The Top 7 Lies Prospective Freelance Clients Tell — Don’t Fall for These

Carol Tice

Man lies and his nose grows like PinocchioLet’s take a quick poll, writers: Hands up, who’s gotten screwed by a client?

Yeah, I figured.

There are a lot of shady businesses out there that take advantage of freelance writers, particularly Internet startups.

If you don’t watch out, you could put in a lot of work for a client and find yourself without a paycheck. Often, these lowballers turn out to be nightmare clients, too, who are annoying and never satisfied.

What are some of the typical b.s. lines you should watch out for (besides the classic “Your check is in the mail”)?

Here are seven of my favorite tall tales clients tell:

1. Do this project cheap and we’ll have more work for you

Ah, the lure of ongoing work. It’s been used to drive down prices for so many freelance projects!

If you hear this, ask for details. What sorts of work do they have coming down the pipeline, and what rates might they pay for those assignments?

If they can’t provide any specifics, this is likely just a line to get you to drop your rates.

Even if it isn’t, try to tie your low-priced project to a firm commitment for additional work. Otherwise, you may well be giving up income for no real gain.

2. If we like your early work, we’ll raise you later

When you get this one, see if you can make them define when that “later” will come.

A better scenario is for you to say, “I’m doing this project at a discount rate because I want to work with you and get in the door. But I expect to review my rates and raise them to my more normal levels after this project.”

If the client is vague on when exactly it might be possible to earn more with them, assume it’s an empty promise.

3. We’ll do a contract later

Stalling on signing a contract usually means none will be forthcoming.

The dodge here is to get you working and pregnant with the project, usually under the guise of the project’s being a big, urgent rush job: “No time for paperwork, we need you to start writing immediately!”

Once you start writing without a contract, they’ve got you where they want you.

You keep writing in hopes of getting paid, and they wiggle out of having to define important stuff like how long they have to cut you a check after you turn in your work.

4. We don’t need a contract — we’re friends

You never need a contract more than when you work for a friend!

Defining the terms of the working relationship will make sure you don’t end up losing a friend if there’s a problem down the line.

5. This sample will be paid if we use it

Requests for free samples are often a flat-out scam. Next of kin to that is the promise that if they decide to use it they’ll throw you a little cash. It’s not worth the risk unless you’re writing for a very well-respected publication or business.

Be sure to know or negotiate the rate at which it will be paid if used, too. I’ve had writers email me all excited because they heard their piece was accepted, and then ask, “How much should I bill them for?” If you don’t know the answer, it’s never going to turn out to be a good rate. You don’t have much negotiating leverage after the fact.

If the client tells you they decided to pass, set up a Google Alert to scan for key phrases in the story on their site — often, you’ll find the piece pops up as published anyway. In which case, send an invoice.

6. This will be a great opportunity for exposure

This is usually code for “there isn’t any pay” — and the vast majority of sites that make this pitch in fact don’t have a ton of traffic. Be sure to check on Alexa or similar Web-traffic ranking tools and find out.

There are plenty of websites that pay for blog posts. Concentrate on pitching those and getting exposure while you earn.

If you do an ‘exposure’ gig, be sure you’re clear on what exposure you’ll get — how many links are you allowed? Will they let you build an author page on their site? Could you do a series of posts, which would help build more recognition?

I once had a writer come to me all excited because she placed an article on Salon, which has a great reputation for quality, but pays little.

At the time, she had yet to put up a writer website! She had no other online presence where Salon readers could find out more about her and easily contact or hire her.

I’d submit that this means the Salon piece was not good exposure. It was a waste of time. First, put up a writer website — then, you’ve got somewhere to send those readers you get exposed to, and they can get in touch.

Also, ask yourself, “Exposure to what?” Does this site’s audience fit well with the people you would like to attract? If not, take a pass.

7. If it works for me, this will get you lots of great clients

This one isn’t exactly a lie, just a dodge used to pay you less.

“You’ll be getting a great clip from me, so I shouldn’t have to pay you!” is the rationale.

To sum up, treat what prospects tell you skeptically.

Does it sound like it might be bogus?

Trust your gut. It probably is.

What lies have clients told you? Leave a comment and add to my list.


  1. PowerLancer

    Oh boy, I heard all these lies in my freelancer life. Another good one comes after you finished the job: “I am currently waiting for another project to close and then I can pay you”.

  2. Bruce Hoag, PhD

    I don’t know about you, but I have hundreds of filters for my email. It not only helps me to keep my InBox under control, but it also puts messages about the same topics all in one place.

    And that’s how I came to read this particular one. I having a strategy morning on my writing business.

    I thought that the tips your provided were especially good, and I wanted to tell you that. Writers, like all creative people, need positive feedback. So take this message as a virtual pat on the back. 😉

    Cheers, Bruce

    • Carol Tice

      Thanks Bruce!

  3. Kimberly

    I’ll give you a by line and we will share the article; two authors….

    • D Kendra

      Share the article but not the money… yeesh!

  4. Desdemona

    When I was first starting out, I competed with a bunch of writers for an internship at a music website. I was so happy when I won! After that, the site owner made a big deal about the opportunity to be promoted to staff writer.

    I ended at the top of the intern heap and got the promotion first, which only meant I was the first to learn the staff position was…unpaid. I quit immediately. The sad thing is I would have happily continued interning just for the perks (very valuable concert tix, VIP passes, etc.) but the dishonesty turned me off.

    The editor had the nerve to complain I hadn’t given them two weeks notice :-/

  5. Jan Pedersen

    I was surprised not to see this one:

    “This is going to be a very profitable product…so if you’ll cut your hourly rates, I’ll cut you in for x% of the profits…”

    When I stood my ground, the guy appeared offended that I wouldn’t “trust” his word, and told me I was being “stupid and short-sighted.”

    Pissed me off.

    • Carol Tice

      Jan, if you have a contract for that and it’s copywriting, I wouldn’t count that out. That is exactly how all the big copywriters end up making a fortune, on royalty participation.

      But you have to feel the company is legit and your contract will hold water. It could be a scam, or could be a cash cow you could retire on.

    • D Kendra

      Jan, several years ago, I inherited just under $200K. I had a few “friends” who asked me to join them in a venture or two. When I told them to make a go at it first, and then I’d invest in it if I liked it, they told me I was “stupid for not getting in the ground floor of a good deal.”

      Know what? They still haven’t made a go at it (although they still think I was stupid for not doing it when I had the money).

    • Carol Tice

      I think being a venture investor is a very different situation than taking a royalty cut in a copywriting sales job, D Kendra. Investing is a high-risk adventure. If you have confidence in your ability to write copy that converts, the latter could be a real cash cow. You have to trust the company to be transparent in sharing their metrics on how your campaign did…but as I said, a lot of the six-figure copywriters make big money on royalty participation deals.

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