Respecting Boundaries

stress, freelance

Moving on quite nicely from last week’s post about the Imposter Monster, this week I started thinking about respecting boundaries.

Now we all know that imposter syndrome respects no boundaries, but I also believe that not respecting boundaries can lead to the Imposter Monster visiting, along with some of his friends.

Imagine the following:

The day starts well, the job is flowing nicely, then your client pops off a question. You answer then get back to the work in hand. The email pings and another query arrives, and another, and another. Your concentration is slowly being eroded, the client expects answers straight away, your work is starting to suffer and you end the working day drained and not feeling the love.

You have an enquiry for a new job. The client is genuinely unsure about what they need. You both come up with a plan of action when you realise that your client needs some copyediting, not the proofreading they originally thought. You explain what is involved and what is not involved, you estimate a price and you are both happy. But as the work progresses the job morphs into a creeping monster. What started out as a simple copyediting job ends up as a hand-holding exercise and something akin to a developmental edit instead of the straightforward copyedit that was agreed on. You had agreed on a fixed fee but along the way things got complicated.

Another job comes along, it’s interesting and will be a breath of fresh air … until the client gets hold of your phone number and phones at odd times, including late on a Sunday night. It’s nothing that can’t wait until the working week starts again on Monday (yes, we take weekends off). What starts out as a great relationship turns sour and has you jumping every time the phone rings.

On the other hand …

The client wants a proofread. They understand that their writing isn’t the best, but they are happy with what they have and just want a quick, cheap proofread. You have an irrational urge to copy-edit the manuscript rather than do what is asked. You think you are doing the client a favour; they think you are annoying and over-stepping the mark when you point out what could be done to tidy up the text.

boundaries, locked, no entry

It can be difficult when things start to go awry. When it’s the client over-stepping the boundaries it can lead to imposter syndrome, fatigue and loss of income for the freelance. When it’s the freelance over-stepping the mark it can lead to loss of confidence and confusion for the client.

Respecting boundaries is all about finding out and laying down what is expected by both parties and not straying outside of those areas.  Before starting work on a project it is normal to spell out what is expected by both client and freelance. The client will explain what they expect to be done, a timescale and a budget, whilst the freelance will note what can be done in the timescale and the budget involved, and will often examine a portion of the job to see if the document is at the stage the client thinks it is.

We want to do our best for each client, but at the same time we have bills to pay. Once a job is in-hand it can be very difficult to go back and have to renegotiate. This is not made any easier by the varying ways in which editing jobs are described, and clients are often unsure as to what is involved in each stage of the job. Constant communication can be just as bad as none, and when the scope of your work morphs outside of the boundaries it gets stressful. It’s also a nightmare if you hate talking about money.

stress, time management, freelance

So how can we respect the boundaries set by our clients, but also make sure that our clients respect our boundaries?

It’s tough keeping clients on the right track, but easier to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes. If the client knows what they want, and has the budget and timescale to match, as a freelance it’s better to accept that not every job will be a work of art. Work within the boundaries and accept it. By all means make sure that they are aware that more work may be needed, but take the final answer with a degree of professionalism. This is their writing project, not yours.

To keep sanity as a freelance, to set boundaries, you can:

  1. Make a note at the beginning of each job detailing exactly what was set out in the agreement, and let the client know that anything outside of this agreement will result in an extra charge. There’s no need to be personal, or apologise. Set it out professionally and to the point. That way there is no scope for ambiguity.
  2. Let the client know at the start that you are not constantly on email. If need be, state that this detracts from the workflow and that you pick up your email X times a day. If a client becomes needy do not answer emails as soon as they arrive, pick them up at certain points throughout the day.
  3. Do not give out your phone number. Now I know that many freelances do give out their number to clients, and I know that this is probably controversial, but I only give my phone number if I feel that it is needed. I learnt the hard way by a condescending late night Sunday phone call.
  4. Be polite, be professional and try not to take it personally. Often boundaries are broken by clients who just do not fully understand our job, or who are panicking. Keep outside-of-boundary contact short and to the point, especially if the client needs their hand holding. Let them know that you have everything in hand.
  5. Keep your sense of humour. There are going to be times when this is vital. Some jobs just go outside of the boundaries and there is little you can do about it.

4 thoughts on “Respecting Boundaries

  1. The key thing is also to explain clearly at the start of a project what your working hours are. I have found that simply by saying when I am at my desk and when I am not, that I have never had problems with late night calls or emails arriving at odd hours. Perhaps I’m lucky to work with particularly nice people!
    Of course there are projects where you have to work at strange times to meet a deadline, but in my experience, you normally know that before you get involved.
    It’s also good to have your own personal rules to separate your work from your private life. Once I stop work, I never look at my email until the next day (I also don’t have a smart phone for this reason). I also don’t look at my email over the weekend. Sometimes it’s inevitable though, so the ideal is to have separate work and private email accounts, one thing I failed to do when I started freelancing ten years ago!

    • Aah yes, I have separate email accounts (although a few clients have my personal account due to those times when one email address fails to send for whatever reason).
      Explaining is the way to go, but I know from experience that this often goes in one ear and floats out of the other with some clients.

  2. You don’t give out your phone number? I didn’t know this was an option! (Clearly you’re much better about setting boundaries than I am.) The question of “project creep” is another matter entirely, though, isn’t it? I’ve had only a couple of occasions in which a client confused hiring me with owning me, and in both cases I invited the client for coffee so we could revisit the scope of the project in person. One of those conversations was wonderful (it was truly a question of boundaries and education, rather than ill-intent). The other? Disastrous. But that’s OK. I can at least take comfort in knowing that I tried to address the situation proactively, rather than just endure it and stew over it. And at least I’m also getting better at sussing out the clients who are likely to be “difficult” or high-maintenance! I haven’t yet mustered the fortitude to consistently turn down these jobs, but I’m getting there.

    Thank you for another wonderful post.

    • My phone number is on my invoice so should they need it, and they have paid a deposit, they will actually find it there, but I expect many clients don’t bother looking at the small print of an invoice.
      I don’t give my phone number because the one major time I had hassle it really made me aware of clients who think they own you.
      Project creep is another matter altogether, I still haven’t managed to totally figure that one out. It’s a work in progress 🙂

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