4 Ways to Spot a Bad Writing Client

writing client sheep wolf
Image by SarahRichterArt on Pixabay

In an ideal world, every writing client you have 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 eat 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. 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, and 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 Clients-Who-Should-Be-Ashamed are the ones to watch out for, and after a while, they’re pretty recognizable.

Top signals your writing client is bad news

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 hate to insist on a contract for their project. 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’re trustworthy.

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 (e.g., a physical 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 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 the client 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. Then 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. 

What to do if you encounter a bad writing client

If someone isn’t what you expected, the first step is to firmly but kindly stress what your expectations and boundaries are, as indicated in your contract. Sometimes it just takes you showing some grit and confidence to turn them straight.

If you continue to see problems, then take whatever steps are outlined in the project to penalize the client. 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.

If the client doesn’t respond to penalties, then cut your losses. Take the legal steps to terminate the agreement. Do not keep the client on your roster for future projects. Instead, focus your time on finding a new client who understands your value and who will be enjoyable.

Sometimes, a bad writing client wins a battle. I’ve had collections I’ve been unable to get, for example, because it simply would not have been worth the time and money to pursue the funds across state lines. But you absolutely can tell others about the experience you had with those clients. Leave reviews so others know to stay away and why. The only requirement is to be truthful in whatever you relate. Don’t just say they suck and close with a bunch of exclamation points. If you leave people with an accurate sequence of facts and present them in a calm way, you’ll be the one who comes across as professional and wins the bigger war.