Blowing up a relationship — it’s every blogger’s worst nightmare, and a few months ago, it almost happened to me.
My only steady client sent me a fuming email. She demanded her money back because she claimed I had plagiarized, which was “unethical and… unacceptable.” The worst part: she said, “[I] can no longer accept your article submissions.”
I wasn’t originally given the chance to do a rewrite or explain my side of the story.
I was completely side-swiped.
After all, I’d done an interview with a popular wedding planner on Facebook. I had even sent my editor the transcript, and according to a free online plagiarism checker, my article had 0% non-unique content. (By the way, a 2014 study from Texas Tech found that plagiarism checkers often produce false positives, especially when jargon or “topic phrases” are used. Those checkers can also provide incorrect source links, and score papers inconsistently.)
It turns out I did plagiarize by accident. I’d copied quotes from something I’d read online and inserted them into my piece without proper attribution, so why did my client write this glowing testimonial less than a month later?
Cherese exudes personality in her writing, she consistently expresses innovative tips in a way that our readers love. Cherese has the ability to interview industry experts and summarize their knowledge using language that is easy to understand. Cherese shows incredible professionalism, is always open to feedback and works hard to ensure her posts meet our needs.”
I turned my rocky working relationship around, and you can too.
First of all, take a deep breath. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Are you calm? If not, hide your laptop, phone, or tablet. Yes, I’m serious! Go for a walk, scream into a pillow, eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s (and cry into it), or get down on your knees and say a prayer.
Then pull up your britches and…
1. Learn your rights
When my client wanted a refund, I contacted “free” lawyers on Reddit to see if I needed to actually pay up.
One lawyer I spoke to said that he didn’t give a bullfrog’s queef about my feelings and that I’m a shit writer who no one would ever want to work with again. (Of course, he was wrong. My editor allowed me to rewrite the article — It’s ended up being the most popular one I’ve ever written — provided that I did more interviews and included a source list. Plus, I even picked up two new clients!)
After the Reddit disaster, I decided to bone up on Fair Use laws.
In a nutshell, Fair Use means you can use part of another’s copyrighted work without asking permission. If you use a snippet of text for educational, research, commentary, news, or comedic purposes, it’s completely legal.
Fair Use laws get a little murky if you’re using an author’s words for commercial purposes though. For example, you can use Bob Dylan’s line “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” in a published poem. However, you wouldn’t be able to use the phrase as a tagline for your raincoat business. You can use this checklist from Columbia University to find out if you’re using another author’s work fairly.
My local lawyer told me that once your clients pay you, whether upon acceptance or publication, if they want their money back (for any reason), they’ll have to take you to court. They’ll also need to convince the judge that they’ve been swindled or that you’ve broken your contract.
Armed with this information, I wrote to my editor, “It is your job to screen incoming articles for content and grammatical issues before sending payment.”
If you’re thinking I have some iron gonads and you’re shaking behind the screen because you’d never in a million years say that to your editor, stop. You’re running a business; it’s that simple.
2. Ask for more information (and realize editors have preconceptions)
I wasn’t originally given the chance to explain, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and asked my client for more information. Remember, the worst thing your client could do is tell you to go to hell or never reply. (Will either of those things really hurt you? No.)
Luckily, my editor did reply, and I learned that she thought that I had a journalism degree. I actually have a degree in psychology and art.
My client was positive that I understood the rules of professional writing. I didn’t. I’d only written college papers, where I was free to cite and lift passages from books or others’ interviews. Once I explained this, the client didn’t see the situation as black and white.
Of course, you can’t completely prevent misconceptions about your experience, but a solid paragraph about your credentials (Where are you from? Where have you been published? Why are you the best writer for the gig?) in your LOI hybrid or pitch can prevent you from ruffling your editors’ feathers.
3. Learn the rules of journalism
Many blogs now require learning AP (Associated Press Style), but you don’t have to shell out 80-130 grand to get a journalistic education. Carol Tice and Linda Formichelli offer an affordable 4-week Journalism Crash Course, but if you’re short on cash, check out Coursera’s free, self-directed open courses for budding and experienced journalists.
4. Be honest
When your relationship with a client explodes, you have to suck it up and tell the truth. Tell it early, clearly and eloquently.
(Interesting side note: A study published recently in ACM Transactions on Management Information Systems claims that deceivers tend to take longer to reply to digital messages, and when they do reply, they tend to use simpler vocabulary.)
When I realized I’d truly messed up, I wrote:
I appreciate you writing me and letting me know what you discovered with my article. I want to deeply apologize for causing you to have to take time out of your busy schedule in order to deal with this. I will not give you a bunch of excuses. I take full responsibility for my mistake. I realize that the consequence is the termination of our working relationship, and I completely respect your decision.”
I also let her know that I was going to rewrite the original article because I didn’t want to leave her in the lurch scrambling to find another article to stuff in the section. Plus, the interviewee deserved to be published. The editor could take the article to make our accounts even, or leave it.
5. Be professional
I could have smeared the company’s name all over social media (like those Internet trolls everyone hates), but I didn’t.
Comments on the Net are never really deleted, and instead of the client looking like a big jerk, it’s the troll who looks bad. Plus, if potential clients see you ranting about another client online, they’ll assume you’re a ticking time-bomb waiting to smear their names as soon as they sneeze the wrong way.
Instead, focus on all the positive things you’ve learned working for this client. Did you learn how to write SEO? Did you learn how to use WordPress? Did you land some killer interviews? Did you get paid and get to work in a job you love? Good. Focus on that and if you can’t find anything positive to say, then say nothing (at least not where there’s a digital footprint).
I personally thanked my client for all the things I learned from her. After that, she even wrote that she hoped I’d continue working with the company, but that “whether you decide to or not, I wish you the best!”
6. Ask for other bloggers’ advice
Free writers’ forums and seasoned bloggers are your 911 line. Use them.
Carol helped me figure out whether I’d be able to use my clips — I could, because I hadn’t signed a contract. She also let me know that not all hope was lost because “the good news is there are a lot of clients in the sea.” I’d have to start my business over from scratch, but I wasn’t (and you won’t be) the first writer to blow up a relationship and lose the ability to ask for a testimonial or referral. I’d live to write another day!
This gave me the gumption to actually contact my editor, and I’m so glad that I did.
My editor couldn’t read my mind, and sadly, I couldn’t read her mind either. As Linda Formichelli wrote in a recent Monday Motivation email:
I know that this throws many writers for a loop, because they don’t want to admit to their editors that they don’t have everything perfectly under control. But editors are human, too. They breathe oxygen, eat food, snap at their kids, and get parking tickets. In the vast majority of cases, they’re happy to answer your questions…[and even willing to listen to your side of the story.] My editor even thanked me for sharing my point of view and invited me to write more articles for her!”
So, don’t let anyone tell you can’t rebuild a blown-up relationship. You can.
I won’t lie to you. It’s hard work. Some editors won’t be willing to give you another chance, but if you’re honest and professional (and have an iron pair), you’ve already won half the battle.