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7 tell-tale signs of toxic freelance clients

Here are the warning signs you should be looking for if you think it may be time to let go of one of your freelance clients.

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Writers get so used to hearing “no” from editors that letting go of a bad gig sounds dangerous. It is not. Editors will not blacklist you; your life will not tumble into foreclosure. In my experience, when you bid adieu before you get screwed, work becomes more pleasant and profitable.

Here are the biggest warning signs.

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Money issues

Your rate goes down. Checks take forever to arrive, and your editor expresses disdain when you inquire over their whereabouts. (God forbid, the checks bounce.)

Writers deserve to get paid without their livelihoods being threatened. Despite the doomsday accounts of dying markets and pivots to video and writing for exposure, you can find clients who will treat you like a human being and not as a cog in the perpetual content machine. It just takes time. You’ll get those when you ditch crappy clients and devote your energy to finding far more suitable replacements.


Your voice gets obliterated

Revisions are like visits to the doctor: I dread them, but I know that I’ll leave in better shape than when I arrived.

If an editor’s revisions are heavy but improve the article – without compromising my style – great. If I learn something about writing in the process, even better. At the (sadly) defunct Grantland, Sarah Larimer tore my first draft to shreds and brought me to tears. But Sarah (now at The Washington Post) also explained what she was doing and what my lengthy feature needed. It was like taking a graduate-level journalism course, and I’m forever in her debt.

Then there are the editors who want to push your prose around. Why? Because they can.

Five years ago, I was assigned a lengthy feature on a sportscaster for a popular Northeast-based regional magazine. I filed the piece and a few days later got a phone call from the assigning editor. He went through the story line by line, editing as if he were getting paid per red pen mark. Here’s the most enraging exchange:


Him: “You have this line, ‘didn’t god up the ballplayers.’ What does that mean?”

Me: “It’s a famous expression that Red Smith, the sports columnist, heard from his old boss, Stanley Woodward,” I said.

Him: “We’re not trying to be Sports Illustrated here.” And with that snide dismissal, this portion in an unending condescending conversation concluded. The line got cut.

Get a load of Harold Hayes. First, he refuses to give readers credit that they might enjoy a nice turn of phrase. Second, he is angry at emulating Sports Illustrated, one of the best-written magazines over the past 60 years. Gary Smith, who has won more National Magazine Awards than anyone, was an SI mainstay.

I took on one more assignment for the editor – who accused me of not honoring an imaginary deadline – and then I politely declined his assignments while shooting my inbox the middle finger.


This reminds me of another reason to go.

Your editor is a bully

See above. Life is too short.

Originally Published