How to get freelance clients to minimize revisions

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freelance client revisionsAs freelance writers, editors, and designers, we’re well aware of how aggravating it is to deal with incremental client changes, and the file that inevitably gets named FINAL-FINAL-FINAL_version27.doc. (I’ve also discussed in the past that our own inclination to make things perfect is a form of self-inflicted scope creep.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I can’t stand to see a goof glaring back at me from a printed page that’s been released into the wild, or even an online document that will need to be repaired and re-uploaded. Mistakes need to be fixed.

But I’ve been around long enough to know that:

  1. the later you add changes,
  2. the more changes you make, and
  3. the more versions of a document you’ve seen…

…the harder it is to catch errors, and your odds of creating a new, worse error start to trace an upward-curving parabola.

It’s as much a law of physics as it is human nature—and it’s a principle you need to convey to your freelance clients and their teams.

My Most Memorable Mistake

The danger of making too many changes, too late, is a lesson I learned long before I became a freelancer. I was managing editor for a magazine that sent a last-minute “patch” to the printer to correct a typo…but in the mad rush to get the press running neither the bleary-eyed art director nor I noticed a wee issue in the final blueline proof: The printer hadn’t clipped off the bold heading that blared something to the effect of “PATCHES PAGE 14.” So, that’s exactly how 200,000-some-odd copies of the magazine read. Mona Lisa, here’s your mustache.

In consoling ourselves, we prayed the message was so cryptic that our readers didn’t think past “Hmm, that’s odd.” I felt a bit better a year or so later when my sister sent me a tearsheet of a magazine page captioned “BLOWQUOTE FROM SOME GUY GOES HERE” underneath the photo of an extraordinarily dorky-looking Some Guy, whose disappointment must have been epic.

Obviously, the web takes the sting out of many mistakes because they’re not technically permanent (outside of screen grabs). Nonetheless, I find the itch to change things up till the clock strikes 12, and then once again at 12:01, remains.

5 Ways to Minimize Revisions

There are a couple of primary ways to encourage freelance clients to minimize revisions, and they start before any creative work begins:

  1. Set expectations. Some freelancers will define a specific number of revisions within a contract or agreement, particularly for a new client; others will “work till approval.” I generally count myself in the latter camp, unless a client overuses/abuses that latitude, or I am suspicious that she might. Either way, you must have a conversation about the process: Let the client know when revisions are appropriate, how you’d like them delivered, and how you will handle them. Encourage them to make the bulk of the changes to the first version, making life easier for everyone as the project progresses. The fewer times everyone reviews something, the less chance a mistake will sneak through due to “document fatigue.” 
  2. Define a point person. On occasion, you’ll encounter freelance clients who have multiple reviewers, and therefore revisions from several sources. Save yourself the headaches: Politely request, and define in the contract if appropriate, that they or someone on their team consolidate everything. As the freelancer, you shouldn’t be the arbiter of whose comments are most or least important.
  3. Give updates. Don’t wait until the revision process has spun out of control; when you’ve gotten to round 3 and the changes are still coming in droves, give the client a call and let them know the consequences (cost increases, putting the timeline in jeopardy, etc.).
  4. Use (and explain) an estimated range. If you’re working at an hourly rate, revisions can get expensive; while that’s fine for you, it can result in an unpleasant conversation with the client. If you’ve provided a firm bid, every change eats into your profits, unless you also defined how many revisions were included and how much the extra ones cost. That’s why I believe an estimated range is the best way to price most projects if it’s an option. You can explain to the client, right up front, that “My estimate is $1200-$1500. Obviously, if we have a smoother process and keep revisions to a minimum, I can keep your price down.” That gives them an obvious incentive to be easy to work with.
  5. Adjust your approach in future projects. If you find that many of your clients abuse the revisions process, take a look in the mirror: It’s likely that you’re not setting expectations properly, or informing clients of the consequences. If you just have a specific client or two who are problems, you may want to tighten up your rules for them—there’s no need to be strict with the clients who are playing nice!

In the comments: What’s your go-to strategy for managing revisions from freelance clients? Contractual definition, personal persuasion, or something else?

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  1. says

    Hi Jake! Indeed a great piece of information you have shared. I must say that everyone should find out a mentor who talks about his mistakes and guides you how to avoid them. This is what you have talked here and I must pay my respect to you for this. Great work. It will be a great delight to hear more from you. Cheers.

  2. says

    Explaining the cost (and charging for the time) is a great idea. Is there any solution for the aggravation of that — let’s call it a noobie mistake — that clients sometimes do: tinkering with an _earlier_ draft and expecting the editor to discover their changes an implement them in the live file? We can/should still charge for our time — but the _aggravation_!

  3. Jake Poinier says

    @Adrienne: Thanks for the comment. I believe the situation you describe is all about preventive medicine.

    Once I get a file from someone, I am very clear—in writing or on the phone, maybe both if I am suspicious they might be tempted to tinker—about it being out of their hands at that point, and that they’ll have a chance to make changes to the next version. I try to put a positive or humorous spin on it, “Hey, you can leave the driving to me now. Don’t look at the file, and you don’t even need to think about it!”

    But yeah, when someone does that, it’s enough to drive ya nuts. The only thing worse than “Track Changes” is having to “Compare Documents” to find the cockroaches.