Is Your Writing Client a Pain? 5 Tactics that Stop the Agony

Carol Tice

Is life with your writing clients a few sandwiches short of a picnic?

Maybe your client insists you attend their staff meetings without pay. Or they pay 90 days after checks are due, only after you nag them a half-dozen times.

Then there’s the screamer. The company that has your work gang-edited by an eight-person team. The magazine editor who sends back your work covered in red ink. The solopreneur who wants to instant-message you at all hours, seven days a week.

And, of course, the one who pays you one-tenth what you should be getting paid.

Whatever the particulars, it adds up to one thing: Your client is a Pain In The Ass.

It can be sort of fun to complain about your PITA clients. “Can you believe they did this?” you moan to your writer friends.

But even more fun is resolving your PITA problems and having only pleasant, productive, positive relationships with your clients.

Here are my five tips for keeping your client list PITA-free:

  1. Make initial contracts short. I like a 60-90 day initial contract. This gives you a natural opportunity to redefine your working relationship after a short period of time. Once you find out your client is desperately needy or really wants 750-word blog posts, not 250, this is your chance to raise your rates — or to bow out and move on.
  2. Clearly define boundaries. Without exception, PITA clients are boundary-pushers. Whatever they should reasonably expect from you, they want more. So make sure you spell out exactly what you are doing for the money. You want to know when things are due, how soon they pay, the length of your piece, how many interviews they expect, when you’ll need to be available for calls or meetings…the works.
  3. Ignore them. Often, PITAs want loads of your time. Simply be unavailable, at least sometimes. You don’t have to answer that email, phone call, or instant message right away. You want to communicate to them that you are busy and they are not your only client (even if they are). Make it clear you are not going to be their 24/7 on-call staff writer at freelance rates…or you’ll find that’s exactly what you’ve become.
  4. Charge them more. It’s amazing what doubling your rate can do for your feelings that a client is a PITA. Suddenly, their annoying foibles don’t seem as oppressive. Whenever you feel frustrated, you can always take a look at your bank balance to remind you why you put up with them.
  5. Say goodbye. In the end, you’ve got to weigh all the factors: How bad do you need the income from this client? How stressed out are you by them? If you asked for a raise and they’re not going for it, and you feel like you’re gonna puke every time you have to talk to them, it’s probably time to give notice that you’ll be moving on. The bonus? Often, as soon as you do, a better client comes along. You’ve just made room in your life for something better, so it has a chance to appear.

No matter what strategy you use to rein in your PITA, remember the most important rule: Stay professional.

Yes, I know they throw tantrums and talk nasty. But don’t you do it. Leave all your doors open and bridges unburned — never know when you might want to use them again.

Have you had a PITA client? Leave a comment and tell us how you dealt with it.



  1. Debra Stang

    Hi Carol, I had to laugh when I read your column. I love the clients I have now, but I’ve had a few PITAs in my day. I had one last year who wanted me to be available to talk to him 24/7, even following surgery when I was groggy from pain meds. I’ve also dealt with the “red ink” committee (love it when two people make completely contradictory suggestions!), and with the client who claims to want editing but in the end won’t accept any of your advice or change a word that she’s written.

    I think the methods you suggest for getting rid of them are very sound. The one I need to work on is getting more assertive about raising my rates when it’s clear I’ve got a PITA in the making!

  2. Elizabeth

    What? Clients want you to attend staff meetings without pay? Who would agree to such a ridiculous arrangement? Not me. I have a contract that lays it all out, nice and formal….

    • Carol Tice

      Har har. You mean, not me NOW? 😉

  3. Cathie Ericson

    Ah, what I affectionately call “the difficult client rate.” Fortunately I don’t have any of those, but I have. The DCR does make it a bit more palatable.

  4. John Soares

    I’ve had a few of these over the years. I finish my work in a professional manner, but then I’m always “too busy with other projects” when they contact me again.

  5. Jan

    Kind of like getting rid of a guest who won’t leave … begin speaking in past tense…then express lots of regret that you won’t be able to hang out any more … then show up in your pajamas…

    I had a PITA client who hired me to write, then expected me to do the layout, photo positioning, and spacing down to the pixel on his WordPress site. Emailed me several times a day, snarky about something being a pixel or two off. When I found myself getting irritated just seeing his name pop up in the inbox, I knew it was time. My bad — I had neglected the “what you do with the writing once you’ve approved/paid for it is up to you” clause.

    “I have learned so much from this project.” “It has been interesting learning about your industry…” lead to “I sure wish I had more time to give you…” “I’m only sorry my workload is such that I’m going to have to give up the layout work…” finally led to … “I’m afraid I’m going to have to find a way to work within my own time zone…”

    As a relatively new writer, it was a difficult decision. But as an adult woman with a fully developed brain and a fair bit of talent, once I gave the PITA the brushoff, I was exhilarated…it felt like a rite of passage.

    Fun stuff!

    • Carol Tice

      I love all your suggested lines there!

      I was checking out your writer site this morning after you joined the Den…nice site. I love the way you’ve positioned yourself and are really clear on your niche, and why you’re the ideal choice for a writer in your topic. Sounds like you’re leading a fun life. Wish my husband was more interested in travel…

      • Marcy Orendorff

        The short contract suggestion–what a superb concept. I have learned to love my PITAs. Each irritating moment with one revealed holes in my contracts or methods. My PITAs taught me to stop being wishy-washy and vague. And, most importantly, to value my efforts.

      • Jan

        Thanks, Carol…

        Loved the feedback about my site…a work in progress, as it just went up about 6 months ago. As you know, the tweaking will probably last the lifetime of my new career.

        We’re actually headed to Seattle (my home) on our boat, after many years of being away. I don’t know where you were in 2003 when we left, but when I found you on the Internet, you name (and face) seemed very familiar to me. Perhaps when I travel up to visit family, I can buy you a latte…

        Looking forward to a long and rewarding association!


        • Carol Tice

          I was here back in ’03…maybe we met at a conference or Media Bistro thing.

  6. Anna

    Maybe I’ve been lucky – but I’ve really not had any PITA clients and I think a lot of that comes down to clearly forming expectations before you even begin.

    Late payers? The agreement they sign before I start stipulates they can’t do a thing with the work until the job is paid in full (and a deposit helps to get some money in the bank to start with).

    Calls at all hours? I make clear the hours I work and don’t answer correspondence outside of those hours unless it’s on my own terms.

    Editing committees? Request one liaison be nominated for the project and they resolve any internal conflicts before the work lands back on your desk.

    The client who wants change after change.. after change? Make it clear how many revisions are included and start charging after that.

    One thing I’ve learnt in life is people will treat you exactly as you let them, so by setting very clear boundaries from the outset, you’ll set the tone for how the relationship will progress.

    • Jan

      Brilliant insight.

      A bit slow on the uptake, it took me a couple of weeks to realize that the PITA is a “feedback device” about my own contract.

      Now the fun is in recognizing potential PITAs on first glance…dodged a huge bullet in December. I badly wanted to work for this guy…but he so insisted on low-balling me that I had to simply tell him “it sounds like you can’t afford me…you might want to try Elane…”

  7. Josh Sarz

    I didn’t know what PITA meant throughout the post until I imagined the kind of clients you mentioned. Hah

    • Carol Tice

      Well, I do spell it out up at the top…check it out. I actually got that acronym from Linda Formichelli in a recent mentoring call we did…and it inspired this post.

  8. Jackie P

    Great tips, I can really relate to atleast three of them, but during these tough economic times I can’t afford to be fussy because of the chance of losing the contract altogether.

    • Carol Tice

      This is why you want to be constantly marketing your business. When you have many nibbles and an array of prospective clients to choose from, then you have more power to drop PITAs. When you can’t afford to lose them, there are limits to what you can do to improve the situation.

      These ‘tough economic times’ don’t have to apply to you. See my post Monday for what I earned in 2011, and you’ll see it’s still possible to do just fine…if you’re focused on marketing.

  9. Howard Baldwin

    I fire ’em. Fired two last year, even though one had me on a sweet retainer deal. But they were getting progressively late in payments, and I didn’t want to have a $20,000 writeoff when I already had a potential $5,000 writeoff.

    The other one was unable to communicate. Brought me in on an extremely complex project where even the clients’ VPs of sales and marketing couldn’t agree on the messaging. Then told me my deliverable was due in three days (no mention of this turnaround when they hired me). Then called back after hours and said, no, they needed it in two days. Oh, and this after they hadn’t asked me to do anything for six months. Hasta la vista, baby.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Howard –

      I’m with you — I tend to get rid of them. But you have to have a steady flow of business to be able to cut clients loose. Writers’ first goal should always be to get fully booked and a little more, and then you can start getting choosier.

      I had one that was just insanely noncommunicative last year. I’d have to call and call. They really needed a marketing manager to coordinate their content development but the CEO couldn’t delegate and make it happen. I finally got my last check — which I made them pay over PayPal so I could see it go in IMMEDIATELY, as it was late — and just didn’t pitch them any more work.

      Late payers definitely go straight to the top of my list of who to axe…as you noted, once they get behind, they may never catch up. I know too many writers who’ve ended up stiffed for $10 grand or more. Don’t let it be you!

  10. Toni37

    Thanks for knowing these kind of strategies to be made in order to avoid these Agony.

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