When a ghostwriting gig turns into a nightmare project

We’ve all been there. The clients aren’t coming in, the bills are close to being due, and we start to get a little bit desperate.

I’m sure it’s not a surprise to hear that good decisions are rarely born out of desperation; oftentimes, some of the worst ones are. That being said, it’s incredibly hard to keep a good decision-making head on your shoulders when you have no idea how you’re going to pay rent next week.

This is where my story begins. My business was in the fledgling stages at the time, and even on good months, I was barely making enough to cover my expenses. This was not a good month.

In this particular month, I was two weeks away from when my next set of bills were due, and I was about $1,000 short. A handful of prospects that I expected to convert didn’t, so like any self-respecting baby entrepreneur, I took to the internet to see if I could rustle up a few new clients.

close-up photo of assorted coins

I met a man named Charles* in a social networking group. He had approached me and said he had a writing opportunity for me, so we hopped on a call to discuss. Charles wanted to pay me $6,000 for about a month of work to write some podcast scripts for him under one, heavy condition: I had to move from my home in Portland, Oregon to Bozeman, Montana so we could “work closely together” on the project.

Not only were my internal red flags waving like crazy, but there was no way I could just pick up and leave for a month with no notice. I had commitments here and a dog in search and rescue training, so it truly was out of the question. Still, the money he was offering wasn’t something I could afford to turn down, so I negotiated virtual work in exchange for a 50% pay cut.

Once we agreed on the terms, I drafted up a contract that reflected payment, the scope of the project, and the legal ramifications if either of us were to breach the terms and sent it to him with a note saying to let me know if he had any questions or revisions.

His reply email started with: “I’m very disappointed. You’ve done a lot without talking to me.”

Rolling my eyes at the obvious condescension, I read the rest of the email. To make a long story short, I had almost scared him off with the length of the contract I sent, and he was unwilling to sign any sort of contract at all. When I called him to discuss his concerns, I got a barely-polite verbal lashing about how I was too enthusiastic and needed to calm down immediately.

My bank account was still glaringly empty, a reminder that I couldn’t be picky with clients despite how disrespected I felt. I agreed to no contracts and payment per script completed via Venmo.

Unfortunately, this was only the start of the issues with Charles. I was very clear on when I would send him completed scripts, and yet he’d text me multiple times every day or call without warning to ask for updates. When I turned a finished draft into him, he would berate me for not understanding his tone in one breath and then say how amazing I was in the next. On one particular weekend, I took Sunday off to spend time with my family. We spoke on Saturday, and I told him I would have the completed draft to him by EOD Monday. On Monday morning, I woke up to two missed calls, three texts, and a WhatsApp message from him. He said that I was “usually so communicative” and he was worried about what happened to me. It had been 36 hours since we last spoke.

person holding black android smartphone

Once I had earned more than enough to cover next month’s bills, I finally got to the point where I was sick of being treated like a dog on a leash. It’s important to note here that I had tried to enforce my boundaries in previous interactions with him, but nothing had seemed to stick. The straw had finally broken the camel’s back, and I was no longer interested in working for him. I sent him a professional email saying that we weren’t a good fit to continue working with each other and that I would be happy to recommend other freelance writers that might suit the project. 

The funniest thing happened when I finally cut ties with Charles: my business exploded. My revenue has increased by more than 300%, and I haven’t had to be desperate for clients since.

The moral of the story is this: you are worth working with clients you love and clients that respect you, and when you recognize that and enforce your professional boundaries, the universe will meet you halfway. It might be scary in the moment, but it’s the only way to truly build a life and business you love waking up to.

*The client’s name has been changed to respect his privacy.