How to Set Clear Boundaries as a Freelance Writer

by Zawn Villines on Oct 19, 2016

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Sooner or later, it happens to every writer: the client who wants more than what you promised or intended. Boundary violations range from minor annoyances such as emails over the weekend to major intrusions. I recently received a string of texts from a client in the middle of the night. I was in labor giving birth to my child, and had been on maternity leave for two weeks.

What was he thinking? Probably not much. Clients who violate boundaries aren’t typically trying to be rude or annoying. They want answers quickly, may not realize they’re intruding, and might not understand the importance of a separation between work and the rest of life. Occasionally, a client intrudes because they have a strong sense of entitlement. They think they can control your schedule and life because they’ve signed a contract for some work. Whether your client is being deliberately intrusive and controlling or simply doesn’t understand the nature of your relationship, clear boundaries will help you work together. They’ll also preserve your sanity.

Many writers are hesitant to set boundaries. This industry is a competitive one, and if you’re hungry for work, you might worry that your client will move to an easier and less rigid writer. That could indeed happen. But do you really want to work for a client who won’t agree to honor your weekends, or who can’t accept that you must be paid for your time? Good clients who value good work respect writers who set clear expectations. Professions in every other industry, from lawyers to doctors, define the terms under which they will work. If you want to be treated as a professional, you need to follow the lead of other professionals.

Here’s how to do it.

Set Clear, Specific Expectations

We all think our expectations are reasonable, perhaps even obvious. When writing is your career, you may even be accustomed to a set of common expectations–no weekend work, payment for edits, billing hourly for emails and phone calls, etc. Don’t risk the relationship with your client by assuming they share these expectations.

Talk to your client about your expectations for the project before you agree to work together. Be as clear and specific as possible, and if you sense any hesitation, get clarity before moving forward. Otherwise you may waste time on a project that fails.

Get it in Writing 

Contracts don’t have to contain complex language, and they certainly do not have to be authored by a lawyer. Simply outlining your expectations in writing is perfectly adequate. The contract protects you if the client tries not to pay you for your work. It also gives you a clear reference point if you end up litigating something about the project.

The benefits of contracts aren’t limited to relationships that sour. When your expectations are in writing, you can reference them when there’s a problem. “Thanks for the notes about edits. In our contract, we agreed that all edits are paid, so these edits will cost xx dollars” is a lot stronger than vague protestations that you had an “understanding.”

Take Control of the Conversation

Many writers wait for the client to initiate discussions of payment and contract terms. They are willing to defer to whatever the client offers. If you do this, it puts you in a position of weakness from the contract’s inception.

Take a cue from other professionals: lawyers, doctors, and accountants have set rates, established working hours, and pre-written contracts. They might adjust their terms based on client needs, but they don’t wait for a client to tell them how much they will be paid, or which work will be compensated. When you initiate and control the discussion about payment, you begin the project in a position of power. Good clients respect this.

Follow Your Own Rules

Every interaction with your clients instructs them on how you should be treated. So don’t violate your own boundaries. If you tell a client you don’t work on weekends, don’t respond to an email late on Saturday night. If you agree to specific payment terms, don’t back down just because a client balks at your first bill.

You can’t control how your clients behave. Your boundaries aren’t really for them; they’re for you. Clear boundaries help you determine what you will and will not accept. This ensures you reward only the behavior you want to see from your clients, enabling you to weed out the bad actors while spending more time assisting the clients you like the most.

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