Podcast Episode 56: Seven reasons to fire a freelance writer
What, as a freelance writer, should you never, ever do? What reasons would a client be justified in firing you? In this solo episode, Lorrie gets tough and outlines the seven top reasons she will fire a freelancer.
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Hello and welcome to episode 56 of A Little Bird Told Me: the freelance writing podcast about the highs, the lows and the absolute no-nos of successful self-employment.
You can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, which is not only our Podomatic HQ but a hive of handy resources and past episodes. Every link and recommendation we ever give in the podcast – ever! – is listed right there, along with all the links to our websites, social media feeds and subscription options so it’s worth having a nosy!
Subscribing is so worthwhile, although of course I’d say that, because there’s a new episode out every week, with new advice and topics covered in every single one.
I’m Lorrie Hartshorn and this week, it’s another solo episode. Sadly, my lovely co-host Philippa has been struck down by a particularly persistent flu’, so I’m holding the fort while she coughs and sniffles her way back to wellness.
Pip will hopefully be hale and hearty again next week, though, so stay tuned and subscribe for a dual episode then.
This week, I’m going to be tackling a topic that kind of makes me the bad cop sometimes. While Pip comes to you with lovely supportive episodes about overcoming rejection, I’m here to discuss something that is far less friendly but equally important.
Despite the best efforts of many of us, the myth that freelance writing is an easy – or easier – ride than a salaried position is one that persists. What this can lead to is a lack of professionalism on the part of some self-identified freelance writers, often to quite extraordinary levels.
As many of our regular listeners know, I operate my business like a mini agency and I hire writers, editors and proof-readers to help me deliver some of my work.
And, I’m going to go through 7 things that would cause me – and have caused me – to fire a freelancer. I’ve fired plenty of people in my time and, while it’s not as dramatic as if you were firing an employee rather than a contractor, it’s still not great. I don’t like doing it any more than some people like me doing it to them. So listen up for the top reasons freelance writers fail to secure more work.
I’m putting this first not only because it’s one of my biggest bugbears – and I can’t tell you how much I hate it – but because it’s something that I’ve experienced very regularly with the writers I’ve hired and freelancers my clients have hired, either before me or in a different field to me, such as photographers, project managers, that kind of thing.
In a lot of businesses, mine included, lateness on the part of one person has a massive knock-on effect. If one of my writers is late with work, I have to communicate the reason for that delay to the client. I have rearrange what I’m doing because the work I was expecting to proof-read, edit and send off in the early afternoon, isn’t there until 6pm.
Or, in one case, the work I wanted to upload on a Friday wasn’t there until the following Friday – when I received a bit of a hash-job with an email about how the person had been so busy that they hadn’t been able to email me. And no, I’m not hiring them again!
I would go as far as to venture that about 50% of the people I’ve hired have been late with work at some point – crucially, without letting me know. And that’s huge – it’s something that Pip and I have had lengthy, frustrated phone chats about as we try and work out how so many people think that unexplained lateness is par for the course.
Sometimes, lateness happens. You really can’t help it: maybe you get really poorly, maybe – as happened to poor Pip last month – your internet access disappears in the middle of a hugely busy afternoon. And in those cases, lateness can’t be helped.
What you do in those instances, though, isn’t to just carry on in silence. You contact your client as soon as you know you’re going to be late. You give a short explanation of the reasons, you apologise and you offer them a new ETA. I’m not sure what it is with some freelancers – the excuses I’ve had after the fact are that they forgot the deadline, they lost track of time, they thought I’d said Wednesday in general, not Wednesday at 10am, say…
The point is, though, as a freelancer, you check the deadline. You make sure you note it down, you put a reminder in your Google calendar, you get the work done before the last minute. It’s your job and you should be ashamed to take a rubbish excuse to someone you’ve let down. Not only that, but you need to realise that it will absolutely jeopardise your chances of making a success of your freelance writing career if you don’t get it sorted.
I put the word out on social media about what freelancers thought about people handing work in late. The responses were more closely aligned with my own feelings than I’d expected.
Author, @J_Wisewoman wrote:
“Agreed. If you set a deadline, you can say that you will go elsewhere. You have deadlines to meet too.”
and Miss_KristyB, a freelance proofreader and copy-editor added:
“I’d ask why they hadn’t told me sooner so I could give the work to someone else. Then I’d ensure I never used them again.”
It’s worth noting that the majority of people who responded are successful freelancers, and so are familiar with the kind of chaos that can pop up behind the scenes when you’re working from home. And not one of them said that lateness was OK. On the contrary, many responded in a “one strike and you’re out” fashion. So bear it firmly in mind!
So, moving on to our second point, which is closely connected:
2) Blurring the lines between the professional and personal.
Working from home can mean that the lines between your personal life and your business are less easily defined. You might start early, finish late, and catch up with work on weekends. Often, as a freelance writer, you are your brand – your name is above the door, so to speak, and people deal with you whatever their query. It can be hard to know where your business ends and you begin.
The mistake I’ve found a lot of freelancers seem to make is thinking that these blurred lines are anyone else’s concern. From people on Twitter sending out tweets from their personal accounts, reading, “Please, someone employ me!” (this has happened to me – A LOT – and it’s never once worked because it’s so inappropriate) to writers handing in work late – or not at all – because their children didn’t nap at the right time or got a tummy bug over the weekend (both real examples!), I’ve seen a lot of stuff that kind of just makes me shake my head.
At this point, I should add a caveat – and it’s one I’m not going to repeat because I think this topic really does deserve a stern talking about (!) – I understand that having children is a commitment. This is in no way an attempt to demonise parents and, more particularly, Mums, who often bear the brunt of criticism.
I understand that children are teeny humans who need looking after and who sometimes – even often – get ill or need more care. And all that’s fine. The same goes for having a partner, having a pet, having personal issues – whatever it is that’s having an effect.
What isn’t is allowing your personal life to impact on your client. I have to be really objective in these cases – I don’t hire freelancers to be my friends; I hire them to deliver work to me because I need that work delivered.
So, back to my point: on several occasions, I’ve had to chase writers to find out where work is – the deadline’s passed and I’ve had no word from them. Only when I checked in did I find that child-care issues were a problem and that the work was either going to be even more late than it already was or, in one case, not delivered at all.
Another tweet out, asking people whether they thought the issues I’ve just mentioned were a valid excuse for lateness brought responses in thick and fast.
Professional editor @WhoDoesSheThinkShe commented:
“Oh God. I’d be pretty cross – I mean, that makes it harder for all of us who have kids but ARE responsible about deadlines. But I’d prob just say, “regardless of reason, I need you to let me know in advance if you can’t meet an agreed deadline.””
Journalist and web editor, @Black_Kettle tweeted:
“Pay them late. Genuine emergencies are the only valid excuse for missing a deadline.”
And that’s about the harshest response I had to the question, although it’s one I can fully sympathise with. I’ll hold my hands up and admit that, recently, when the aforementioned freelancer I hired was a week late with work for no discernible reason, I considered not paying. I still think I would have been well within my rights not to. As it was, I paid and left it at that.
And all of the other responses followed the same vein, which gives a glimpse into how people react to freelancers claiming that home life has prevented them from doing a job.
Even the most sympathetic, by children’s clothing company Love it, Love it, Love it (@loveitloveit), read:
“I have some sympathy for childcare issues, but not contacting you to warn work would be late & say when it’ll be done isn’t on.”
The point I’m really trying to make is that I know life can be tough. That’s the whole reason Pip and I record this podcast: because freelance writing can be a total slog and you’re on your own, juggling home-life, work-life, clients, kids, chores, fluctuating work flow, accounts, admin, invoicing and isolation. It’s not an easy job by any means, so our aim is to just be a little bit of an island in all those rough seas. It’s always nice to know you’re not alone out there, isn’t it?
But, while I genuinely do have sympathy – and plenty of experiences of my own where I’ve ended up pulling an all-nighter to get work in, or chirped happily down the phone to clients that, “Of course I can take on that extra piece of work that’s super urgent!” when I’ve just been crying my eyes out about being tired and stressed – my sympathy can’t excuse a lack of a professionalism. It isn’t your client’s job to fill in the gaps where you fall short.
They shouldn’t get to hear about your homelife crises – they’re your clients, not your friends. Try to imagine yourself in a company. That level of accountability is really helpful to bear in mind when you’re tempted to bury your head in the sand or flake on a commitment.
If you’re stressed out and up to your eyes, text a mate or come and have a tantrum on the A Little Bird Told Me Facebook page. Don’t take it to your clients and don’t let it affect your work. Deadlines aren’t optional unless you’ve got an emergency on your plate. And no, being tired isn’t an emergency.
Most importantly, if you keep missing your deadlines, you need to have a look at solving the problem. Take a look through our back catalogue of episodes – we’ve got loads in there about planning your time, organising your week, optimising your client base so you can earn more without running yourself into the ground… while it’s not your client’s job to hear about all your woes, it’s important that you get the underlying issues sorted and keep yourself as happy and healthy as possible.
3) Lack of proof-reading
On to something a bit different now – proof-reading! I’m not quite sure why so many writers fall down on this, given that it’s a crucial part of our job, but not proof-reading is something that really lets writers and their clients down.
I’ve had work back from professional writers that is badly structured, makes no sense, contains typos, grammar errors, unfinished sentences and duplicate lines. Even more frustrating, when I open the file, Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar check highlights the issues immediately!
On other occasions, I’ve had people misread the information in the brief and make silly mistakes such as spelling crucial people’s names wrong, typing the wrong figures into a finance report and even getting a company’s name wrong. There’s just no excuse. None at all. Same goes for leaving the formatting all to pot. Why would you think that kind of poor presentation is acceptable?
Freelance writing isn’t just about writing something and then pinging it off for better or worse once you’ve done it or you’re too tired or bored of it to proof-read it. It’s about delivering the whole package to your clients so that the content is ready to go. Never think, “Oh, it’ll be OK!” and leave the proof-reading stage out – even if it is OK some of the time, that might just be because there are mistakes in there that your client doesn’t happen to spot. And on the occasions when it isn’t OK? It’s usually really not OK.
Poorly written work doesn’t just reflect badly on you (and often, if it does reflect on you, it’s just to that client and anyone they mention the issue to because it’s not your name on the bottom of that page), it reflects badly on your client. You’re actively damaging their brand.
Equally to the point, what you’re also saying, when you don’t proof-read, is that you’re happy to take your client’s money in return for sub-standard work. You’re telling your client that that’s what they’re worth to you – a half-hearted job that’s not as good as it could be. And who wants a freelancer who thinks that way?
Proof-reading is a bore but it’s your job to get as close to word perfect as you can. And when it comes to factual errors, like mistaken company names and incorrect figures, you risk causing serious trouble or offence.
Pip recorded a solo episode on how to proof-read your own work, which contains loads of tips on how to make the task a lot easier and more effective. Be honest with yourself and, if you’re one of those people who really should proof-read better, go and have a listen. This job isn’t about being just good enough – that’s no way to build a business, aside from anything else – it’s about being excellent. So make sure you are.
4) Lack of communication
Now this is a funny one. Freelance writing is a pretty isolated thing. And, as I’ve just pointed out, your clients are your clients, not your friends. But, while I’m not saying you should be pinging into your clients’ inbox every hour, I want to make a few points about communication.
It’s a bit of an unfair thing, this, because clients can be terrible at communicating. Many’s the time that your client will disappear into the ether – either for a while, or for good. Numerous are the times that we send off pitches to prospects, magazines, organisations, and hear nothing but the gentle hush of the Internet in response. You can often hear nothing from a client for three months on the trot and then suddenly, they’re there in your inbox, needing a few days’ worth of urgent work – now, now, now!
The bad news is that you have to suck it up. Bad communication being the norm with clients doesn’t mean that it can be the norm with you. You have to have high standards, and you have to stick to them.
There are times when it’s more crucial than usual to communicate – mostly when there’s a problem. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve had a lot (way too much!) of experience with writers waiting until the deadline on a project has passed and, worse, waiting until I’ve emailed them, going, “Uh, hello?” before letting me know there’s an issue. This gives me nothing to work with. And, in an age of social media, I can often see that the writer’s been tweeting or Facebooking away while treating me to a nice big slice of radio silence pie. It’s so rude, and it’s so unprofessional, so while it can be weirdly tempting to just duck and cover, and deny there’s an issue, you owe it to your client and yourself – if you ever want to be employed again – to let your client know if you’ve hit a stumbling block.
The same goes if you’re not clear on a brief. If you’re not 100% – and I mean 100% – sure of what you’re supposed to be doing, you need to check with your client before you start the work or, worse, complete it. Handing over a piece of work that’s totally wrong is as bad as not handing it over at all.
As you become more experienced at freelance writing, and you learn to be more assertive, you can start to see what kind of information you need from a client in order to fulfil the brief they’ve given you. It can be a good idea for things like news articles and press releases, for example, to come up with a form for clients to fill in. That way, they know what you need, you know what to expect and you have room to come back to them if the information isn’t sufficient. If they don’t fill the form in, you can say, “Look, I don’t have enough info from you.” It’s harder to do that when you’ve had a quick phone chat with them and then hang up to find that you’re missing huge chunks of info.
When you’re a freelancer, it’s your responsibility to be pro-active and professional in your communications. You need to let clients know where you’re up to with work, if there’s a problem and what you need from them. If you’re phased by pinging off an email or picking up the phone – enough that you’d rather not do it – there’s a definite issue.
5) Lack of availability
The next point I want to touch on is that of availability. Now, although freelance writers do often have to be flexible with their working hours, I’m certainly not advocating being at the beck and call of your clients. As regularly listeners will know, I tend not to work evenings and weekends. When I have to, I charge extra according to the rule that “my client’s panic is not my panic”. If a client needs something done from Friday to Monday, it needs to be worth my while too. I take evenings and weekends for the sake of my own health and personal life and, while I do sometimes privately catch up on work then – say, invoicing, admin, business development, I’m careful not to let work spill over.
The kind of availability I’m talking about, though, is working day availability. Being around when your clients are around. Responding to them within a reasonable length of time. Not starting a project with them and then disappearing off for three days while they desperately try and get hold of you to give you more info on the work they need doing. While it’s not your job to sit around waiting for clients to get in touch, you do need to be reasonably available during regular working hours.
I hired a freelance writer to assist me on one of the accounts I work on. We’d just got underway with a project that was on quite a tight deadline, when I had an email from them saying, “Oh, I’ve decided to go away for a long weekend, so I won’t be here Friday or Monday. Is that OK?”
Given that the project was running from the Thursday to the Tuesday, this was less than ideal. However, I got back to them and said, “It’s fine, but I need you to make sure you send me this, as previously agreed, by Friday at 11am.”
I got no response: they’d already gone. Friday morning at 8.15am, they sent me the first part of the work, which was absolutely terrible and didn’t even nearly meet the brief. Worse, I couldn’t do anything with it because I needed more info from the writer on the sources they’d used. I emailed back before 8.30am and got no response. 11am came and went, and that’s when I’d been due to send the work over to the client. I’d got different parts of the project coming in from different freelancers, so all of the work was held up while I was waiting for this one person. I texted them and got a response saying that they were on the motorway, on their way to this weekend away, but that they’d send me the work shortly.
Cut to Tuesday – I’d heard nothing from them. A quick look at Twitter showed that they were responding to other people about cheery things, but I’d had no update. I emailed and got a lengthy response about why they hadn’t been back in touch, finishing up with, “I’ve decided I’m not going to do the work.”
I can’t for the life of me think why you would 1) do this to someone and 2) think that it was OK. I’ve actually rarely been so shocked in my – well, it’s more than ten years now, as a freelancer. I would never, never do something like that to a client and, while it’s an extreme example, it’s not entirely removed from the actions I’ve seen with a lot of freelancers. One writer delivered three pieces of work in a row late. The third piece was so poor that I had to rewrite it, which I mentioned to the writer, who – after a week of silence – insisted that I should tell them next time, as they would do the amends. Next time work was needed, I got in touch immediately after the writer emailed to say that some amends were needed. 24 hours later, and still with no response, I emailed again to ask what was going on. The writer then quit.
The main issue with not communicating is that it’s worse than just emailing to say, “Do you know what? I can’t do the work.” because you’re leaving people hanging. The knock-on effect to my business of waiting around to find out what’s happening is huge. I have to hang off making decisions because I’m waiting for someone to email me back and, in my opinion, it isn’t OK to send off a piece of work and then disappear for more than a day leaving your client to sit and wait for your response. Work often needs slightly amending – being available for that is par for the course.
6) Basic skill gaps
This one is pretty obvious and you’d think it wouldn’t need saying. Sadly, it does. Too often, I’ve come across writers (and you must think I’m making this up – I’m really not!) who don’t know how to optimise their content, or write a press release, or invoice properly. If you’re advertising yourself as a freelance writer, and you’re taking money for the work you do (quite right!) it’s your responsibility to know the tools of your trade.
If you don’t know how to do something basic and you tell your client as much, that’s inconvenient enough – no one’s saying you have to know everything; we all have our own areas of expertise but things like at least a basic knowledge of up-to-date SEO conventions aren’t optional. What’s worse, though, is when writers don’t know how to do something but give it a go anyway.
With all the online training material available for free (and Pip and I have done a number of past episodes on improving your skills, so get looking through the back catalogue if you think you’ve got gaps!), there’s no excuse for doing a hash-job because you don’t know how to do something. 1) If it’s something simple like a press release, for goodness’ sakes, get yourself on Google and look at some examples. 2) if it’s something more complicated, like creating SEO web content, having a pop at it will leave your client paying for rubbish work. You can’t just guess at these things and accept money for your efforts – it’s so not on. I’ve caught people out on this on a number of occasions (that sounds like I enjoy hunting out these kind of messes – I really don’t) when they’ve sent over work that isn’t even nearly what it’s supposed to be. I’ve had to say, “You’ve never done this before, have you?” and then there’s been that awkward, “Um, no, sorry.” moment, where I’m left with a rubbish piece of work, a looming deadline and a decision as to whether to pay for the work and re-hire that writer or not. It’s an all-round mess, so don’t put your clients in that position.
7) Being dismissive of corrections and amends
This last freelance writing fail was suggested to me by a successful journalist on Twitter, @TauriqMoosa and it’s something that resonated with me immediately.
When you’re working for a client, it’s important to recognise that every business, every company, and every brief is different. You’ve got things like subject, style, tone of voice, brand, conventions and personal preferences to bear in mind.
So, when your client comes back to you with amends, what you shouldn’t do is throw a tantrum. I’ve always gone out of my way to offer a lot of training and feedback to the writers I hire, particularly if they’re less experienced than me in certain areas.
What’s shocked me is when I’ve had to go back to a writer with less than fantastic feedback and have got attitude in response. If, after ten years, I don’t have the guts to dismiss what a client says to me about my freelance writing before at least checking up on what they’re saying, I’m kind of at a loss to see why someone who started out say, six months ago, would think it was a good idea to talk down to someone who’s 1) more experienced and 2) paying them for work.
Sadly, it seems like it’s not just me that this happens to. Tauriq states that his pet peeve is when journalists and writers are rude, unresponsive and dismissive – without good reason – of editorial changes.
Now, with publications like io9, New Statesman, the Guardian, New York Times, New Yorker, Forbes, TheBrowser.com, and the BBC on his resumé, someone like this knows exactly what they’re talking about. The idea that freelance writers are giving attitude to anyone, let alone someone like this, about suggested amends is something that is totally outrageous to me.
Being a freelance writer doesn’t mean being a doormat. But while you might often work in isolation, you have to accept that you’re not writing for you. Your content needs to be suitable for a wider, and often specific audience. If you want to write what you want to write and you don’t want any feedback, or any guidance, write for yourself.
Freelance writing – particularly corporate content – is about your clients, not you. If nothing else, the less receptive you are to feedback, the less likely you are to be a good fit with that client. No one likes being told that their work isn’t up to scratch, but if you think you’re 100% right and your clients are just being annoying by daring to request amends, you’re in the wrong job.
This kind of self-absorption is a fatal flaw in a freelancer for me. It can manifest itself in different ways – not just in refusing to tailor your writing to a client or publication’s preferences.
In the past, I’ve seen people moaning about the fact that publications don’t approach them to pitch, about the fact that companies approach them with work that they don’t find interesting, that they only want to write about very niche, very interesting topics, and that they don’t enjoy marketing.
These are all the kinds of warning signals that make me think freelance writing isn’t the job for everyone. In a salaried role, you can slump and moan your way through the boring bits to a certain extent, and you still get paid for every hour you spend. And, again, to a certain extent, you leave some of the menial stuff behind as you progress. With freelancing, while you should be able to become more choosy about the work you take on as you become more experienced, you will always have to put your own preferences on one side when it comes to accommodating client preferences. That’s what makes us different to authors, say.
So, those are just seven of the reasons I’d fire a freelance writer! While it’s not nice to think you could lose your clients, it’s far better to think about it in advance than to actually have it happen because of a silly, avoidable mistake on your part.
Freelance writing is hard enough without shooting yourself in the foot and leaving clients looking elsewhere for their future content writing needs.
If you’ve listened to this and you think it all sounds a bit scary, take heart. The fact is that these are basic things that really need sorting out. Take it from me that a lot of freelance writers I’ve encountered muck up in these ways, not just once but again and again. While that’s bad news for them, it’s good news for you. When a lot of freelancers are failing at things like basic courtesy and professionalism, you can take that chance to get right ahead and scoop up all that business they’re losing. It’s a competitive world out there, so if you can boost your skills, market yourself well and deliver work that, while it won’t always be perfect, always meets a good standard in terms of quality, you’re already well ahead in the game. Pip and I are always here to offer guidance if you’re stuck with anything, so do come and have a chat to us on Facebook, Twitter or by email – you’ll find all of our details at our Podomatic homepage at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com.
Little Bird Recommendation of the week
My recommendation this week is a handy post from Hubspot, which lists a whole load of marketing terms that you’ll need to know and understand at some point to be as successful a freelance writer as you can be.
As I said earlier, writing isn’t done in a vacuum – content is an integral part of a content marketing strategy, whether formal or informal, in most cases and it’s important to be able to have discussions using professional terms.
Saying, “But I’m just a copywriter!” won’t cut the mustard. Neither will an awkward silence while your client tries to work out if you have any clue what she or he is talking about.
By understanding these terms, you’ll be able to widen your awareness of how content affects marketing and talk the talk, as well as writing the words. Getting to grips with terms and concepts like ‘closed loop marketing’, ‘sales funnel’, A/B testing and many others will not only help to give you the tools to talk with confidence (and who knows, win more business?) it’ll broaden your understanding of the marketing that surrounds your writing.
It’s worth sitting down a few times this next week and highlighting any of the phrases you don’t know in this glossary, and giving them a good look over. There were a couple in there that I hadn’t come across before (I’m not admitting which ones!) and even just knowing them now means that I can address issues I wouldn’t have been aware of before. Dropping a few well chosen buzzwords into your interactions with clients and prospects can really impress, so take a good look!