Spotting Bad Writing Clients

In an ideal world, every client a writer has would be the most perfect, honest, well-paying person on the planet. To borrow from the Horton Hears a Who film, they would all be ponies who eats rainbows and poop butterflies.

Ah, welcome to the REAL writing world, kid.

First, let me say that most clients are pretty good. They might not always respond to your emails as promptly as you’d like, and an occasional payment might be late, but they give you clear expectations, sign contracts and compensate you for what you do. Others are more of the Voldemort type, however. They lurk passively in the background, quietly planning, scheming, drawing more and more people to their projects, until BAM! They show their evil faces, laughing as they betray your trust, wave their wands and pay only in despair. These Cients-Who-Should-Be-Ashamed are the ones to watch out for, and after a while, they’re pretty recognizable.

1. The pay rate is low.

Decent clients understand that writers have bills to pay. They also understand that much of what writers earn is pretax and goes to pay overhead expenses. These professionals are more than willing to pay their contracted writers a liveable, at-least-minimum wage. Some, bless them, even are willing to pay a percentage upfront or provide a bonus. If a client is offering just a few dollars, he likely either doesn’t understand what writers need to get by, or he doesn’t truly value the writing craft. In either case, it’s not a good situation.

2. They don’t want to sign a contract.

Some beginning writers are loathe to insist on a contract for their project, because they don’t want to come off as arrogant. Bad clients use this to their advantage. They say that a contract isn’t necessary, because they can be trusted. The truth is, bad clients try to avoid contracts simply because it makes it easier to get out of payment if sued. A good client will have no problem signing a contract because they know it guarantees you’ll do the work you promised. They might provide you with a version they’d like you to use because of their company’s policies, perhaps, but the use of the document is never an issue.

3. They don’t provide full contact information.

Some bad clients purposely withhold contact information, providing only a basic phone number or email address. They might say this is for reasons of confidentiality and privacy, but no legitimate business keeps their location secret. They withhold this information because it makes it easier to go AWOL when they don’t pay–in many states, a physical address of the client is necessary to serve legal notices, and file complaints, so starting work before you know where to get in touch is asking for trouble.

4. They postpone payments without prior notice.

Life happens. Miscommunications aren’t always possible to prevent. That said, the occasional payment postponement isn’t anything to squirt your pen ink over, especially if you’ve worked with the client before and he doesn’t have a history of payment problems. The problem is when they don’t follow through with the alternate arrangements they make. They say they’ll pay Tuesday. They apologize Wednesday and say they’ll get to it Friday, which comes and goes. They don’t offer a really good reason for the repeated delays, but they always make another promise. Don’t stand for this, because it sets a precedent that you’ll be tolerant of lateness and that you are not in true control of your business. Be upfront about the fact late fees will happen, let them know the next steps for collections (e.g., certified demand letter from an attorney, lawsuit, etc.) and give a precise schedule — to the hour — of when those steps will take place.

Getting Customers to Pay

As I write this, current clients owe me almost $2,000. This represents work spanning over the entire month of December and most of January.

The unpaid balances on my client accounts are not for want of proper documentation or billing. I know to the penny who owes me what and have records of all my Paypal invoices. The problem comes back to two simple facts of freelancing:

  1. Clients don’t always finish projects when they say they will, and
  2. Their correspondence sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.

The first issue isn’t always the client’s fault. I sometimes work with people who are hiring me on behalf of others in a company. When they need approval from superiors, who themselves might be waiting on someone else, things get bogged down really fast.

I make it a point to send follow up emails to my clients, but even so, people have a tendency to push writers off to the side if they get busy with other things in their life. This reflects a larger problem: The general consensus is that, apparently, writers don’t need to make a schedule, nor do they need to get paid on time and, you know, maybe eat or pay rent.

The best thing a person can do to combat both of these issues is to establish clear communication policies with a client in writing, putting them in project contracts. For example, the contract might specify that the first mode of contact is email, then phone, then written letter and, lastly, an attorney contact. The policies also can indicate how much time may elapse between communications, such as 24 hours. Another good policy is to require at least one correspondence per week, even if it’s just sending a quick email that says, “Just checking in!”

This strategy doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to foresee the exact pay date for every project (clearly, it isn’t in my case), but it does give you the ability to know what is happening with each project and to make some assessments about how to adjust your budget or calendar appropriately.

 

Creativity Versus Salability

Disney has produced some truly wonderful material over its decades of operation. Even so, after hearing and watching film after film, I can’t help but notice that Disney tends not to move away from general plots. For example, in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo dreams about leaving the confines of his church and being free to do bigger and better things. In Aladdin, Aladdin dreams about leaving behind the thief’s life for bigger and better things. In Hercules, Hercules asserts that, even though everyone else has quit or failed before, he will “go the distance”, become a hero and….you guessed it, go on to bigger and better things.

Now, I’m not knocking Disney alone here. A lack of truly new content is a problem just about everywhere writing appears–even reality TV is crafted around roughly the same ideas.

Why?

An easy answer is just that we aren’t very creative anymore, or that we’re just plain lazy. I don’t think this is the entire story, though. I think it very well could be linked more to money. When a producer is putting down millions of dollars to create a script or film, for instance, he wants to reduce his risks on the investment. One way of doing that is falling back on something that has proven itself before.

Any number of plots or characters might stimulate particular emotional responses in an audience. But as writers, we have to find the balance between what is new and what has been branded as salable. That is no easy feat.

The High Cost of Low Copywriting Prices

As a professional copywriter, I use a plethora of sites such as oDesk.com to find work, fill my schedule and maintain a workable budget. Each of these sites has its own advantages and disadvantages based on its functions and features, but one thing that I’ve noticed across the board is low posters and bidders.

A poster is someone who submits a project on which someone can bid. For example, the poster might be New Company A who needs someone to write the copy for the business website. A bidder is anyone who makes an offer to work on a poster’s project. When acting in this capacity, it’s pretty standard to submit sample work and, on some sites, a cover letter. Posters decide who gets the job after evaluating all the bids they receive.

The first problem I’ve noticed is that posters overwhelmingly undervalue the projects they propose. I see projects such as $1 for a 500 word article on a daily basis. For me, a well-researched article of that length requires no less than an hour, so I figure that, at the very least, I should get an hour’s worth of the current minimum wage. Now, I don’t know many people who can work for roughly a mere 1/8 of minimum wage. I know I can’t. Yet, this is what posters often are willing to pay.

blog job posting

Would you be able to work for $1 an hour?

Several problems I see perpetuate pervasive low project pay. First, many, many writers are just getting started in the business. These writers need a few projects that will provide good references, so they’re willing to work on the cheap in order to beef up their resumes and seem more professional. Secondly, other writers are out of work or don’t have enough projects to fill a full-time schedule, so they bid low to compete with the newbies and take the projects they can manage to get. Lastly, copywriting has the capacity for global applicants. Bidders from outside the United States can afford to bid low because $1 goes a ton further in other countries than it does in America. Subsequently, posters outsource their projects, putting in a pay rate that doesn’t support American writers because they know writers elsewhere will work for less. In fact, some posters specifically ask for applicants from particular countries, typically the Philippines or India. It’s all about the bottom line of reducing operation and production costs.

Let me emphasize that trying to embark on a new career or support oneself is always admirable. I’m also not suggesting that companies should accept defeat and fold instead of looking for the cheapest option that lets the business survive. Still, when writers accept jobs that pay far less than the content and time is worth in their current region, they end up devaluing not only their own work, but also the skill and profession of writing itself. They end up perpetuating the clearly rampant view posters have that writing services, although needed, aren’t something to choke up hard cold cash for. This has to stop, or writers always will find themselves under-respected and underpaid.

Does standing firm on a higher bid mean you might not get as much work? Yes. You WILL be underbid. A lot. But without a willingness to stand firm, others won’t get the idea that you and your art really matter. Efforts to reform education and put writing and reading funding at the forefront will fail, and nothing in society will change.

Do not give up. Value your words. Value yourself.