When my old dog was more social and energetic, we loved taking her to the dog park. She was a terrier-mix-mutt, and she loved sniffing around the various structures, chasing other dogs (or getting chased), and saying hello to the other pet owners. During my graduate school years, I took her to the dog park every single week. I would take my study materials and review while she played. In all of those many visits, I never once worried about her. The dog park was surrounded by a fence. Another fence divided the park down the middle, with the big dogs on one side and the little dogs on the other.
Sometimes we associate fences with limitations. But there’s something so freeing about knowing you’re in a safe space. When we’re surrounded by fences, we know where we can play and where we can’t. We don’t have to worry that we’ll stray too far and find ourselves in the middle of a busy street. We can frolic and sniff as much as we want without fear of roughhousing or aggression.
The fences at the dog park are a lot like boundaries. When we think of them out of context, they can seem cold and limiting. But in reality, a world without boundaries is an unfamiliar and scary place.
Freelance writers and editors need boundaries more than anyone. In our work, boundaries are absolutely crucial to maintaining a happy, healthy working environment for us and our clients. They’re absolutely essential to delivering the best final product to our clients.
Below are the three must-have boundaries for a happy, productive freelancing career.
1. Work Hours
Nobody is happiest when they’re working twenty hours a day. And yet, so many freelance editors fall into this trap.
You pick up your phone in the morning to find two new client requests, one follow-up from a current client, and a quick email from an author you worked with months ago. With a jolt of electricity, you grab your computer to reply.
An hour later, you start copyediting a book. Then you’ve gotta write some social media posts. A few more client emails roll in. You break for dinner. Then a client texts you (more on this later)—oops, you made a mistake on that document you sent yesterday—so you spring back to action to correct the error and return the manuscript. And that other client wanted their blog post back by tomorrow. It’s nagging at you, so you might as well just write it…
Before you know it, you’ve worked all day and all night. You fall back into bed exhausted, only to start all over tomorrow.
If this sounds at all familiar, you need time boundaries.
I start working around 8am and end at 5pm, with two hour-long breaks to eat and take a walk. On weekends, I don’t work at all—including email.
A 9-to-5 might not work for you, and that’s fine. Maybe you’re happier if you spend a few hours in the morning on the business side, take the day off, then write into the evening hours to finish up your contracted work. Maybe you prefer to start work at 2 or 3 in the afternoon and shut down show late at night.
Work whichever hours you like. But set your hours. Then stick to them. Relentlessly. No email, no phone calls, no client writing, no work at all outside of your regular business hours.
2. Communication Channels
One client likes to text. Another prefers to talk on the phone. Three others want to Zoom. Plus you’ve got a million emails, Facebook DMs, LinkedIn Mail messages, and the carrier pigeon just dropped off a revision request at your front door.
No wonder you feel overwhelmed.
When communication comes in so many forms, it’s impossible to stay organized. Things inevitably get lost in the shuffle, which leads to more messages. Before you know it, you’re spending more time organizing your various messages than you are actually serving clients.
A lack of communication channels can make you feel like your business is a house of cards.
But remember—it’s your business. Clients depend on you to guide them through their projects, and that includes communication. And when clients are communicating in a million different ways, you can’t do your best work.
Each new client who comes to my business gets a PDF with clear boundaries about communication channels (among other things). Here’s what the “Communication” section says:
- Please feel free to email us with any questions. If we can answer clearly in a reply, we’ll do so within two business days. For more complex answers, we may reply to confirm that we’ve added the question to our next meeting agenda.
- Email also works well for brief notes or quick clarifications about your project’s content. However, if you find your message expanding to more than a paragraph or two, it may be worth saving the comment for our next meeting. That way, we can collaborate to incorporate the new information in a way that meets industry standards. Please refrain from sending more than two emails at a time—multiple threads typically create more confusion than clarity.
- Our clients are of the utmost importance to us, but we also value our family and personal time. Therefore, we will not return calls or emails in the evenings, on weekends, or during holidays.
I’ve never had a client object to any of this and, by setting these expectations up front, I know I’m leading them toward the best possible version of the project. Sure, I could put up with rapid-fire messaging—one email per point—detailing every change the client wants to see in their project. In fact, I’ve done that in the past. But you know what I learned? When requests come in that way, I’m much more likely to miss one.
My clients didn’t want that and neither do yours.
So help them understand the best way to communicate. It’s for their own good and the good of the project.
3. After Service
We all know we need to set clear boundaries around the work we will and will not do. If a client wants a fourth round of revision but your contract only allows three, you send them a change order and an invoice, right? Right??
Yes. Of course.
But what happens after the work period ends? How much support are you willing to give as they move their project from one stage to the next?
As a ghostwriter, I’ve seen how a lack boundaries can lead to endless work. I would wrap up a book project and send the author off to query. Then I’d hear back.
“Bummer, another rejection,” the author would write.
“Shoot,” I’d respond. “Don’t give up!”
A week later, I’d get another message. “OMG, they want a partial!”
“Woohoo!” I’d reply.
I never minded replying to these brief messages…until the inevitable next message.
“Hey, I’m not sure what comes next,” a former client would write. “Can we talk real quick?”
Reader, I’m sure you’re wiser than I was when I started down this path. I’m sure you would reply with, “Yes, of course! Here’s a link to book a paid call!”
But I did not do that, at least not early in my freelancing career. Instead, I’d agree to just one phone call, just one coffee meeting, or just a couple (or fifteen) quick emails. Before I knew it, I found myself resenting former clients. And all that time on free calls and emails meant I had less time to market my business and bring in paying clients.
I needed a boundary around the end of service.
This one’s the simplest of all. All I had to do was decide what my policy would be and stick to it. For me, the most natural process was this:
The first time a former client asks a question (celebrations are always free!), I reply with the answer and a link to the sales page for my query coaching service.
In most cases, people are grateful that the service exists and they’re happy to pay me for my time. Not everyone purchases, but nobody has ever been upset or angry that I wouldn’t work for free.
Building Your Fence
Many freelancers are used to accommodating others at their own expense. It just comes with the territory.
But here’s the thing—our clients want us to do our best work. They don’t need us to be their friends. They don’t need us to be their mothers. And they certainly don’t need us to be a 24-hour drive-through.
Ultimately, our clients look to us for leadership. They don’t know how to do this job, and they don’t know what we need to do it well. That’s why they hire us in the first place.
Boundaries are one way we step up to lead them to an excellent finished project.
If I had taken my dog to a park without a fence, I would never have let her run free. I would have been on constant guard to make sure she didn’t run into traffic or get into a fight with a bigger dog. Back then, the fences allowed me to relax. And when I relaxed, I was able to get some good studying done!
The same is true in our businesses. If we let time, communication, and service get out of control—if we fail to put up fences for our clients’ and our own protection—we burn out. We can’t do our best work. We’re miserable. Our families get grumpy. And the cycle of negativity drains our energy, joy, and focus.
Setting boundaries can be scary, particularly if you’ve never done it before. But I promise, once you do, you’ll rediscover the joy of running free in your career.