If Your Freelance Writing Client Sucks, Can You Walk Away?

If you have a client who's making each day a special kind of hell, you can drop them and walk away.

In fact, you probably should walk away.  Thanks to my wise sister-in-law and colleague, Dawn Babcock Papple, I was able to do this with a client of mine last year - and with zero guilt in a way that (I hope) the client understood.

What makes a nightmare client?
  • He changes the scope of the project after signing a contract (i.e., asking you to do more work than originally agreed upon)
  • He makes unreasonable demands which, if you comply, will only be to his detriment
  • He needs constant (not occasional or even frequent) hand-holding, explanations and other attention
  • He requires you to do much more research than you've ever done before - and expects it to be included in the quote you gave before you knew about the extensive research
There are other factors that can make a nightmare client, but these are a few of the things that can chip away at a freelance writer's armor.

My Nightmare Client

I had a client from hell who didn't start that way.  He was really cool, friendly over the phone and seemed to know precisely what he wanted.  He requested 11 pages of web content - five were to be original freelance writing and six were to be simple edits and search engine optimization of content he'd written.

He agreed, no problems at all, to sign a contract and pay 1/2 the total fee before I started.  We agreed on the fact that it would take me two weeks to complete his content (I added a week to what I really thought it would take for padding so I could attend to all my clients and take new ones on).  I sent the contract and didn't hear from him until I e-mailed him the next day, asking if he was still interested in working with me.

"Sure, yes, I am... I just have to have an attorney approve this contract."

You guys have seen my freelance writing contract.  There's not an insane amount of legalese, but I understand if someone wants to make sure it's binding and not only slanted in my favor.

The next day, he told me he can't sign a contract based on Hawaii law because he had no presence there.

Well, I had a presence there.  Hawaii was my state of residence, and the origin of the contract... but ok, I'll take it out.

Three days went by - and I didn't start work because I refused to work without a deposit and a signed contract.  Finally, he signed and sent me a deposit.  I got started with confidence, knowing I could complete work within the deadline because it's just web content.


He wasn't happy with what I sent - but I sent him a lovely, 400-word piece of SEO web content that any other client of mine in the same field would've snapped right up.  What's wrong with it?

"At first glance, I already know I want more keyword combinations.  You need to use keywords off the list I sent you, and I want them at 4.5% density."

I can do 4.5% density.  It looks like spammy crap to me, but I can do it - because I'm a professional writer, and that's what I do.  Can I do it with the keywords off his list?  Sure - I can use the terms "vulnerability assessment," "high availability & load balancing solutions" and "NOC" 18 times each.

I thought, no way - this is going to ruin this guy's entire page of content.  He doesn't know what keywords are or how they're supposed to be used.

I emailed him and explained that keywords have to be things his target audience is looking for - and I backed everything I said up with hard evidence.  It took an hour to find all the evidence, because his keyword list contained roughly 100 terms.

He said he understood.  I told him that 4.5% density was going to be a pretty tall order in regards to readability, and maybe his web designer could include some of his terms in the metatags so he could provide useful content to his readers.

He emailed me back, saying, "My web designer said to tell my writer to get some experience and learn how to incorporate keywords in text.  She said you should put keywords in the beginning, middle and end of the text."

For a minute, I wanted to slap the web designer. Actually, I still do.

After I got over that initial urge, I complied with his request.  My sister-in-law was working on the project with me, and she couldn't believe it either - but she made it happen on her end, too.

I sent him the content, which was prepared precisely to his specifications.

He said, "Angie, I'm reading this and it doesn't make any sense."

I know it doesn't make sense, but I explained keywords, density and web copy to you and you understood.  Didn't you understand?

I laid down the law: pick keywords that make sense.  Last chance.  He said, "Okay."

He picked "Microsoft Office 2007 support" and "Microsoft Help Desk."  They're not relevant to what he does, but he knew (because I provided him with hours of research) they got searched frequently.

I again made suggestions based on my expertise in SEO writing for the web.  He accepted them and said he was glad he understood.

Great!  Move forward.  Write according to his almost-acceptable expectations... according to what was in my writing contract that he signed...

I sent the next document.

"This isn't saying what I need it to say."  He sent me an article from a magazine and wanted me to summarize it, litter it with irrelevant keywords (still at 4.5% density - maybe I should've condescendingly "taught" his web designer how to use metatags) and include his own information.

I walked away.

I sent him a nice, respectful email saying I didn't have the extensive amount of time it would require to complete his project and that it had gone haywire - and that it wasn't within the scope of our contract.

And you know what?  I felt like a million bucks.  I had time to take care of my other clients who understand I'm not a master of their field and they're not a master of mine - and while this may sound downright bitchy, it's my right to walk away from a client who isn't upholding his end of the bargain.

What did I learn?
  • If a client requires so much from you that you're not even working for minimum wage any more, and the project is entirely different than what you jumped on board for, it's okay to walk away.
  • It's fair to both you and the client - as long as you've done your part of what you agreed to do - if you have to walk away.
  • If you stick it out with this kind of client, who may never be happy with ANY writer, you will waste valuable time that could be spent working for other clients or searching for new work.
What do you think?  Is it ever okay to walk away from a client?  Have you done it, and if you have, what happened?

Image courtesy of jdeboer at RGBStock.com.


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© Angie Papple Johnston 2011.
Don't steal from me or I'll come getcha.  Really... I've got that kind of time.