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.


Pointless, time-consuming revisions

Again, I try to handle revisions well. If I fall short of an editor’s goals, he or she has every right to demand changes. That is how the game is played.

Of course, when the demands fly outside the boundaries of reason, that’s a bad sign.

This happened to me over the summer. I pitched a 450-word profile for a college alumni magazine. It was accepted. My draft came back swamped with edits. I swallowed hard, interviewed the subject a second time over the phone, and did a rewrite.

Then there was an email with more requests.

Then another.

And another.

The edits were starting to contradict earlier edits. With a story of this size, any tweak, throws everything off because there’s no slack. It appeared the editor wanted to write her own version of this story, which is fine. Then she should do it herself. I fired off an email explaining just as much, divorcing myself from the project.

A small number of editors cannot grasp that many freelance writers are basically landing planes on Thanksgiving eve. I’m happy to handle legitimate complaints regardless of size, but I will not hold up a line of planes to ensure the Diet Cokes are all 42 degrees Fahrenheit on the 4:35 a.m. Newark to Providence failed salesmen express. Neither should you.

You get angry working with them…

I was so frustrated with the college alumni pub that I spewed a fountain of profanity over this situation at my parents, who were in town to watch my daughter. The “Sports Illustrated” editor drove me to kick a random projection screen when my weekly pick-up basketball game failed to calm me.

…and you’re not alone

Two friends who had written for both publications shared their own exasperating experiences. Getting acknowledgement that my ordeal was not an outlier made swearing off both outlets much easier. Plus, I prefer acting like a sane person. It’s good for my blood pressure and for inanimate objects.

You outgrow the client

One of my favorite regular gigs ever was serving as a sports books columnist at BiblioBuffet (RIP). I could write whatever I wanted, and my editors there, Lauren Roberts and Nicki Leone, were kind, supportive, and smart.

I got the gig in 2009, when I was gaining traction in my freelancing career. I was paid $25 per column, which became harder to accept as I Ianded higher-profile, higher-paying assignments. I couldn’t afford to take on passion projects for that little money. I began writing out of necessity. The quality – and frequency – of what I delivered slipped.


Nobody was benefitting. I had to leave. When I told Lauren and Nicki, they understood. Good editors know when a writer must depart, and a good writer knows how to deliver that message in compassionate, easy-to-understand language.

Respect should flow both ways in every aspect of the editor-writer relationship. If the editor is not reciprocating, it’s time to consider why you’re sticking around.


—Veteran freelance writer Pete Croatto (Twitter: @PeteCroatto) is working on his first book for Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Originally Published