Setting Boundaries for Client Work

One of the most important things freelancers can do is set clear expectations for their work. You give a project fee, describe what it includes, communicate deadlines, and so on. These expectations are necessary because otherwise a project can turn into a zombie that keeps coming back for more, sapping your will to live.

If you’ve agreed to do one round of developmental editing by May 1 for $3000, then you are not also going to coach the client as they revise for the next six months. You are not going to deliver the edit sooner, or for less. You said what you said.

What the project will include, when the completed project will be delivered, and how much it will cost are all negotiated ahead of time, not after the work has begun.

In an ideal world, that would be that. Alas, we do not live in an ideal world, so we end up with clients who want us to work over the weekend to get it done sooner or who didn’t deliver the materials on time, delaying our ability to start.

Often there are perfectly understandable reasons for these client requests: An agent asked for the full and the author wants you to hurry up with your edit so she can submit the ms in the next week or two. Or the client came up with a solution to a story problem that’s been plaguing them and they want to fix it before you begin the edit. Clients typically don’t want changes in the agreement out of pure malice (“Let me see if I can ruin Jennifer’s day! Bwahahaha!”). They just want what they want.

Freelancers often tell me they would like to learn how to prevent these kinds of behaviors. That is to say, they want to have clients who do not ask them to work on the weekend or who always deliver materials on time. And I fully understand because I want that, too.

But boundaries are not about making someone else do a thing. You can’t make someone else do a thing. Boundaries are about our own behavior.

If you don’t want to work on the weekend, then don’t work on the weekend. If the client delivers the materials late, then don’t drop everything to meet the original deadline.

In other words, boundaries are not for your client. Boundaries are for you.

If you need to work over the weekend because you had an emergency come up, that’s one thing. If it’s because the client had an emergency come up, that’s another.

Boundaries are about standing up for yourself, which is what makes them so difficult. You have to say to a client, “No, I am not going to work this weekend.”  

You can fume all you want about clients who have the gall—the absolutely unbelievable entitlement!—to think that their shortcomings should somehow become your problem. But in the real world this happens a lot, and getting bent out of shape over it isn’t particularly helpful.

You can indeed prevent some of these problems by stating expectations clearly: the final manuscript has to be given to you by such-and-such a date for you to have the edit returned by whatever deadline you’ve agreed to. You can point out that if a client misses a submission deadline, you can’t guarantee to finish the edit on the timeline you agreed to. You can enforce consequences: a client who misses a submission deadline loses their spot and their deposit.

Personally, I avoid a lot of these issues by not booking clients until they have the complete manuscript in hand – and I expect payment in advance (I know this approach doesn’t work for everyone).

But after that—after you’ve set the expectations and described the consequences—you can’t control the client’s behavior. You can only reinforce your boundaries: “Jane, I completely understand why you want the deadline moved up to April 1 but we agreed to May 1 and I will not be able to finish the project sooner.” Or, “Joe, the deadline for submitting the final ms was last week. You missed that deadline. I can get to your project by NEW DEADLINE.” Or “Joe, the deadline for submitting the final ms was last week. As per our agreement, missing your booked time slot means the deposit is forfeited. I won’t be able to get to your project unless you rebook a new slot for later this summer.”

That’s it. I’ll admit it can be hard, but it is not complex.

Most clients don’t have a problem with your saying no. They were just asking. You may feel they put you on the spot but the world is full of people who think just asking is fine. You’ve probably been one of them from time to time. I know I have.

And of course there may be situations where you can accommodate the request, but I recommend being careful about making exceptions. If you grant Marisa an exception but not Natalie, and Natalie hears about it, she’s going to be more steamed than if you had just said no to everyone across the board. Unfairness is more maddening to people than just saying no is.

Now, of course there may be consequences for you as well! That is the nature of dealing with humans. Some people will throw a temper tantrum over your setting boundaries: “I am never working with you again!”

I don’t mind this because I don’t want to work with people who are rude about violating our agreement anyway. But it can be unsettling the first time or two it happens, and often our first reaction is to try to soothe down the toddler, to cave and give them what they want just to make them shut up. But clients aren’t toddlers and you don’t have to do anything—and in fact I would stress that you shouldn’t do anything.

You said what you said.

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