An American Editor

December 31, 2018

On the Basics — Managing “Creepy” Challenging Clients and Projects

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Into each editor’s life a little rain, in the form of difficult or challenging clients or projects, must fall. Here are a few examples, with some tips for how to respond to them that could make the new year a little easier for all of us!

Classic headaches

A recent social media post included these comments:

“… when someone books a 4k word edit then sends you 100k.”

“Client sent over and paid for 136-page edit, but kept writing and writing and sent over a total of 600 pages! Expected me to edit for price she already paid because I ‘owed’ her …”

Ah, yes — the infamous scope creep. These situations arise on a regular basis among colleagues, and not just editors. I’ve had writing assignments where the editor asks for additional interviews after we’ve agreed on a story length, sometimes even after I’ve finished the piece and turned it in. I’ve had proofreading work that turned into editing — sometimes even close to substantive work, although I prefer not to work that hard and only rarely accept such projects.

The impossible request

“Impossible” requests are another instance of projects that can become headaches if we accept them. Clients who are clueless about what it takes to get their projects done can ask us to meet deadlines that are downright ridiculous, but — again — sometimes it seems as if it’s more important to have work in hand than to maintain sanity about our work lives.

In a related social media conversation, a colleague posted about a client asking to have a 230-page thesis edited in not even two days. And that was before the poster had seen the document to verify whether her definition of “a page” was anywhere close to the client’s version. My guess is that checking the word count would reveal that the client’s 230 pages equaled 400 to 500 of the editor’s.

My response was: “In circumstances like this, I don’t give explanations. Just ‘I’m not available.’ I learned that lesson years ago from having people say things like, ‘Surely you can fit this into your vacation time’ or ‘When do you get back?’ Some will still say ‘When would you be available?’ and I use something like, ‘I don’t do this kind of work and never would commit to such a schedule/deadline.’”

Even if you work in-house rather than freelance, unreasonable deadlines can be an issue, but it’s harder to set boundaries with colleagues and bosses/supervisors than with prospective (or even ongoing) clients.

Offensive content

How to turn down a project that contains content we find offensive is another challenge for freelancers, especially those who really need income right that moment. “Offensive” can mean anything from political to sexual (erotica or porn) to violent to racist to any other type of content that goes against your personal comfort zone.

Rude and unpleasant people

Luckily, I haven’t had to deal with this often, but some clients turn out to be rude and difficult to deal with. Managing such personalities is a challenge at any time, but especially when the behavior doesn’t show up until you’re well into the project and have invested some, much less substantial, time and effort in it.

The big “why”

Some of that rude, unpleasant behavior shows up early in a client/freelancer relationship when a prospect brusquely questions your rates, no matter how you charge (by the word, hour, project, etc.). Challenging our rate structure indicates a probable PITA (pain in the … posterior) client; someone who starts the relationship by essentially insulting the editor’s stated value is likely to be difficult throughout the project.

Protective techniques

How can we defend ourselves against such situations? It’s always hard to say no to new work, especially for those who are desperate for every penny (trust me, I’ve been there). It’s even harder once there’s a serious prospect in place, and yet again when you’ve invested time and effort into at least the beginnings of a project that starts to morph into far more than you expected.

Protecting ourselves against such challenges often can make the difference between an editorial business that makes a profit and feels fulfilling versus one that makes its owner crazy as well as broke. We all may need to develop tough outer skins when it comes to situations like these, and learn when to “just say no.”

  • The first thing that colleagues in the scope creep conversation offered was “CONTRACT!” It can feel awkward to expect new clients to sign a contract, but whether you call it that or a letter of agreement, it’s something that can make a huge difference in how a project turns out. And not just from the financial perspective. Agreeing to do more than you originally expected a project to involve creates all kinds of problems. You’re likely to resent the client for creating extra (even excess) work for no additional payment, which can affect the quality of what you produce. The additional length means spending more time than you may have budgeted, which can interfere with meeting other deadlines or accepting new (and better) projects that come in while you’re wading through all those extra words.

I include language in responses to prospective clients along the lines of “I’ll provide an estimate of the deadline and fee once I see the manuscript and confirm the word count.” The estimate message and contract language include “Deadline and fee based on word count of X. Any changes or additions will result in a revised deadline and fee. If the work appears to require more time than expected, I will alert you before going beyond the agreed-upon time or amount.”

I should have mentioned in that online conversation that I also tell prospective clients that I define a page as 250 words (I went back to add that detail!). That can save a lot of hassle in explaining why the client’s 25 pages are actually my 50 pages or more, and why my fee and deadline are higher than the client might have expected.

  • When someone is rude or otherwise unpleasant in a phone or e-mail conversation, I respond with, “This isn’t an appropriate way to communicate with me. If you can’t be civil, we won’t be able to work together.” Sometimes that kind of response has to be repeated; if that’s the case, I go with the classic “Three strikes and you’re out” approach. I’d rather lose the job and the client than deal with someone who doesn’t respect my time and skills.
  • My response to questions about my rates is that they are based on X years of training and experience, and that the prospective client is welcome to look into working with other writers, editors or proofreaders if cost is their main concern. (I’m often tempted to say something like, “By the way, when you come back to me because the cheaper person you hire doesn’t work out, my rate will double,” but haven’t done so … yet.)
  • When I receive a manuscript that I find offensive or upsetting, I find a polite way to turn it down rather than subject myself to unpleasantness in my work life. I’ve used language like “I don’t handle this kind of material.“ Short, sweet, to the point. If I know someone who is comfortable with working on erotica, I might contact that colleague to ask if I can give their name to the potential client. For other areas, I simply send that “I don’t …“ message and hope never to hear from that author again.

As I was writing this column, I got a notice from the Freelancers Union about a blog post entitled “Five self-care fundamentals for freelancers.” The teaser text was: “By showing yourself how to treat yourself, you are by default providing a blueprint for how others should treat you.” That made me realize that setting out our guidelines for the kinds of work we accept as editors (or any other editorial freelancers), especially in terms of deadlines and fees, is a form of self-care. It isn’t healthy to let clients run our lives and impose crazy-making deadlines, rude behavior, insufficient payment levels, unpleasant material or other problems on us.

For any and all of these situations, the best technique might be to anticipate them and  prepare responses before such clients or projects show up. Having a script in place makes it much easier to respond to or head off problem clients, whether the “creep” is a matter of project scope, icky content or nasty behavior. The Girl Scouts have a point when they say “Be prepared.“

Let us know how you’ve handled situations like these.

Here’s to a healthy, productive new year, free of scope creep and other “creepy” aspects of our professional lives!

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, and companies worldwide. She also hosts the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues. She can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

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