Setting Boundaries is a Crucial Step to Succeeding as a Writer

Having a young child and building a freelance web-writing career at the same time has taught me a lot about setting boundaries.

I’ve had to teach my daughter to know when it’s work time and when it’s playtime. At first, it was tough. I had to be consistent and look for ways to redirect her when she wants attention. I also had to be fair and make sure I took plenty of breaks to be with her — it’s time I don’t want to miss!

As we got into a routine, and she got used to the new way of doing things, she became noticeably more playful and independent. It was worth it!

Setting boundaries is the only way to get any work done as a parent — not to mention the only way to get a good night’s sleep! Setting firm boundaries is also the only way you’ll make money in your writing career.

Clients push boundaries too … if you let them

I recently had a client hire me to do PR work on a retainer basis. My policy said that I get paid upfront for three months of work. The client asked if she could pay the amount in three installments. Unfortunately for me, I agreed.

The reason I ask clients to pay three months in advance is I want to spend as much of my time as possible working on their business, and as little time as possible sending bills and chasing money.

Agreeing to the change in payment plans was a huge mistake, because it put me in a position where I had to send bills and reminders. Every month, the relationship came to a grinding halt because I had to work to get the payment. Finally, after I realized that she was putting it off, I had to call a “time out.” I wasn’t going to do any more writing, or meet with her, until the bill was paid.

Parents can expect their children to challenge boundaries; it’s a natural part of growing up. But when clients push boundaries, especially when it comes to money, it’s your job to put an end to it. If you don’t, the problem will become bigger.

If your goal is to get paid to write, be clear about money. Here’s how:

Get your business policies in writing. If you want to be paid 50% upfront, and get 25% midway through the project, and 25% at the end, make sure you have it written down. Assign a date to the midway point so that when that date arrives, there is no room for compromise when you ask for the money.

Include natural consequences for when the client doesn’t pay. Make sure you clearly state that you will not begin to work without the deposit, lay out when you will impose a late fee, and make sure they understand they will not be able to publish the article without making final payment. And, in the case of retainer clients, they need to pay upfront before any work is done.

Set your fees and don’t accept jobs that pay less. Taking on every possible client at whatever their budget will bear may seem like a way to get your foot in the door, but you’ll find yourself insanely busy …  and still broke! Instead, use your time to go for high-paying jobs that you’ll have to stretch to get. It will be worth the effort.

Make sure your website doesn’t undermine your financial goals. Some people unconsciously use language on their freelance websites that make them look cheap. Weed out phrases like, “I will work within your budget” because they will send the message that you’ll work for next to nothing.

If your website focuses on small jobs that have little potential for making money, that will be what you attract. As soon as you learn a new skill that will help you make more money, add it to your website. Plan your website around your most lucrative services, and make sure you present yourself as a professional — not a newbie.

Don’t write for free. Volunteer jobs always seem to take longer than you expect, and the person who asked you to volunteer won’t give you the appreciation you deserve.

“I don’t work for free, as a rule,” said copywriter Susan Laird. “Yes, I do some pro bono work, but it is clearly understood what the value is. I often ask for a letter of acknowledgement for tax purposes.”

Remind yourself that if the job is not important enough for them to spend money on it, it isn’t worth spending your time on it either.

Value Your Time

Don’t do lunch. Clients will ask you to attend meetings, have lunch, join committees, volunteer, and give free advice so they can see if they want to work with you. Just say no.

“I get asked to lunch by subscribers who live in or near my area a few times a month. And I always say no,” wrote Bob Bly in his Direct Response Letter. “The fact is, there are very few things in my life I value as much as my time. This is why I have never been big on joining committees for clubs, business associations, and the like — they suck up precious time that could be used for more rewarding or pleasurable activities. One of the best ways to not squander your precious, limited time is to learn to say ‘no.’”

Post your office hours on your website. Working as a freelancer, it’s possible you’ll end up with clients from around the world. If you aren’t careful, that can mean you’ll be receiving calls at all hours of the day and night. Post your office hours on your website and in your email signature. Set up a professional outgoing voice mail message. And then turn your business phones off during off-hours. There’s nothing worse than answering a client call when you’re bleary-eyed and cranky at five in the morning. It makes you look bad. Set this expectation early and you’ll avoid this headache.

Establish email expectations. Make sure your clients know how fast they can expect an email response from you. Do you reply within three hours? One business day? Three calendar days? These are all okay as long as your client knows what to expect. By setting this expectation, you can end-run your clients sending you multiple emails trying to get a response.

In any relationship, it’s human nature to test the grey areas. By establishing clear boundaries in your business, you can reduce your stress and pave the way for a successful career.


Mandy Marksteiner


  • Thanks Mandy for this article. Good stuff. I like the idea of posting hours on my website. I hadn’t thought of that. One more thing I’d add : if the work requires input from the client, set a boundary for the length of the project to ensure the client responds promptly and the project can be completed efficiently. It can be very frustrating for a client’s schedule and lack of urgency to draw a project out over several months or a year. This is true even when full price is paid in advance.

  • Excellent article, Mandy! Since I’m just starting out, I admit I have trouble setting those boundaries in my business. But I am getting better at it, and if clients are going to value my time and expertise, I need to show them how.

  • This is the most straightforward and easy-to-remember statement of these important principles I’ve ever seen. Failure to remember them, and use them, is what makes a lot of freelancers wind up in the Rubber Ramada. Any client who complains about these rules is probably someone you don’t want to work with anyway. Thanks for stating these so well.

    Paul Black

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