My writing for this blog has slowed since the early days due to a boom in my business both as a writer and writing coach. Things don’t appear to be slowing down.
But as it’s a wet Tuesday here in Scotland I’ve decided it’s time to update the blog by writing about one of my favourite topics- boundaries and the art of saying no. I recently wrote a blog article for PositivePsychology.com on healthy boundaries in various kinds of relationships, but here I want to focus on boundaries for working writers. Why? Well, you could say that I have learned the hard way how essential professional boundaries are when contracting with clients online.
Identifying bad freelance writing clients
The fabulous Writer Beware blog details a lot of scams in what they call the shadow side of the publishing industry. However, a huge number of professional writers serve clients outside the publishing industry, by producing content for blogs, websites, e-books, newsletters, press releases and more.
Many writers start out by joining agencies known as ‘content mills’. These typically pay per job for ghostwriting short-form and long-form content, such as social media posts, email copy and blog posts. Some are shady operations requesting writers produce ‘model answers’ for their clients, or in plain English, writing students’ college and university assignments.
There are other jobbing writers’ membership websites that ask for a fee to sign up and peruse ‘curated freelancing opportunities’. I’ve been approached by a few assuring me I’m ‘qualified to join’ who then offer nothing more than a list of job openings freely available elsewhere, and a few ‘how to’ blog articles. IAPWE is one of the newer websites posing as a professional association as described in this Reedsy article. Contena is another one that has attracted poor reviews.
Avoiding scope creep
However, there are other poor contracting practices to be aware of, such as
- Asking for a writer’s rate ‘per article’ without stipulated word counts, but rather ‘word ranges’ such as 1,500 to 3,000 words per article.
- Hiring writers with contracts that do not stipulate the number of revisions included, turnaround times for revisions, or fees for revisions.
This lack of clarity can lead to the dreaded scope creep, when work increasingly encroaches on your free time, piles on stress, and can eventually lead to exhaustion and burnout.
A tough lesson from personal experience
I was hired as a freelance editor back in June to work on a certain number of articles per day, which I was assured would take a maximum of 7 hours. I agreed to a day rate for the job. However, I found that editing four blog articles, writing SEO content snippets, image curation, image optimization, and affiliate linking would take between 10 and 11 hours a day, as long as I was prepared to acquire repetitive strain injury on my mouse hand. When the client offered to reduce the work to a mere 9 hours a day on screen for a 7-hour day rate, I had to set some professional boundaries and walk.
I learned a tough lesson. Instead of trusting my B2B clients have the professional integrity required to contract and retain a freelancer, I now insist on a paid test article to time audit all ‘per article’ writing and editing tasks. Then, and only then, do I offer a quote and/or accept the rate offered. I’ve found this weeds out the chancers from the genuine clients at the first hurdle. If a client isn’t prepared to send me a paid trial article so I can time audit the job, they are likely trying to get something for nothing. In psychological terms, they are trying to override professional boundaries, as well as standard contracting practices, and that bodes ill for any future working relationship.
The problem is that we writers love our craft so much that we often jump at the chance to work in areas we are truly passionate about. Especially when we’re starting out, it’s easy to slip up and neglect to negotiate a client contract that protects our professional interests.
While the majority of my regular B2B clients have been great to work with, there’s been a handful who pushed professional boundaries in an attempt to exploit my love of writing. I have had to learn to say a firm but polite no to these clients, and establish some professional boundaries about when to proceed or withdraw from an offer.
The art of saying no
In today’s economic climate, taking on work that neglects our professional boundaries is tempting to plug short-term cash flow problems, but can lead to bigger problems maintaining productivity in the long term. However, writing for clients who continually push our professional boundaries has a corrosive effect on our creativity, and physical and mental health.
Paradoxical as it may sound, saying no is a crucial skill for making progress both personally and professionally.
Take a look at this TED talk by Kenny Nguyen about how learning the art of saying no prepares you for the perfect time to say yes.
5 tips for finding great writing jobs
Now we’re clear about how to say no, here are some tips on how to say yes. The following have helped me identify genuine jobs based on creative collaborations and filter out the kind of opportunistic exploitation that can crash your career as a freelance writer.
- Ensure you have agreed on a rate per word and not per article, if possible, unless the article has a specific word count attached.
- Only agree per hour or day rates after you have conducted a thorough, paid, time audit of the work involved.
- Ensure that the number of revisions and/ or edits is stipulated in your contract. If it’s more than one round, always negotiate a fee.
- Ensure that turnaround times are agreed upon in advance with reasonable deadlines applied.
- Charge for additional tasks such as image sourcing, image curation, image optimisation, internal/affiliate linking, and other SEO optimisation practices. These require additional skills and eat into your time.
For further tips on weeding out the baddies, take a look at this article by freelance writer Carol Tice. You can also check out this more generic article about setting boundaries as a freelancer on Forbes.
Also, for a fun and incisive video on setting boundaries as a freelance writer, watch this video by experienced copywriter Alex Cattoni on ‘How to Fire a Client.’
The core message here is that setting professional boundaries as a writer entails learning the skills needed to have difficult conversations, or as Cattoni says ‘getting comfortable with being uncomfortable’. This brings me back to the tools I use in my writing coaching practice.
How to set professional boundaries
If you’re a freelance writer who struggles with setting boundaries it will definitely impact on your creativity, productivity, and self-worth. Learning how to set boundaries with your clients requires a shift in mindset, as identified in Cattoni’s video, but also the acquisition of specific interpersonal skills. As a writing coach, I equip all kinds of writers with the skills they need to succeed and optimise their productivity. This includes setting professional boundaries.
Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable typically means learning how to manage the anxiety and fear that arises when we decide we need to change our behaviour to achieve cherished life goals. One of my articles on ACT for PositivePsychology.com contains several resources for managing anxiety that can useful when learning to set professional boundaries.
Another of my articles on Setting Healthy Boundaries has a section on setting boundaries at work which includes some useful resources. However, this video by work communication skills coach Tammy Dunnett is a great guide on how to set boundaries at work by getting comfortable with having difficult conversations.
I love Dunnett’s 3 pillars for setting boundaries at work. Make sure you remain
But let’s face it, when our buttons are pushed uncomfortable and reactive emotions are aroused. When this happens, don’t hesitate to take a step back for as long as needed. This is perhaps easier in the remote working world where we can put all our devices on silent and walk away from the desk. Learning when to take a break to prevent tensions from escalating is crucial as Dunnett explains above.
To finish up, here’s a final reminder from writer Paul Coelho.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve any more tips about how to identify dodgy clients, or how to set boundaries as a freelance writer. Many of us only carve out a writing career after learning from bitter experience.
I hope this article helps you to navigate the often murky waters of online writing gigs and overcome the challenges involved.