Blog | Mar 23, 2012 | 6 Comments

[project purgatory]

Despite having what started as firm, and even rushed, schedules, several of my recent projects have drifted into a sort of purgatory. (Or do I mean limbo?) Is there really a double standard for freelancers and clients when it comes to deadlines?

The short answer is “yes.”

I always expect to be held accountable for deadlines. I ask for a schedule up-front. If one isn’t available, I ask for an end-date and try to work out my own milestones. I used to think that my ability to meet deadlines was something that clients prized above all else. But that world-view is changing, fast.

Flexibility seems to be more important than meeting deadlines.

The truth is that many, if not most, of my clients don’t meet their deadlines. It’s not for lack of trying. These are dedicated, accountable, and professional people. What is working against their ability to stick to a schedule?

The obvious reason is that they are over-worked and have too many projects to run. Also, the pace of business (for-profit or non-profit) has picked up, and things tend to change faster and more often. And I’ve noticed a tendency to seek wider consensus, as if people are more tentative about decision-making. Have you noticed this? I’ve had to deal with more eleventh-hour comments—and even complete redirects—from previously uninvolved people than ever before.

The worst case, however, is when there is NO end date.

I actually don’t like to hear, “Let’s just get this done whenever we can,” or, “Why don’t we just shoot for (some date not tied to any other event).”  Everyone should have a calendar of marketing activities on which every project has a place.  Also, projects that are not on a schedule tend to drag on and on. For a freelancer, than means a longer period with little or no pay, because most of us bill from 50-100% upon completion. Extended schedules are a cash flow nightmare.

What’s a freelancer to do?

Excellent client service is still the prime directive. I have to stay flexible and keep a good attitude. It also helps to believe that every change or redirect happens for a good reason—that even a comment out of left field can prompt some good thinking that will improve the outcome.

But from a business perspective, I also have to know when to say “enough is enough.”

I’ve done it rarely, but I always keep this possibility open—I can stop the project, ask for fair pay for the work done to date, and ask the client to re-assess the need and come back to me when he or she is ready to start over or start again.

What’s your thinking, or recent experience, on keeping schedules?

Author: Claire Wagner

I'm a seasoned freelance writer/editor and an enthusiastic community manager. I'm passionate about developing and sharing good content.


If it weren’t for my writing schedule I’d die! LOL At least my book would die, because there always seems to be more research I can do, more people to interview, and other, more urgent things I can tend to, rather than sit down and grapple with this thorny, exciting issue.

My book editor gave me a schedule right up front and I’m overjoyed to have it!

From your perspective, I like your last resort option. A woman’s got to get paid!

As always, thanks for writing top notch, informative and inspiring posts!!


Claire Wagner Reply:

So glad you are following the schedule since I’m planning to celebrate the launch of the book in the fall! ;D


Oh my, project purgatory! Yes, I’ve experienced that quite a bit. The only thing you can do is make it the client’s problem, not yours.

Because I work on a project basis, I’ve learned to build in timelines to my billing – I’ll invoice when the project is complete or within 2/3 weeks of delivering a first draft, whichever comes first (and put that date on the proposal). It doesn’t cover everything – I might let some things slide – but then it’s my choice. I’m still available to make changes after I’ve invoiced, but at least that solves the cash flow problem.

I also include a fixed number of revision cycles — if the project requires more revisions, then it’s an additional cost. Sometimes having the deadline and structure from you can help the client prioritize and get buy-in earlier in the process – and it’s better for everyone involved.


Claire Wagner Reply:

I like your ideas, Anne. I always propose a fixed number of revision cycles unless I’m working by the hour and it’s open-ended, but most of my clients have paid at completion in the past. I’m re-thinking that now. I agree that your approach is better for everyone involved.


Michael Foreman Reply:

I have a system similar to Anne’s, and it’s worked pretty well for me. If I don’t receive approval or edits on a draft within a particular time frame, I invoice. It’s written into my terms of service. Of course I opt for communication first, but it doesn’t always work.

For instance, one client would have the work printed / published / distributed and forgotten long before I knew the project was complete. But they’d rarely return emails when I asked about the status. Yes, they’re probably busy, but we all have businesses to run.

I’m flexible, but I crave deadlines.


Claire Wagner Reply:

Michael, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had no idea when a project was finished. Clients would just take the last draft and disappear… Thanks so much for sharing your tactics.


Anne Janzer


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