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I’m not a natural cynic. I tend to take people at their word—or at least listen with an open mind. But my trust has limits. I’ve learned—sometimes the hard way—that freelance writing requires a dose of skepticism.

My skeptic alarm went off this morning, in response to a LinkedIn ProFinder RFQ. The would-be client was looking for a technical writer. I write about technology—which is not the same thing—but I read the post anyway. Here’s the problem. In the details section, the poster wrote:

“I want to have a paper on search project soon and will be good to get one pretty fast. He should have good experience and shoud [sic.] be cheap.”

Clearly, this person needs a good writer. But my problem is not the bad grammar or spelling. (It’s my job to fix all that!) The problem is simple. This person wants to violate a basic rule of project management:


As a software engineer, the poster should know better. However, in the freelance writing world, too often it’s the writer who ignores this rule. Sure, times are tough. It’s hard to get a writing gig—much less a full time writing job. But we need to draw the line, or become another story for Clients from Hell.

You could go with “No” or “F... No,” I suppose. But if that’s not an option—or if your prospective client isn’t as obvious as this person, you’ll need a better plan.

First, pick two of the fast-cheap-good value propositions, and stick to them. Build your marketing around them. Sure, nobody wants to be known as fast and cheap, but there’s certainly a market for that very thing. The point is, you can’t be all three, so don’t pretend you can. Sell your clients on who you really are.

Second, have a freelance writing contract—a real one. Spell out exactly what you’re offering in terms of timeline, cost (and when payment is required), and quality expectations. Yes, I know. Some clients will try to renege. But if you don’t have a written contract, you’re starting out with zero leverage. If a contract scares off a dodgy client, you’re better off.

Third, be willing to walk away from a bad deal. This is a hard one. If you’re just starting out, any job is better than none. Even now, after years of freelance writing, I’m tempted by offers that seem better than this particular gem. Trust me. If a prospective client wants something fast, cheap, and good, you will give way more than you get.

(PS: Walking away may make you even more attractive to the client. But if you relent, be sure you have a contract and a down payment. It’s like a good prenup.)

In the words of Sergeant Esterhaus, “Let’s be careful out there.”

I'm a freelance ghostwriter (nonfiction) and business writer, living in the Pacific Northwest -- working for clients around the world. I'm also a publishing tech/business consultant. In a past life, I was the Editorial Director of The Seybold Report.