Journal: News & Comment

Wednesday, June 25, 2003
# 10:41:00 AM:

When editor-client relations go bad

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For those of us working as freelance editors (or freelancers of any sort), any client relationship has the potential to fall apart for any number of reasons, so it's crucial that we sign a written contract—especially with clients we haven't worked with before. The contract should be signed before any substantial amount of work gets done, and must have some sort of provision for either party bailing out for any reason at all—usually, there is a requirement for notice (sometimes immediate, especially on short projects), and payment only for work completed (satisfactorily, by some reasonable standard!) so far.

I don't know the legalities, but I expect that any informal verbal contract would implicitly include something similar. Nevertheless, a written contract is much more likely to be unambiguous, and isn't subject to selective memory from either party.

It's pretty darn unusual—I've never encountered it—for any freelancer to expect full payment for work that was not fully completed, regardless of who ends the project. It's also, in my experience, rare to get, for instance, a 50% deposit that is completely non-refundable on anything but very small projects. Maybe others have different experiences.

Avoiding bad client relationships

The potential of not getting the full amount for a project is one of the hazards of freelancing, and a key reason why we need to:

  1. develop a sixth sense for potential flaky clients (or those who simply have work that we're honestly not ready or qualified to do), whom we can then avoid.

  2. determine exactly what the client wants and needs (and not what we as editors want or need to do) and ensure that we have or can quickly learn the skills necessary for that.

  3. have a contract that spells out not just the work, but how it might end.

  4. do good work, always.

This job, more than the loner-freelancer image would suggest, requires people skills as much as language skills. We have to be able to put ourselves in our clients' places, and understand what they are trying to accomplish, or what they should be trying to accomplish. We need to support them and work with them, because they usually have a lot more invested in the project and its successful outcome than we do.

That means that, if at all possible, we should accommodate how clients want us to work with them on a job, or refuse to take it if we cannot. If they want us to edit using Microsoft Word's Track Changes command, while we prefer to work on paper, then we should bite the bullet and use Word. If they want to use American spellings and we prefer British, that's their choice unless we have a good professional reason to suggest otherwise, and can convince them.

Trying to fit clients' projects into the mold of our skills is often a bad recipe, because in the end, their names (usually) are on the line, not ours. If putting ourselves in a client's place helps us see that he or she is a flake, or that our skills aren't suited to this job, so much the better.

Regardless of clients' flakiness, they are still the ones hiring us, so it is their decision whether they are comfortable with the quality, speed, and techniques of our work—at any stage of the project. Similarly, as freelancers we have (and must occasionally take) the option not to accept clients, or to use our contractual freedom to end a project as well if things are heading in the wrong direction.

Knowing our own limitations

While we as freelancers should expect to be paid—and probably to be backed up by a court—if we have done a substantial amount of quality work for a client, regularly having to go to collections or threaten clients with legal action is worse than a waste of time: it eats up what could be our own income-generating energy, and corrodes our attitudes to our other potential clients and our own work. Having that happen frequently is a sign that something is wrong with the types of clients we're accepting, or the way we're approaching their projects, or the set of skills we're bringing to bear on them.

That does not mean that there is necessarily something inherently wrong with the clients, or with us—maybe other editors could have a successful relationship with them, as we might with some clients those editors could not. (Still, I guess an editor who can work with a wider variety of clients will have a broader pool to choose from, and thus to reject from.)

I would not, in any case, be comfortable taking a large indexing job, or project-managing a book, or obtaining a huge raft of permissions for illustrations, or acting as the liaison between an author and a book publisher. I have not done enough of those things before, and would prefer to learn something about them before taking money from a client. I'd also be uncomfortable with editing subjects to which I have some strong philosophical or moral disagreement. But if someone wants proofreading, or substantive editing of a short or long technical document, or rewriting, or Web site content, I'm there.

Our limitations are hard things to accept, and some of these decisions are also hard, especially when we're desperate for income, but that's also why many of us have had other, secondary jobs while we're getting established (or, like me, even now). I might sound negative here, but I'm really not. I love my work, but to get to the point where I love it I have had to learn which kinds of work I don't love, and which ones I'm not good at, so I don't do them.

Having a written termination clause

The flakiest clients are the most apt to bail out of a project, and so are the ones for whom we most need a written termination clause in our contracts. Better to have something written down so both the editor and client are clear on what's supposed to happen then. It's also a better basis on which to settle a dispute, or to take to an outside body to resolve—or to dissuade either party from bailing out, since there is an obvious cost written down for doing so.

Otherwise, the client might think they owe the editor nothing, while the editor might think the client owes everything, i.e. they're as far apart as they could possibly be in their assumptions, so the situation could hardly be worse. When a termination clause is included in a contract, it's usually pretty clear who owes what, or at least what a good starting point should be.

For example, the Editors' Association of Canada Standard Freelance Editorial Agreement has this boilerplate:


This agreement may be terminated by either party

in the event of material change of circumstance,

with _____ days' notice sent in writing to the

other party at the address shown below. If the

Editor terminates the agreement, the Editor will

be paid by the Client for work done up to the

date of termination. If the Client terminates

the agreement, the Editor will be paid by the

Client for the work done until termination or

_____, whichever amount is greater.

How we fill in the blanks depends on the size and nature of the project, what we're charging, and what both the editor and client agree in advance is fair. Once the blanks are filled in, each party knows where he or she stands.

Learning to swim in a rushing river

One of the benefits for clients of hiring contractors instead of employees is that we're on essentially permanent probation: they can let us go for reasons as vague as "it doesn't feel like it's working out," or as specific as "our financing fell through and we can't afford to keep paying you." A good contract with a termination clause at least makes it less likely to turn into "...and we won't be paying you at all."

Leaping right into making your whole living as a freelance editor from a standing start is like jumping into a rushing river without a lifeline: it's usually a struggle to keep your head above water. We need to build our swimming skills first. If we're unfortunate enough to be pushed in, we shouldn't let go of the lifeline until we can scope out where the whirlpools, rocks, and safe calm eddies are—and just as important, know when we're strong and skilled enough to ride the rapids without drowning.


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