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When Freelance Writing Jobs Go Terribly Wrong: Steal My Recovery Plan

Carol Tice

Recovery strategies for screwed up freelance writing jobs. Makealivingwriting.com

Ever have one of your freelance writing jobs turn into a total disaster? It happens, even to experienced writers.

I know, because it recently happened to me. After roughly 18 years of freelancing.

This flameout happened on a $3,000 corporate research report project that required intensive interviewing. I’d done these sort of projects in the past, loved them, was excited to do another one.

Then I did my research, put my list of possible interview subjects together, sent out hundreds of inquiries — roughly triple what I’d needed in the past to land the 6-8 interviews required — and got zero responses. Not. A. One.

It’s been a long time since one of my freelance writing jobs ended in failure. In fact, I’d only ever had one other article that got killed, at the very beginning of my career. Having a complete whiff this late in my career was a humbling experience.

What should you do if the worst happens and one of your freelance writing jobs gets screwed up? Here’s my guide to keeping it professional and minimizing the damage, when everything that could go wrong does:

1. Give early warning

The most important thing to do with one of those freelance writing jobs that goes sideways is to keep the client informed. Don’t sit on the knowledge that the assignment is imploding until deadline day, and then suddenly drop the bad news.

Writers should always have sub-deadlines mapped out for how their project should be progressing. If you see milestones aren’t on track, it’s time to reach out and let your client know things seem to be falling behind.

2. Ask for help

When things don’t go well at first, it’s not time to curl up in a ball and cry (not yet, anyway). Instead, ask around to see if anyone has fresh ideas on how to get this project done.

In my case, I checked in with my client after a couple weeks and said, “I’ve done 150 reach-outs so far, and I’m pretty surprised that not a single one of them was willing to be interviewed about this CEO. Here’s how I found my leads, and what I’ve discovered. Are you aware of anything I’m missing?”

They didn’t have much, so I circled back with another writer on their team, who’d been offered to me as a resource. He had a few useful suggestions that allowed me to try new directions and develop more leads. You can also ask around your own writer network for additional brainstorming on how to move an assignment forward.

You don’t want to frighten your client unnecessarily, in case the situation turns out to be salvageable. But let them know that things aren’t going as planned, and ask what else you could do. That way, at least the client knows you were working hard on the project and trying to make it work.

3. Get more tools

When my initial research methods didn’t work, I invested in more robust research tools. If there’s a research component to your gig, this can be a good strategy.

For this gig, I invested in a LexisNexis subscription tailored for journalists. I learned to use FullContact for Gmail, to gain more contact email addresses. I discovered who had their LinkedIn profile set to allow free InMails from all comers, and hit them.

Investing in the project showed good faith and my level of commitment to getting it done. It didn’t end up changing the outcome, but it might have. It showed I cared about their needs and took the problem seriously.

4. Show your work

Writers should always take notes and document their research and interviewing efforts as a project progresses, just to help speed up your writing process.

That comes in handy when things aren’t going well. I was able to show the client my early notes and process for qualifying and ruling out various possible interview contacts I turned up. So they knew I was working on it, and that I wasn’t simply blowing off the tough legwork required.

5. Offer options

When it becomes clear your project is not executable by the deadline, it’s time to offer options. In my case, I thought it was time to admit defeat, but said I’d be willing to keep going on the project if they wanted. What did they want to do?

I had a trip planned, so it would have been a month at least before I might have more results. And I worried that investing weeks more time still wouldn’t solve this. I was trying to crack a very close-mouthed, cliquish tech niche, and that wasn’t going to change. The client was game to keep going, but I didn’t want to string them along. So the project ended.

6. Try to make it right

When you’ve failed to meet a client’s needs, if possible, try to make amends. With this client, I offered my notes, so the next writer could use them as a starting point — I’d gained info on major corporations where no employee would be able to comment, for instance. Knowing where they’d be stonewalled could save the next writer a chunk of wasted effort.

I also offered to return my 50% up-front deposit, even though it was clear I’d devoted scores of hours to working on it. That’s not something I’d ordinarily do. The general rule is that there are no refunds in freelance writing.

But given that I was unable to come up with a single fact to put into the report they wanted, I thought it was appropriate to offer.

They declined, and said I should keep it to cover hours worked. But at least I offered.

7. Analyze why it happened

Back when I was a staff writer, I once had an article go badly wrong. My editor made me turn in a written post-mortem on how the problem had occurred. What were the problems in my process? At what points could a different action have averted disaster?

This is a humbling activity, but a healing one that I recommend. You’ll come out of it either with practical suggestions for how to do better in future, or with the reassurance that the outcome was out of your control. Nothing you could have done to make it work.

Failed freelance writing jobs: Cry and move on

The most important thing to do after a freelance-project disaster is to breathe, let go, and move forward. Get back on that freelance marketing horse and ride it hard. Find new gigs.

There is no universal editor network that will alert the world not to hire you. You can still have a career and find more freelance writing jobs. I promise.

Forgive yourself for falling short. We are human.

Your failure at one freelance gig doesn’t mean you’re a bad freelancer, writer, researcher, or human being.

Next time, correct any errors you may have discovered in your post-mortem. Vow not to repeat your mistake.

Take comfort in the fact that all experienced freelancers have been through this, and continued to work. It’s almost an initiation rite. Now you’re part of the club of seasoned, longtime freelancers — you’ve made a mess, and lived to tell.

Screwed up a freelance writing job? Tell us what happened and how you resolved it in the comments below.

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