Are You Striking a Balance Between a Serious Writing Business and a Generous Spirit?

I landed a new commercial writing client some time back – a graphic designer a few states away who’d found me via the web. His freelance copywriter had walked out the prior week and he was stuck with some looming deadlines – one just 24 hours away.

When I gave him a quote (with a 20% additional rush charge) for the hot job – two concepts for a direct mail postcard (front-side headline and reverse-side sub-head and body copy), it was obviously more than he’d hoped for.

He started thinking out loud on the phone, finally concluding that, with 24 hours till showtime, he was nervous about entrusting the project to an unproven (to him) commercial copywriter, and risking his deadline with a good client.

His solution: he’d concept the headline and I’d do the back cover copy. I’d start on my part and could adjust the tone to fit the concept he’d send me the following morning. Fair enough.

After we got off the phone, my mind just started working on the uncontracted headline portion. Not wise, but I couldn’t help myself. This kind of work is like a game to me – BIG fun. I spent no more than 30 minutes at it, but came up with a few pretty good ideas.

A few minutes later, he called about something else, and at the end of the call, I explained what I’d done, adding, “If you decide to use one of them, technically, you don’t owe me anything, but rather than be stingy, I’ll share and let the chips fall where they may.”

Well, turns out he loved one of them saying, “I know a good headline when I see one,” and then asking, “If I were to use it, what would you charge? I don’t believe in people working for free.” Do you love this guy or what?

My reply: “You already know what I’d normally get (important to establish your regular rates if you ARE going to take this approach), but in this case, if you want to throw me an extra $100-150, I’m happy.” Him: “I’ll absolutely pay you $150.”

Okay, so what that I didn’t get my usual commercial freelancing rate? I wasn’t going to anyway on this job. I got $150 extra for 30 minutes work and came up with a great headline that allowed him to spend his evening with his family, not holed up in his study, concepting headlines.

I made a great first impression, establishing myself as a talented and generous writer who thinks like he does, and can come through in the clutch.

Some may say, “Tsk. Tsk. You set a bad precedent.” I disagree. He acknowledged that a headline would normally be worth far more, and in the future, we’ll come to a number that’ll work for both of us, (or, I suppose, we won’t). Either way I’m not concerned.

I’m not suggesting you always play the “give-it-away-for-peanuts” game; in this case, it just made sense to do it. I AM suggesting that, as long as the client knows what your normal rates are, you come from a place of generosity and abundance.

And by coming through on no notice, he starts seeing why I charge what I do. I gave a little, got a fair return, ended up looking really good in his eyes, and nicely set the stage and his expectations (both work- and money-wise) for future work. Win-win.

As I see it, as commercial freelancers, we need to strike a balance between expecting to be paid well for our skills, and having a little elasticity in that policy. Certainly, if you could only be one way or the other, the former is clearly better than the latter.

Too much of the latter isn’t good for building respect on the part of your clients, nor cultivating the internal variety. But, if you do too much of the first, taking, say, a “I-don’t-pick-up-a-pen-for-less-than-$500” approach, being a commercial freelancer becomes largely a clinical and left-brain exercise.

Allow yourself to have your moments of spontaneous, unscripted generosity, minus the fee minimums and clock-watching. They’ll make doing this job of ours more fun and joyful, you’ll build stronger, more enduring relationships, and (as I was able to do here), they can clearly convey why you deserve to be well paid.

Have you had a similar scenario?

If so, how did it unfold and where did it lead?

Do you watch the clock closely or are you less manic about time?

Where have you drawn that line between running a serious business and having a little flexibility in your time policy?

(NOTE: I was serious about loving the short-copy stuff: taglines, company/product naming, headlines, book titles, etc. If you run across such work, and it’s not your thing, think of me (and I’m happy to pay a finder’s fee). Samples here, then “Naming/Taglines & Slogans…” And here for book titles…).

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11 replies
  1. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    Love that Take your dreams off the shelf. 🙂 I love branding and taglines, too, but you’re probably secure enough from me, Peter. 😀

    Love your story. It’s always challenging when it is a new customer since you really don’t know them. I have used a similar approach with existing clients, but’s that’s easier because there’s a trust built there.

    Once I was reading a post in a LinkedIn group and an HR person was starting up a wellness program and was looking for a branded name for it. I came up with one based on the company name, which she (and several group members) loved.

    Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, their company was acquired so out went my brilliance. 🙂 However, it did generate a new client from a group member who saw it and liked it. So, a roundabout way of getting to your point, Peter.

    My favorite client relationship is one based on trust where we often swap favors. I hate clock-watching, so if I could clone her, I would..

  2. Katherine Andes
    Katherine Andes says:

    I like how you handled that, Peter. It was human. I would rather err on the side of “being taken advantage of.” You threw the guy a bone. Lots of people have thrown me bones from time to time, including you. And I always appreciate it!

  3. Star
    Star says:

    I might do what you did just because I had already been playing with it. But I get shirty when someone SAYS could you just send me a sample titled so-and-so so I can see if you can write–or if similar hoops are placed before me. I saw an ad the other day that said send your best blog post, then send one by someone else you like better so we can see the sort of writing you aspire to. What? This made me feel tired and cranky and I tossed it.

  4. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks all, for your thoughts!

    Thanks, Cathy, for the kudos on “Take your dreams off the shelf…” (tagline for the Atlanta Public Library System that I came up with a few years back). A friend of mine said she saw the tag as part of a larger billboard on the side of bus a few weeks back, and didn’t have her camera phone with her, or she’d have taken a picture…;) That would’ve been a cool thing…

    And Cathy, isn’t that how it often goes. We do good work, some players on our client’s side love it, then big new company comes in and sanitizes any creativity away. Seen it happen way too often.

    I’m with you, Kathi: I, too, would rather get taken advantage of from time to time, than always play my cards too close. Besides, in this case, I love this kind of work, so it didn’t even seem like work! And once I came up with a few I knew were good, there was ego involved: will they think they’re great as well? 😉

    And yes, Star, it’s all about the sequence. I don’t do “auditions.” As for the ad you saw, how LAME! Idiots. I know, let’s turn it into a big game, and in this day and age, there are only too many people willing to “play” for nothing! Great idea… :p


  5. Peter Wise
    Peter Wise says:

    I’d have done the same thing Peter, and I’m really glad it worked out well. In fact I think I couldn’t not have suggested a headline or two when writing a piece of copy….just the way I’m wired. I think building in little extra like these, marketing suggestions, tips of the trade etc is definitely the way to go, not just adding some value but proving your value.

  6. Lori
    Lori says:

    Peter, great story! You make a super point about being flexible as a business owner. People don’t fit into specific molds — clients won’t, either.

    I have had similar situations. My article assignments are usually a set number of words, but I can’t help but get excited about the topic. That results in sidebars or charts — an editor’s best friend! They love visuals to break up all that text.

    More recently I worked with a client on a website revision. He wanted more keywords. However, I noticed the copy was just plain awful. I ended up rewriting the whole site and giving him suggestions on where to place the pages and content. I was in there anyway working, so why not give him something much more valuable than just keywords? It cost me nothing other than maybe a half hour of extra work, which he wasn’t charged for. He loved the result. I earned additional work for his blog and a key referral — he’s connected all through the industry.

    I watch the clock when the client watches the clock. I hit the project timer and let it tick away so I can concentrate on what I’m doing. I don’t like working within timed parameters because I feel the client’s eyes and potential complaints looming. The only thing I’m manic about is deadlines — I haven’t missed one and I don’t intend to start!

    I think the line between that serious business and flexibility is grayer and thinner than we think. Serious business people do what they can to impress clients and deliver value. That includes being flexible when you can and when it’s not the result of someone taking advantage.

  7. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Yes, Peter, if one’s mind works as both of ours apparently do, coming up with headlines for even general copywriting projects is just a natural and inevitable by-product of the process. And they certainly aren’t making any money for us sitting up there between our ears…;)

    Thanks Lori, for your always-welcome contributions… What I guess we’re really talking about here is, in many ways, the garden-variety “value-add” that has our client sit up and realize that he or she isn’t dealing with their everyday “vendor,” but a partner who makes their business, their business…;)

    And when you can do that, you subtly but inexorably move the client into the position of not wanting to go anywhere else. Why? Because not only do they get a good job in what they hired you to do, but they always get something extra – and always useful. As such, why would they go anywhere else?

    No, no client relationships are forever, and don’t believe anyone who tells you they are, but taking actions like the ones being discussed here keep clients from having a roaming eye (always on the lookout for better resources) longer.


  8. Kevin Walsh
    Kevin Walsh says:

    It’s a karma thing, isn’t it?

    And the great thing is that you can’t lose in the long term, even if you do in the short term. Knowing you did the right thing, and adopted a position of trust rather than suspicion, gives you a warm fuzzy feeling (and a smidgin of smugness, if I’m perfectly honest) that lasts a lot longer than any bad taste.

    Nobody wants to be taken advantage of, but imagining it’s going to happen at every turn is mentally exhausting. Better to save that energy for when (if) it does happen, and even then, it’s not worth dwelling on.

    I’ve also found that a good turn often takes a long while to pay you back, and it sometimes does in the most unexpected ways (returning clients, referrals).

    It’s not always easy to adopt a default position of trust in business, but in my opinion, it’s definitely worth the effort.


  9. Laura Purdie Salas
    Laura Purdie Salas says:

    Great post! I think this influences lots of areas of work. As a poet, even though I’m traditionally published as well, I do end up sharing poems I write online, knowing that that makes them much harder if not impossible to place/sell elsewhere. But I think it’s great to come from a place of abundance. Assume there will always be another poem to come, another headline/book title, etc. Giving away our work (occasionally) can result in great relationships and unexpected bonuses.

  10. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    I agree, Kevin and Laura – you can’t lose in the long run. I say people can sense a generous spirit (after all, they can certainly sense the opposite!) and will reward that.

    Not to mention this… Not trying to get all woo-woo here, but I absolutely believe in the flow of energy – both positive and negative. If you release positive “giving” energy, it fosters more of it. I don’t know HOW it works, but I know it DOES work.

    And thanks for the idea, Kathi. I will absolutely put it in the mix… What specifically was interesting to you about it? And feel free to just contact me directly at


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