by Joe Fruscione
Successful freelancers have concrete policies governing much of their work: from payment and logistics to deadlines, future communication, and handling dissatisfied clients. Effective policies let you protect your labor and do the work on your terms. They also help prevent scope creep, excessive emailing, unpaid labor, and other potential problems.
Follow this good advice from Jo VanEvery: “Sometimes the client is waiting for you to take the lead. As long as you don’t ask for money they might keep asking for work. It requires confidence to define the boundary.” Liana M. Silva agrees: “I know I was able to set boundaries when I was more confident in my abilities and in my reasoning for my rates.”
It’s best to communicate your policies early in the process so your clients know how the work will proceed. Here’s my typical process with new clients:
- Once we decide to work together, I communicate my basic policies via email (so there’s a paper trail). I reiterate the key policies during our video or phone chat and give clients the chance to request clarification. I then send the project’s scope, our individual responsibilities and expectations, and the payment breakdown.
- I remind them what my primary tasks are (most often, copy editing or proofreading) and what is beyond the scope of our work (e.g., basic layout, works cited pages, or multiple drafts). If clients want me to do additional work, I remind them that I’ll charge an extra fee.
- I typically request about half the payment up front, with the rest due when the work is done. Unless I’m doing the work for a friend or trusted colleague, I won’t start until I’ve been paid a portion up front. You could try to get paid in full before doing the work, but be aware that some clients may not be willing or able to do so. Asking for about half up front has been a good middle ground for me.
- If I’m working on anything longer than 60-70 pages, I request multiple smaller files, which makes the work easier and smoother. (If you’ve ever had to work on a 100+ page Word document, you’ll know what I mean.) This also enables me to return edited portions more quickly, although I’m very clear that the client can’t return revised portions until I’ve finished the entire project. This eliminates confusion and crossed versions while protecting my time and labor.
If you don’t already have set policies or defined boundaries, consider developing some:
- How much time do you need to do your best work? (Make sure your clients know how many days or weeks you estimate needing to complete the project. You owe it to yourself to hold them accountable if they get you their work late but still expect it returned promptly.)
- What will and won’t you be responsible for in the project? If you’re primarily doing copy editing, what will you do when a client also expects you to handle basic formatting, layout, works cited, and so on? (If you exclusively want to copy edit or proofread, make sure your clients know from the beginning that you’ll only do certain kinds of work, and that they’re responsible for handling other aspects.)
- If you’re reviewing a document (e.g., a cover letter draft) that’s already been edited, do you want to see a clean or marked-up copy?
- How do you want clients to send you their materials?: Word docs or PDFs? GoogleDocs? A single file or smaller files for each section?
- What would you do if a client didn’t send you quality work (e.g., you were promised a final draft but instead got a messy, incomplete version)?
- How much regular communication do you want? Would you rather touch base weekly, wait until the project is done, or work on another kind of timeline?
Fees and Payment
- How do you want to charge: by the hour, page, project, or some other metric? When and how will you communicate your estimate to the client?
- How much further work—editing, reviewing, emailing, whatever—will you offer without billing the client? Is there a set number of emails or video chats you’ll offer as part of a package? Related, how could you inform clients that you’ll do more work for them but only for an extra fee? (This helps curtail what I playfully call the Columbo Effect: i.e., the “just one more thing” kind of client who keeps asking for more work…but for no extra money.)
- When and how do you want to be paid?: At the end? Half up front and half at the end? Via PayPal, a check, or some other means?
- Once a project is done, are you willing to either review a revised version or answer more email queries from the client? If you’ll do either or both, how much will you charge for such additional work?
- How would you handle a dissatisfied client who wants to end your work together before the originally established date? What will your refund policies be? Will you offer partial refunds? Do you need to prepare a script or some other language to use in case you have problem clients?
It’s better to have clear policies you chose not to enforce for the right person than to wish you had clearer policies for the wrong person. The key, as Jo VanEvery and others say, is confidence. Don’t be hesitant to let a client know if he or she is asking too much or not meeting your criteria, and stand by your estimates and fees if someone expects unreasonably low rates. Be careful about falling into the trap of doing extra, unpaid work for fear of rocking the boat.
Having clear policies helps protect your time and labor. They also support you if you have to speak up to a problem client or ensure that you’re not being overly generous. Consider having a colleague, former client, or fellow freelancer review your policies to ensure that they’re not overly accommodating or overly draconian. It’s worth the labor to design your policies and then communicate them to clients once you begin the work.