An American Editor

February 23, 2015

On the Basics: Questions to Ask for the Ideal Client–Freelancer “Marriage”

Questions to Ask for the Ideal
Client–Freelancer “Marriage”

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

There’s been some media buzz in the wake of a recent column in the New York Times about applying psychological research to finding love by asking a date something like 36 supposedly ideal questions that determine whether the other person is marriage material. It all seemed rather forced and hokey to me, despite my definite leanings toward the romantic, but it made me think that freelance colleagues might want to apply a similar process to identifying ideal clients — or at least giving a relationship between client and freelancer a more reasonable likelihood of success.

The right questions asked at the right time can make the difference in a smooth, rewarding experience for both client and freelancer, whether the project is a writing, editing, proofreading, graphics, desktop publishing, or other assignment of some sort. The “never assume” adage is a good one to keep in mind. The one element you don’t ask about is likely to be the one that turns into a huge headache for one or both parties in the relationship.

Of course, we don’t always know what we should have asked about until not having done so comes along to haunt us or ruin the relationship. Other peoples’ experiences — and questions — could be the factor that keeps your next new client relationship from going on the rocks.

With that in mind, here are some of the questions that I try to remember to ask of or verify with prospective new clients, and some that a client might be expected to ask of us.

The Essentials

  • What is the scope of the project or assignment — number of words or pages? Are there references, footnotes, etc.?
  • If in pages, I define a page as x number of words/y number of characters. Do you use a different definition? When is it due?
  • What is the fee?
  • If there is no set fee, what is your budget?
  • Do you pay by the word, hour, page or project?
  • Do you pay on submission, acceptance, publication, within 30 days of invoice, or by some other timeframe once I’ve sent my invoice? If you usually pay after longer than 30 days after invoice, is that negotiable?
  • Do you have a contract we can use? If not, can we work from one that I provide?
  • If your usual rate is lower than I usually charge, is there any flexibility, such as an increase after a successful project?
  • Is there room in the budget in case the project changes, or goes beyond the original, scope?
  • Would there be any problem with my subcontracting some or all of the assignment as long as I review my colleague’s work before submission?

Editing in General

  • Is this for editing or proofreading?
  • If for editing, what level of edit do you expect — substantive, developmental, copy, line?
  • Which style manual do you use?
  • If you don’t have a designated style manual, is it OK if I use Chicago/AMA/AP/APA/ MLA?
  • Do you have any in-house style specifics that I should follow?
  • Do you have a preferred dictionary?
  • Is the document in Word? A PDF? PowerPoint? Some other format?
  • Do you expect one pass through the document or two?
  • Do you want me to use Track Changes?
  • Do you want me to provide coding? Fact-checking? Reference verification? Plagiarism checking?

Editing or Proofreading a Thesis or Dissertation

  • Does the institution or department have guidelines on the type of editorial assistance that is allowed?
  • Does the university or department follow any specific style guide? If they don’t use the same one, which should I follow?
  • Are there any specific checklists or guidelines to be followed?

Writing/Journalism Assignments

  • How many sources do you require?
  • Is there anyone in particular who absolutely must be interviewed and included?
  • What style manual should I follow?
  • Is there any flexibility in the word count if I get really good quotes and other interesting information?
  • Do you allow sources to see their quotes before publication of the article if they ask?

From the Client

  • What have you worked on in this genre/topic area?
  • Can you provide references?
  • Can you provide samples?
  • Will you take an editing/proofreading/writing test?
  • Do you offer any guarantee of accuracy or quality?
  • How many revisions are included in your fee?
  • Do you subcontract any of your work, or can I count on it actually being done by you and you alone?
  • Do you offer a discount for a steady stream of regular assignments?

You don’t want to scare off prospective clients by asking an overwhelming number of questions, or ones that appear to assume there will be problems with the assignment, but you do want to nail down as many  important specifics as possible before you start working on a project. I hope these suggestions help colleagues and clients get on track for the ideal professional marriage.

Are there any other questions that you would ask, or wish you had asked, of new clients or about new projects?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.


  1. […] You don’t want to scare off prospective clients by asking an overwhelming number of questions, or ones that appear to assume there will be problems with the assignment, but you do want to nail down…  […]

    Liked by 1 person

    Pingback by On the Basics: Questions to Ask for the Ideal C... — February 23, 2015 @ 7:11 am | Reply

  2. […] E. Thaler-Carter’s blog post at An American Editor today, On the Basics: Questions to Ask for the Ideal Client-Freelancer “Marriage” is a great reminder to be safe now to avoid being sorry later. Her list of questions, while […]

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    Pingback by Questions to Ask: Revisors and Translators | onrevision — February 23, 2015 @ 9:49 am | Reply

  3. I just realized that this post makes me a marriage broker of sorts! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — February 23, 2015 @ 10:06 am | Reply

  4. Terrific article Ruth! Thanks for this.

    I would add in the Thesis/Dissertation area “Who’s paying for the editing?”

    If it’s the institution (and some do), then the client has to find out if the editor needs to be a verified vendor of the institution, and then get a purchase order made. If an editor isn’t a vendor for an institution prior to doing the work, it can greatly hinder efforts to get paid.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Elaine R. Firestone, ELS — February 23, 2015 @ 10:37 am | Reply

    • Great article, Ruth. Elaine is right – universities can take months to pay you. Sometimes, the academic (or student) and editor are unaware of this. After twice being caught out by two different universities, I’ve wised up! In the case of the first university, the academic was extremely apologetic and when she asked me to do another (smaller) job for her, she paid me herself. I’m not sure how she fared with reimbursement – hopefully it didn’t take as long as it took them to pay me!


      Comment by fullproofreading — February 23, 2015 @ 8:58 pm | Reply

      • Exactly! I was burned once by this—and by my very first freelance editing client. And I was so careful, too, with having a signed contract. It was for a grad student’s journal article and neither the student nor her advisor were aware of the university’s rules on outside vendors. It took six months for me to be paid, but the good news is that I kept my composure (and sense of humor) throughout the process, so I got a referral out of the student, and her advisor has sworn she’s never using another editor for her group besides me. Patience paid off for me, but…

        Liked by 2 people

        Comment by Elaine R. Firestone, ELS — February 24, 2015 @ 11:33 am | Reply

  5. Yes, very important to set parameters and for everyone to be on the same page. I learned the hard way — I was a victim of scope creep!


    Comment by Lourdes Venard (@lourdesvenard) — February 23, 2015 @ 4:12 pm | Reply

    • What a great term, “scope creep”. Love it! Unfortunately, we’ve all been there at one time or another. Part of the learning experience.


      Comment by fullproofreading — February 24, 2015 @ 5:43 am | Reply

  6. Thank you, Ruth. I hurried to bookmark this page before I was halfway through reading the post. Thanks to you, Rich, for hosting Ruth.

    By sending a file with sample edits and a sample comment, I’ve learned to “ask” potential clients about their familiarity with Word’s Track Changes. Their responses have alerted me to problems before they are faced with their fully edited file. In most cases, I helped them become more comfortable with Track Changes.

    In one case, I declined the job offer: The client pulled the sample edited Word file into Pages on her Mac. She was not very familiar with change tracking in Pages or in Word. With the time I spent answering her questions about Pages, and with other problems, a huge mess was opening up. I decided the time I spent exploring that possible project was a fine learning experience–one I hope I won’t repeat.


    Comment by Camille DeSalme — February 24, 2015 @ 12:24 pm | Reply

    • Just a tip, Camille (and anyone else who’s interested). When you switch on track changes, you can click on ‘change tracking options’ and untick the box to track formatting. If your client is happy to trust you with the formatting of the document (they usually are), this avoids all the messy mark-ups and bubbles that come up every time you change a font, margin, line space, tab etc. The alternative is to teach your client how to ‘switch off’ seeing certain mark-ups by unticking boxes in the ‘show mark-up’ options. There are various other things you can do to make reading marked up documents easier (best to discuss with the client first).


      Comment by fullproofreading — February 24, 2015 @ 7:20 pm | Reply

  7. […] All too often, a promising client-freelancer relationship founders because the two parties have assumptions and expectations that don’t match. Ruth E. Thaler-Carter has a list of questions to help clarify that relationship from the outset. (An American Editor) […]


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