The swings and roundabouts of freelance client management

The swings and roundabouts of freelance client management

Freelance client management is like a box of chocolates: all clients look good but it’s not until you’ve bitten into one that you realise the relationship is a cockroach cluster*. Or a cluster something else, anyway.

One of the benefits of working as a freelancer is that you can choose who to work with. Do not squander this benefit by choosing money over your sanity, at least not for the long term. If your client is a douchebag, don’t be afraid to (politely) ‘fire’ him/her/them. It’s worth it. There’s an opportunity cost if you work for douchebags, because you could be working with someone less painful. However, if there’s nothing in the bank, consider ‘pain pricing’, which is upping your rate for people you know are going to be trouble so you can at least ease the pain with cash.

swings roundabout

The playground. More like freelancing than you can imagine.

How to find clients

Many freelance writers start freelancing after they’ve secured some contacts who can give them a decent amount of work. If you don’t have a Rolodex** of clients (or binders full of women) because you’re starting from scratch, or those contacts aren’t giving you enough work to keep you in cheese and wine, you’ll have to find some.

Approach clients you want to work for, whether that’s an editor at a publication or an organisation you like that you think could do with your services. As with any job hunt, do your research as to whether/how much they pay and the kind of work that’s likely to be on offer. Just say there’s an organisation you really like but it doesn’t accept paid content submissions to its lovely website, but will pay freelancers to write its press releases. Do you still want to work for it?

Network with other freelancers. Overflow work is always on offer. Find someone in a similar field to you and take them for coffee. Offer to help them with their workload. Once they trust your work they will feel more comfortable ‘subcontracting’ work to you or referring clients they cannot service to you.

Join freelance websites that post jobs. I do not recommend Freelancer as the kind of work and the rates are rather base, but services like Rachel’s List are worthwhile. It has an annual admin fee of $24.95, but I’ve scored several jobs there that I hadn’t heard about through other means, which easily made it value for money. Pedestrian and The Loop are also popular and worth a look, though I’ve never applied to posts at either of those.

Talk to people at events and have your business card ready, as you never know who might need you. I’ve been to parties where friends of friends ask me what I do and they’ve contacted me for my services. Industry events, for example conferences, are filled with potential clients.

Client expectations

A great percentage of client management is understanding what they expect of you and delivering at or above those expectations. There are two main types of clients I’ll discuss in this section: publications and organisations, under which I include businesses, government and not-for-profits.


Publications tend to have an established structure for managing freelancers. If you haven’t had a job in the publishing industry this process can be a little opaque, so I’ll take you through it.

Generally, the freelancer pitches a story idea to an editor. If the editor likes the idea, s/he will commission it. This involves a brief, a deadline, a word count and a word rate. You deliver on time, to brief and get paid.

Things to note:

  • Does the publication accept pitches? (Does it pay?)
  • Are there publication or pitching guidelines? Read them, heed them
  • Who’s the best person to pitch to? Find them, contact them
  • Research the publication: topic coverage, demographics, stories it has run recently and don’t suggest something that’s out of scope or already published

When I receive a commission, I like to confirm a few things before I start work. This is the minimum you need to ensure that you have a leg to stand on should the editor change his/her mind about running the piece (you may be able to extract a kill fee, for example) or should there be a dispute about what you’ve written matching what the editor wanted.

  • Brief of story including expectations re: interviewees, images etc
  • Word count
  • Rate (word rate or fee for whole article)
  • Deadline
  • Format (if applicable)
  • Contract (if applicable). A contract may state payment terms, copyright terms etc. READ THIS. Do not sign or accept the conditions by default if you are not comfortable with it.

ALWAYS SUBMIT YOUR WORK ON TIME AND TO BRIEF. I used to be an editor and it is actually amazing how many writers do not do either of these very basic things. Work that is 80% there but submitted on time is better than 100% there and submitted late. At least the editor know s/he has something to run, even if it may need work!

Follow-up is also important. If there’s no response (even busy editors usually ping back a ‘thanks’), call/email a day later to check if the editor has received your submission. I’ve been saved by this before when my email was playing up. If the editor says the piece needs more work, be available to do the rework promptly.

Once the editor is satisfied, invoice promptly. I like to make sure the editor is okay with the piece before sending my invoice, but for regular clients I now submit it in the same email. Just check what the editor’s preference is if you are unsure. S/he may have an assistant who handles invoices, or you may need to liaise with the accounting department.

If it is not made clear earlier, find out when your piece will be published (whether online or in print) so you can brag about it and add a clipping to your portfolio. It may also be a good time to sound out when the editor will be commissioning more stories and what s/he is looking for—you can then pitch again.

Other clients

Non-publication clients may engage freelancers differently and it’s certainly my experience that they usually come up with a brief themselves (rather than you pitching to them) and also pay by the hour or by the project rather than the word. My approach is simply to be there to make their job easier. If it’s my job to come up with ideas, I come up with ideas; if it’s my job to fulfil someone else’s brief, I fulfil it.

Just like with a commission, I like to make sure there are certain arrangements in place before I start work. I suggest you:

Ask for or propose a brief. If the client does not have a thorough brief or you are not confident quoting to the supplied brief, don’t be afraid to ask for further details. This is the professional thing to do and will help you scope the work.

Ask for or propose a deadline. If it’s a fairly long project, break up the pieces of work into milestones.

Quote thoroughly. This includes your rate, what is included in that rate, how many hours you think the job may take, and payment terms. Also include provisions for further work/costs should the job take longer than expected.

Some clients, if you give an inch, will take a mile, so be firm about the fiddly ‘extras’ that clients like to include but don’t want to pay for. For example, I include two rounds of revisions in my editing work but if the client comes back and says ‘just one more tiny change’ after those two rounds, I charge. It may be a nominal amount, like $5, but I like to show that there’s a cost to me (and them) to drop everything to accommodate something beyond the agreed brief. It also teaches them to be more thorough with their revisions next time.

As with publications, submit on time and to brief. I admit that I’m absolutely terrible with soft deadlines and will almost always bend self-determined deadlines so I ask my clients to set a deadline for me and I deliver to it. Once the client is satisfied, invoice promptly.


Juggling clients

A lot of freelancers like freelancing because of the variety of work and, in addition to keeping you fresh, a diversity of clientele is also good to stabilise your cashflow. My clients are mainly small businesses, publishers, member organisations and occasionally advertisers for a website I run. They pay different rates, in different cycles and the work is different for each.

On the other hand you may wish to specialise because you love a particular industry or type of work (for example you may only want to write feature articles). My only warning is not to put all your eggs in one basket because people move around and what you thought was a reliable commission can suddenly peter out.

How many is too many? Consider the ir/regularity of jobs, how organised you are, and how demanding they are. I have about 20 clients but only 5-6 of them are active at one time. I have one client on a monthly retainer and fairly reliable commissions from two bi-monthly publications; the rest is made up of ad hoc and semi-regular work.

Don’t forget it’s not just about the hours, it’s the headspace you need to service them all well: seven one-hour jobs for different clients will not take you just seven hours.

I’m not always good at this, but I have since learnt to prioritise and hone my time management skills as well as communicate with my clients to adjust their expectations when things are hectic. This is better than having them chase you when you haven’t delivered on time, which will earn you a reputation as being unreliable, which is almost the worst thing you can be***.

My next post will be on the craft of freelance writing.

This is the third of a series of posts based on a freelancing workshop I gave at the National Young Writers’ Festival on 2 October 2015. The first was Notes for the first-time freelancer and the second The Freelance Writing Spectrum.

* Yes that’s a Monty Python joke.

** An olde fashiony piece of office equipment that holds business cards on a wheel.

*** The worst thing you can be is Scott Morrison.

The freelance writing spectrum

The freelance writing spectrum

writing spectrum

There’s a myth about freelancing that comes largely from Hollywood glamorisation with just a touch of one’s own self-delusion. Being a freelance writer is not like being Hunter S in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or that neophyte whose name I forget in Almost Famous.

Nor is it usually a life of researching and crafting hard-hitting long-form investigative pieces that you file twice a year for a massive payload that sustains you until the next one.

The truth is writers undertake different kinds of freelancing to sustain themselves. Even the most successful freelancers I know don’t exclusively write in one area, and many do things other than write. This includes, but is not limited to, the following activities.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Freelancing is not like being Hunter S in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Universal Pictures)

Different kinds of freelance writing

  • Journalism
  • Content development
  • Ghostwriting
  • Blogging
  • Copywriting
  • Other media (film/TV/radio etc)

Freelancing related to writing

  • Editing/sub-editing/proofreading
  • Teaching/tutoring
  • Speaking/facilitation
  • Publishing
  • Consulting

Most of my income comes from magazine commissions, content development such as blogs and newsletters for business clients, and ghostwriting (bylines under my clients’ names). Occasionally I get some money when organisations advertise on my project management website, but I don’t invest time in the sales process so it’s usually pocket money if I do. Once in a while I get an editing gig.

I know of bloggers who sell some advertising on their blog but then earn a great deal of their income through other means, for example speaking and consulting, and I know of plenty of freelancers who love being a journalist but find they have more opportunities (and make more money) editing tenders and annual reports.

If you thought being a freelancer was 100% writing about unicorns (ie your pet topic), I’m sorry to say very few people get to do this. But don’t despair, because the above examples actually show how versatile the field can be.

If you know how to put good words in the right order, there will always be a job for you somewhere. You may not want to do everything you can do, and that’s fine—on a personal note, I no longer want to write someone else’s LinkedIn profile—but being too precious eventually leads to starvation.

That being said, remember why you’re freelancing. If it’s for the freedom to write what you want to write, then maybe the money is secondary. Perhaps you’re better off doing something else for income so you can write for pleasure (which doesn’t mean writing for free, but don’t rely on this income). That’s okay too, but if you’re serious about freelancing as an occupation, you’re going to have to consider the whole spectrum of earning activities you can undertake as a writer.

My next post will be on finding and managing different kinds of clients.

This is the second of a series of posts based on a freelancing workshop I gave at the National Young Writers’ Festival on 2 October 2015. Did you miss the first? It was Notes for the first-time freelancer.

Notes for the first-time freelancer

Notes for the first-time freelancer

freelanceDear writer,

My name is Adeline Teoh and I am a full-time freelance writer. I tap out this missive to you for two reasons: one is to give you an idea of what to expect when you embark on your own freelance career; the other is to provide you with a cautionary tale about the potential pitfalls when becoming a freelancer.

First let me begin by saying there are many writers who make a good living from freelancing, but there are many more who struggle. Sometimes you’re just not suited to the swings and roundabouts freelancing offers; occasionally the market will let you down.

The first step of your journey should be a mindful one, so answer this question: Why do you want to freelance?

The most popular answers are:

  1. To be able to write on a variety of topics
  2. To be able to choose clients
  3. Flexibility of workday

I would certainly subscribe to all three of those reasons, with time flexibility the most prized attribute. You see, I am not a morning person and have always struggled to get into the office (when I had a salaried job) by 9am. Moreover, my most productive writing period tends to occur between about 8pm and 2am.

I’d also add to that list: no commuting and no office politics.

As a caveat, you need to compromise on a few things. There is the potential for financial instability, a need to have (or employ someone who has) business and administration skills, plus a lack of immediate work social life and work-related support. Of course you can work to patch those possible issues but they are more apparent in freelancing than in most salaried jobs.

In addition to your primary skill (that’s writing if you’re a writer, designing if you’re a designer etc), you’ll also need a number of support skills. All of the following are definitely handy:

  • Budgeting
  • Marketing
  • Networking
  • Administration
  • Time management
  • Negotiation skills

I’d also say the following attributes are certainly common descriptions of my freelancing peers: versatile, assertive, disciplined and reliable.

Evaluate yourself:
What skills do you already have?
What skills do you think you’ll need to attain to be a good freelancer?

As an aside to that, I also find that freelancers are usually introverted rather than extraverted (which is not to say anti-social). This is because freelancing, even if you have a desk at a creative hub or similar, is a sole trader business and self-reliance is really important. Speaking in generalities here, extraverts tend to get their energy from being around other people, while introverts generate their own and can lose it among other people.

I know I do better work when I’m on my own, or am at least more productive, even on days when I have the flat to myself versus the days when my partner is home in another room. When I’m on my own I don’t have to think about other people, just the work.

A common question I get from young writers, journalists in particular, is ‘when is a good time to start freelancing?

My short answer to that is ‘when you want to freelance’, as opposed to when you are forced to freelance through circumstances such as redundancy or an inability to land a salaried role. Freelancing works best if deep down you want to freelance, rather than as a default option working towards or falling from a salaried role.

Remember it is a legitimate career choice in itself, even if it struggles to shuck off the stereotype of lazy writers turning in copy only so they can get wasted on goon every night (because times are tough and no one is gifting Grange). Most of the freelancers I know are incredibly hardworking.

A more practical answer to the question, one that will indicate you are ready to freelance, is if you have one or more of the following:

  • Solid portfolio and/or work history
  • Well-regarded subject knowledge
  • Demonstrable skills
  • Good network of people who will give you paid work
  • Decent understanding of what it’ll take to run a business

When I first went freelance, I had worked for 2.5 years at a niche publishing company that had a bunch of custom clients (car magazines, shopping magazines, a tourist bureau publication) and a couple of newsstand publications (a magazine aimed at professional women and one for the art, design and architecture buffs). I worked my way up from editorial assistant/receptionist to staff writer and figured I had a decent number of clippings over a broad range of topics to go forth and freelance.

I had planned to freelance while I travelled: a month in South East Asia, then three months spread over the UK, Europe and North America. I had saved a lot of money for the trip, easy enough when you live at home and your parents don’t believe in children paying board or HECS, and I planned to sell some stories to travel magazines along the way to sustain me and also make parts of the trip tax deductible.

The first year I went full-time freelance (2005/06) I earnt about $10,000… after spending $15,000 on travel and only a nibble on my travel pitches. Luckily I had a buffer of savings (and a roof over my head—thanks mum and dad!) but I had given it a shot and it didn’t work out. So I got myself a job.

I recount this because in hindsight I realised that it wasn’t enough to have a solid portfolio. I also needed to network, I needed business skills, I needed some way to show I knew about a topic or had the skills to write about a subject. The portfolio showed promise but it wasn’t enough.

If you are already working, whether that’s contract, casual, part-time or full-time employment, I would advise you to dip your toe in the freelancing pool before taking the plunge. Build your network of clients (whether that’s editors, communications managers, organisations etc) and put the feelers out before you leave your other job.

The second time I went freelance I started doing the odd job after hours in addition to my (very) full-time job. It was a recipe for burnout, so when there was a reshuffle at work I managed to secure a part-time role. This allowed me to take on more freelance work. It was not until I could see a dependable flow of lucrative work that I decided to become a full-time freelancer.

So if you have a part-time or casual job that allows you to pursue freelancing part-time, you’re in a really good position. Money is coming in, so you don’t have to worry about financial risk so much, and you can build your portfolio with stories you actually want to write, though you probably don’t want to work in a role too close to writing or you could risk burnout.

If you can help it, don’t go into full-time freelance work until you’ve saved up at least 6 months’ income, preferably 12 months. (No, I’m not kidding, cash flow can be a bitch.) Preferably this is after you’ve started by going part-time freelance first so you understand your work pipelines and cash flow etc—more on this later.

Be aware that, at least at first, you will need to have a tolerance for jobs you might not enjoy but take to sustain yourself until the jobs you do want come along.

My next post will be on types of freelancing you may not have considered.

This is the first of a series of posts based on a freelancing workshop I gave at the National Young Writers’ Festival on 2 October 2015.