5 Weapons for Fighting the Evil That is Scope Creep

Carol Tice

Businessman with too much workDoes this happen to you? You get a freelance writing gig, and it sounds great.

But as you start to do the project, things begin to change.

You thought you’d be writing one 300-word blog post a week, based on a little quick research. Now, there’s pressure to do interviews, ghostwrite for team members you need to talk to first, and they’d like 1,000 words per post, please.

Or you thought there would be little rewriting involved, but now you seem to be saddled with several different editors who’d each like you to revise it to their specifications.

Or you signed up to write a 500-word article with a couple of interviews involved, and now they’d like a 200-word sidebar with a third source. At no extra charge, of course.

What happened here?

Scope creep happened

You thought you had a great hourly rate going on, but now it’s being driven down toward minimum-wage territory.

If this has happened to you, don’t feel bad. I hardly know a writer who hasn’t encountered scope creep at some point in their writing career.

Because let’s face it — there are some pushy, needy clients out there. They don’t respect boundaries. They’re out for whatever they can get.

If you let them get away with it, they will wring more and more work out of you, for the same money.

The only way to stop scope creep

Just like they say about forest fires, only you can prevent scope creep.

Stop waiting for clients to grow ethics and pay you what you’re worth.

User-type clients will not one day wake up to the wrongness of their attitude and simply volunteer to pay you more money.

There’s only one way the situation will change.

It’s up to you to draw a line.


Confrontation is stressful

I know. It seems pushy and rude to bring up how they’re screwing you, doesn’t it?

Even though they’re really the rude ones.

But you can avoid scope creep without ruining your relationship with your client.

Here are my five tips:

  1. Have a contract. In nearly every bad case of scope creep I’ve ever seen, there was no written agreement. When you have your agreement memorialized and signed, it tends to discourage scope creep right off the bat.
  2. Have clear contract terms. When you’re writing up your contract, don’t stint on the specifics. You agree to write an article of X length (or X-word blog posts three times a week) by X time. Specify if interviews will be required. Payment will be due X days after you turn in your work. Spell. It. Out. Don’t leave unresolved holes in this written understanding, or a sleazy client will later happily drive a truck through them later.
  3. Don’t do more. This is key. The trick is to stop in your tracks, the very first time the client suggests that you do a more work for them than you’ve agreed upon. Refer them gently back to the terms of the contract they signed. If you don’t have a contract, simply point out that this is beyond the terms of what you discussed. Once you’ve delivered more work for the same money, it will be hard to rein this client in, and that scope may well keep creeping and getting bigger, just like a nasty green fungus that’s eating up your earning power.
  4. Offer constructive solutions. Once the elephant in the room has been named, quickly offer alternatives so that the awkwardness doesn’t linger, and the client has concrete choices (that you find acceptable) for how to proceed. We’re not here to point fingers or be nasty, but to find a way to move forward and continue to do business together. For instance:
    “Our current agreement is for weekly 300-word blog posts at $50 apiece. You’d like to move to 500-word posts…I’d be willing to do that for $75. Or if that’s outside your budget, we could stick to the original length we agreed on.”
    Yes, it’s just like toddlers. Two choices is all you want to present, so it’s not too confusing. A or B. Based on their response, you’ll move forward in one of those directions — or they may have their own counter-proposal you can agree to or no. But you’ve laid down some parameters and they get that they’re not going to be able to walk all over you.
  5. Ask for a raise. Sometimes, scope creep just plain creeps up on you, no matter how hard you’ve tried to prevent it. You feel used. That’s when you want to finish the project you’re on as quickly as you can, and ask for a raise with the next one. I personally like to write 60-90 day initial contracts so that there is a natural point at which to raise the pay issue again with new clients, after I’ve had a chance to see how much work is really required. Again, offer a couple of options. Would they like to pay more for what they really want, or go back to the original terms and budget? Keep your tone friendly and helpful as you present these alternatives, and they’ll often go with one or the other of our choices.

Bottom line: It may have taken a bit of courage, but you can stop the scope from creeping. And you need to do that to earn a good living.

Remember, it’s just business. Be professional about it, and you’ll earn clients’ respect…or you’ll part ways, and find a client that sticks to what they agreed. Those are the clients you want.

Have you had a problem with scope creep? Tell us how you dealt with it in the comments.



  1. Will Bontrager

    Scope creep also happens with custom software programming.

    After the agreement, the client will think of extra features that would be nice to have or, now that s/he thinks about it, perhaps it would be better to do this certain thing just a slightly different way.

    An “any work done outside the specifications will be billed separately” type of clause is really good to have in the contract.


    • Carol Tice

      Right on, Will — and certainly, scope creep is the bane of all types of freelance work, not just writing!

  2. Karen Finn

    This post was written for me! I have one client in particular that drains so much of my time that I end up earning peanuts. The worst part is that I know it’s my own fault for letting it happen. Though I’ve mentioned “scope creep” to her before and she said “yes, of course”, it is still happening. It’s a bit tricky because we’ve known each other for years (she used to be my boss in another lifetime) and she was the first to give me work when I was just starting out as a freelancer. But enough is enough. The resentment is building and I really need to address it. Your article has given me the courage to put my foot down once and for all… Thanks!

    • Carol Tice

      The thing is…it’s not tricky. It’s simple. It’s about you setting boundaries. Here is where they are. This is what I’m doing for you.

      With a longtime client you can always use the, “You know, when we first started I was just getting my business going, but now I’m really busy with clients, so we need to return to our original agreement of what I will do/raise my rates to cover all the work I’m really doing for you now.”

      I really left off one tip — be ready to drop them if they won’t respect your terms. Or as Will says — just start submitting supplemental bills for the extra work! You’ll be surprised how that concentrates clients’ minds about staying within the contract…or making more room in their budget to pay you, if they decide they really need all that writing done.

      • Karen Finn

        Thanks Carol! I have a meeting with my “scope creeping” client on Friday to discuss the problem, so hopefully I’ll be able to set things straight using your very diplomatic suggestions.

        • Carol Tice

          Let us know how it goes!

          • Karen Finn

            It couldn’t have gone better! Client doubled my fee for the same work, plus she agreed to pay me at my hourly rate for any “scope creep” work. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

          • Carol Tice

            Wow, that is terrific! Thanks for sharing your story of what can happen when you draw the line with boundary pushing clients.

  3. Carrie Schmeck

    Perfect timing. I’ve just submitted a contract to a client who, I’m told, has a scope-creep reputation. Glad to see I’ve hit most of the tips you made for the front side. Because of the little tip I had going in, I also added a little more cush in the bid than I normally would.

    • Carol Tice

      Yeah, great tip, Carrie — when in doubt, pad it out, if you suspect the client doesn’t really know what-all they want and the project is likely to expand on you.

  4. Barbara

    Carol, this was written for me! I experienced the “scope creep from hell” client this week. Lost all of Wednesday and a little of yesterday to his issues. The issue will end well, thankfully.

    IF I decide to work with him again (HUGE “IF”), I will send a very specific contract to him – and any changes WILL be paid for – by him. If he’s not agreeable to that, then, No. I. Will. Not. Work. With/For. Him. Again. Ever. In. This. Lifetime.

    I’m just grateful that I got such strong admin support from the company that teamed us up.

  5. Rob

    Exquisite timing! I’ve been writing for a company for over a year and a half now. Doing more research, spending more time on every article, yet getting paid the same rate. It was great money then, but I think it’s time to ask for a raise. Thanks!

  6. Taylor

    Great post Carol! I’ve had some issues with this, and will be trying some of these suggestions in the future to make things better.

  7. Jawad Akhtar

    Although I have very good client with regular and lucrative writing assignments, I was up for my first BIG ‘shock’ when an article I wrote of almost 8,000 words’ article was paid 1/3rd of it! 🙁
    The publication does not pay anything extra for an article over 2,500 words.
    While we had ‘informally’ discussed the article length to be too long, I was told that the article will eventually be ‘broken down’ in to 2-3 parts of around 2,500 words. Little did I knew nor he clarified it is the LAYOUT of the article, which will be broken down at the time of publishing and NOT the compensation! But yes, I did discussed and tried to pursuade him to consider ‘adequate’ compensation, but in vain.
    In view of my excellent professional relationship with the publication, I didn’t felt it right to take back or refused to give my consent to get my article published, I took this ‘one-off’ instance with important ‘lessons learned’. Needless to say, I shall certainly ensure to be more careful next time, especially with other potential clients/publications.
    Thanks for all the valuable tips and I do refer your blog to a quite few upcoming/fresh writers on various groups/forum, to check your blog for all the GREAT content.

  8. Kathy Kramer

    I’ve actually seen this on Textbroker. You write your article, you submit it, and then the client sends it back for revision. Some will ask for more beyond what the order originally stated. The non-confrontational way to deal with this is to toss it back into the open order pool. I’ve done that in the past there. But this is really good advice. I just read another post on a different blog about cheap clients and this advice goes well with that post, too.

  9. David Sylvester

    I don’t think I ever heard “scope creep” used outside of the corporate IT world.

    One of the biggest problems is recognizing that it’s happening. At first you (the programmer, IT manager, or writer) might not know its happening and simply add new requirements to the project. Or maybe you DO know what is happening and you add to to requirements to be nice or accommodating.

    The users (or customers) may or may not know they are moving beyond the initially agreed upon project. Regardless, they learn that they can work with you in this manner – adding and subtracting requirements while you are already doing the work.

    This is really bad for everyone. Eventually, the project becomes frustrating and you lose patience. The customers usually have no idea there is a problem. By this point it’s difficult to push back without hurting your relationship with the customer or user. The customer will be unhappy with the end result, and you will have wasted your time (and possibly hurt your reputation).

    Part of being a service provider (of any type – writer, programmer, carpenter, etc…) is managing the process of defining and clarifying requirements. When a customer or user begins to add or change requirements, this is usually indication that they aren’t clear on what they want. This is a sure recipe for a bad experience for both of you.

    When this happens YOU need to help them clarify. If you have already started the work, stop immediately. Your guidance is needed. Help the customer clarify what they really want. If they are insistent that some new requirement is necessary and it goes beyond the initially agreed upon work, suggest that it be a “phase 2” thing to be done after the initial work is complete.

    There are a lot of ways to handle project requirements. The bottom line is that you want your customers to be happy with the work. And you want to be paid fairly. As the service provider (programmer, writer, etc…) you are the expert, so giving the customers what they want and being paid fairly for it is your responsibility.

    • Carol Tice

      Exactly! Like I said…only YOU can prevent it.

      I think a lot of writers feel intimidated about raising the issue of the creep. But to me it’s professional to indicate you notice they’re adding stuff to your plate. And I find if you’re straightforward and offer them some options — pay me more? — take it back off my plate? — you’re not going to damage the relationship.

  10. edna

    Hi carol,
    Gee you must be a mindreader!

    I’m working with a client I don’t have a contract with and asked for a retainer. Sent him an estimate for the project and the first press release for feedback. Have left messages and texts
    and no response. I was clear abt payment and that I can’t do it for “FREE”.

    So I’m not doing any more work until I hear from him or he pays me. the project is very enticing; training 14 dogs in 14 days to give to 14 veterans from the Iraqi and Afgani wars. and a promise to work with him on additional projects. Press releases and back stories for PR.

    Do you have any writing/marketing contracts or can you point me in that direction so I can find one?

    • Carol Tice

      We do have several sample contracts in the Den’s Resource Library, Edna…but I feel mean saying that since we’re closed now. You could also try Nolo.com – good legal resources there.

      It’s amazing how many things can go wrong when you don’t have a contract. And yes, it’s as simple as…just stop working. Move on and spend the time marketing your business. If they send a check, then you start writing. I gather this is really hard stuff for a lot of writers…witness these comments! Everyone seems to think I wrote this post just for them 😉

  11. Kristi Hines

    I just had to deal with this with two clients – one that I had a contract with, and one that I didn’t. Ironically, the one I had the contract with where they spelled out the terms (number of posts, length per post, payment) was the one that wants me to do more for the same budget. I felt guilty for refusing, but now I see that it was the right way to go. The one without the contract, I simply said “I can do that, but the rate will be double.” And they agreed! It’s tough, especially if you have to say goodbye to clients, but in the end, you’re better off.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Kristi!

      And…right on to all that.

      Back in my first business, I was a script typist, and I used to have a rush rate that was double my usual. My philosophy was that if you do rush work at the same rates, that means I’m allowing you to make your crisis into my crisis.

      Where if I get paid a lot for it, I turn your crisis into my opportunity…I prefer the latter. 😉

  12. Caroline Leopold

    Some scope creep is my own fault and happens when I get absorbed in the work. I do extra research, more writing, and endless editing on the project. The client doesn’t object because I still meet deadline. It’s not necessarily a bad thing because it’s nice to feel passionate about the work. But there are times that I have to force myself to stop. I remind myself that I have other things to worry about, such as having a life.

    • Carol Tice

      Yeah, and getting paid a decently hourly wage, too.

      When I started I was always doing a book’s worth of research for each article. It then also took F O R E V E R to write it up! Eventually I got wise and gave clients the amount of research and writing time they were paying for. Life has been easier and more lucrative every since 😉

  13. Julia

    Just had this happen to me with a client, and it was a little tough to deal with. But I did exactly as you suggested, and just did a full-stop. Told the client what I was going to do, and not do, and that the additional work was going to cost extra (if I was going to do it at all.) I feel good about my decision, and haven’t lost any sleep on that.

    A question for everyone out there: does anyone find scope creep happens to them with particular project types/clients/industries? I’m curious to see if there’s any pattern or not.

    • Will Bontrager

      The writing I do for clients is software rather than articles.

      I’ve found those who ask for a special price or a discount for whatever reason, whether or not the discount is granted, are the ones who seem to intentionally add/change specifications after a price and delivery time has been agreed to. Reasons could be because they are a non-profit, a religion, short of cash (watch out for these, “short” will always be their cash condition), to see what kind of work you do. It’s got so I automatically decline projects when a new prospective client inquires about a discount. Seems to be the mentality. (On the other hand, I bend over backwards for current clients who need help over an unforeseen hump and who have a good payment history.)

      Unintentional scope creep can come from lack of experience in hiring programming. They’ve not finalize the project in their mind or think of something else and ask if this or that can be changed. If it’s a minor change, I generally do it with a reminder than any other changes will be billed separately as stated in the contract.


  14. Tom Ewer

    Hey Carol,

    I think simply “don’t do more” is the best piece of advice, for two reasons:

    1. As soon as you do more, you’re setting a precedent. If the client is looking to manipulate you (or is simply ignorant of the scope creep they are imposing), allowing that first instance of scope creep to pass by is akin to saying, “throw whatever you like at me!”

    2. You could be setting a legal precedent. Even if your contract states x, if you do y for long enough, it could be argued that implied terms have been set. There is plenty of legal precedent regarding this. If you carry on doing something long enough, scope creep can effectively become part of the contract.



    • Carol Tice

      Yeah, that is really the turning point, that moment when they say…”Oh, and could you make this one 600 words instead of 400,” and you go, “Oh, OK.” And then you’re screwed.

      OR…you say, “Oh, were you wanting to pay 20% more? Because our contract is for 400 words, so I was curious if you’d like to do that, or stick with our original 400 words. Why don’t you let me know?”

      Now, they’ve pushed you, and found out there is a boundary, and they can’t push you around.

      The other way, they find out you’ll do whatever. The bad news there is, next time around, they will want even more. And so on. You’ve started down an ugly road if you don’t immediately raise the issue that what they want isn’t what you signed on for.

  15. Brianna Bell

    Do you have any samples of contracts? And when do you typically expect pay and do they pay you? I’m getting my first contact and I’m trying to figure out how to approach this to protect myself and seem as professional as possible.

    • Brianna Bell

      Whoops I meant “how do they pay you”…

      • Carol Tice

        Depends on the client. I have Freshbooks’ Paypal Business Payments program where I only pay $.50 for any size transaction (learn more about that on the Products I Love tab up top!), so I sometimes use that, or direct bank transfer, or good old checks.

    • Carol Tice

      We do have sample contracts inside Freelance Writers Den, and I believe they’re included in the workbook that comes with the Freelance Business Bootcamp ebook: https://makealivingwriting.com/ebooks That ebook goes over payment terms as well, in a lot of detail.


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