Client Red Flags, Part 1

Since we want to weed out potentially troublesome clients before they make our lives miserable, it’s a good idea to have some weed-killing processes in place. For example, requiring a nonrefundable deposit means that a client is more committed to the edit (and paying the final invoice) than if you don’t require any upfront investment. (For the record, I require full payment in advance from all indie authors, but not everyone does this.)

When you have what seems to be shaping up into a problem, be sure to check with editor groups and your colleagues to find out what you can do to either save the situation or keep from repeating it.

I’ve discovered a number of red flags in my years of freelancing. Tread carefully if any of these crop up. (This is the first of two posts on the topic.)

Being Asked to Work on Spec

Working on spec—“speculation”—means you aren’t guaranteed anything for your work. You only get paid if the client decides to pay you after you’re done. This is a big fat nope. If you’re trying to build experience and credentials, at least arrange a barter in exchange for your efforts.

A related gambit is to suggest that you do the work for “exposure”—that is, the client will tell everyone about your work and you’ll get lots of clients! Yeah, no. As the freelance saying goes, people die of exposure.

A variation of this is to promise lots of future work if you do this project inexpensively. It’s true that some client relationships last for a long time and provide you with many projects over the years. But unless the client is booking all those projects right now, with deposits to match (in which case you might be willing to offer a small discount), it’s best to take this one with a grain of salt.

The best long-term relationships begin as you would like them to continue: with the client valuing your work enough to pay you fairly for it.

Being Asked to Edit a Sample

It’s not uncommon for someone to want you to edit a sample before hiring you. Now, I’m not against doing samples to help make sure you’re the right person for the job. It can help seal the deal for copy editors, who are fixing sentence-level problems.

But this is tricky when we’re talking about developmental editing because we don’t necessarily know what the real issues are before we read the entire ms. It’s easy to miss something if you’re just glancing at the first few chapters.

Instead, show potential clients samples of work you’ve already done (with the original client’s permission, of course). If you don’t have anything you can share, then make something up as a sample. Or, go to the Gutenberg Project ( and download a novel that is out of copyright protection and edit a chapter or two of that as a sample.

If you do edit a sample of the client’s work before booking them, as some editors make a practice of doing, make sure to keep the time spent on the project brief—no more than half an hour or so, which translates to a few pages at most. You can choose the pages if you want to prevent a potential client from trying to scam you. (Some authors think that if they ask ten different editors to edit ten different chapters as a sample, they’ll get all the work done on their book for free. Obviously these are not people who understand editing, but it’s possible you’ll encounter one.)

Client Underestimates the Work Involved

Potential clients sometimes underestimate the work/skill involved in a project. This is often expressed when they say that a project should be easy or fast. This is a red flag for a number of reasons. Often, it means the client is devaluing your work (“How hard can it be to look for plot holes?”) or doesn’t understand what, exactly, you do (“You just use spell check, right?”)

The work we do isn’t just about the time we invest in it but our expertise as well—the knowledge and skill we bring to the table. A client who doesn’t respect that is going to be a problem client.

Sometimes the client is just referring to logistical considerations—it’s a short ten-thousand word novella, so of course the edit will go faster as compared to a complicated two-hundred-thousand-word tome that describes the history of the universe in mathematical terms. Or sometimes they want a simple process—someone to check for egregious errors, even if that means leaving in some less-than-perfect sentences.

Your job is to figure out which category the client falls into—the one who devalues your work or the one who is just using a shorthand method of referring to logistical considerations.

Pay attention to red flags

Recently I was looking for an apartment to rent – I’m moving back to LA from Palm Springs – and found a possibility on one of the rental sites (you know, like or Zillow). The property described sounded like what I was looking for and the rent was about right for the age of the property, its amenities, and its location.

The security deposit was a more than what is typical, and that was a tiny red flag. Most LA landlords ask for one month’s rent as a deposit and this place was asking for two. But it’s not completely out of line to ask for two months’ rent as a deposit.

The listing did not have a phone number to call so I sent an email through the service and the next day I received a response from Marie S, writing from a gmail account named Marie223@gmail. com (I’ve changed the name/address slightly here).

This was another tiny red flag. But I get legitimate emails from people who don’t give their full names and who use random gmail or even Hotmail addresses so it was just that, a tiny red flag.

I asked for a showing and was told that Marie would leave the door unlocked for me if I would tell her what time I would be there.

This was another tiny red flag. Certainly a lot of property management companies do similar things in LA, since trying to get across town to meet a prospective tenant at a specific time can be a challenge. And earlier in the pandemic, not meeting prospective tenants in person was very common, so, again, this was merely a tiny red flag, but certainly something that had a reasonable explanation. Small apartment buildings are often owned or managed by people who have day jobs.

When I arrived early, another tenant who had the key unlocked the door for me. She seemed very pleasant and told me a few things about the apartment and seemed happy enough with her unit. I didn’t quiz her but she helped make the process feel legit.

When I got home, I emailed Marie and told her I liked the place and what were the next steps. Her reply said, “Fill out this application form and I’ll pass it along to the landlord.”

The application form wanted my social security number and other private information. This is perfectly understandable when renting – of course any landlord will do a credit check and make sure you can pay the rent – but it struck me that all I knew about this person was that Marie S had listed a vacant apartment that she apparently had access to on a rental site. I had no phone number for her, not even a last name – no way of finding her again if she decided to stop answering her emails. I had never met her and couldn’t describe her.

So, I sent her another asking if she was subletting and saying, “I would prefer to deal directly with the landlord.”

Almost immediately I received a reply. Marie said she was just helping out the landlord by answering emails.

This did not reassure me in the slightest. She knew my full name and she knew my phone number. Five minutes on Google looking me up would show her I’m a real person with several websites, a LinkedIn profile, and a few sworn enemies.

But she did not give me her full name, she did not give me a phone number, she did not list a property management service she worked for, and she did not supply the name of the landlord or the building owner. In other words, she made no effort to build trust.

I said, “I’m not comfortable sending my private information to someone who just goes by ‘Marie S.’”

If she was a legitimate helper, this was a chance for her to share credentials. She did not. I never heard from her again.

For all I know she’s a he and lives in Russia.

Now, does this mean I was nearly the victim of an apartment rental scam? I don’t know. Maybe Marie S is just some old lady’s poor, put-upon niece who is trying to help out and finds people like me annoying. There are probably plenty of other people who wouldn’t ask questions. And maybe one of them is now living in that nice apartment with the nice view.

That’s the challenge with what we might call self-defense – defending yourself from people who may want to hurt or defraud you. When you get out of the elevator to take the stairs because you don’t like the vibe of the man who just got on, or you cross the street to avoid the group of boisterous teens, or you ask a friend to pick you up from the coffee shop instead of waiting at the bus shelter because you’re not sure if that person hanging out nearby is a threat or not – you take these steps and you make it home safely without knowing whether there ever was an actual threat. Maybe you were just overreacting.

For me, this whole experience was maddening because I liked the apartment and I wanted to be done with the apartment-hunting process. I wanted very much for this listing to be legitimate and to start arranging for movers right away.

That’s the kind of impatience predators (scammers, criminals, anyone who preys on other people) are looking to exploit.

I’m telling this tale because it connects with freelancing. When we’re vetting clients, we’re often a few days away from a bill that’s due or aware that we’ve just been through a dry spell, or waiting for a repeat client to turn up again, and we really need for this client to come through. We need the work, we need the money, we aren’t sure what will happen if this doesn’t pan out, but it’s probably not going to be rainbows and sunshine. We want this to be a legitimate opportunity. And most of the time it is. But some of the time it is not, and this is where our eagerness to land a client can get us burned.

It is much easier to be careful about clients and to notice red flags when you have a waiting list and plenty of money in the bank. Then a potential client can do something as minor as misspell your name and you’re writing them off as wasting your time. But when we’re impatient to get going – newly starting out, needing money, or even just wanting to prove to ourselves that we can get clients – that’s when we have a tendency to fall for scams.

Always take a moment to reflect on potential red flags before going forward with any client.

Help Potential Coaching Clients Get to Know You

Because coaching is expensive, personal, and requires trust, it’s unlikely that a random client will see your website and immediately sign up for services. They need to get to know you first.

And this is a good thing! There are some people I’m not a good coach for because our personalities and approaches don’t mesh well. Getting to know each other before we both make a big commitment of time and energy is crucial.

Here are a couple of approaches that can give potential clients a sense of what you’re like as a coach without having to go all in right away:

  1. Offer or participate in small group experiences. These can be classes or workshops but don’t have to be. I’ve attended writers’ groups and hosted accountability groups as a way to get to know potential clients. In the Before Times, I went to a session on adding the five senses to your writing where the instructor led us in relaxation techniques, then had us stimulate various senses, such as by stroking a feather on our arms, or eating a strawberry, then meditating on the experience and recording our impressions in a journal. I loved this! If I had needed coaching, I would have approached the instructor. And I know she’d make a great coach to refer clients to when I can’t help.
  2. Create an opportunity for a small investment first. For example, you could offer a one-hour phone or Zoom session to solve a specific problem authors commonly deal with. In this scenario, the client is only committing to an hour and the coaching isn’t open-ended. If the coaching session goes well, you can follow up with the author regarding further coaching possibilities. If it doesn’t go well, that’s not the end of the world – the approach did what it was supposed to do, let you and the client get to know each other before making a big committment. I started tacking a one-hour phone consultation onto my developmental edits as a way to introduce people to coaching possibilities and it helped them understand what they could get from coaching that they can’t get from a plain vanilla developmental edit.
  3. Donate to a charitable cause. This one I haven’t personally used but I know other coaches have done it to good success. They donate their pay to a charity, with the marketing message being, “Book today, and the fee goes to EXCELLENT CHARITABLE CAUSE.” That gives people a chance to work with you without risk (in the end, the donation will do good no matter how terrible the coaching session is) but you are not habituating clients to free stuff. They are still paying.

Tell your clients what coaching is

When I first began offering coaching to writer clients, I had copy on my website that said something like, “I offer coaching services for all aspects of writing and publishing.” If a potential client got in touch to ask me what coaching was, I would say something like, “Anything that is outside of a typical edit on a manuscript.”

Hardly anyone ever hired me to coach them.

I thought that “I can help you solve most writing- and publishing-related problems!” was a great marketing strategy. It wasn’t. It didn’t help potential clients visualize why they would ever need coaching.

Then I started listing specific things I could do:

  • I can provide feedback on query letters based on my experience as a literary agent and an EIC
  • I can show you how to solve plot or characterization problems in the novel you’re writing now
  • I can help you get unstuck when you can’t seem to figure out what happens next
  • I can interpret rejection letters so that you can understand where your ms is not hitting the mark with agents
  • I can review your revision chapter-by-chapter to make sure you’re staying on the right track

Once I started doing this, people hired me! They could see themselves needing the services I was offering. They also began to ask specific questions like, “I can’t figure out how to write a good synopsis. Can you help?” It wasn’t on my list but, yes, I could help. (And then I’d add it to the list.)

Defining exactly what you can do for a potential client should be the first step in your marketing plan.

Coaching for people who hate talking on the phone/Zoom/in person

Editors, like authors, are often introverts (me among them). This can make them/us/me resistant to offering coaching as an option for writers as it seems like a service that has to be delivered in person or over a phone/Zoom call in one-hour increments. Many introverts have trouble even meeting friends in person, let alone clients, and don’t get me started about how much we hate talking on the phone. HATE HATE HATE it. With a fiery, all-consuming passion. (Or maybe that’s just me).

You don’t have to be an introvert to be filled with ennui at the thought of coaching this way. Some people dislike the feeling of being put on the spot to answer questions immediately or struggle to be at a specific time and place to attend a meeting or deliver a scheduled call.

But coaching – what we might define as anything outside a specific editorial process (like developmental editing or copyediting) that helps a writer write or sell their books, such as brainstorming a plot or reviewing back cover copy – can be delivered in other ways.

For example, coaching can be delivered asynchronously by email. This is how most of my coaching is done. Or, it could be done by text, as a scheduled exchange, or via a private forum/chat/chat room, either at a scheduled time or asynchronously. I know one editor who receives coaching questions by email and delivers answers via recorded video.

Our writer clients are often just as happy not to have to get on the bus/on the phone/comb their hair for a Zoom call, so think of these alternative means of delivery as a potential benefit to the client, not as something you have to cross your fingers and hope they’ll agree to.

Using editorial checklists

A couple of weeks ago, I turned off notifications for one of my accounts. Then the other day I wondered why I wasn’t getting notifications. Was no one responding? I couldn’t figure it out. Then I investigated and I realized that people were responding, I just wasn’t getting notifications because I had turned the notifications off.

You’d think I could remember a thing like that! I had to make a deliberate effort to turn the notifications off. I even had to do some sleuthing to find out how. Yet two weeks later I couldn’t remember that I’d done so.

I’m not an especially forgetful person but I do forget things. We all do. That’s one of the reasons I’m so fond of checklists, even for tasks I do frequently. Another reason is that a few years ago I read Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, and it presented compelling evidence that following checklists has a tremendous impact on reducing error.

I use a checklist for developmental editing, even though I have edited so many manuscripts I have lost count. I start with my standard template (posted below) and customize it for each ms, depending on what the author has asked for in the edit, and any issues I’m already aware of (perhaps because of the brief review I do before offering a project quote).

__overall pacing and tension

              __no loose plot threads

              __subplots feed into main plot

              __plot events are clear/understandable

              __logical sequence of plot events

              __plot is plausible/believable

              __action sequences are not confusing


              __characters have motivations for the things they do           

              __characters have arcs—they start at one place and end at another

              __character continuity

—characters sound/act/think differently from each other

              __appropriate number of characters

__appropriate number of POV characters; POV characters are the right ones

__POV is handled appropriately

__clearly rendered setting

__historical/specialized vocabulary or facts that needed checking  (list):

__accuracy within time period and setting

__continuity issues (timeline, repetition, consistency of character actions, descriptions, etc.)

__appropriateness of story (and scenes) to intended audience

(for line editing, when appropriate):

__awkward, lengthy, or confusing sentence structure that requires polishing

__tightening (trimming filtered feelings; superfluous action; repetition)

__dialogue that seems wooden, off, or anachronistic; dialogue tags misused

I also have a checklist for my process from first read-through to final review. Even if you’re sure you’re not missing anything, using checklists can help reduce some of the mental stress of editing.

Effective Scene Construction

A common structural problem you’ll encounter in fiction development is ineffective scene construction: scenes that start before they should, drag on far too long, and don’t establish key information right away. A good scene includes the meat of a plot event – whether that event is an emotional discussion over coffee, a decision to take a certain action, or a footchase across town – but not a whole lot more.

Writing advice often says that a scene should establish setting or character, or do something to advance the plot, but in fact a good scene should do all three. A scene in which the protagonist looks in the mirror and relays what they see in order for the reader to be able to visualize them is not going to engage the reader. Something needs to happen. It doesn’t have to be the protagonist accidentally witnessing the murder in the reflection of the mirror. It can be something like the protagonist noticing that their gray hair is showing and deciding that something must be done about it.

So, something that happens can be a decision, a conversation, or an action (hiding the murder weapon, eavesdropping on Mom and Dad, punching the bully).

But it isn’t enough to merely have something happen if we don’t know where it’s happening or who’s involved. So, a scene needs to establish early on:

  1. Who the viewpoint character is
  2. Where the scene is taking place
  3. Who is in the scene with the viewpoint character

And then it must go on to convey:

4. The scene event (and little more)

How character motivations create meaning

In my teaching I focus a lot on character, plot, and setting. These are the tools with which authors build stories. But there’s another we shouldn’t overlook: theme. Readers read stories not merely to find out what happens but to understand what it means. I often talk about the importance of plot events having causality—they should happen for a reason. It is through those reasons that meaning can be found.

That Sam steals the medicine from the pharmacy because he loves his son and wants him to live shows us one type of meaning, perhaps that people will do things they wouldn’t have thought possible to save the people they love.

That Sam steals the medicine from the pharmacy because he loves his son and wants him to live and can’t afford the medicine because he lost his job shows us another type of meaning.

That Sam steals the medicine . . . because he lost his health insurance when he lost his job shows us a slightly different type of meaning.

That Sam steals the medicine . . . because greedy pharmaceutical companies charge astronomical fees for medicines shows us still another type of meaning.

When authors are not paying enough attention to the reasons—the why of the characters—they risk shortchanging meaning, regardless of how well they’ve explored plot, character, and setting.

Many times authors don’t set out to explore a specific theme or to convey a specific message, but as an observer of the ms, you will often have enough distance from the work to be able to pick out some connected threads that seem to underlie the story events. You can help the author surface these threads, highlighting the meaning they give to the story. Often you can help the author strengthen or tweak a character motivation in order to create more meaning.

Eliminating or Reducing Flashbacks

Authors like to use flashbacks to show backstory. Unfortunately the use of flashbacks can stop the narrative flow in its tracks. Rather than increasing dramatic tension, flashbacks tend to drain it. Readers experience them not as enhancements to the text but as interruptions. Readers, as a rule, don’t care about what happened in the past. They care about what happens next.

Authors often use flashbacks as a way to solve a problem. (In fact, most developmental problems are attempted solutions to other problems.) If you can identify the problem the author is trying to solve, you can offer editorial guidance that will solve the problem in a way that does not require the use of a flashback. Here are three common problems authors try to solve with flashbacks:

  • Author is afraid the character’s motivation won’t be clear without a visit to the experience that shaped the motivation. So the ms ends up with something like: “Anna didn’t want to get involved. She remembered the last time she’d gotten involved. [Cue long, convoluted flashback about how Anna’s meddling backfired once.]”
  • Author is afraid the emotional impact of a current scene won’t be felt unless the reader knows what led up to the scene: “Anthony watched in horror as the dog ran across the street. [Cue long, convoluted flashback about how Anthony’s dog was run over by a truck when he was nine years old.]”
  • Author is attempting to “show, don’t tell.” Take, for example, the following passage: “Regina wondered what her boss wanted. The last time a boss had set up a meeting without explaining why, she’d been fired.” An author may recognize that as telling, rather than showing, and remembering that they are supposed to show instead of tell, may seize upon the opportunity to show: “Regina wondered what her boss wanted. She remembered [cue long, convoluted flashback to a scene where Regina is fired.]”

Depending on the situation, a writer who is overly reliant on flashbacks to tell the story may have started the story in the wrong place or is telling the wrong story. In one of the recent edits I’ve done where flashbacks did too much heavy lifting, I asked the author to reflect on what her story is about. In essence, she is telling the tale of a woman’s disintegrating marriage, but where such a story starts can vary. Is she telling the story of how the marital problems arise? Or is she telling the story of what happens after the protagonist realizes her marriage is in jeopardy and she must make a decision? My author wanted to tell story #2, but she was telling story #1 in the flashbacks.

Now, of course it’s possible for an approach like this to work, with flashbacks expertly entwined with the forward action, but probably not, and rarely in an inexperienced author’s hands. So the solution was to have the author commit to telling story #2 and to prune out as much of the backstory as possible. For story #2, how the protagonist got to where she is when the story opens isn’t as interesting to the reader as what happens next: “Marriage is in trouble? Okay, got it.” That’s basically all the reader needs for the story to get underway.

Creating Satisfying Resolutions

I’m not talking about those resolutions we all make on January 1. I mean the way a story ends: how the plot comes together and the character arcs are ended. Every narrative arc has, or should have, a resolution. (I once purchased the first volume of a two-volume book, not realizing it was only the first half of the book. It ended mid-scene. This is not unlike the way some manuscripts end, which leaves the reader saying, “What?”)

Some resolutions are more satisfying than others, by which I mean readers feel that the time they’ve invested in the book has been worthwhile. This is not to say that a satisfying resolution = a happily ever after. A satisfying resolution can evoke sadness or righteous anger or any number of emotions, but the reader should feel that the story has ended appropriately to its content. Typically, a comic novel needs a comic ending. A romance needs a happily ever after. A thriller needs the villain to be stopped. In any type of novel, readers need to feel that while the characters may be getting on with their lives afterwards, they, and we, have been changed by what happens in the story.

It can be difficult for authors to understand that readers read novels not just because they may be thought-provoking but because the experience is emotionally rewarding. It may be appropriate to the novel for the ending to be some sort of intellectual or literary game, but such approaches will often disappoint readers who expect more from the author.

Many inexperienced authors favor ambiguous endings (did she or didn’t she?) but readers want authors to have a point of view—to say something. Love triumphs, power corrupts, the world is absurd, whatever. Ultimately, an author isn’t saying anything if they leave the resolution up to the reader. Thwarting expectations in general is always a risky business, but can in the right circumstances be of literary value (the criminal gets away at the end of mystery, for example, to prove a thematic point that, say, knowing the truth doesn’t necessarily mean justice prevails). Abdicating one’s role as author, on the other hand, is a bit pointless.

Readers don’t experience cliff hangers as compelling bits of art designed to get them to read the next book. They experience them as tricks. Ambiguous and cliff-hanger endings are ultimately unsatisfying. Each book in a series must reach some sort of resolution, even if an overall narrative arc isn’t concluded until the end of the series. Not every author will believe this, and of course you can’t make someone provide a satisfying resolution if they’ve chosen not to, but it’s important that you at least raise the concern.

A satisfying resolution should not rely on deus ex machina, where a person or thing suddenly solves the knotty problem. It should be the culmination of what has come before. Endings are difficult to get right, and often a tweak to an ending will require making a dozen other changes going back to the beginning of the book. A book that is fantastic for two hundred pages but fails in the last two still, in the reader’s mind, fails.

As the editor, you have to help the author see possible resolutions that may not have occurred to them.