Whether you are relatively new to the world of freelance writing or you’re a seasoned veteran, it is never too early or too late to learn how to protect yourself in the online world. In this article we’ll take a look at how you can protect yourself from such dangers as: getting ripped off by “clients” who won’t pay, getting low-balled when your services are worth more, and getting overwhelmed by trying to take on too much at one time.
1 – Use a Third-Party Intermediary (Content Mill)
You may have heard of companies like Upwork and Freelancer – intermediary companies (or content mills) which connect freelancers to clients. Not only can these be a great place to meet potential clientele, these companies have built-in mechanisms to protect your best interests in the workplace.
As an intermediary, companies like Upwork take a percentage of your income (for some websites it’s on a sliding scale depending on your use of the website and for others it is a standard amount for everyone). This money is used to keep the website up and running – Just like you wouldn’t offer your services for free, neither should you expect these websites to do so. What is great about some of these websites (I am really speaking about my experience with Upwork, here) is that the fee you pay does not only go toward connecting you with potential clients, it also works to protect you from clients who aren’t willing to pay you.
I can honestly say that I have been in that situation once before. In working through Upwork, a client hired me to do copywriting for a handful of websites. After racking up a considerable number of hours of work and being owed over $700, she backed out and refused to pay me. What was even worse was that she was my first client EVER. Luckily, I was able to use Upwork’s services to acquire that payment. All I had to do was provide copies of emails, conversations, and files to prove that I had completed the work and that she had refused to pay me. Then BOOM, like magic the money appeared in my account. If it hadn’t been for this system, I probably would have given up on my freelancing career before it even began.
At some point it will be time to move off the content mill platform and find other sources of work, but they are a great place to get started and, admit it or not, a lot of high-end freelancers got their start on these job board-style websites.
2 – Create Contracts
Creating contracts for your work with certain clients is important. It is especially important if you have chosen to work outside of an intermediary and to, instead, trust your client with no backup plan. Contracts are also good for defining the parameters of confusing projects even when you ARE working with an intermediary website. This way, if you need to make use of the intermediary’s fail-safe services, you have contracts which back up the commitment made by both parties.
3 – Maintain Your Boundaries
Though most people think, “Oh you’re a freelancer, so you must be your own boss!” the truth is that as freelancers we have more bosses than anyone else. Every single client is, in a way, one of our bosses. We have many people with many expectations who are all counting on us to perform. What’s worse, though, is that many of these people will try to lowball us and stretch us beyond our limits because there are fewer legalities around freelance work. For example, in most countries, an actual employer must pay employees some sort of minimum wage, can only require them to work a certain number of hours within a given space of time, etc. When you are a freelancer, however, most of that flies right out the window.
When working as a freelancer, it is important to know your limits. What are you willing to accept from your clients? It’s usually best to figure out the answer to that question before beginning your work with a client. Here are some questions you can ask yourself in preparation for your freelancing work:
- What forms of communication am I willing to use?
- When am I willing to talk?
- What am I willing to talk about?
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4 – Use Small Milestones or Hourly Pay Schedules
Some freelancers, ghostwriters especially, find that they are often asked to work with large milestones. They are asked to work for months before receiving a payment for the work they have done. In fact, many freelancing and ghostwriting websites suggest working in such a format. In my experience, this can be a very dangerous way to work.
If client expectations or the scope of the project change over time, or if clients are unable to respect proper boundaries, projects can balloon out of control. Suddenly, you find yourself expected to do twice or three times the amount of work you originally agreed to do for the same amount of money. Even some of the best contracts do not and cannot account for these types of problems. Milestone work, however, can.
Some clients may be hesitant to work in small milestones. They may not like the idea of having to worry about paying you weekly or biweekly (the same concerns may come up for some clients surrounding the idea of hourly pay), but the truth is that small milestones benefit them as well. Small milestones allow clients to check in on your work more often and change the scope of that work as their own needs and desires may fluctuate over time. If your clients are hesitant to work this way, try explaining these benefits.
5 – Demand Down-Payments
If you are not working in small milestones and will, thus, be expected to complete a large chunk of work before payment will be made, it is not unreasonable to request a down-payment before work begins. In fact, many ghostwriting resources (such as the Canadian Writers’ Union) suggest asking for 15% of the overall fee upfront upon signing.
This doesn’t mean that you expect your client to give you a ton of money without you doing absolutely anything at all. In fact, by the time you sign a contract with your client you’ve probably (hopefully) put in enough work to convince the client that you are capable of completing the job.
Use this 15% to slowly pay yourself in installments as you complete the next chunk of work. This way you will not be working for free if your client backs out at any point. This is especially important if you are working strictly on contract and without an intermediary.
6 – Don’t Over-Commit
I cannot over-stress the importance to not over-commit. You need to know your own limits so that you don’t succumb to burnout. Not only is burnout terrible for your health it is also bad for your business. The more you burn out, the less quality you will have in your work. Soon, your clients will notice and, before you know it, you’ll have gone from overwhelmed with contracts to overwhelmed with financial instability.
Have any questions about freelancing? Need some advice or want to know more about my experiences so you can learn from them? Been freelancing a while now and have some of your own suggestions you’d like to share? Put your questions, comments, ideas, and suggestions in the comment section below!