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Know Your Limits

Updated: Sep 21, 2018

INTRO: MARY-MARGARET NETWORK BLOG POST #7 To the best of my knowledge, this seventh post in my series was never published. And the ride ended here. I have absolutely no memory about what I would have said in blog #8, "Envisioning Your Ideal Project."

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KNOW YOUR LIMITS Recently in this space, I revisited some humiliating lessons about interactive writing and client management from early in my career. Thinking about them made me cringe even though I'm older and (it says here) wiser. This time I'll cover a few additional lessons, but let's call them illustrations in recognizing your limits before it's too late -- and maybe even making those limits work for you.

Knowing How to Be Flexible On my first large-scale interactive project, I had just raised my hourly, but generously offered the client my old rate. They countered with something lower, pointing to many billable hours over the next few months. I thought about it for maybe ten seconds and signed the contract. I had to admit they made a compelling argument!

When a client requests a bid, here's my formula: • Estimate for X hours (will bill for actual hours if I finish sooner) • Work free for Y hours over estimate (a good faith gesture) • Hourly rate starting at Z hours overtime (pending discussion with client) An agreement like this can be a good measure of flexibility for both parties.

The bottom line for any bid or hourly rate is: how hungry are you? Sure, in a cynical worst-case scenario, everybody wants something for nothing, but in realistic terms, each party should ultimately recognize and honor the cost of doing business with the other party. And being flexible about compensation (within reason) can be a good selling point for repeat gigs and referrals.

Knowing What's the Project & What's the Client Doing the same type of work for a different client doesn't guarantee an identical result. I had one client who made a big deal about every assignment, yet when I cut through all the noise and excess, what they wanted was actually very simple and easily delivered within two or three drafts. I used that situation as my benchmark for a new client, and well... imagine a perfectionist who pulls the plug when the first draft falls short, threatening non-payment and involving his attorney! Luckily I was a subcontractor, so at least I got paid. But even without the thing ending in meltdown, I should have realized that, while a project may look similar from one client to the next, expectations can be very different.

Knowing How to Balance Project Scope With Client Budget In a perfect world, every client is made of money. But if that pocket is only so deep, you're much better off when it belongs to someone who can define your task for you. A few years ago I was hired to write a soap opera for the chatty social agent of a fitness title. The client said, "This is all I can pay you to create X number of installments at Y word count per." Those were my marching orders, and I made it come out even.

Compare that to the vague directive, "We're programmers doing an animation to leverage this product, and we need a writer to make it, y'know, better." And on just a few hours of my time, I might add! I delivered a story edit and creative strategy rather than rolling up my sleeves to write dialog. I think they appreciated the value of that.

Strangest and saddest of all was this poor guy who wanted to partner with me on his poignant but wretchedly written romance novel. He could afford only one day of my time, and rather than eight hours of big-picture editing, he wanted me to spend it writing. "Just get it started, and I'll follow along." If only it were that simple. But hey, I was hungry... and the client is king. I'm proud of what I did with his first few chapters, and I hope his editor at the vanity press got the rest of it to match.

Knowing When to Bail Sometimes, despite everyone's best intentions, you'll end up in a situation that's a bad match for your skill set. In one case, I was hired for what I understood to be online research but was in fact data mining. My years as a writer programmed me for thoughtful web surfing, and suddenly I was headed for epic failure at hit-and-run extraction against an insane deadline. My cry for help was an invitation to be terminated, which, it turned out, suited me just fine.

In another case, someone hired me to fix a corporate newsletter. I was Mac-based, the client had a legacy Windows email program, and the tech support options for reconciling the two were at best sketchy. So they tasked a copywriter with finding a cross-platform software solution. To my amazement, I found it... eventually. But once I understood there would be no compensation for all my extra time, it was the last straw with a company about which I was already having doubts. I just stated my case emphatically and let them do the firing. A passive-aggressive point of honor, perhaps, but it was the only satisfaction I was going to get.

But enough about these misadventures. When next we speak, I'll have a few words about envisioning your ideal project.

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