5 Types of Freelance Writing Clients to Avoid At All Costs

Most freelance writers are working hard to find and write for as many clients as they can. The more clients you have, the more content you’re writing, the more content you’re writing, the more money you make.

But as great as it is to be to make more money, there are still some clients that just aren’t worth the trouble. Some are simply scam artists that want to take advantage of you, some are doing something illegal that could come back to bite you too and others may simply just drain off more time than they could ever be worth.

In short, it pays to sometimes just walk away from a client before they have a chance to cause havoc with your career and your life. Unfortunately though, spotting these kinds of clients before they become problems can be difficult. To help, here’s a brief, if incomplete, list of clients that you need to be on the lookout for and, if any try to work with you, you need to run away as fast as you can.

1. The Plagiarist

Many freelance writers make some of their career off of editing and polishing the works of others. But what happens when a client wants your help rewriting content by someone else without the author’s permission?

Not only do these clients, generally, pay very little for what is a difficult service, they are engaging in copyright infringement by creating a derivative work based upon an original. While that’s bad news for the client should the author ever learn of the infringement and decide to take action, it could also be bad for the writer too, at the very least dragging them into the case.

Your best bet, if someone asks you to rewrite content they don’t own and don’t have permission to rewrite, turn down the deal. Not only is there little money to be had, but the risk is very high.

2. The Squeamish Payer

When negotiating with a client, do they get a bit squeamish when you start talking about payment terms? Are they wanting you to use a payment system that you aren’t comfortable with? Do they fudge around on payment deadline? If so, they may be a squeamish payer and you probably want to run away.

In some cases, a squeamish payer is an outright scam, in other cases, it’s just someone who doesn’t want to spend the money and will only do so reluctantly.

At best, these clients will sap your time and take forever to pay you, at worst, they’re con artists that will leave you high and dry.

3. The Trademark Infringer

Marketing copy can be very lucrative for a freelance writer. They tend to be shorter jobs that pay well but what happens when the person you are writing for is clearly infringing on another company’s trademark with confusing and/or misleading names or identifying information.

Just as with the plagiarist, this can come back and bite you in a major way legally, namely secondary liability for trademark infringement, but more importantly any client that is willing to scam or mislead their customers is probably doing the same to you.

If they are going to mislead those paying them money, what will they do to those they have to pay?

4. The “We Don’t Need a Contract” Client

You know why you need a contract, but some clients, when you mention signing a deal, talk about how long it would take to get one signed and how much of a headache it would be. However, a good contract protects both parties and there’s virtually no situation where an honest client would prefer to have no contract to at least a basic one.

If a client refuses to take five minutes to fax or email a contract back and forth, they’re in too big of a hurry for you to write for. Someone else can take that risk, it shouldn’t be you.

5. The Mind Changer

Finally, some people never seem to know what they want. If you respond to a posting for a job and then in negotiations the project changes drastically, multiple times, something is likely very wrong with the project.

Most people have a good idea what they want before they make they start taking inquiries. Jobs may change slightly, but major changes should be a big warning flag, especially repeated ones.

If a client doesn’t know what they want and can’t lock it down timely in a contract, then that sets the stage for legal disputes later as both sides argue about what they other said they wanted and agreed to.

But the worst part is that the time spent figuring out what the client wants is unpaid work. Since most freelance writers a paid on delivery, you don’t get paid for the hours spent waiting for a client to make up their mind, making it a very bad deal in every regard.

Bottom Line

Even in tough times, there are some clients that just aren’t worth it. They will sap your time, drag you into legal disputes and refuse to pay you. If there is money to be made, they simply aren’t worth it. You’ll be happier and wealthier as a freelancer if you skip these clients.

That being said, it is important to realize that the majority of clients are good, honest and will help enrich your careers in many different ways. The minority of clients that will be a problem, for most writers, is very small.

However, it only takes one or two bad clients to sink an otherwise great freelancer so take a moment to understand some of the warning signs when dealing with a new client and, when necessary, bow out gracefully, before things turn ugly.

Twitter Chat

For those who are interested, I will be participating in a FWJ-sponsored tweet chat today, March 4, 2011, at 2 PM ET. Just follow and use the hashtag #FreelanceWJ to participate. We will be covering a variety of topics about law and freelance writing as well as any other freelance writing questions.

Your Questions

Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private (However, please mention that it is a suggestion for Freelance Writing Jobs). This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.


I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.






7 responses
  1. poch Avatar

    2. The Squeamish Payer

    This is what I experienced working with. The client was all praises until I asked for my pay. I suddenly became an incompetent writer to the client.

    1. karishma Avatar

      Ohh the same happened to me too!!!

  2. James Tennant Avatar

    Haha, the same thing happened to me.

    All of the work was fantastic, then when payment was required I was told that “editing had to be done”. Of course, I have checked the site since and no editing has been done to the copy I sent. I got the full payment too, but I wont be doing any work for them again. It took over a month to get paid after the work was accepted…and plenty of back and forth.

    1. poch Avatar

      My client got into a circumstance that makes me her pardonable so I like to give her another chance.

  3. Shannon Avatar

    Unfortunately, these five categories account for at least 90% of the freelance clients out there now. (Some actually fit multiple categories.) Game playing has become the norm in American business.

  4. Wendy L Avatar

    I thought this was excellent advice and wanted to share it with my writers group. How do I get permission to reprint this in our newsletter? My email to you bounced back. Thanks!
    -Wendy Levine

  5. Roxane Horton Avatar

    Hi, I had an experience recently where
    the client wanted me to sign a contract such that I would be personally liable for any defamation action brought against anything I wrote. I wouldn’t have had a problem with this, except that the client used to regularly amend my writing so that it was often more inflammatory than my original (it was a political analysis website). Acting on legal advice I refuse to sign the contract and they stopped employing me. I’d be interested to know if it commonplace for clients to try to contract out of defamation? In print, the publisher holds ultimate responsibility for whatever they print. Why shouldn’t the same be true of web publications?

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