If you know me at all, you know I hate absolute statements.
It’s because they’re usually in this form:
“Freelancing is dead.”
“Journalism is dead.”
“There’s nothing out there but low-paying work.”
Or this form:
You MUST take my course or you’re leaving money on the table!
You CAN’T live without my secrets to freelance writing success!
You’re WRONG if you’re not doing it my way!
So it goes completely against my nature, but here it is:
There are some things you as a freelancer should never do. And I’m the one who’s going to tell you about them.
Don’t worry — they’re not such bizarre blanket statements like the ones listed above. To me, the first three are signs of a damn lazy writer who won’t push beyond the comfort zone. If that’s you and I offended you just now, I’d apologize, but I know I’m right. Freelancing isn’t dead (I’m one of many people proving that one wrong). Journalism isn’t dead (The New York Times subscription rates spiked by 8 million in the last few months). And again, I and several hundreds of thousands of writers prove every day that low-paying work isn’t the only work out there.
But that’s another post for another day. Today, let’s focus on the real absolutes that I think. And this is my opinion — the first rule of Writers Club is, well, you don’t talk about Writers Club. The second rule is you take what fits and ignore the rest. No one set of absolutes fits with every person or every situation. But these are pretty damn close to what every writer will face.
Never wait on a maybe. You just got off the phone with that potential client and he’s promised to send over a contract once he and his management team talk things over. Hooray! Let’s buy some champagne! Except … you glossed over the part where he said: “Just so you know, we’ll be talking with other writers..” Or the part where there’s no signed contract in place (that’s the larger point here). I can tell you from experience — if there’s no contract, there’s no reason to celebrate. As we speak, I sit here waiting for a client to get back to me on that project we discussed… six years and several follow-up notes ago.
Never work without a (written) safety net. Contracts, people. Real professionals use them, and good clients won’t argue if you want one. The clients who do argue — run. Just run now. That’s a problem, and luckily, it’s giving you a head’s up that it’s going to happen. If you know the client and have worked with them a while, there’s less of a need for the contract, particularly if you have their email confirmation to the terms you’ve discussed and the fees owed. But for those first-time clients, best to work with a contract (and don’t forget your upfront deposit).
Never let clients put out bad copy. This is a partnership between you and your client, right? So if they’re about to do something colossally bad, why would you not speak up? They may disagree with you but do it anyway. No client wants to leave a bad impression with their intended audience. You may be able to show them where they’re about to stumble and how to fix it. Make sure if they don’t take your advice, you reiterate it in email and ask them one last time if they’re sure it’s the path they want to take. (See what I did there? You now have written proof they’ve received your advice and ignored it. Nothing sticks to you.)
Never bad-mouth clients or other writers to your current clients. Or at all would be preferred, but I get it. Clients get under your skin, act like dictators, or even treat you like discarded gum on a sidewalk. Some writers whine like crazy (see the first three bullet points) or they act like writing deities (see the last three bullet points). But your current clients, upon hearing your venting, now think they’re next in line when you’re talking to your next client. And it’s childish, which isn’t exactly the image you want to project. You want to vent? Find a nice private forum or email/call your friends and bitch. Otherwise, keep it away from public view.
Never miss a deadline. As a freelancer, you’re as good as your reputation. I remember my first ongoing freelance client years ago — a local newspaper. The editor kept calling me for more assignments, which I loved. I thought it was my crisp, stellar copy that made her happy. I was a bit disappointed when she said “I love how reliable you are.” Then I realized that the writing part was a given. The reliability kept me working for her for the next four years. Be that kind of writer — the dependable one. If you can’t finish the assignment (and that happens sometimes), say so as early as you can. Don’t do what one freelancer did to me and simply walk away without mentioning it. That client, that editor has a lot riding on that assignment you’ve just bailed on.
Never fight with clients. Ever. EVER. Never get into the he said/she said about who was wrong. Don’t go on the defensive when someone pushes your buttons. Don’t respond to emails or phone calls when you’re upset, angry, or haven’t had time to think through the situation. Don’t yell, don’t complain, don’t get pushy, don’t argue… Take the high road. Years ago, I had a client lay into me about my being “unprofessional” for not rewriting an entire article (based on her mistake) for no more compensation. I never responded. That doesn’t deserve a response. Nor does it deserve a response when a client calls you names, accuses you of being unethical, treats you like an employee… Stick with the facts only. And when a client treats you in any way other than with respect and professionalism, pretend the response you want to give is kryptonite. It will hurt you if you let it out.
Never forget to appreciate. I appreciate all of my clients, past and present. Even the bad ones I appreciate because they taught me how to be strong when I needed to be, how to assert my boundaries — hell, how to build some boundaries, and how to recognize when the relationship was no longer worth keeping. Thank your clients for their business. Treat their projects with care and attention. Build that relationship with them, that partnership that shows you really do care about their success.
Writers, what absolute statements do you live by?