Ask Sarah: Scope Creep and Other Confusing Things About Freelancing

Today is the first in a weekly series of Ask Sarah Anything About Freelancing. If I don't know the answer, I will find it. My goal with these is to help make you a better freelancer. And some of this is subjective, meaning freelancing is not an exact science. How I do things may not be the way you freelance. If you have a better solution, please jump in and let me know. This first one is called scope creep and other confusing things about freelancing. Scope creep is something that happens all the time. Sometimes it's intentional on a client's part and sometimes it's out of naiveté. Your goal is to spot it at the first hint of it.

The first question is from Grace A. "Scope creep. What is it, how can you spot it, and how can you STOP it?"

As I said above, it's something many clients do. In my experience it's split 50/50 between clients who absolutely intend to take advantage and those who are simply naive. So what does it look like?

Here's a scenario: you're hired to write a 1500-word article about the gallbladder for a brand new client. You agree on a price and the client sends you a brief with points he/she/they want you to hit. You agree on a deadline and off you go to the rabbit hole to start writing.

The next day you turn the article in and wait. Two hours you hear back from the client. "I love it! It's absolutely perfect! Can you add a few more suggestions to keep the gallbladder healthy?"

This is what I call subtle scope creep.

You're already at 1600 words and adding a few more suggestions will bring the article to well over 2000 words. This is your moment to push back—gently at first because you have no idea whether the client is trying to get away with something or just on this side of clueless. Take this moment and you've set some ground rules. Don't take the moment and your client has you by the short and curlies.

What I would say is something like this, "Thank you! I'm so glad you like it. I'm happy to add more suggestions. We agreed on $x amount to write 1500 words. Do you prefer to pay me more or should I edit the piece first and then add these extra tips?"

The ball is in your client's court. If he/she/they comes back with anything other than, "Oh, my bad! Of course. Let's agree I'll pay you an extra blah blah for adding 400 more words" or "I'm sorry. I don't have more to pay you. Please feel free to edit first," you've got a good client. If he/she/they says anything else, you've got what I like to call a whackerjack and he/she/they will do it again and again.

If that's the case, I think you should run in the other direction because this whackerjack will not only do it again but be a complete jerk, and you'll forever be tearing your hair out!

Questions number 2 and 3 come from Kelsey and Nikita respectively. I have grouped them together because my response is the same. Kelsey: "Hi Sarah! I'm a new freelancer and am taking things pretty slow for now, but I'd like to be able to get more clients in the future. As someone with very little experience and no bylines, how can I start making myself a more desirable writer?" Nikita: "How to get good paying clients?"

I would do these both in four steps:

  1. Become an excellent writer by working out that muscle
  2. Find your passion
  3. Know everything there is to know about this industry
  4. Build a website

Work Out That Muscle

Have you ever heard this (not-so-funny) joke? A pedestrian on 57th Street sees a musician getting out of a cab and asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Without pause, the artist replies wearily, “Practice.”

That's the answer. Whether you are taking things slow or you've jumped in head first, the only way to become a good, scratch that, an excellent writer is through practice. I don't care whether you were born with the talent or you learned it in school or as part of a job, practicing will get you better.

Whether you have clients or not, force yourself to write at least 200 words a day. I got this advice from a relative of mine when I decided at 42 to become a writer. She gave me a book called The Artist's Way Workbook by Julia Cameron. I followed every suggestion to the letter. As it suggested, I wrote a minimum of 200 words a day—whether I had a client gig that day or not. I bled all over the page, over and over and over agin. It changed my life. Why? It had me focusing more on the craft of writing versus making money and getting clients.

Far too often freelancers chase the money. Hone your craft and you'll be more desirable to clients. I devoted an entire blog to setting prices.

Find Your Passion

When I first started freelancing I took any job I could. We were broke. And when I say broke, I don't mean we still had a house in the Hamptons and another in Beverly Hills but we had to sell the house in Coral Gables. We had $40 in our checking account and we had to feed three dogs, several cats, some chickens and us (my husband and me).

The first gig I took paid me $50 for five articles. Not an amazing amount of money but because I had no writing samples to send the prospective client, I was lucky to have been given a chance. I was beyond excited, and of course I bought everyone food with that money.

In the early days I wrote about everything under the sun:

  • How to get your ex back
  • Penis enlargement
  • How to break into the porn industry
  • Eczema
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Dogs, cats, zoo animals
  • Wine coolers
  • Benches
  • Desks
  • And many more utterly stimulating topics

I learned immediately I loved writing about health and animals, but the rest could jump in the lake. Over time as I worked out that muscle, I narrowed my focus to:

  • Health and medical
  • Addiction and mental health
  • The environment
  • Politics
  • Gender and race advocacy
  • And more recently, cannabis

Finding genres that feed your soul means you're not trying to be a square peg in a round hole, and believe me when I say it will be obvious in your writing. It will be more polished than something that put you to sleep while you were writing it.

Know Your Industry

I'm not suggesting you keep up with the Joneses. I mean know the trends, where the industry is headed, what genres are in hot demand and how other freelancers manage their businesses. Ask questions and be open to new ideas. The more you know about the freelance industry, the better you can guide your client rather than the other way around.

For the most part it will be women (both trans and cis) reading these blogs and it's extremely important we go into all negotiations with clients with a sense of empowerment ... not entitlement but empowerment. You aren't entitled to anything but you can empower yourself to win over a client.

You also need to know how to manage the business side of things. Freelancing isn't just about writing. It's also about setting rates, being firm when clients are late paying, knowing how to negotiate and preventing yourself from burning out.

Build a Website

Valerie has been going back and forth trying to decide whether she should have a website. For a variety of reasons I think it's imperative all freelancers have websites.

  • Brand recognition
  • A place for all your stuff
  • It communicates to clients and editors you take yourself seriously
  • What if you're not home, someone wants a clip and they can't wait till you get home to send one?

One of the first things I did once we were in the black was to reserve my domain name before anyone took it. Even before I could afford to build a website, I began planning out how it would look. By the time I could afford a host (I use SiteGround because their customer service, prices and web hosting are unparalleled) and a theme, I was 75% there. I taught myself HTML and started building my site.

I have gone through at least a dozen makeovers between 2010 and now. As I have become more comfortable in my writing skin, been writing for years and have more clips to showcase, my website has evolved. I finally love my website! I send it to prospective clients and editors. It's a reflection of both my accomplishments and my personality. I am genuinely excited to offer a link to my website. That part won't happen overnight. It will take a couple of years and a lot of growth to love your website but you have to start somewhere.

Before I was writing for publications and I was strictly a ghostwriter, I got permission to add pieces I wrote for clients to my portfolio. Now that I no longer need to rely on my ghostwriting as proof of my writing skills, I feature my best bylines in my portfolio as well as the books I've written.

Although I'm not 100% positive prospective clients take you more seriously if you have a website (it certainly can't hurt), I do know editors at publications expect you to have a professional website. I always send them a link to it. More often than not editors will respond letting me know they liked such and so piece in my portfolio.

I don't have a laptop because I'm seriously rough and tumble. I can break things by just looking at them. If I get an email while I'm out asking for a sample, I will send them to my website. I live in the middle of bum fuck Puerto Rico (serious sticks). If I leave to go grocery shopping, it's usually at least one town away. It could be hours before I'm home. I can't let that be the difference between getting a gig and not.

Your or a Company Name?

This is an entirely personally thing but I prefer my name. I have a company and I send clients who want a lot of content written to that site; however, if they're just looking for one writer or it's an editor of a publication, I'll send them to my personal website. The reason it's my name is because I want my name on their minds.

Again, this is subjective because other writers have a company name for their website and they say it works for them. I'm a big fan of keeping things simple. This is an entirely personal thing, meaning you do what feels right.

There you have it. We covered scope creep, advice for breaking into the industry, how to raise rates and the reasons to have a website.



Do you have a question about freelancing? Ask Sarah.