’d rather my energy go into growing my business.”

Bravo! This writer took the time to do a gut-check, and realized this organization’s chaotic structure wasn’t something she wanted to deal with. She guessed it would lead to lots of wasted time. So she moved on.

Shortly after passing on this gig, she got another offer, with a company with more stability.

Good thing she didn’t ignore those inner alarm bells and sign up with the ever-changing staff of the first organization.

You get stars in your eyes

If you get offered a big lump of work, do you get all giddy and excited and say ‘yes’ right away? When you hear a big number, it’s easy to start counting chickens, and assume this will be a great situation.

But remember, it’s all about your hourly rate. Time is your most precious commodity.

If it’ll take you forever to earn that lump, the hourly rate may still work out to pennies.

So I was proud recently to see another Den member — after getting some coaching in our forums — pass on a $9,000 offer to ghostwrite a full-length memoir.

I know, seems like a big number! But we’re taking about an assignment that could easily take six months of that writer’s time. Or could take longer than planned, or never finish (many book projects sputter out, I’ve found).

That’s a grim prospect with a gig that should pay at least $20,000, and likely much more.

The capper for this writer? The offer was through an agency that was no doubt taking a big cut — and the end client was a very wealthy woman.

Laura asked herself an important question:

“If I’m resentful [of the pay rate] at the start, how will I be in six months?”

Rightfully guessing that she could well end up wanting to kill this client and feeling exploited, she passed.

You’re a softie

It’s sad to say, but many writers attract low-paying clients because they’re a sucker for a sob story.

Chat them up, and you hear about the endless string of volunteer or low-paid gigs they take for wonderful causes…all while they struggle to pay their bills.

Janet recently told me she’d accepted a pro-bono gig to write and pitch a placed article in a magazine for one charity — a task that should pay $1,000 or more. This volunteer gig came on top of a $15-an-hour regular monthly gig doing all of her church’s marketing work!

Giving back is great, and we should all do some of it. But remember that if you don’t leave room for good-paying gigs, you’ll soon be working a day job.

You’re easily pleased

Many writers have a poverty mentality that leaves them rejoicing in any small pittance they earn. They even actively seek out writing gigs they know will be low-paid.

Another Den 2X student recently reported that she had pitched a print-book publisher a $2,000-advance book idea. She had done a couple other books for this publisher, and thought it would be easy to line up another one.

But why would you do that, I asked, if your goal is to double your writing income in the next year? Few print books earn a writer more than the advance, and writing a book, as I noted above, is a TON of work.

“It’s work I enjoy,” she said.

If your goal is to earn twice as much, how could you “enjoy” writing a book for a pittance?

This is one of those scenarios where the writer has a crummy client they self-selected for, and doesn’t even realize it.

It can be easy to get writing gigs that pay little, as compared with working harder and doing more marketing to find truly lucrative gigs.

Nothing against having a passion writing project you do on the side — but don’t lose track of the goals of your freelance writing business and go down too many side trails where the writing may be fun, but the pay just isn’t there.

Time for a mindset reset

If you want to earn more as a freelance writer, begin with your mindset. What do you think you deserve to earn? What sort of people do you want in your life?

Make a commitment to turn down offers that don’t fit your vision for your business, and keep marketing. You’ll soon find better clients come your way.

Do you have a crummy client? Let’s discuss why in the comments.

MAKE MONEY WITH YOUR BLOG! Small Blog, Big Income: Advanced Ninja Tricks for Profitable Blogging. 90 Tips to Make Money Blogging. By Carol Tice


  1. Janice Kelley

    Crummy clients can be very good people. They just don’t have the resources to do what needs to be done. So the writer/consultant ends up on the short end. Or these same people do not understand or trust the writer/consultant expertise and expect things to happen that are not realistic. As a result, the writer/consultant is set up for failure.

    The client is not intentionally rude or stupid. They don’t know what they don’t know and they don’t have the resources to do what needs to be done effectively. Unfortunately, they rarely change.

  2. Elizabeth

    I am reading this as I rifle through 3 pages of guidelines and a 9-page style sheet for an assignment that is paying me $200 for a 1000-word article. I’ve spent more time trying to decipher their guidelines and researching the required sources – I literally was crying when I decided to check my email, and found this post. I’m turning it in and telling them ‘no thank you’ next time. I accepted the job before they sent all the details – big mistake – and I suspect that’s why they didn’t share it initially. My bad.

    • Carol Tice

      Sorry to hear, Elizabeth — I ask a LOT of questions up front myself, and this is why.

      • Mary

        I’m wondering how to get my client to respond. I wrote an article for their company for $1200 they paid me $600 but they have not responded to my emails asking if they need revisions. Nothing. It’s now been 2 months and I’d like to be paid the remaining $600. I was thinking this might be an on-going writing gig. Didn’t want this to turn into a crummy situation – what to do? Thank you for your great first session of blogging for businesses, I’m in.

        • Carol Tice

          Hi Mary —

          Glad you’re joining us for Business Blogging Mastery! While you’re in the Den, take a look at Freelance Business Bootcamp — it’s got a session on negotiating and contracts.

          It sounds to me like you neglected to have strong FINAL PAYMENT TERMS in your contract. The phrase I like is, “final payment due in 14 days from turning in final draft or on finalization, whichever is sooner. ”

          This triggers the payment 2 weeks after you turn it in, and if they decide to meditate on it, put it on hold, or whatever, that’s their problem. Meanwhile, your payment is due.

          Often, flakey clients try to avoid making final payments by stalling and saying the piece isn’t finalized yet. To them, I say that I’m happy to work on it in future, I’ll be there for you for sure — but my payment is due NOW.

          When I don’t hear back on a final draft, I tend to send a bill. “I’m gathering you don’t have any further changes needed, so here is my invoice.” That usually gets them off the dime if they DO want more changes.

          With 2 months gone by and no response, I’m not getting a good feeling, especially if your contract doesn’t strongly define when final payment is triggered — or you don’t have a contract. Best of luck with this situation!

          • Mary

            Thanks Carol, I’m now using that final payment in 2 weeks with a completed writing assignment, appreciate your response.

  3. Jaime A. Heidel

    Oh, I’ve had my fair share of crummy clients. It ended up costing me emotionally because I couldn’t handle the stress. Now, clients either pay what I charge or no dice. I can’t slave away doing a project and have nothing to show for it but a headache and pile of pennies. #nothanks

    • Carol Tice

      I wish more writers would prioritize their sanity this way, Jaime!

  4. Janice Kelley

    The worst part of having crummy clients (or employers) is that you have no leverage to get the next good project because you have nothing worthwhile or successful to show for your time. When the client/employer suddenly and unexpectedly runs out of funds and your project cannot be finished, all that is left is the draft manuscript.

    The absence of resources and decisions to end fabulous, award-winning projects because priorities have changed transform even the best clients into sad endings. This is my life as a writer and half dozen other “labels” expressed in 25 words.

    • Carol Tice

      GREAT point, Janice — crummy clients tend to lead to…more crummy clients. They know other dysfunctional people, not great payers.

  5. Lauren Steinheimer

    Thanks, Carol! I really needed to read this post this morning, as I woke up and questioned whether it would be worth my time to drive an hour to a meeting. Between the time spent and fuel burned, this low-paying gig would be more like charity work.

    I’m going to spend the time marketing myself instead. Deep down, I knew that was what I should do. It is difficult to say no to an old client, especially since I know they just don’t have the resources to pay more. But I’ve been struggling with this for too long. It’s time to move on.

    I know I can do better.

    • Carol Tice

      I’ve taken few in-person meetings, and when I do, it’s with someone who’s a VERY strong prospect and there’s a lot of money on offer. I think you made the right call there!

  6. Jan Hill

    For the most part I have great clients, but there’s one that I find particularly annoying. I have written for them since 2013 and they have never increased my rate, although they have money for a content manager and an editor that I am required to work with on each piece. They insist that I come up with topics, and then usually end up proposing their own because “mine aren’t quite on point.” Their blog posts must always be a minimum of 500 words, with an image, and I post them onto the WordPress site myself. I used to get a byline for my posts but no longer do, and I recently went on the site and noticed that they’ve now removed all my previous bylines as well. They’ve offered me $150 to write a white paper, “because all it would be is the equivalent of two or three blog posts.” I know…right?

    In the years since I first started with this client, I’ve gotten a lot of other clients who are great to work with, give me much more interesting assignments and a lot more work in general, and pay over 2-3 times as much per post! Yet I still drag my feet on getting rid of this client. Why?? I’m thinking of sending them an email next month stating that I’m raising my rates. That might just do it, once and for all!

    • Carol Tice

      Jan…I’m stopped at “they have never increased my rate.” Raises don’t happen by magic, and clients don’t volunteer them — YOU have to engineer and ask for them. You have to DEMAND them. It’s hard to do that if you’re not succeeding at pitching them topics.

      Hope you’ll be in my Business Blogging Mastery bootcamp that’s underway — I think we can really help you with this problem!

  7. Michelle

    Well this post came just in time. I’ve had a lot of recent run-ins with some truly bizarre requirements and pay structures. I’m talking extreme time micromanagement (“I need this pitched at exactly 7:15AM and turned in one to two hours later.”), cryptic and vague notions of what makes a blog post (“We need the best content on the internet, better than anything that’s out there!”), a place that wanted to pay me in “company shares” and, most recently, a place that had me watch a dozen vague and profanity-laden training videos for a pittance “test article” rate. All of these fizzled out for one reason or another, thankfully. Usually I threw off the gig in some fashion.

    Anyway, it’s nice to not feel alone running into these bizzaros. I always say that’s a strange side effect of freelancing: you see all manners of corporate cultures with a bird’s eye view. Many of those places that have the slick brand image are barely keeping it together or outright have a backwards corporate culture.

  8. Katherine Swarts

    Likely corollary to the “easily pleased” point: You think of marketing as the most draining part of your work. Face it, most writers like creativity and variety–AND well-defined planning and organization, so looking everywhere for potential business clients so you can send them almost identical (in general theme anyway) pitches, which one in ten may even acknowledge, can feel like the definition of tedium and small ROI.

    I’d rather like to see a whole post on that question. For a long time I was “satisfied” with two clients who paid peanuts but were fun to work with and felt too much like old friends to just let go. A few months ago one of them quit, and I realized I’d fallen into the “depend on a few clients for everything” trap and it was time to make marketing for high-paying jobs Priority #1 in the daily schedule. (En route, I also cut out a couple of fun regular projects that weren’t likely to make much money anytime soon.)

    Two weeks ago, just as I was getting into the above, Longtime Client #2 decided not to renew their contract. Can you say “Law of Attraction”? So now I have the whole day to focus on marketing for better-paying work, and three likely possibilities are already pending–but I’m still not sure how to convince my brain that marketing can be fun, I just know that if I don’t do plenty of it now I may be depending on a credit card for basic expenses next month.

  9. David Throop

    Most of the time, I seem to attract the crummy clients. Whether it’s from low rates and high demands, changing conditions and terms, or just difficult personalities to work with, I seem to only find those types of clients.

    The worst one I dealt with recently was an agency that had internecine tribal fights about what the content should do and how they would manage the business. It became a very public feud between principles and convinced that I really need to break away from agency work and more into individual client work – but then back to square one with only getting crummy clients as a result.

    • Carol Tice

      Well, do you recognize yourself in any of the types above? When you consistently attract crummy clients, it has to do with your mindset, and how you do your marketing.

  10. Terri Cruce

    Interesting reading this at the moment. I turned down a writing job with a client that I just had that gut feeling would turn out to be a nightmare. Then recently, against my better judgment, I took an assignment for one long article from that same client and my gut feeling was well justified. I should have listened to my inner voice to start with, but it was a weak moment.

    The hard part for me is learning to trust that inner voice. Hopefully I get there.

    • Sam Whiteley

      After sounding out whether a magazine accepted freelance contributions, the editor replied (quite swiftly) asking me to forward examples of my published work & some article ideas. I sent the published articles as requested then asked if she could forward their rates of pay. I heard nothing back. Part of me wants to pitch some ideas but a bigger part of me feels the lack of response correlates to the lack of pay!! Far too often editors think a writer’s article published in their magazine is a privilege, rather than acknowledging time,effort & good writing require payment!

      • Carol Tice

        Sam, most magazines pay at least a little — if you didn’t hear back, maybe she just felt it wasn’t a fit.

        Also, I’m increasingly seeing magazines that want YOU to tell them what you’ll TAKE for the piece. I think that’s kind of slimy, but hearing a lot of reports of it. They want to see how little they can get away with, instead of simply telling people what their rate is.

  11. D Kendra Francesco

    You were much nicer about the subject than I’ve been recently.

    When I hear whining about an employer, job, or client, my first thought (left unsaid most of the time) is, “You agreed to $xyz for doing the work. Now, just do it. You have no footing to complain – because you agreed to it.”

    I’m not a fan of water cooler griping because there are always alternatives. (You don’t have to like the alts, but they’re there.) Elizabeth is planning a good alt: returning the work with a firm “nope, not for me.”

    However, Carol, your points are all on target.

    It’s a little like getting a divorce and then falling for someone just like the ex. Figure out why, then change your mind AND choices, and get the mate you really want. Writers can divorce themselves from the kind of clients they don’t like, using Carol’s list as a start. Then, change your mindset AND actions so that you get the clients you want.


    Wow,this is really a cool write up…hope so many freelance writers will read it..hope am permitted to share this

  13. Robert Schneider

    I have one client who tries to squeeze more work out of me than they are willing to pay for. It took about six months, but I finally got them to understand that I’m not going to write more than 1000 words for them at the rate they offer. They’re not willing to pay more, but at least they’re no longer asking me for miracles.

    • Carol Tice

      Good for you, Rob!

  14. peter burg

    eyes opening post. I’m feeling… something… I can’t told. I’ll be care full now. thanks for post

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