Problem Clients, Part 1: How to Define Your Ideal Client

editorial business topics

Potential problem clients are everywhere—just think back to the last person you saw being rude to a flight attendant, for example. Some people are inherently demanding, aggressive, unfair, and inconsiderate, and as freelance editors, we can usually spot those individuals immediately and steer clear.

But what about the client who seemed okay until a month into their editing project, when they started emailing you constantly and wasting your valuable time? These problem clients are more difficult to anticipate, and as much as we like to think, “It’s them, not me,” the problem might stem from the way you run your freelance editing business and the types of clients you’ve been accepting.


Have you been noticing a pattern of bad behavior in your clients, or are you unhappy with the types of projects you’ve been working on? (For our purposes in this section, clients and projects are more or less interchangeable.) If so, it might be time to re-evaluate what your ideal client looks like. This involves:

  • Narrowing down the types of projects you love.
  • Noting which projects and clients are the most lucrative for you.
  • Thinking about your favorite clients on an interpersonal level: how do they treat you? What do you like about them?


First, let’s figure out what types of projects are a good fit for you. I like to use a standard XY axis for this (I call it the Love/Hate Scale):

Take a moment to draw this axis on a piece of scrap paper. Next, plot out your projects from the past six months in each quadrant.

The projects and clients in the “Hate It/$” quadrant—the low-value, time-consuming ones—are what you should focus on paring down. The projects and clients in the “Love It/$$$” are the ones you should strive to increase. If a client fits into the “Love It/$” quadrant, meaning that you love the work but the pay is lower than you’d like, it’s time to evaluate whether or not you get enough enjoyment out of the work to make the low pay worth it.


Once you’ve plotted everything out and have an idea of a) which projects and clients you love and b) which are the most lucrative, it’s time to delve deeper into the characteristics of your favorite clients on an interpersonal level:

  1. Who are they? (Self-publishing writers, book packagers, academic presses, corporations?)
  2. What type of projects do they need help with?
  3. What stage are they at in their work when they approach you?
  4. What are three adjectives that describe them? (For example, they’re polite, understanding, and respectful.)
  5. Why do you like working with them? (They appreciate your work, they have a great sense of humor, they send you chocolate every year for the holidays, etc.)


Take a moment to review your list of qualities. These are what make up your ideal client on a personal level, and now that you have everything written down, you can keep these qualities top of mind and watch for red flags when vetting potential clients.

For example, if you know that you prefer to communicate by email and a potential client insists on only talking over the phone, this would be a red flag and a possible sign that the client isn’t a good match for your preferred work style.


Once you’ve pinpointed the types of projects you want to pursue and have defined the interpersonal qualities you look for in your ideal clients, remember that the “it’s not me, it’s you” excuse is rarely true when a new client morphs into a fire-breathing barracuda.

Setting clear boundaries and expectations is also key for developing successful client relationships—part 2 of this series goes into exactly how to do this.


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