As freelance editors we’ve all been there: a prospective client has a list of things they would like you to do, and they also have a budget, and the two don’t appear to be related. So what practical steps can you take to ensure that you are paid a decent rate, and that the client is happy with the service they have received?
Usually I’d be quick to advise simply not taking on less well-paid work if you could spend the time looking for a more lucrative gig. But what I’m talking about here is not dismal, badly paid editorial grind, or outright exploitation, but rather work that needs to be approached with a bit of creativity and pragmatism to get the best out of it in terms of pay while still providing a valuable service – and it’s not the same thing at all. There are valid reasons for clients of all kinds not having unlimited budgets, and there are also valid reasons for taking on jobs that might not seem like big earners at first glance, but if tackled carefully can result in a perfectly acceptable – sometimes very good – rate. These reasons to persist might include subject matter that interests you, a longstanding client you like, a client who always pays quickly, or a job that turns up just at that moment when you have a little unexpected time to fill.
When faced with a job with a tight budget, here’s how I would approach it.
Assess the work
This is the first thing to do whatever kind of work you are offered. But with a job that seems to have a limited budget, it’s vital. On closer inspection you might conclude that the client is having a laugh in terms of what they expect for the money. On the other hand, it might become clear that the brief is realistic, and in proportion to the budget offered. Perhaps the text is already in extremely good shape. Or maybe the client is asking for a restricted service. You might even be able to advise them on exactly what they do need (and what they don’t), if they are unsure. What at first glance looks unreasonable, might not be.
Having said that the budget might turn out to be realistic, there’s always the possibility that it really isn’t. If it’s nowhere near (you suspected the client missed off a zero somewhere; turns out they didn’t), now’s the time to walk away and not look back. The hardest situations I find, though, are where I conclude that the money on offer is very nearly enough. But still not quite.
Don’t panic – work out what you would want to charge for the work, and see if you can get the client to pay the extra. If they really want you to do the job, and do it properly, the chances are they’ll be able to squeeze a bit more out of the budget.
Don’t deviate from the brief
Editors are renowned perfectionists … and it’s just possible that some clients use this fact to get away with asking too much of us for too little. If you’re working on a project with a limited budget, it’s vital for your bottom line and your sanity to focus, stick to the brief, and not do more than you are being asked to do. Don’t give the client the gold valet service if they’ve only paid for the jet wash. It’s not fair on you – and also, you might end up missing things the client feels are most important in pursuit of perfection elsewhere.
Figure out how much time you have to spend on the work, and don’t exceed this. It sounds obvious, but it’s all too easy to be seduced into going the extra mile – we are programmed to do this. As business owners we know we have to go above and beyond, and provide excellent service to ensure repeat business – but still, this doesn’t mean doing work we should be being paid for, but aren’t.
Monitor progress: break the job down into smaller chunks, and ensure as you go that you’re not taking longer than you should to reach critical milestones. If you are, you need to reassess what you are doing in order to speed up, or alert the client – if they can’t up the budget, they can decide where they would like you to concentrate your efforts.
Be particularly wary of things being added to the job after you’ve started, just as you always would. On a well-paid job it might be possible to be more relaxed about minor infractions (discuss!), but if the budget’s already tight and non-negotiable, it is simply not your responsibility to accommodate extra, unexpected work.
Evaluate your practice
Working within tight constraints (schedule or budget) can provide an excellent opportunity to evaluate your working methods. Could you work smarter? Could you do anything differently? Do you have bad habits that are slowing you down? Are you making changes that are non-essential – not in the brief, not in the house style, just matters of personal taste? (Naughty, naughty …) This is the perfect chance to assess whether you are operating in a lean, efficient way – which will pay off big time on all the jobs you do, not just the ones with restricted budgets.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008.
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