Zanny Merullo Steffgen
My Freelance Writing Horror Stories
(And a Few Great Ones For Good Measure)
Ok, the last nine months of full-time freelance writing (and the seven and a half years before that) haven’t been all sunshine and rainbows as I roll around in a puddle of cash and insert-more-cliches-here. In fact, I’ve had a few bad experiences along the way…
First of All, I Don’t Want to Scare You
The majority of my freelance writing experiences have been great. I’ve had wonderful clients who treat me well, I’ve taken on projects I’m passionate about, and have parlayed short-term gigs into ongoing work. That’s why I’ve decided to slip in a few great experiences at the end to balance out the stories I’m about to share. I’ve decided to write about these horror stories because I think anyone who is considering a freelance writing career should have a realistic view of all it can entail.
My Worst Freelance Writing Experiences
Here, in no particular order, are some of my freelance writing horror stories.
The Aggressive Edit. (Ok, this has actually happened more than once. Sometimes I think that the editor feels they aren’t doing their job if they accept a piece of writing without making changes, so they overcompensate and rewrite the whole piece for you. The first time I ever had a personal essay published, the magazine changed the wording of a few key sentences. It wasn’t a grammatical error they fixed, but rather they completely re-did a metaphor I had come up with. And butchered it, in my opinion. Because it was my first published piece, I wrote them a fairly angry note saying I would have appreciated a heads up or a request for my approval. The editor wrote back a note equivalent to “this happens, deal with it” and that was an important lesson. If you’re getting paid to write something for a publication, don’t get too attached to the way you’ve written it! This is more common with lower-level publications, so you won’t always have to worry about aggressive edits. Another time, an editor changed the tone of my piece to convey an emotion that I had never actually felt. By making my piece more angry and bitter, they had a clickbait-friendly piece that also was not true to my experience. Luckily, they asked for my approval before publishing the piece and I was able to come to a compromise with the editor. The moral of the story is, when you’re starting out, be prepared for editors to make changes. Find compromises when possible, and when not possible just deal with it and move on. Or ask for it to be taken down if you really don’t want the work as it is out there.)
The Messed Up Author Info. (On that same first published personal essay, I excitedly looked for my article on the website only to find that they had misspelled my name and misgendered me as well. Yeah, not the best first publication experience! I reached out to the editor, who was probably tired of hearing from me at that point, and they did eventually correct it.)
The Promising of the Stars and the Moon. (Every so often I get a client who is really enthusiastic about my work and gives me some thinly veiled promise about a future gig. In one particular case, a client opted to move off of Upwork and pay me outside of the platform. They insisted that they wanted to build their business with me as the driving content creator, and spent an entire phone call going over the possibilities of future profit sharing and joint ownership. Luckily I didn’t get too attached to the idea, because a few weeks later they fell off the face of the earth and I had to constantly pester the client to settle up an outstanding balance. Once I was paid, I never reached out again, nor did I ever hear from them again. Now I’m wary of clients who make big promises, and prefer to take it step by step and see how the relationship develops.)
The Secret Publish. (There is no fury like the fury of googling your name only to discover a piece you had written for a magazine that had been published a month ago with no email to alert you to the fact and no payment sent! This has happened to me probably three or four times, which is why I now make it a habit to check up on the sites I am writing for in case they decide to pull a secret publish move without paying me. Luckily payment did eventually come through for all of these pieces, but not without some polite email nudging on my part.)
The Late Payment. (Speaking of payments that came through eventually… This has been an ongoing challenge, with clients taking up to a couple of months to pay me for work they’d agreed to shell out for upon receipt of the final draft. One regular client seems to conveniently go offline for a week each time I submit work, which means I may have to cut off the relationship soon. This issue most often arises with magazine work, though, when I will send through a completed piece and then not hear anything for a few months. I’ve learned to simply not expect payment right away and keep to a biweekly email reminder schedule.)
The Ghosting. (A few clients have tried this tactic, and I’ve come to realize that it means they probably don’t want to pay me. One client told me they were going on a camping trip and would be back in four days and I didn’t hear from them for over two weeks, right when I was expecting payment. Another ignored three follow-up emails asking for an update, and yet another completely dropped out of contact for two months until I was about to reach out to their boss and they replied that they had stopped working for the publication I’d written for. Not much can be done about this except cutting off the business relationship as soon as someone displays this behavior. I’ve never understood how someone could be too busy to write a two-line email with an update!)
The Free Phone Calls. (Many clients try to find a loophole in my rates by scheduling long meetings in which I go over work with them and answer questions about content creation. Recently, I submitted website updates to a client who then spent an hour on the phone with me going over each word and asking me about the specifics of search engine optimization. I’m not sure if clients are trying to be sneaky by forgetting to pay me for these calls or whether they genuinely don’t realize that consultations aren’t free. Now I tell clients right away that, after an introductory call, I charge by the hour for time spent on the phone.)
The Slow Rate Reduction. (Another move a lot of clients pull is to start with a high rate and ask for a discount every other week or so. One client started paying me $350 for an article, and after I had completed a dozen articles they brought the price down. I agreed as thanks for the regular work, but then they asked for another reduction, then another, until I was looking at a payment of just $60 for the same length work. Typically I do offer a discount of some sort once a client has given me regular work for a couple of weeks, but then stay firm with that rate and refuse to go lower.)
The Hidden Tasks (Look, I’m a writer. I’m not particularly well-versed in anything technological or anything else to do with marketing or business, and I try to make that clear with my clients. If you hire me, it’s because you want a certain amount of high-quality written content, and that’s that. Somehow, though, clients seem to try and sneak in extra tasks here and there. One client, who I’d agreed to write SEO blogs for, quoted me $125 per article. Since these articles were fairly short and simple, I thought that price was fine. But then I completed an article and submitted it, only to have the client request some screenshots to put into the article. A little miffed, I added a couple of screenshots and sent it again. Then the client requested a screenshot video, which I begrudgingly took and sent in. But then, the client said they needed the screenshot video to have my voice over it. That’s where I drew the line. I did it the one time to get my pay, and then told them that in the future I would provide strictly writing services. Yeah, I ended up dropping the client after they attempted to cut down the price. I’ve had clients try to get me to do back-end website work, or write to their customers through my personal email. Now I am just super clear and up-front about tasks I will and will not do. If you want someone to source images for your blogs or insert text into your website, hire someone else!)
Honestly, it’s been tough to navigate these experiences. I’m trying to balance good work relationships with making sure that I’m being treated fairly. I try to cut clients some slack while also being assertive about them holding up their end of the deal, and all this while trying to remain polite and kind. It has been a real learning experience as I’ve discovered how to prevent any of these situations or handle them when they happen. Hopefully I will eventually get to the point where this kind of stuff happens less and less, but maybe that point will never come. For now, I’m just grateful that I’ve managed to stick up for myself when needed and have pushed onward!
Now, For the Great Experiences
Here are those positive stories as promised so we can end on a good note!
The Unexpected Bonus. (One of my regular clients gave me a holiday bonus this year, which was unexpected and extremely kind. It meant a lot to receive something as recognition of my hard work and made me value that business relationship even more than before.)
The Tips. (Several times I’ve had clients tip me extra in addition to the payment for a service. This is great because I take it as feedback on the quality of my work and know what standards to meet in the future!)
The Increasing Rates. (A few clients have offered to pay me higher rates because of the quality of work I’ve provided. This has been kind and generous and also has shown me that I can charge more.)
The Understanding Clients. (At the end of last year I had some health troubles and was in the hospital for a bit. Several of my clients were really understanding about this. They allowed me to delay deadlines, checked in on me to see if I was alright, and asked how I was doing long after the hospital stay. It means a lot to be treated like a human being.)
Dealing with any similar situations? Leave a comment!