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How Freelancers Can Fight Scope Creep

By Susan Johnston Taylor February 26th, 2016

Have you ever had a project evolve into something much bigger than what was originally agreed to? There’s a name for that: scope creep. I can pretty much guarantee that every freelancer (and full-time employee for that matter) has experienced it.

This isn’t much of a problem for salaried employees since they’re getting paid no matter what. It is huge problem for freelancers, however, since their pay doesn’t automatically scale up alongside a project’s scope.

I’ve run into scope creep too many times to count. One example: I quoted a flat rate for a client based on phone and email communications, and as soon as she’d signed the scope of work, she wanted to meet and discuss the project over leisurely lunches. Another time, a 250-word assignment for the front-of-book section of a magazine evolved into a multi-expert odyssey that tripled the original word count—all for no additional pay.

With experience, I’ve learned to anticipate some of these requests and plan accordingly. Here’s a look at strategies I and other veteran freelancers use to prevent and handle scope creep.

Set expectations upfront

First thing’s first: Ask for or draft a contract. If the assignment is for a significant amount of money or requires a large investment of your time, this is a good idea.

If you did sign a contract with your client, it should include a word count and other information in the “scope of work” section. But it’s also smart to further define the scope before you start writing, especially the first time you work with a client.

“If it’s a new client, I’ll usually say, ‘I’m planning on talking with X number of people,'” said Baltimore-based writer Michele “Wojo” Wojciechowski.

If it’s a profile, for instance, does the editor expect you to focus on the subject or also include quotes from childhood friends, mentors, and family members? Are you expected to source photos, or will the art department handle that? Knowing these details from the beginning can help you decide if the scope fits the agreed upon fee.

Also define exactly what the story will cover, keeping in mind that it may evolve as your reporting progresses. A broad or loosely defined topic may require you to write beyond the originally assigned word count to answer an editor’s follow-up questions, only to be edited back down to the original length. But if you agree to a specific focus that fits within the assigned word count, you’re less likely to run into this issue.

In other words, keep your stories specific, granular, and well defined from the start—something you should probably be doing anyway—if you want to decrease the likelihood of scope creep.

Give the client options

Extra story components like charts and sidebars should be part of the original story discussion. But sometimes, it’ll come up later when an editor finds extra space in the magazine.

When that happens, Hawaii-based freelance writer Ilima Loomis responds with something like this: “I love the idea for this sidebar and I’d be happy to do it! Would you like to shorten the main story to keep the total word count the same, or bump up my fee by TK amount to reflect a longer word count?”

That “either/or” approach puts the ball in the client’s court, and Loomis says she’s never had a client object.

Kristen Fischer, New Jersey-based freelancer and author of When Talent Isn’t Enough, has a different response ready when her copywriting clients ask for work that extends well beyond the original scope: “This is outside of what we agreed to, but I’m happy to do this for an hourly rate.”

That also lets the client decide if the additional work is important enough to justify more money.

Weigh the hassle factor against the fee and byline

Some publications simply have a cumbersome revision process or require writers to do lots of ancillary tasks (such as sourcing and resizing photos, crafting tweets, adding meta descriptions, and so on), and it’s up to you to decide if the hassle factor is worth the money.

Loomis points to one client who wanted her to cover a highly technical subject in 300 words. The editor asked tons of questions during the editing process and few of the answers made it into the final piece.

“I kind of got the feeling that they just need to know that I knew the answers to those questions,” she said.

However, it was a large publication with good pay rates, so Loomis decided that the pay rate justified the revision process. When the money isn’t enough to justify the time investment, you might finish out the assignment and then stop pitching that editor. Or you could try to negotiate more money for future assignments.

Consider going the extra mile for a great client

Many writers bend over backwards to please a wishy-washy or indecisive clients, a flexibility that’s rare in other professions.

“If I hire somebody to paint my office green and I hate it, I have to pay them to paint it purple if I’ve changed my mind,” Wojciechowski said. “If the editor has changed his or her mind, that is beyond the scope. This isn’t what we talked about. As a result, I would expect additional compensation.”

However, Wojciechowski will make allowances for “a long-time client who has provided me with good work and good pay and a good working experience.”

Fischer has a similar attitude.

“Generally, I really try to never let somebody get an extra hour or more of unpaid work out of me,” she said. “But if we’ve been getting along great and it’s going to lead to a great clip or testimonial, I will go the extra mile for somebody.”

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