How to Save Your Sanity When You’ve Got a Nightmare Freelance Writing Client

Carol Tice

It started out so great. You got a client nibble!

It sounded like a great freelance writing gig — perfect for your talents.

So you signed up and started to work.

Then, everything changed.

Now, your client is driving you out of your mind.

They want to IM you 24/7. If you’re not available for an hour, they freak out.

They’re never happy. Can’t decide exactly what they want.

When they get frustrated, they take it out on you. They scream. Rant. Complain.

Or they’ve got you reporting to three different teams, who each want your work rewritten their way.

They keep adding work to your plate, which you’re supposed to do at no additional charge.

It’s like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the beautiful spirit turns into the vengeful demon. This freelance gig is going south on you — fast.

Taming the crazy

When freelance gigs go bad, you’ve got to take control. These situations will not get better by themselves.

Here are my tips for getting your client back on track — before you lose your mind:

  • Read your contract. If your client is asking for things you think are outside the scope of what you agreed to, it’s time to dust off your contract and see what it says. Then, simply remind the client what you’ve agreed to do. Do they want more? You’re happy to negotiate some additional pay. Don’t have a contract? Now you see why you always need a contract. Make a note never to start work again without a signed one in your pocket.
  • Be unavailable. The only way to deal with boundary-pushers is to set limits. If they’re trying to get you to work nights and weekends when you want that for family time, just be clear — you will not work at those times. Then, be sure to never respond if they email or call you during those hours. Speaking of email, you don’t have to answer that email the minute it arrives. If you think they’re getting needy, leave it for a half-day or longer. Train them up that it will take a while for you to get back to them.
  • Just say no. When pushy clients want more and more, simply refuse to play. When they ask if you could bang out a couple of extra articles by Friday, tell them you’re fully booked. They can’t make you do it.
  • Stay professional. It’s very difficult to continue yelling at someone who is speaking calmly and quietly. Don’t sink to their level. Be the grownup here, always.
  • Vent. It can relieve a lot of stress to talk to other writers who’ve been there. Hit your favorite writer-support chat forums and share. Maybe the other writers will have some tips on how you can get your client back in line, too.
  • Ramp up your marketing. If you’re not actively prospecting for other clients, it’s easy to feel despair if a current client is becoming a disaster. Realize you may well want to replace this client, so you need to start beating the bushes.
  • Pull the plug. Sometimes, there’s nothing to do but end it. If you’ve tried your best to get the train back on the rails and it’s clear it is just not going to go, make your departure plan, give notice, and leave.
  • Look for patterns. Does this bad-client scenario happen to you a lot? If so, it’s time to ask yourself why this keeps happening. If it’s a self-esteem thing where you think you only deserve crummy, abusive clients, then work on it. If you’ve had a string of bad clients that weren’t a good match for your skills and interests, or were clients you jumped on out of desperation without asking enough questions, you may want to get a little pickier about who you take on. If you see a pattern to what all the bad clients have in common — like maybe they all came from Craigslist? — make changes to how you prospect and the questions you ask before you accept a gig.

Remember, when you’re a freelancer, no one client owns you and they’re not your boss. If they want 24/7 access to you or the right to rant and scream, they can pay you a fat staff writer’s salary and start picking up the tab for healthcare, vacation, and sick time.

Otherwise, make sure they know you’ll be fitting them into your busy schedule among the other clients and responsibilities you have.

How do you deal with nightmare clients? Leave a comment and tell us your approach.



  1. Ali

    I never had such a client but had a ‘nightmare freelance writing project’… those three days were the most horrible time of my writing career, and it felt great when I ‘pulled the plug’

  2. Luana Spinetti

    I’ve learned to run away from such clients lately. I don’t even pitch them anymore if I find out they have a history of pulling crap on freelancers. Not worth the hassle.

    I used to feel honored of any client wanting me as their writer because I’m young, but I (finally) learned that age doesn’t count. Had some really enlightening chat with Onibalusi some time ago about that. 🙂

    A question about the free Open House Call: since I unsubscribed from the Den, I tried to signup for the call, but the system said my email is registered already. Am I shown as a registered participant to the call? I hope so.

    Thanks. 🙂

    ~ Luana S.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Luana —

      Yeah, looks like you are still on my Open House Call list so you’re good to go!

  3. Christa Avampato

    I’d also add that a real heart to heart where you are professional but incredibly honest is critical from the start. You need to nip this kind of problem in the bud, and if you can’t nip it then you need to move on as fast as possible. Your time is your most critical resource because it is not replaceable.

    • Lisa

      Great tips here, as always, Carol.

      I had a dentist always dithering about how many words my posts were. Then he didn’t like my “negative” tone. Plus he paid a little later than others. I finally gave up trying to hunt him down and please him.

      Now my time is freed up for marketing to bigger, faster-paying fish.

      • Carol Tice

        I’ve written about this before, Lisa, but every time I drop one of these losers, a better client seems to appear almost immediately. It’s like a law of physics: “The space created in your schedule when you drop a loser client creates a vacuum that sucks in a new and better client.”

    • Carol Tice

      So true, Christa.

  4. Debbie Kane

    How timely. I have a social media/public relations client who is trying to pull the “will you just do one more thing for me” stuff. I’ve pushed back twice — once calling her attention to my initial proposal, which specifically states that last-minute assignments require additional costs, and a second time telling her I couldn’t deal with her issue for at least a week (so she waited and dumped it on me again). Fortunately, our original proposal expired as of December 1 and my subsequent work will all be billed on an hourly basis.

    • Carol Tice

      My favorite is when I tell people who won’t shut up on the phone that if they need this much consulting from me I’ll just bill it out at $100 an hour. It’s amazing how they get their act together once you make it clear you will not be their free consultancy.

  5. Terri H

    I once had a client who was just crazy. What should’ve tipped me off was her need to change the contract at least 5 times before she actually signed it. She signed up for blogging which I spelled out clearly in the contract, but she kept giving me other assignments that weren’t blogs but calling it such. I first kindly reminded her that I had agreed to edit x amount of blogs at X-price and that I would be happy to negotiate another rate for the other documents she wanted to edit. And she wanted to argue about why they should be considered blogs. Not wanting to argue and make the client happy, I obliged under certain conditions.

    On top of that, she gave me the number of her SEO manager to coordinate assignments and goals etc. This woman literally called me screaming to tell me that I had no right to call her SEO manager. (She clearly forgot that she told me to call him) She also told me in emails that she preferred to communicate over the phone. When I would actually call her, she would get mad and tell me to email her instead and that I had no right to call her.

    She finally fired me which I wasn’t upset about. But upon firing me she told me that she was done with freelancers and I was the fourth one she hired that didn’t know how to follow directions. Go figure…

    • Carol Tice


      Yeah, it’s us.

      As my dad used to say, if you’re looking for a reason why your life sucks, find a polished glass surface and go have a look in it.

  6. Amandah

    Setting boundaries is a MUST! I’m beginning to implement a “No checking or reading email on the weekend policy.” I think it’s important to take a break and relax. You know what they say about all work and no play…

    • Erica

      Great idea! As someone who’s addicted to email, I’m going to start setting that boundary. It’s hard to relax when I think I’m missing something, but really…what can’t wait until Monday morning?

  7. Sophie Lizard

    Great tips, Carol! Right now, I’m training myself to switch off Skype at 6pm unless I have a prebooked appointment to take a call. No more late night client chats for me… 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      The problem with looking at it after hours is…then you see something you want to respond to.

      And then the client thinks “Aha! I can ding them 24/7 and expect their help.” And then you’re in trouble.

      Often the best solution is to simply be offline. As loads of folks know by now, I’m always, always off on Friday nights through Saturday. Total sanity-saver.

  8. Kristen

    Such good advice!

    I’ve been genuinely surprised by how many people I’ve worked with have seen no issue with calling on nights or weekends — or weekend nights. I guess there are people ok with taking work calls at 9pm on a Saturday, but I expect to never be one of them.

    Sometimes I let doubt creep in and start to feel guilty about my boundaries. Should I feel bad about not having returned that call until the next day? Should I be checking my various work email accounts more often?

    When it comes down to it, I’m not doing full time work for anyone, haven’t promised full time availability to anyone and am certainly not getting paid enough for anyone to expect that level of access. I’m not a doctor on call and am happy to be available at any time a client lets me know in advance I’ll be needed. I think that’s good enough.

    • Kristen

      I also want to add: my work number is a skype number, so I don’t get calls if I’m not at my computer working and don’t see missed ones until I’m add my computer working.

      My cell phone’s for friends and family and stays separate.

      • Kristen

        Shoot! Should be “at my computer working.”

    • Carol Tice

      Right on. Most freelance clients are just NOT paying me enough to buy me 24/7. Even when I had a DAY job and they DID own my time, they did NOT have that expectation, that they could make me do stuff after hours. Rarely and with advance notice I worked the occasional weekend as a staff reporter, but otherwise you went home to your life. Why should it be different with freelance clients who aren’t paying your healthcare or vacation time even?

  9. Erica

    Tons of excellent advice. And the graphic is pretty awesome, too. I have a lot of trouble with setting boundaries. I don’t want to offend anyone (polite Southern upbringing) and I’m afraid of losing the opportunity. But you’re right on all counts.

    No one is going to protect us but us. I’m printing this post and hanging it up in my office. And getting a Skype number. And not checking email evenings and weekends.

    Thank you all for the pearls of wisdom.

    • Carol Tice

      I love hell boss…must admit I’ve used him before, but he was so perfect for this post I couldn’t resist!

      Watch for an upcoming post on my own battle with email timewastage…been doing a big project around that and I’ll be sharing the results soon.

  10. Dana Sitar

    Thanks for the advice, Carol! My first client turned into a nightmare for a while, until I started implementing some of these tactics. I was also luckily able to learn from the experience and set better boundaries and standards going forward.

    Coincidentally, I read a great related article today that might also be helpful: How to Stop Potentially Bad Clients Before They Start:

    • Carol Tice

      I get Ed’s newsletter and saw that too! Great minds thinking alike. 😉

  11. Thomas

    I have an online number that acts as my asnering service. It’s forwarded to my mobile, but I can shut that off after hours. It also keeps VMs in an email box so I always have a record of every message.

    Setting boundaries is easy. After hours, enjoy my VM & texts are ignored until morning. Out-of-Office on my email is set ANY time I’m out of the office. I don’t care if it’s to go shopping w/the family or to hit the beach for the day.

    There are way too many clients out there who NEED our talents for us to become their Bs.

    Don’t fall into their traps.

    • Carol Tice

      I have a cel that I just check once a day and otherwise leave shut off…works great as well for screening!

  12. anne grant

    As you negotiate a contract or in casual emails, would it be appropriate to designate your working hours before you get too far in the process? Or have it on your voice mail greeting, just so there aren’t misunderstandings?
    Unfortunately, with all the gadgets for communication, there can be the assumption that we are available instantly and all the time.
    I have found that even if I think I’ve been perfectly clear, I should make it even clearer and then clarify it again!

    • Carol Tice

      I really don’t bring it up. I run on the assumption that people understand regular business hours. If they don’t, they will soon when they start working with me. 😉

      Even if I’m on in the evenings to work on something, I try not to respond to clients then. Don’t want them to get in the habit of thinking I’m around then.

  13. John

    This was really informative. One should actually try the above tricks.


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