Problem Clients, Part 2: Setting Clear Boundaries and Expectations

editorial business topics

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how to define your ideal client and spot red flags. This week, I’d like to talk about the freelancer’s role in establishing clear boundaries and expectations for clients.

Setting clear boundaries and expectations is the only way to develop successful and mutually beneficial editor–client relationships. Let's take a closer look.


Boundaries are the ground rules for how you want your clients to behave. They’re the lines in the sand that let clients know:

  • When they can contact you by phone
  • What they can email you about (e.g., business-related emails only)
  • How they should treat you or speak to you (e.g., no racial slurs, no calling you “sweetie”)
  • How they should interact with your subcontractors or employees (e.g., copying you on all emails with subcontractors)

Many clients will assume that they should only contact you during normal business hours, but every now and then, a client will call at 7 p.m. and expect you to call them back immediately. This is why it’s important to establish boundaries from the beginning of your relationship with the client. Let them know that you may take up to 24 hours to respond to non-urgent emails, that you’re only accessible from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and that you prefer emails over phone calls, for instance.

Take a moment right now to think about your boundaries and jot them down on a piece of paper.

  • When and how do you prefer to be contacted?
  • What would a client need to do in order for you to fire them?
  • How do you want your clients to treat you?

Next, think about what will happen if a client crosses your boundaries. Will they get a written warning? Will you fire them? Write these procedures into your contract and make sure that new clients are aware of them. It’s a lot easier to stick to your guns when clients have known the “rules” from the beginning. It’s much harder to try to implement boundaries and procedures after a client has already crossed a line.


Expectations, on the other hand, are what a client expects from you, based on your actions, comments, and written materials (especially your contract). For example, you can set the expectation that you won’t reply to emails or calls instantly, but you will try to respond within one business day.

The most important expectations—those that affect project price and timeline—should be clearly laid out in your contract. Your contract is also great place to set expectations like:

  • How much the client can expect to pay for your services
  • How quickly you normally respond to emails
  • How much communication you provide during each stage of editing (I warn clients that I often “go quiet” while I’m copyediting their book)
  • When you’ll be able to return the finished project (be realistic!)
  • What steps are involved in the project and when each piece occurs (a.k.a. the “roadmap”)
  • How and when the client should expect to pay you (50% or 33% deposit, PayPal or check, etc.)
  • When the client is required to return cleaned-up copy or revisions
  • What happens when a project goes out of scope (additional hours are charged hourly, etc.)

Clients can get anxious when they’re not sure what’s coming next or what to expect from you. Not setting expectations for how often you communicate during a project, for example, might lead to clients sending you panicked emails wondering what chapter you’re on, how you’re progressing, and why they haven’t heard from you.

It’s your job as a professional to provide the guidance and support that your clients need to feel secure and satisfied with your work.

When your clients know what to expect from you, they’ll feel secure in paying you what you’re worth. You’ll avoid problem clients by weeding out the people who can’t respect your boundaries, and you’ll attract and retain clients who are a pleasure to work with. And that’s what all editorial business owners want, right?

Part 3 of this series will give you the tools you need (including a free email script!) to fire that client who’s been pushing your boundaries and driving you up the wall.


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