Red Flags

I know a lot of writers and visit a lot of online writing communities, and lately I’ve seen an uptick in the number of people complaining about taking on work that has proven to be a huge pain in the ass (PITA).


Partly this is because of the economy – publishers are taking longer to pay, editors and editorial committees are taking longer to approve projects, writers are taking on projects they might not have a year ago because their bank balances are getting a bit thin. 


But partly – possibly even mostly – this is because writers aren’t vetting their “clients” carefully (whether that’s a corporate client, a magazine editor or a book publisher). 


Here’s the thing: desperation is bad enough in dating, but it’s deadly in business.  If you’re desperate, you’re not going to make the best decisions.  We talk about this in martial arts training: you have to have a clear mind to take the correct action.  Desperation (and its buddies, fear and panic) prevent you from having a clear mind and making good decisions.


If you feel desperate to take on a project because this month’s rent is due, and you overlook the five red flags as well as the warning siren, and you take on the job anyway, only to abandon it half-way through because your client is psychotic, or you do the job and the client never pays you, how has that helped you pay the rent?


Now, I understand that the rent has to be paid.  Mine comes due the first of every month, too.  But I make a distinction between taking on work that I don’t love in order to pay the rent, and ignoring red flags.  Let’s face it: sometimes you just have to suck it up and write another employee manual even though they make your eyes glaze over and your brain go numb.  That’s part of being a grown-up: doing what has to be done.  (That is also, in fact, part of being a kid.  But I digress.)


Red flags are those warning signals that indicate this project is not going to work out well for you.  (That does not mean it won’t work out well for someone else; that’s the confusing thing about red flags.)  I have never had a project that started out badly turn out well, so I’m ever-vigilant about what happens at the very beginning of a project.


I ask myself these questions:


Have I ever heard of this person, company or organization?  If I Google them, what shows up?  What do other colleagues have to say about working with this client? 

Am I supposed to do things another service provider (for example, a plumber) would never do? Such as write a piece without a clear understanding of the compensation?


Is the pay reasonable, or am I supposed to be thrilled with the “exposure”?


If I’ve worked with this client before, what were the results?  Could any problems or snags have been avoided? 


Are the people I’ll be working with professional in their dealings with me – fairly prompt in returning emails and phone calls, forthcoming with the information I need?  Or do I have to pry everything out of them with a crowbar and a blowtorch?


Is it being assumed that I’m a professional, or am I supposed to jump through asinine hoops to “prove” myself to someone?  (I don’t mean things like writing a professional pitch letter, providing a well-written resume, or highlighting what areas of my experience match the client’s needs.  I mean the fifty-two e-mails and seventeen phone calls required just to establish that I’m in the running.)


Is the work similar to other work I’ve done, or, if it’s a stretch, is it a reasonable one?  I write a lot of self-help and how-to material.  It would be reasonable to assume that I could do a profile of a famous martial artist without risking abject failure, but it would not be reasonable to assume I could do an in-depth expose on human trafficking in developing countries.  Not without doing a lot of other things first.


What are the red flags you look for?

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