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.

Bust your fears and earn more as a writer




  1. Susan Johnston Taylor

    Sometimes getting people to agree to be interviewed is one of the toughest parts of the job! Kudos to you for sending so many interview requests.

    In the last several years, I’ve found that email interview requests often don’t work. Even if you can find someone’s email address, busy people’s inboxes are often so flooded that messages from unfamiliar senders often get deleted, ignored or stuck in spam. I typically email my initial request and if 5-7 days go by with no response, I’ll follow up via Twitter (either the company or the individual’s Twitter account, depending on the situation). “Hi @blankblank trying to reach you to arrange an interview for a story I’m writing. What’s the best way to connect?”

    This is usually effective at either getting a “no thanks, I don’t have time” message or getting them to loop in their assistant for scheduling. I’ve probably done this 100+ times and only one person has ever expressed annoyance at being publicly tweeted. She’s also a journalist and must understand how hard it is to cut through the noise, so I’m still baffled by her reaction when she could have just declined. Hope this helps!

    • Carol Tice

      Oh, totally agree. I tried a mix of email, LinkedIn InMails and Twitter on these, so it definitely wasn’t all email. Using FullContact for Gmail to find emails, I would often also see what social media they were on and would try to hit them there as well. I’d say the most responses I got were on LinkedIn, but all were either to say, “I didn’t know the guy,” or “I’m unable to comment due to company policy.” It was a real shock after doing these in the past, and never failing to turn up a half-dozen good interview subjects.

      I think it may have been partly a function of the Seattle tech scene being particularly clannish and close-mouthed, and people who I needed were mostly at a few major companies, at least one of which has a set policy that they cannot do these sorts of interviews. So that was a big part of the strikeout. But it was still so frustrating!

      Having covered startups and VC for a number of years, I’m painfully aware that folks in this space often declare ’email bankruptcy’ and delete 1000 emails at a blow, unread.

  2. Neal Eckert

    Hi Carol! Thanks for your transparency about some of the challenges you encountered. It was helpful to see how you made the best of an undesirable situation. 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      My pleasure! At least somebody can get something good out of it. 😉 Honestly, I’m still just stunned at how this went down. I have prided myself for YEARS on being the person who can get anybody to say anything on the record. And then, with this challenge, I completely hit the wall. Humbling…

  3. Adam Leviness

    Luckily I haven’t had a project explode on me yet. But, I have had projects start to go south. I always make sure to inform the client, and they’re usually very understanding and accomodating. It’s one of my biggest fears as a writer that I’ll mess up a project or miss a deadline. I’m glad to see that there are ways to bounce back from it. Makes me a little less nervous, a very little.

  4. Andrew Fennell

    Early warning is definitely the most crucial piece of advice. Your clients will often have clients who they need to keep informed of progress so if you don’t warn early, you are usually setting of a chain reaction of annoyed clients – nobody wants that!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Related Posts

You CAN Write a Query Letter That Gets a “Yes”: 5 Resources

Freelance writer getting a gig after learning to write a query letter.

Love them or hate them, queries are one of the most important marketing tools for any freelancer who wants to write for magazines. And the skills you learn from writing a good query letter also help business writers and copywriters pitch their potential clients.

If you’ve been sending queries off into space and never getting a reply, you may think it’s impossible to break into new magazines. But it’s not true! Editors are always looking for new talent.

To help you learn to write a query letter that will get you the gig, we’ve pulled together a collection of five of our best posts on pitching:

Can’t Write? Try These 9 Ideas for Writing Motivation

It’s the bane of every freelance writer’s life: You know you need to sit yourself down and get some writing done, but nothing happens. The writing motivation just isn’t there. Sometimes, you can't even make yourself sit down with the computer -- even if you...