4 Ways to Inject Confidence into Your Freelance Writing Negotiations

What I’m listening to: Flagpole Sitta by Harvey Danger

What a strange week it’s been. I’ve talked with three new clients, two of whom are referrals, and have started on one of the projects and completed another. I’ve also delivered a slam-dunk project for a favorite client, and I’m working on book edits for a friend, who has already seen a good deal of interest from publishers.

In a recent client negotiation, I had to take a tough stand. Because there were contractual loose ends, I knew I couldn’t continue with the project until the matter was cleared up. I asserted what I needed.

Had it been years ago when I first started, I’d have walked into that minefield and danced on demand.

These days, that’s not happening.

I’d love to say that kind of confidence is easy to bring to the freelance writing career. It’s not. It takes time, success, failure, and a lot of hard lessons learned to get to a point where you put up your hand and say “Stop.”

How do you set firm, fair client boundaries?

Know what your minimum acceptable terms are. Everything from contract terms to payment to deadlines to expectations can be a sticking point when you negotiate a freelance writing contract. Your client may insist on paying you 45 days after delivery, or may decide to increase the amount of work without notice or added compensation. And some of these situations arise after the work has started. In each case, ask yourself what you’re willing to accept, how it may affect your working relationship in the future, and if it’s important enough to push back on.

Understand how to assert without yelling. I could have gone into my last conversation with the client with guns blazing — from my side, it looked as though the client was trying to sneak in extra work. But looks can be deceiving, so approach your client as though there’s a small misunderstanding. Clarify terms and ask for written confirmation that you’re on the same page. In every case, state the facts and leave the emotional junk behind.

Know what kind of leverage you have. For instance, your new client’s project is due tomorrow. However, they’ve just sent an email slipping in the fact that you’re now doing Y on top of the X you’ve agreed to. Do you push back? Absolutely. And you don’t deliver X until you’ve hammered out the payment details for Y. Is it holding your client’s project hostage? Only if they drag their feet in resolving it. Likewise, make sure to position yourself in such a way that the shoe isn’t going to be on the other foot. Avoid as much as possible taking on another project if the client hasn’t paid for the first one, or if the client is the type who “holds hostage” your payment until the next project is completed. Assert your payment terms, and don’t back down.

Be willing to lose the client. Maybe your client wants more than you’ve agreed to. Maybe they won’t budge. Asserting yourself may put them off. When it comes to what’s best for your writing business, you have to be prepared to lose a few clients when you can’t come to an agreement. If you lose a client because you disagree on work/pay/terms, it’s simply a mismatch, not a failure on either side.

Writers, how have you built confidence over the years?
What one tactic have you used that has improved your negotiations?

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  • KeriLynn Engel February 18, 2016 at 1:36 pm

    This is a great topic, Lori. I still sometimes have a hard time with stuff like this, especially when it comes to long-time clients who I generally have a great relationship with.

    I have to keep reminding myself "It's business!" For them, and for me. I'm not doing this to make friends, but to earn a living. And they're not hiring me to be their friend, but to get a job done.

  • Cathy Miller February 18, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    It is a great topic, Lori. Pushing back is even tougher when it's an existing or favored client but sometimes that occurs as well. And yes, there are concessions I'd make with a longtime client that I would not for a new or potential client.

    A recent prospect wanted to include a daily accounting of my work and the hours worked in their contract. I advised I would not accept those terms but if it was non-negotiable, I would respectfully decline their offer. They removed that language.

  • Damaria Senne February 18, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    I had to find the confidence when I realized it was costing me money in lost opportunities to not push back when a client added work that was not included in the original agreement.

    As late as yesterday, I had an incident where the client had been sneaking in bits and pieces of deliverables into existing work. I'd had a chat with her last week, explaining that those additions cost me time and money, and while they didn't seem like a big deal, they added to my own workload. I also didn't like that bad aftertaste of feeling used, I said.

    And lo and behold, the next day she sneaked in something again, getting someone else to send me the work so she didn't have to ask me directly. I emailed her saying the work would not be done. So she sent a minion to meet with me, ostensibly to collect the documents, but when he arrived, he tried to persuade me that they really need the work done. My own inference was that the client had learnt some time back that persistence eventually pays off. Which it does, as long as you don't annoy the other party. I was very polite, friendly and firm in my NO.

    I always try to be polite and respectful even when I'm delivering a firm No. And sometimes I cave, because it seems so petty to make a big deal of the changed parameters. But I've made my peace with that.

    It's not arrogance that makes me do it (I've been accused of that) It's just plain need. How can I run a profitable, sustainable business if I'm consistently bogged down with work I neither agreed to, planned for and will not get paid for?

    That said, clients who play a straight, fair game may find me more amenable to doing extra, for my own reasons.

  • Lori Widmer February 18, 2016 at 5:00 pm

    Keri, you bring up an excellent point. You're being friendly, but it's not in your job description to become friends (unless you want to). It's sometimes tough to walk that knife edge between business friendly and friendship friendly. Do you accept that invitation to the barbecue? If you do, will it make it that much harder to say no? Where do you draw the line so that the line doesn't blur to a point where you're ineffective at your business?

    Cathy, that's where I'd draw the line, too. It's too much "busy work" to track your hours and fill in time sheets. I had to do that once for a client, but they made it simple. They sent over the sheet and asked me to guesstimate per month based on the hours I'd worked. Since I track my hours anyway, it wasn't a huge deal. They'd already filled in the project names.

    Damaria, that takes a lot of nerve for a company to send someone to push you into it! I'm glad you were able to be firm, too. That would have left a sour taste with me. I might have to outline in email (so she can't forget it) that every new addition requires a new fee, and will have to wait for my availability.

    It's like a project I handled two weeks ago. They needed it NOW, and I did it, but as I was finishing they were talking about "the extended part" of the project. First time I'd heard of it. My response: "I have time at the end of the week to chat about that new project and what it will cost."

    It's a message we have to send if we expect people to respect our time, which should be compensated.

  • Paula Hendrickson February 18, 2016 at 8:48 pm

    Last week a referral called me to discuss writing entries for his book. Sounded like fun, light work, and he didn't pay well, but it was work I could probably fit in now and then. I thought I was clear in saying I'd be glad to take on some assignments if they aren't too complex and I can fit them into my scheduled.

    Next day I had three "assignments" from him that he needed turned around quickly. No contract. No email agreement. No terms mentioned. Just "Call and we can discuss." Sorry. I need it in writing. I emailed back saying before I could accept any assignments I'd need to know the specifics, in writing, including what rights he wants to purchase. I also told him I'm fully booked through mid-March. He replied saying he could wait a couple weeks, and then asked what I meant about rights. What? You're hiring writers so you can publish a book and don't know what rights you need? I explained if he wants to be able to reuse or reprint the copy, he'd need a Work for Hire agreement, which would cost more than the rate he was offering.

    It's been about a week and no further word.

  • Lori Widmer February 19, 2016 at 6:33 pm

    That's a lot to ask of a writer on the first date, Paula. Mind you, I love having a client give me a pile of projects, but without a contract? Huh?

    He's probably not written back because he's trying to read up on rights. Well, probably not, but wouldn't it be great? 🙂

    I'd tap him on the shoulder and see what's going on.

  • Paula Hendrickson February 20, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    Honestly? I don't want to bother with contacting him. At least not now while I'm neck deep in deadlines.