After the fall – preventing writing mistakes in the future

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Are you good at preventing writing problems? You need to be if you hope to become a successful freelance writer….

A brand-new client had called me to a meeting in a distant suburb. It took me more than 90 minutes to get to the middle of nowhere, and as soon as my contact met me in the corporate waiting room, she looked at me with disdain and said, “I’m too busy to meet today. You need to reschedule.”

Her manoeuvre pissed me off, of course, but I hid it well. I then told her that our meeting would need to be by phone. She readily agreed (which made me realize that her stunt had been a “test”). She was also pushy and distasteful when we did finally speak. I should have run like the wind in the opposite direction but, instead, I made one of the worst business mistakes of my life. I quoted her a rate that was double what I usually charged, hoping that I’d either make great money or, more likely, that she’d go away.

She didn’t go away.

She signed up quickly and made my life a living hell for the next two months. Every time I worked on her file I regretted having heard of her company, having met her and having accepted her loathsome contract.

What I learned from the experience was: don’t work for jerks. Here are seven more mistakes you should avoid:

1 Underbidding

Many creatives chronically charge too little for the work they do. When you’re new to business, it’s hard to estimate how long work will take you. One of the first things you should do is time yourself whenever you work and keep a list of how long each project takes you to finish. After three months, you should have a clear idea about how much you can do how quickly.

Yes, every project is idiosyncratic and has its own demands and special exceptions. But go for the average. Then, when you’ve calculated that, you should add a silent 25% more for a contingency fee. You can’t predict what will go wrong or what last-minute changes the client might demand so this contingency fee can be your saviour.

Best of all, if the contingency fee isn’t needed, then return it to the client. They will be thrilled when you’re able to deliver the project at LESS than the rate you’d quoted.

As you prepare your estimate, remind yourself that many clients drop bids because the amount seems too small and they assume the bidder is too inexperienced.

2 Overbidding

The downside of overbidding is quickly apparent: you don’t get the job. Save yourself from this tragic mistake by doing thorough research before you bid on a writing or editing project. I like to ask clients what their budget range is for a particular project. Sometimes they can’t or won’t tell me but sometimes they can and will — and that makes it far easier for me to develop a realistic quote.

3 Failing to start early enough

If you are a self-employed writer or editor, never become a Last-Minute Lucy or Larry. When I was in college I always left my essays until the last possible moment but, when I started my own business, I broke that habit, fast. Too much can go wrong! Worse, your client may not have given you all the information you need. And if you don’t discover that absence until the day before the project is due, your dillydallying will be obvious to them. On top of that, I also find I enjoy writing and editing so much more if I can do it on my terms. I never feel panicked or rushed. I schedule the work and get it done according to a schedule that suits me.

4 Accepting impossible instructions

A few years ago, a client asked me to write a 600-word story. “OK,” I said. She then told me I needed to interview 12 people for this piece. Say what?! I knew the idea would never work. Such a word-count would give me no more than 50 words per person, not even including their name, job title and a brief description of what they did. And it allowed no space to set up the story or even make it the least bit interesting. In short, I couldn’t do it.

I told her that right away and, following a polite but challenging phone conversation, I negotiated her down to just two interviews, which is what I’d consider the right ratio for a 600-word story.

Don’t feel that you always have to do exactly what the client suggests. Frequently, they aren’t writers themselves, so they don’t understand what’s advisable, or even possible. 

5 Becoming overly accommodating

I like to help clients, and I will frequently stretch the rules for them – turning stories around faster than usual or giving them extra attention when they need it. But I’m not a doormat! If a client assumes I’m going to be available for them on the weekend, without having given me an earlier heads up, or if they want to change the parameters of a story I’ve already written for them, I speak up politely, but quickly. I advise them that these sorts of last-minute changes don’t come without a charge. (To be extra fair, I never just charge them. I contact them and ask: Do you want me to do this for more money or do you not want me to do this. The choice is always theirs.)

6 Changing software mid-project

Last week I spoke with a client of mine who’s writing a book. He asked me about moving around huge chunks of text, and I told him that the software Scrivener might make that job easier. I also warned him that the software carried a daunting learning curve. But when he suggested he might try Scrivener for editing his current book, I advised him against it.

When you’re in the middle of a new project, you shouldn’t experiment with software. Remember the figurative expression “don’t change horses mid-stream”? It applies to writers and editors as much as anyone else. If you want to learn a new piece of software, do it when you start a project and have more time.

7 Accepting too tight a deadline

Over the last 40 years, I’ve learned to become a pretty fast writer and editor. I can edit 1,000 words in 30 minutes or fewer. And I can write somewhere between 400 and 700 words in 30 minutes (depending on the difficulty of the text). If someone wants me to work faster than that, I say no. I cannot do it.

The big problem facing many freelancers is that they are so eager for work that they don’t want to say no to anybody. Here’s how I see it: Saying ‘no’ is not a weakness; it’s inextricably linked with being professional.

Further, saying ‘no’ politely and kindly does not come easily and takes some practice. But once you learn this skill, your clients will have more respect for you and your working life will be better. And here’s the icing on the cake: You will also enjoy a higher income.


My video podcast last week offered advice on where to start your stories. (Or see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email  Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

What business mistakes have YOU made and which ones were you able to avoid? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Feb. 28/18, will be put in a draw for a copy of The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

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