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How To Structure a Writing Engagement

Learn what to do when you get a writing job

To regularly create a successful client experience, you must craft a practical and straightforward project workflow and structure. From client selection and vetting to contracting to careful client follow-up, it’s essential to plan your writing engagements from beginning to end. You’ll realize greater client satisfaction and efficiency, as well as smoother relationships and higher job quality.

Client Selection

It all begins with client selection. Shrewd writers do not merely accept every client who comes along. Even at the beginning of your writing career, it’s crucial to your success to carefully select and vet your clients.

You may be wondering how you can do this at the beginning. After all, don’t you need every job you can get? The answer is no. You need every profitable job you can get.

Why Vet Clients?

Bad clients provide work, yes, but they don’t offer profit. That’s because a bad client will take up your time with unclear expectations and endless revisions only to damage your reputation with unfavorable reviews when the engagement inevitably turns sour.

There is no sense in taking on a bad client. Not only do they often not pay at all, what little they do provide in the way of cash is substantially outweighed by the added work, stress, and bother they create.

Great Client Attributes

Avoiding bad clients is as important as recruiting good ones, and you can do both by keeping your ideal client attributes in mind. In my experience, a good client exhibits the following qualities:

Communicative: Model clients stay in close touch with the writer. Keep in mind that communication is a two-way street. A communicative client will expect you to communicate promptly and efficiently, as well.

Professional: First-rate clients behave professionally. They’re polite and friendly throughout the engagement.

Clear: Excellent clients provide precise requirements, expectations, and goals.

Forthright: Good clients say what they mean and mean what they say. They don’t beat around the bush when they’re unhappy with your work. They’re straightforward about what they like and what they don’t like.

Nightmare Client Attributes

Nightmare clients come in a variety of flavors, but most of them exhibit some or all the following characteristics:

Distant: Bad clients are almost impossible to contact. They don’t respond to communications promptly but, when they contact you, expect an immediate reply.

Unprofessional: Bad clients throw temper tantrums when they’re having a bad day, communicate poorly, and generally behave as if the rules of civil society don’t apply to them.

Obscure: Lousy clients come to you with vague requirements and expectations and inevitably find that you have not met them.

Vague: Difficult clients never tell you exactly what they’re thinking. You’re not sure if they’re happy with your work or deeply disappointed. As a result, you can’t improve your service delivery.

Client Vetting

Just how can you determine which of these categories a client falls into? There are a couple of simple ways to dig into what a client is like.

If you were referred to this client by a third party, make sure to ask that third party what the client was like to work with. Find out about any less-than-great habits and any good qualities the client displayed. If all you get is bad news, it may be time to rethink the engagement.

If you’re on a freelancing website, most clients will have reviews from other freelancers that address these issues. If the client has a significant number of negative reviews, you may wish to walk away.

Before any engagement, you should speak with the client by phone, videoconference, or in-person. I prefer video, as it combines the best of an in-person meeting without the inconvenience and expense of a physical meetup.

 A conversation will give you an idea of how this person interacts with other people. You should pay close attention to your instincts during this conversation. If you get a bad feeling about the client but can’t quite put a finger on why, don’t ignore it. Further investigate the client.

 Use the client interview as an opportunity to get to know more about the client and how they deal with writers. Ask about previous writers he or she has employed and why they’re currently in the market for a new one. Ask about what they look for in a good writer. The more relevant questions you ask, the better.

Any new client engagement should begin with an orientation period. Small assignments at the beginning of the relationship allow you to work out any kinks in your process and get to know one another. You may be tempted to dive into a huge project right off the bat. Resist this idea. You’re better off testing the waters first to make sure the relationship is a good fit.

Job Selection

Landing the right client is merely half the battle. You also need to find the proper assignment. At times, you’ll encounter excellent clients looking for writers but be disappointed to find out that the nature of the job is such that you’re just not well-qualified or well-suited for it.

A failure to match your competencies to the task will inevitably result in an unhappy client, an overworked and frustrated writer, and suboptimal results.

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Competency Matching

As a writer, you have a set of competencies. Your competencies must align with the expectations and requirements of the client.

Subject Knowledge

Whether you’re writing about digital marketing or medical devices, you’ll need a sufficient body of knowledge to carry your writing forward. You probably won’t need to be an expert on a topic (although, in some cases, you might have to be), but you’ll need to know at least enough to research intelligently and efficiently.

Technical Writing Skills

You’ll need to have the writing chops to handle the assignment. If you’ve taken on a copywriting gig, you’ll have to know the ins and outs of writing persuasive copy that converts readers. If you’re writing long-form content, you’ll have to understand how to create engaging, attractive prose that keeps readers with you to the end of the article.

Waiting for the Right Job

Don’t be impatient when you’re looking for work. Especially at the beginning, it may be slow coming in. That’s not an excuse, however, to take jobs that you’re not suited to or to take work from obviously tricky clients.

Remember that you’re trying to grow a business. You do that by demonstrating an ability to meet your clients’ needs and expectations promptly, efficiently, and skillfully. You can only do that if you’re competent to handle the work and if your client cooperates with you during the job. So, while you may be tempted to take the occasional assignment that’s out of your wheelhouse or deal with a lousy client, stick to what you’re good at.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t challenge yourself or be overly fussy about picking your clients. I just mean to say that you should know your strengths and keep in mind that the goal is to produce quality results for appreciative clients, not merely to grab as much work as you can.

Setting Expectations

When the right job and client come along, one of the first things you’ll need to do is set the expectations of your client.

Correcting Inaccurate Assumptions

Clients often walk into an engagement with dubious assumptions. They may assume that their job can be completed in a day or two when it will realistically take two weeks. They may believe that the job requires no research when, in fact, it requires extensive study.

It’s essential to engage with your client early on to uncover any unrealistic assumptions they have about the engagement and to correct them as soon as possible. This prevents you from having to spring a nasty surprise further down the road and making them unhappy.

Don’t Gild the Lily

Confidence in the service you provide involves not overselling yourself. If you’re taking your writing seriously and you’re reasonably qualified, you know that you offer a good product in reasonable timeframes. There’s no need to promise unrealistically tight deadlines or additional services to land the client. Not only will you be unable to meet those expectations, and render the client unhappy, but you’ll frustrate your ability to achieve the goals of the engagement.

Under-Promise and Over-deliver

Your best bet is to err on the side of pessimism and under-promise. So, if you think you can get the project done in two weeks, suggest a three-week deadline. If you feel you can muster up 2000 words of substantive content, promise 1500. Then, try to meet the more optimistic deliverable and have a pleasant surprise ready for your client.

Service Contracts

Unless you’re working on a freelancing portal, it’s wise to use a written contract when delivering writing services to a client. Not only does this serve to clarify expectations and assumptions about the agreement further, but it also creates certainty and enforceability over and above what exists in purely verbal contracts.

You should consider the following subjects when creating a written agreement:

Non-Disclosure Agreements

Some writing clients will want you to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement, or NDA. This is especially common in ghostwriting arrangements, where the client is passing off your work as his or her own. They may not want you to discuss the fact that you’re the actual author with anyone.

Similarly, you may be writing for a client you don’t want people to know you worked for. For example, say you usually write legal and business content, but you’ve taken a job writing for a medical device client. If you don’t want to confuse your Google results with off-brand citations, you may desire your client to refrain from discussing your identity with anyone.

Give some thought to unilateral (one-way) or bilateral (two-way) Non-Disclosure Agreements to help keep your arrangement with your client secret.

Intellectual Property Rights

Who will own the material you write? Will the client be allowed to do with it as they like? Or do you retain ultimate possession of the material and are merely licensing the content for your client’s limited use?

Give some thought to who owns what rights to the written product and for how long.

Attribution

Who will be attributed as the author of this material? Make sure you clarify with your client whose name is meant to appear on the written work.

Compensation

You’ll want to be clear about exactly how much you’re to be paid, when, and in what form. Don’t forget to add interest for late payment (unless you’re working on retainer) as well as an incentive for early payment.

Pricing Your Work

At the beginning of your career, you may find it difficult to price your work accurately. On the one hand, you have no experience, no portfolio, and no established credibility. On the other, you may be highly skilled and competent, with niche subject matter knowledge.

While I can’t give you a specific number that you’re worth (there are far too many variables at play), a few general comments are worth making:

$0.01 - $0.03 per word

As a rule, prices of less than $0.03 per word are reserved for content writers at the very beginning of their careers, those who produce a poor-quality product, and those seeking their first “5-star” reviews on freelancing platforms. It is difficult to make real money at this level.

$0.04 - $0.07 Per Word

Prices between $0.04 and $0.07 per word are typical for content writers near the beginning of their careers churning out “easy” content. When produced quickly and in bulk, jobs at these prices can create substantial profit (but speed and efficiency are of the essence).

$0.08 - $0.15 Per Word

Prices between $0.08 and $0.15 per word are standard for beginner and mid-range content writers creating high-quality content. At these prices, clients will expect nearly perfect grammar and spelling.

$0.16 - $0.25 Per Word

Prices between $0.15 and $0.25 per word are typical for mid-range and experienced content writers creating high-quality content for business and discerning individuals. Clients will expect perfection, and significant research will likely be necessary.

More Than $0.25 Per Word

Anything over $0.25 per word is likely to be reserved for experienced or highly skilled or credentialed content writers.

Note that the preceding applies to longer-form content, as the pricing for shorter form copywriting may be project-based rather than word-based. It also applies only to my experience in recruiting American clients online, where you’re required to compete with emerging-market writers who demand lower prices.

Additionally, when you’re pricing yourself, you’ll want to keep a few of these criteria in mind:

Client Demand

Remember that the value you provide to your client determines your price. They don’t care if a particular job creates additional work for you, or if you particularly like doing a certain kind of writing. They’re coming to you with a problem that needs to be solved, and your payment will be based on how efficiently and effectively you can solve that problem.

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Scarcity

How rare are the subject matter knowledge and technical skill required for the job? Are you bidding for an article on a digital marketing blog on an obscure website that almost any writer could create? Or are you trying to land a gig writing copy for a medical device used in radiology in the United States?

The more obscure and rare that the skills and knowledge required for the job are, the more you can charge when you happen to possess those skills and knowledge.

Skill

Just how good of a writer are you, and how well can you demonstrate that ability? If you’re a well-credentialed academic with polished prose, you’ll naturally command a higher price than a mid-level bureaucrat who writes in his off-hours.

Remember that it’s your demonstrable skill that matters. You could be the best writer in the world but, if you can’t prove it with prior work, testimonials, or a portfolio, no one will care.

At the beginning of your career, this is a challenging limitation. Don’t be discouraged. There are many ways to demonstrate your value.

Project Management

Assuming you’ve found the right client with an ideal assignment and that you’ve entered into an agreement, it’s time to manage the writing project.

Create a Timeline

Begin by creating a timeline using all the information available to you. You should, at the very least, have a realistic deadline from the client for either a first draft or the finished project. The timeline should include milestones for:

  • Research
  • Writing the first draft
  • Editing
  • Revisions

Some jobs may not require revisions or a first draft, but you’ll want to make time for all of these steps in your initial timeline. The timeline you create must be a realistic one. Don’t imagine a best-case scenario that will go off the rails the moment something goes wrong. Make time for unexpected contingencies and events.

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Research

Limit your research to what is necessary. Remember, you’re doing this to earn a living (or a second income), so don’t spend unnecessary time going down internet rabbit holes. At the same time, don’t omit the necessary research. Consider your writing guidelines and requirements carefully and ensure you have the information you need to meet those requirements.

Proper research is a balancing act. Be complete but efficient.

Finally, get to writing as soon as you can. Write while you research, if possible. Take notes, get started on a rough draft, or create an outline. Whatever you do, get something down on paper as soon as you can. It’s a great way to avoid writer’s block and procrastination. Don’t worry if what you’ve written is imperfect. You can always fix it later.

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Writing

When you’ve researched enough, get to writing as soon as possible. My practice is to lightly edit as I go but to prioritize speed over accuracy during the first draft. I do this because I have a natural tendency towards perfectionism and, if I let that predisposition reign, I tend not to write anything at all.

Like research, content writing requires a balance between perfect and complete. By that, I mean that your work could always be better. Your job is to find the point where your client’s expectations will be met (and, hopefully, even exceeded) and where the addition of further time spent on the work would yield minimal improvement.

Think of the quality of your writing as an asymptotic curve that never quite reaches 100%. There is a diminishing utility in spending more and more time refining your work. Get it to a point where you’re proud of it and where your client will be thrilled with it. Then leave it alone.

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Editing Tools

Some brief commentary about editing tools is warranted at this stage. I rely primarily on two tools to improve my writing: Grammarly and spell-check.

  • Grammarly

Grammarly checks your spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and tone and provides recommendations for improvement. It has plugins for Microsoft Word and the Chrome browser. While not perfect, and certainly no substitute for old-fashioned proofreading, Grammarly is a great way to get a virtual second set of eyes on your writing.

  • Spell-check

Some form of spell-check and grammar-check are available in every primary word processor. Don’t submit your work without running a final check on your writing using these tools. While it won’t catch every error (or even most errors), it’s a handy adjunct to proofreading and Grammarly.

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Proofreading

Additionally, take the time to read your work out loud. Focus on the clarity and tone of what you’ve written. Try to imagine yourself saying it in the voice of your client. Does it match what he or she is trying to convey? Will it speak to the intended audience?

Delivery

If you’re happy with your review of your work, deliver it exactly as you agreed you would. If you’re using a freelancing platform, use the platform to provide the product. If you agreed to email it to your client, do so. Don’t surprise your client with an unusual or novel form of delivery.

Always keep an unedited copy of what you’ve delivered in an accessible and secure location, as well as any read receipts, emails, or other documentation proving successful delivery.

It goes without saying that you’ll always be delivering the work on time or early. If you’re going to be late with a deliverable, your client is owed polite notice of that well in advance. You also owe them a good reason for why the product will be delayed. Remember, the more communication, the better. You should never simply fail to deliver promised writing by an agreed-upon deadline without good reason and advance notice.

Revisions

The agreement you made with your client should contemplate the provision of revisions and set out how many drafts the client is entitled to. That being said, your job isn’t done until the client is happy with your work.

If you’ve been careful to avoid the lousy client, requests for revision are almost undoubtedly reasonable. Do whatever you can to accommodate your client. If your work was excellent, changes should be minor and straightforward. If there are significant problems, use this as an opportunity to learn what you did incorrectly or misunderstood about your client’s expectations.

Revisions are an opportunity to improve your relationship with the client and the quality of your work. If you’re flexible and reasonable when responding to requests for changes, your client relationships will be drastically improved.

Payment

You should request payment in a manner consistent with the agreement. Usually, the deal will set out that you’re only entitled to full payment upon delivery of a satisfactory product.

To date, I have not encountered a single situation in which a client failed to pay me for delivered work. I chalk that up to careful client selection, quality client service, and a bit of luck.

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Disputes

If you do encounter problems receiving payment, take a pragmatic approach. Don’t lose your mind over “the principle of it.” Be professional and practical. If nothing else, take it as a lesson in choosing your clients carefully.

One thing you’ll usually want to avoid is insisting on full payment for work with which the client remains unsatisfied. While this can sometimes be justified, it’s often a recipe for an unpaid invoice and bad reviews or word-of-mouth.

Whenever possible, work with the client to address perceived deficiencies in your work before requesting full payment. Now, you may not agree that the work is problematic, to begin with. The critical thing to remember, though, is that you’re not really in the business of writing. You’re in the business of solving your clients’ problems. And, so far, you haven’t solved them. So why, from your client’s perspective, would they pay you?

If, after working with your client to address the problems with your work, you remain unable to meet their expectations, my recommendation is to use your judgment to determine what amount, if any, you should refund to your client.

My practice is to refund the entirety of the amount they’ve paid to that point if I cannot deliver a final product that meets their expectations. In my view, I’d rather leave an unsuccessful engagement with no money and a client who feels they’ve been treated fairly, than partial payment and a client who feels they’ve been taken advantage of.

An exception to this would be if I felt that a client was not acting in good faith or behaving completely unreasonably and contrary to clear, written expectations. But this has not ever occurred to me.

As I said, my recommendation is for you to use your judgment if you encounter payment issues with a client. You’ll want to consider:

  • The value of what you’ve delivered to your client to this point
  • The expectations that were set at the beginning of the engagement
  • Whether your client is likely acting in good faith
  • The cost of the additional steps required to secure payment
  • The likely cost of adverse reviews or word-of-mouth from this client

Follow-Up

Even after you’ve received payment from your client for a successful job, your job remains incomplete. To extract maximum value from the client relationship, you need to engage in a few last steps to improve your chances of securing further clients in the future.

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Request a Review

If you’re using a freelancing platform, request that the client leave a review for you on the platform. Different platforms will have different mechanisms for doing this, but it’s important to remind your client to leave a review for you.

You likely don’t want to ask them to leave a positive review specifically. They may understand this as being mildly presumptuous or coercive. Instead, ask them to leave a “generous” or “honest” review.

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Request a Referral

Ask your client if they know any potential clients they can introduce you to. The introduction part is essential. People are much more likely to engage with a service provider who has been introduced to them by someone they know and trust.

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Request a Testimonial

Ask your client to provide you with a testimonial for you to use on your website, blog, or other media. The more detailed and complimentary, the better.

Request Permission to use the work in your portfolio

You should confirm permission to use samples of your work in your portfolio, even if you’ve already dealt with this issue when you were setting expectations with your client.

Final Thoughts

Running a successful writing project is not an art; it’s a science. And while you’ll need to adjust your process as various contingencies come along, your basic workflow shouldn’t change.

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