Writers Worth: Stopping the Runaway Project

I was working with a client a number of months ago when this happened:

Based on the notes provided, I wrote a draft.

It came back — not what they wanted.

I revised, based on the feedback given.

It came back — not right.


Okay, pick up the phone. The conversation was enlightening in a few ways — I saw exactly how the client wanted the project.

And I saw that the project described was nowhere near the same as the one described in email.

Someone had changed his mind.

Okay, so the terms were clarified, so full speed ahead, right?

Not so fast. There’s that little issue of the project being not just slightly different, but polar opposite to the one described in email.

So what just happened?

The client changed the parameters. And because my contracts include a detailed description of the project, this was a job that was not covered under our current agreement.


I know what you’re saying — just give them what they want and be done with it. If you do that, they’ll be happy, right?

I can hear every one of you who have been in this situation. You’re saying to your monitor “No way!”

That’s the right answer.

The temptation when a client changes a project is to just give them what they want. We don’t want to step on their toes, upset them, make things complicated…. am I right? But here’s the thing; you’re not stepping on toes, upsetting them, nor are you the one complicating things.

They are.

I could list the reasons why it’s a bad idea to just go ahead and do it, but it’s best illustrated.

Carl is a freelancer who’s working with Janet. Janet and her team want a refresh of their website content. Carl writes up a contract outlining the scope of work — 12 website pages to be revised within a month. He quotes a price: $2,000. Janet signs and Carl gets started.

Twenty days later, Carl delivers his draft to Janet. A day or so later, Janet send Carl a note — this isn’t quite what we’re wanting. In fact, Janet explains, the team has had a few discussions since Carl started the project, and they really think the entire website needs to be rewritten. There are 20 pages in total, and is there any chance he could have that done in two weeks this time?

Carl is a bit confused, but agrees to keep going. He puts in another week of work. He hands in the second draft, assuming there will be edits.

Except there aren’t. Instead, Janet says the team has shifted direction a bit. They’re wanting a complete overhaul of the company’s image. New message, new branding, new positioning to capture those customers who make up a smaller slice of their business. They’re going to meet again next week, at which time they’ll draw up a brand voice document for Carl to follow. Oh, Janet adds. And the website will have an additional 36 pages, including the Resource area, which Carl may be tapped to fill with content at a later date.

So far, Carl has put in 40 hours of his time for a project that just changed. Again. But what’s he to do? He’d already agreed once to a project change. This will surely be the last.

Until Janet responds to his next iteration with this: The team likes what he’s doing, but thinks he needs to include a new section here, oh, and then there was the agreement that they would also provide a blog, which they need five posts for immediately, and then there’s the tie-in to the newsletters.

Sixty hours later, Janet’s team once again adds to the project.

That, my friends, is why freelance writers need to spell out project scope and push back when the project veers off course. And that scenario has happened to me and to any number of writers reading this blog right now. We go against our own better judgment for the sake of harmony with our clients. However, good clients understand that projects that shift midstream do mean that they owe their writers for the original project.

In fact, I’d argue that asserting the contract terms helps stop the runaway train that is the morphing project. Clients do change direction sometimes, but if you’ve already put time and effort into it, you are owed compensation for that. And you’re well within your rights to present a second contract to cover the new parameters. It might not hurt to ask clients to include you in discussions involving the project, or at least send you updates on conversations involving the project.

Writers, when did you first encounter the runaway project?
How did you halt the onslaught of changes?
What advice can you give to other writers on holding clients to the contract terms?



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  • Cathy Miller May 30, 2017 at 9:24 am

    One that comes to mind was an ebook with five distinct areas with five different subject matter experts (SMEs). I interviewed each SME. One was particularly challenging. Even with me sending very specific questions before the interview and prompting during the call, her responses were weak at best. I followed up with a quick outline of her “points” and she signed off on them. Then the company fired her.

    I am not kidding. Her section of the ebook had to be redone after a total change in direction and interview with another SME. I explained the extra work was outside the scope and there would be an added change for the change in scope.

    • lwidmer May 30, 2017 at 9:55 am

      I hope they agreed to that without question, Cathy. Wow. What a situation to be in! How did it end? Well, I hope?

      • Cathy Miller May 30, 2017 at 10:45 am

        Begrudgingly. I still have the client so that’s a good thing. 😉

        • lwidmer May 30, 2017 at 1:11 pm

          Well, begrudgingly is better than a no. 🙂