How Freelance Writers Can Avoid Embarrassing Disasters

Carol Tice

Total disasterIt’s every writer’s worst nightmare: You accept a gig, but fail at it. The project goes down in flames.

That client is never going to use you again. They’re not going to give you any glowing testimonials or refer you any more clients, either.

It’s almost worse than if you’d had no client at all, because of what it does to your self-confidence.

You can feel like crawling under a rock. It’s embarrassing.

Even worse, these train wrecks kill your productivity and your hourly rate.

The good news is, you can prevent disaster gigs.

In my experience, all disaster gigs have one thing in common. It’s something you can easily avoid, once you know what it is.

Read through the two examples below of disaster gigs writers recently told me about, and see if you can spot the common factor that creates these debacles.

In the first case, a new freelance writer took on an assignment to write a fundraising letter for a small nonprofit, hoping to create a strong sample for her portfolio:

“I was given a write up of the changes they made this year and links to three articles that ran in the local paper. And that was pretty much it.

“I thought I should get a quote from an actual family [the nonprofit serves], but I wasn’t given any. There weren’t any relevant quotes in the news articles, either.

“I wasn’t given anything in terms of past campaign information. I was trying to feel my way through. I tried looked at some other [nonprofits’] solicitation letters to use them as a template.

“I guess I thought I should be able to come up with something with limited information. I’m a writer, right?”

Our second case is a new client one copywriter took on after a phone meeting:

“The two partners in this business were very vague on what they wanted. Fooled around on the phone during the first call, laughing and giggling. I should have said goodbye then, but I needed the money.

“I wrote the first page, submitted it to them. They sent it back with revisions but offered no other feedback. I spoke with them again and again, and they were still very vague with what they wanted.

“I wrote the next nine pages and submitted them. They offered no feedback again other than telling me to ‘clean up my grammar.’ I went over the pages with a fine-tooth comb six times, and could not find grammar issues.

“Well, they fired me today through the third party who hired me. I have a deposit, but am out the hundreds of dollars [on the project].”

The disaster factor

Have you sussed out where these writers went wrong?

They both needed more information to successfully execute the assignments, but they didn’t get it.

Instead of being straight with the client about lacking enough facts to write, they tried to fake it and cobble something together based on the scraps they had.

This is a totally reliable recipe for freelance disaster.

Often, new writers think there must be stuff pro writers know about how to do this that they don’t. So they don’t ask for more info. But there isn’t.

Writers don’t become mind-readers over time. We just learn to get the client to fill us in, or we don’t write.

I have been known to shoot off dozens of emails seeking additional facts before sitting down to write for a business — or to re-call interview sources in an article more than once, to get one more question answered.

Your job as the writer is to keep toiling up the hill of needed facts until you’re on top of a mountain that’s solid enough to build your writing on.

If you give up and write before then, you’re wasting your time and killing a client relationship.

Disaster prevention 101

How can you avoid investing your precious time in a freelance writing project that is doomed to implode?

It’s simple: Don’t start writing if you don’t have what you need to do the job!

You are not Rumplestiltskin. You cannot spin straw into gold.

You need to mine the gold from your client or your article sources — those tidbits about their great new product’s features, or the dramatic story of how one interviewee overcame adversity.

Then you artfully melt and sculpt and arrange the nuggets you’ve gleaned into the right configuration of words.

That first writer indicated that “information was not given.” Often, it won’t be.

After she turned in her inadequate draft and dealt with the rejection, she told me, “One thing I did learn: ask for relevant information.”

Bin-go.

It is your job as the writer to ask — and keep asking, until you have everything you need to slay this assignment on the first draft.

Not the client’s job to give. Realize that often, they may not even know what’s needed to create good writing. It’s your job to extract the necessary factoids.

How to get clients to talk

Yes, some clients are more cooperative and forthcoming, and others are sort of a pain. But it’s your job to get what you need to do the gig — or to pull the plug, before you get in too deep and waste your time.

If a client is dragging their feet on information you need, give them options for moving this forward to the writing phase.

Do not start writing. Make it clear that you won’t write a word until you have the facts you need.

Here’s the sort of script I run when clients aren’t coughing up the data:

“I haven’t gotten the information I need, and you wanted this project completed in a week. Can the deadline push out? Or how would you like to proceed?”

“Is there perhaps someone else at the company talk to me? Where can I get an example of this? Are there other customers of yours I could try? That first one you gave me for the case study didn’t get back to me.”

In freelance writing, you will rarely be handed what you need. You will have to ask, often over and over again.

Then you will be able to turn in work your client will love. OK, maybe the first draft they’ll just like.

But guaranteed, it won’t be a disaster. You’ll be in the ballpark of what they wanted, because you got the raw materials you needed before you started to write.

Ever had a disaster gig? Comment and tell us about yours, and why you think it happened.
Freelance Writers Den

51 Comments

  1. Williesha Morris

    I haven’t had a nightmare client, and I absolutely think this is due to me constantly asking questions. I get a little antsy about it, because I know editors and clients are busy and get a crap ton of emails. While I feel bad about that, I also know it is cutting down confusion, and in the end being slightly annoying with a good piece of writing is preferred.

    Great post, Carol!

    Reminds me of the saying, “You have not, because you ask not.”

    • Carol Tice

      I wasn’t familiar with that quote…but yes, that’s it exactly.

    • Karen J

      Hi, Willie!
      Sounds like Yoda? or the Buddha… 🙂

    • Williesha Morris

      LOL It appears to be a version of James 4:2. My Mom says it a lot. 🙂

  2. Karen J

    “If I was the Client…” (and given the way my thought processes work), I’d consider paying someone to “come up with a few/a number of article idea(s) first”; then sit down (or walk-and-talk) with the writer about how to flesh-out one or two, and give them the background and information they want or need to write it up.

    Input, anyone, on how to value/price that? (or even how to propose it, from either side?) Thanks for this space, Carol!

    • Williesha Morris

      What I am trying to do is have my fee include time to do adequate research and idea generation. Use a base hourly rate you’d like (perhaps based on word count) then pad the fee based on how much time you expect everything to take and include extra time for emergencies (eg, family emergency/sick time, a source is unreliable, etc.)

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