July 23, 2016

5 Freelance Faux Pas to Avoid

Most of us know the basic rules of etiquette. Keep your elbows off the table. Don’t pick your nose in public. Call ahead (or at the very least, send a text message) if you’re running late.

However, the rules of freelance etiquette aren’t as widely known. You can (and should) follow the Golden Rule, but there are some situations that are a bit trickier (in fact, Linda Formichelli interviewed for me an article on sticky freelance situations that appears in February issue of Writer’s Digest). Like when you realize there’s a typo on your business card or a client asks you to set up a meeting.

Here are five things not to do when dealing with editors, clients, or other freelancers. Some of them might sound like common sense, but they are all drawn from my own observations as a freelancer.

  1. Cross out typos on your business card. Believe it or not, somebody actually did this in front of me at a networking event last year. Are you kidding me?! Business cards are not expensive, so if you change email addies or realize you’ve transposed a few numbers in your phone number, just suck it up and buy new ones (then read this post on what to do with your old cards). Anyone who works with words for a living should be conscientious enough to proofread their own business cards. Or at least fix their errors in an unobtrusive manner.
  2. Hit “reply all” when chewing someone out. Maybe it’s because I lack the camaraderie of working in an office, but I don’t mind being cc’ed on polite, superfluous messages like “this month’s issue rocks!” or “that catalogue spread made me drool.” It’s the “why can’t you ever get it right?” and the “this or that editorial policy sucks” messages I hate. We don’t need to be privy to another freelancer’s drama. They may think that they are taking a stand for all of us. But messages like that are totally unprofessional. If you have a problem with an editor or client, then deal with it privately, not on a group email. Better yet, step away from your keyboard, take a few cleansing breaths, and see if you still need to send that email in an hour or two.
  3. Vent about someone by name on a forum or listserve. This is even worse than #2, because you might think that the person won’t be reading it. Think again! I belong to several freelance listserves and forums, and I’ve seen several people screw themselves in a fit of rage. In one case, a writer thought another writer had ripped her off and complained about that writer by name. Unfortunately, the second writer belonged to that same group. But she took the high road and explained her side of the story rather than getting upset. Crisis averted. If you must vent (and frankly, we all need to do it sometimes), do it in private to a therapist, significant other, or trusted confidante. Or at least leave out names or any identifying details.
  4. Demand that another freelancer hook you up. I don’t mind the occasional request, like “who should I pitch at X magazine?” or “please keep me in mind if you get any projects you don’t have time for.” But constantly emailing, calling, or DMing someone to see if they have any freelance leads for you is not cool. If a fellow freelancer thinks you are worthy, they will usually help you out. If they’re not sure of your skills, then this can put them in an awkward position. Instead, be proactive in helping out other people when you can (karma, baby!) and do some of your own prospecting.
  5. Host a meeting in a messy space. When I surveyed my followers about freelance faux pas on Twitter, @G_Pryor suggested “Hosting a client meeting without cleaning the litter box first.” Yuck! Many tweeple laughed, but I’ve actually gone to a prospective client’s home and seen piles of unfolded laundry strewn across the couch. As you probably guessed, we didn’t end up working together. I always meet clients on their turf or in a public space like a coffee shop. It’s safer, and I don’t have to worry about putting away dirty dishes or stacks of paper.

OK, fellow freelancers. What faux pas have you noticed? How would you handle the situations described above?

Flickr photo courtesy of •●pfaff


  1. Devon Ellington says:

    I agree with all of the above.

    We get disparaged all the time for our faux pas, but this morning, I got back a rejection to a query — only it wasn't my book. It was a reply to my email, about my book, but a snarky rejection of someone else's.

    Totally unacceptable, and I've crossed them off the list for future queries.

  2. Jesaka Long says:

    You nailed these, Susan! This post should be required reading for all freelancers. I finally had to block a fellow freelancer from several social media accounts because every time I wrote something work-related, he'd comment or contact me to inquire about design work for my clients.

    The other faux pas I'd like to add here is forgetting to say thank you. It doesn't happen often, but when I go out of my way to help or respond to another freelancer and he/she doesn't even respond with a short "thanks," I find it pretty shocking.

  3. Peggy Bourjaily says:

    Susan, great post! And Jesaka, forgetting to say thank you is the worst!!

    I also think telling an editor you'll follow up and then never doing it is rude and will generally be remembered!

    And, of course, missing a deadline is the absolute worst.

  4. Bashing clients in public – by name. One or two have done it. It's ridiculous! I'll admit I air my grievances online occasionally, but I change names, genders, and revealing facts before doing so to avoid embarrassing anyone (namely the guilty ones).

    Also, I LOATHE when someone will send a politically-charged group email. I don't care what your politics are, I couldn't care less whom you've voted for/you'll will vote for, and I really don't appreciate seeing ANY party's spin of the facts in my email. No faster way to lose my interest and my respect. Three things should stay out of your business, in my opinion: politics, religion, and your mommy status.

  5. All so true. I would add that "burning bridges" is usually a pretty bad practice too, whether you are burning one with a freelancer or low on the totem pole editor. You never know where someone will end up. It's always better to take the high road.

  6. hilarious, susan, and i agree with you and other comments…would also suggest that sending an editor an occasional email when you're NOT pitching is appreciated…likewise, DON'T pitch editors at social events, when you run into them on the hiking trail, or on their way to a weekend brunch. just tacky. like teachers, i try to give these folks their personal space in the off hours.

  7. The Writer's [Inner] Journey says:

    Such common sense but, hmm, not to everyone! This post is great, not only for the freelance-writing life but for life in general.

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