How Other Freelancers Can Help You Grow Your Freelance Business and Feel Less Lonely
When Erin L. Boyle launched her full-time freelance business, she had been specializing in medical communications for 15 years and had held several management positions. So Erin was confident about her writing and editing skills. As a former reporter, she was used to meeting tight deadlines. As a former managing editor, she knew how to organize and manage projects. Erin was headed down the path of freelance success.
Until Erin ran into a difficult client.
And as a new freelancer, Erin knew that something was wrong, but she didn’t know if it was her fault or what to do about it.“My confidence was shattered,” says Erin, whose company is Erin L. Boyle Health Communications.
So Erin emailed me. We had met through a professional association and stayed in touch. I reassured Erin that her instincts about the client were right, and gave her some practical advice about how to handle the situation.
Spotting the Red Flags of a Bad Client
Here’s what happened.
The client was prestigious and the project was fascinating, so Erin was eager to work on it. The problems started when the client asked Erin to do an unpaid writing test. It was not the first time Erin had encountered this in her career, but this one was a challenge.
It was also the first red flag.
In 21 years of freelancing, I’ve only heard of one freelancer who took a writing test and then had a good experience with that client.
Early in my freelance career I took a writing test. At that time, I had two journalism degrees, and had been writing professionally for 12 years. But I “failed” the writing test and wasn’t paid for my work. I would never take another writing test.
Clients should be able to tell whether a freelance writer can write by reviewing his/her writing samples, website, and LinkedIn profile.
Erin’s writing “test” took her eight hours. Any writing test that takes more than 1-2 hours isn’t a test; it’s free work for the client. I told Erin that the client was taking advantage of her.
Things Got Worse
Unlike me, Erin passed her writing test. The client gave her an article to write.
Sounds great, right? But Erin had to turn in several articles before they reviewed her first story.
This was the second red flag.
If I were the client, I would start a new freelancer on one project. If the freelancer did well, I’d provide feedback and assign the next project. I reassured Erin that this was not a good sign about her client’s workload.
When the client sent Erin the edits, she was surprised at how many changes had been made. “I felt like I couldn’t find the story the client wanted me to tell,” she says. “I didn’t want my byline to stand on the pieces because they simply weren’t mine anymore.”
This was the third red flag.
If the freelancer is competent, as Erin is, extensive revisions are never needed. Sometimes we need to accept a few arbitrary changes, but a lot of arbitrary changes usually means that the client’s process is flawed.
The client and Erin discussed the revisions at length, but Erin still couldn’t deliver what they wanted.
This was the fourth red flag.
If a client can’t explain why they don’t like your work, you’ll never be able to satisfy them—because the client doesn’t know what they want. Erin spent a lot of unpaid time working on revisions.
Growing Your Freelance Business by Firing Bad Clients
My advice to Erin was simple: “Dump this client now!”
But Erin was used to taking whatever freelance work came her way, and she was afraid to leave the client.
Fear of firing clients is normal for new freelancers. I told Erin that if she was working with this bad client, then she would have less time to find and work with clients who she felt far more confident with.
So after Erin received her last payment, she left the client. “I felt so much better as soon as I did so,” she says. “The relationship wasn’t a good fit for either of us. I saw that I need to be more discerning about the clients I work with.”
One of the key lessons all freelancers learn is that it’s okay (and necessary) to fire bad clients.
Freelance medical writer Genevieve J. Long, PhD, PC uses the “shackles on, shackles off” test from life coach Martha Beck. “If I feel a sense of freedom and relief when I imagine letting the client go, that’s ‘shackles off.’ If I feel I ‘should’ keep the client, but dread hearing from them, that’s a ‘shackles on’ experience, and I’ll be better off without those jobs,” says Genevieve.
Learning from Bad Experiences
Not long after this experience, another client contacted Erin about working together. But this client also wanted her to do a test, along with taking extensive training, providing references, and more. “When they sent me a massive project and asked me to write for free as the test, I declined further work,” says Erin.
A few weeks later, Erin found out that one of her freelance friends had had the same experience with the same company. The friend had also spotted the red flags and pulled out. “It’s nice to know I’m learning,” says Erin.
Growing Your Freelance Business with Advice and Support
When bad things happen to freelancers, we usually think that we must have done something wrong. But most of the time, it’s not you—it’s the client. Learning that other freelancers have had the same or similar bad experiences is comforting.
That’s one key benefit of having a strong network of freelance friends. Other benefits are:
- Practical advice about how to handle bad situations
- Practical advice about managing your freelance business
- Learning about new opportunities
- Support through the ups and downs of freelancing
- Referrals to new clients.
Together, all of these things help you build your freelance business.
Advice About Managing Your Freelance Business
Freelance writers Kristin Harper, PhD, MPH, ELS and Mia DeFino, MS, ELS met at an annual conference of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). They quickly became freelance friends. Mia was a new freelance medical and science writer at the time. Kristin, a more experienced freelancer and owner of Harper Health & Science Communications, shared what she had already learned with Mia.
“Kristin helped me in thinking through how to raise my rates with current clients and has been encouraging in raising my rates when I take on new clients as well,” says Mia. “It’s wonderful to know what other freelancers in the market are making for similar projects. This helps me negotiate and understand other pricing options.”
And Mia helped Kristin set professional goals and stay accountable for reaching them. For example, the two freelancers decided to take the BELS (Board of Editors in the Life Sciences) certification exam in 2018. They spent the year before the exam studying and encouraging each other. They both passed the exam.
They also turn to each other for advice on how to handle issues, whether to work with a specific client, etc. “It is really nice to have someone to call if you need help troubleshooting a client issue or project,” says Mia.
Growing Your Freelance Business with New Opportunities
Kristin has learned about new freelance opportunities from Mia. “Some of the types of projects we do are a little different, so I learn a lot by just hearing about what Mia’s working on at any given time. For example, she works directly with pharmaceutical companies on publications, which is something I’ve never done. It’s really helpful to get insight into all of the medical writing opportunities out there,” says Kristin.
Networking with my freelance friends has helped me learn about new types of freelance work too. When my freelance friend Genevieve wrote about the clinical trial summaries she was working on in her e-newsletter, I thought this sounded interesting.
So I asked Genevieve about this. Not only did she tell me about her work, but Genevieve also offered to refer me to her client. Soon I was working for this client too.
Growing Your Freelance Business with People Who Understand You
Freelancing is often lonely. As freelancers, we face many ups and downs. Our freelance friends understand us. They provide support when things aren’t going well, as I did with Erin. That support helps you build resilience, the ability to bounce back after setbacks and to keep trying until you succeed.
Freelance friends can also celebrate our successes with us. “It’s nice to be able to tell someone who really understands when you want to celebrate a success, like a rate increase or landing a dream client,” says Kristin.
Growing Your Freelance Business with Referrals from Freelance Friends
A strong network of freelance friends also helps you get more referrals—the easiest way to get great clients.
Kristin and Mia and Genevieve and I have referred lots of work to each other over the years—because we know and trust each other.
“Making a good referral is like giving your client a gift – and giving one to your freelance friend at the same time,” says Genevieve. “You don’t refer to just anyone. You stick with people whose expertise, quality of work, and work ethic match yours, and who you think will be a good fit for the project.”
Learn More About Growing Your Freelance Business
Learn More About My Freelance Friends
Erin L. Boyle
Kristin Harper, PhD, MPH, BELS
Mia DeFino, MS, ELS
Genevieve J. Long, PhD, PC