Handling a problem client

I recently finished editing work on an author's first draft of their first novel. It had the standard issues that one expects from a first draft of a first novel (voice, plot, and characterization all needed work).

I wrote up and sent my notes with suggestions for how the author might improve the issues. Their response to my notes can only be described as a temper tantrum. The author lashed out at me, insulting my work and me personally, and made me feel threatened for doing the job they hired me to do.

Strong reactions to criticism aren't unheard of with early drafts of first novels—most authors see the novel as their baby and a reflection of themselves, and many want praise instead of constructive criticism—but the vitriol this client gave me is something I have never encountered in my professional career.

Outside of never working with this client again, what steps should I take now? Is there a way for me to warn other freelancers about this client's abusive behavior? Is there anything I should do to protect my professional reputation?

I appreciate any feedback on this.

  • This comment has been removed with a light and loving touch.

  • Did you ever hear the one about:
    Q) How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A) None. They don't think it needs changing!
    Probably the best course of action, if you haven't done it already, is to remind the client that they/the publisher hired you because they trust your judgrment. Remind the client that there is no reason to take the changes personally, but that you were just doing the job you were hired to do and if that doesn't meet the clients needs, you are more than happy to go back to the work that you do for other people.
    I had a writer get in touch with me recently that I hadn't heard from for almost twenty years. He couldn't understand why we never completed his project. His memory was that I lost interest. I reminded him that every time I made any changes, he would go on the attack and accuse me of trying to subvert his work. I reminded him that that was the reason I lost interest and moved on. He got quiet and then said,"Oh yeah, I guess I've remembered it wrong all these years". He wanted to know if we could get together and talk about working on the script, since it never moved forward. I said Tha I appreciated his contrition (not apology), I had plenty of things on my plate. I wished him well and moved on.
    I don't know if this helps at all, but it was fun sharing this story. Good luck with this client and others like them. It's never easy. Especially when it turns into personal attacks. Just don't you take it personal. You're the professional.

  • Here's my take, but don't listen to a word I say. If something I say resonates with you, please do check it out for yourself! <--This is "my" caveat that I use on my clients, and it works really well to drop people's defenses and then they open up, like magic.

    The standard scenario before something like what happened to you happens, looks like the following:

    1. There were red flags before you were hired by this client, but they were ignored.

    2. The red flags could prompt us to enforce stronger, up-front boundaries, which would save us from working for problem personalities by the client not hiring us, or we might get lucky and they hire us and respect our boundaries. This latter rarely happens in cases of early red flags.

    3. The red flags could be respected as the warnings that they are, and we could withdraw our bid and move on to a less problematic client.

    Inevitably, situations like this are good reason to read up on what professional and personal boundaries look like. In essence, boundaries are a personal and/or professional set of rules and regulations that are decided upon and documented *ahead of time*, which makes for easy implementation should that be needed, but more importantly, work to our benefit by filtering out the kind of clients we don't want to work for.

    Also inevitably, we have a hard time saying no to paid work. This, too, is a good subject to study, and it will lead right back to having formal boundaries.

    It takes time to figure out what our boundary limits are. The most common way is to learn the hard way, unfortunately. The best way is to know your worth, beyond a shadow of a doubt, and then boundaries are easy to implement, because you respect yourself too much to ever ignore red flags.

  • Well said. I just learned something today, too. Thanks

  • Thanks, Paula and Bruce! I really appreciate your advice on this. I know that this is more about them and their ability to handle criticism than it is about me or the work I've done, and I will remain professional until their invoice has been paid—at which point, I will walk away.

    I did set boundaries in my contract with them, but I also never expected a situation like this to arise, so there were no boundaries about abusive behavior included. The client offered me no initial red flags either: they were polite and professional in all of our initial dealings. The only red flags came after we agreed to work together, once I began reading their work—you learn a lot about an author when you start reading what they've written. I was hopeful that those red flags were merely storytelling instead of personality, especially given how professional the author had been in all of our dealings, but that clearly wasn't the case.

    I do agree: I absolutely need to add additional clauses to my contract to enforce boundaries, and I need to add additional screening before I take on clients to reduce the risk that something like this might happen again. Learning the hard way! Do you have any resource recommendations for me to look into?

    Thank you again! It's so wonderful to have a supportive community that's been through similar issues and can offer solid advice for how to move forward.

  • Hm...What about asking potential clients for a sample of their writing, ahead of time? That way, you not only can get a read on them, but if what they submit after you've contracted the work doesn't come close to the sample they submitted, you'd have a negotiable position should anything go wrong.

    As for resources ... my current field is very different, but I'm moving into the writing field. I learned a little from trade/business magazines, but picked up some of my best (boundary) tips from snooping the websites of others in my field, both newcomers and old pros, noting what I liked and disliked and incorporating new ideas that way. In the end, I had something pretty well-encompassing and now other pros (again, in my field) borrow/copy from me - which is fine by me.

  • These are both such great ideas! On the sample, I'm thinking first and last chapters, maybe? (Spoilers don't matter much to me.) I'll have to play with it a bit, see what produces a true sample. With the resources, I like that you include both experienced and less experienced professionals—both will have good insights, and there's no question that much of my learning came early in my career.

    Thank you!

  • You are welcome, and good luck to you, but I doubt you'll need luck. You have a good attitude and you aren't afraid of asking for help. Kudos.

  • Samples are a great idea. You might also consider one further step: When you've read a sample chapter or two, send the author a brief (but very honest) assessment. You don't have to give away the store, as it were; just enough (and sufficiently blunt) commentary to give the author an idea of what it will be like working with you. The response you get should give you an idea of what it will be like working with the author! Another thing you might try (and this is something it took me a long time to learn): ask, "How will I know when you think I've succeeded?" If you get answers equivalent to "I'll feel better about myself and my writing," run for your life.

  • Great ideas, Erika! I'm going to add both of those to my "best practices." There are definitely lots of writers out there who are just looking for validation of their genius, and that's not a good reason to hire an editor.

    Thank you!

  • I do a sample edit of 3-5 pages for a book-length manuscript free of charge. That way they can see my work up front. I don't know if that would work for a novel.

  • It does work for a novel. And it helps both sides - I turned down one editor because she basically *hated* my voice and we both knew it was not going to work. Editing somebody's novel is deeply personal. If you don't like the aesthetic aspects of their work, you should not be trying to work with them.

    That said, anyone who can't take criticism they have asked for needs to go work on their thick skin before trying to submit or publish fiction, because trust somebody who's been doing it for years, you WILL get rejections and you WILL get criticism, some of it nasty.

    So, this author needs to work on taking criticism. Big time.

    Problem clients are an occupational hazard (I won't go into my worst one in case they show up here), though...and you sometimes need to just move on. Warning people about them is likely to make you look bad. So, just...don't work for them again and keep looking for better clients.

  • This comment has been removed with a light and loving touch.

  • Did you ever hear the one about:
    Q) How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A) None. They don't think it needs changing!
    Probably the best course of action, if you haven't done it already, is to remind the client that they/the publisher hired you because they trust your judgrment. Remind the client that there is no reason to take the changes personally, but that you were just doing the job you were hired to do and if that doesn't meet the clients needs, you are more than happy to go back to the work that you do for other people.
    I had a writer get in touch with me recently that I hadn't heard from for almost twenty years. He couldn't understand why we never completed his project. His memory was that I lost interest. I reminded him that every time I made any changes, he would go on the attack and accuse me of trying to subvert his work. I reminded him that that was the reason I lost interest and moved on. He got quiet and then said,"Oh yeah, I guess I've remembered it wrong all these years". He wanted to know if we could get together and talk about working on the script, since it never moved forward. I said Tha I appreciated his contrition (not apology), I had plenty of things on my plate. I wished him well and moved on.
    I don't know if this helps at all, but it was fun sharing this story. Good luck with this client and others like them. It's never easy. Especially when it turns into personal attacks. Just don't you take it personal. You're the professional.

  • Here's my take, but don't listen to a word I say. If something I say resonates with you, please do check it out for yourself! <--This is "my" caveat that I use on my clients, and it works really well to drop people's defenses and then they open up, like magic.

    The standard scenario before something like what happened to you happens, looks like the following:

    1. There were red flags before you were hired by this client, but they were ignored.

    2. The red flags could prompt us to enforce stronger, up-front boundaries, which would save us from working for problem personalities by the client not hiring us, or we might get lucky and they hire us and respect our boundaries. This latter rarely happens in cases of early red flags.

    3. The red flags could be respected as the warnings that they are, and we could withdraw our bid and move on to a less problematic client.

    Inevitably, situations like this are good reason to read up on what professional and personal boundaries look like. In essence, boundaries are a personal and/or professional set of rules and regulations that are decided upon and documented *ahead of time*, which makes for easy implementation should that be needed, but more importantly, work to our benefit by filtering out the kind of clients we don't want to work for.

    Also inevitably, we have a hard time saying no to paid work. This, too, is a good subject to study, and it will lead right back to having formal boundaries.

    It takes time to figure out what our boundary limits are. The most common way is to learn the hard way, unfortunately. The best way is to know your worth, beyond a shadow of a doubt, and then boundaries are easy to implement, because you respect yourself too much to ever ignore red flags.

  • Well said. I just learned something today, too. Thanks

  • Thanks, Paula and Bruce! I really appreciate your advice on this. I know that this is more about them and their ability to handle criticism than it is about me or the work I've done, and I will remain professional until their invoice has been paid—at which point, I will walk away.

    I did set boundaries in my contract with them, but I also never expected a situation like this to arise, so there were no boundaries about abusive behavior included. The client offered me no initial red flags either: they were polite and professional in all of our initial dealings. The only red flags came after we agreed to work together, once I began reading their work—you learn a lot about an author when you start reading what they've written. I was hopeful that those red flags were merely storytelling instead of personality, especially given how professional the author had been in all of our dealings, but that clearly wasn't the case.

    I do agree: I absolutely need to add additional clauses to my contract to enforce boundaries, and I need to add additional screening before I take on clients to reduce the risk that something like this might happen again. Learning the hard way! Do you have any resource recommendations for me to look into?

    Thank you again! It's so wonderful to have a supportive community that's been through similar issues and can offer solid advice for how to move forward.

  • Hm...What about asking potential clients for a sample of their writing, ahead of time? That way, you not only can get a read on them, but if what they submit after you've contracted the work doesn't come close to the sample they submitted, you'd have a negotiable position should anything go wrong.

    As for resources ... my current field is very different, but I'm moving into the writing field. I learned a little from trade/business magazines, but picked up some of my best (boundary) tips from snooping the websites of others in my field, both newcomers and old pros, noting what I liked and disliked and incorporating new ideas that way. In the end, I had something pretty well-encompassing and now other pros (again, in my field) borrow/copy from me - which is fine by me.

  • These are both such great ideas! On the sample, I'm thinking first and last chapters, maybe? (Spoilers don't matter much to me.) I'll have to play with it a bit, see what produces a true sample. With the resources, I like that you include both experienced and less experienced professionals—both will have good insights, and there's no question that much of my learning came early in my career.

    Thank you!

  • You are welcome, and good luck to you, but I doubt you'll need luck. You have a good attitude and you aren't afraid of asking for help. Kudos.

  • Samples are a great idea. You might also consider one further step: When you've read a sample chapter or two, send the author a brief (but very honest) assessment. You don't have to give away the store, as it were; just enough (and sufficiently blunt) commentary to give the author an idea of what it will be like working with you. The response you get should give you an idea of what it will be like working with the author! Another thing you might try (and this is something it took me a long time to learn): ask, "How will I know when you think I've succeeded?" If you get answers equivalent to "I'll feel better about myself and my writing," run for your life.

  • Great ideas, Erika! I'm going to add both of those to my "best practices." There are definitely lots of writers out there who are just looking for validation of their genius, and that's not a good reason to hire an editor.

    Thank you!

  • I do a sample edit of 3-5 pages for a book-length manuscript free of charge. That way they can see my work up front. I don't know if that would work for a novel.

  • It does work for a novel. And it helps both sides - I turned down one editor because she basically *hated* my voice and we both knew it was not going to work. Editing somebody's novel is deeply personal. If you don't like the aesthetic aspects of their work, you should not be trying to work with them.

    That said, anyone who can't take criticism they have asked for needs to go work on their thick skin before trying to submit or publish fiction, because trust somebody who's been doing it for years, you WILL get rejections and you WILL get criticism, some of it nasty.

    So, this author needs to work on taking criticism. Big time.

    Problem clients are an occupational hazard (I won't go into my worst one in case they show up here), though...and you sometimes need to just move on. Warning people about them is likely to make you look bad. So, just...don't work for them again and keep looking for better clients.