Imagine you’re a freelance writer who just submitted a major project to a client, and you get this email in response:
“This looks fantastic — great work!! To finish off this package, could you just write two more quick blog posts for me? They can be short, and on the same topics, shouldn’t take too long. Thanks!”
Of course you say yes; the client said the posts wouldn’t take too long, and besides, he’s being really nice to you. He even said your work was great! With two exclamation points!
So you work on those last two blog posts, performing all of the research, writing and revision they entail and send them in. Then you look at the clock — and realize you just did an extra four hours of work without pay.
This all-too-common scenario is an example of scope creep, one of the most pervasive threats independent contractors face. But rest assured: You can learn to recognize this phenomenon and know how to avoid falling prey to it.
What is scope creep?
Put simply, scope creep is when a project increases in scope, meaning it expands beyond its original parameters. No field is immune to scope creep: it may be a few extra phone calls for a tax advisor, additional website testing for IT professionals, an extra brochure for designers, a new round of revisions on an article — anything that represents a meaningful amount of added work to what was originally agreed upon. It stems from a range of causes, from poor planning to budgetary issues.
Scope creep is not a problem in and of itself; after all, project management is a fluid process often marked by change. Far too often, however, scope creep is not accompanied by commensurate creep in compensation or time. From the perspective of an independent contractor, who is not paid on salary and is often trying to manage multiple projects simultaneously, this is a pernicious problem.
According to the most recent Pulse of the Profession report from the Project Management Institute, 45% of projects in 2016 experienced some degree of scope creep.
Sweating the “small stuff”
Samar Owais, a freelance blogger and content marketer who writes frequently about freelance issues, says scope creep is seldom the result of bad intent on the part of clients.
“What’s interesting is that most clients don’t realize they’re expanding the project scope with additional requests,” Owais explains. “To them it all seems [like] small stuff. For you, that small stuff can amount to hours of unpaid work.”
Based in the United Arab Emirates, Owais says she is willing to do very minor tweaks to her work, but draws a line when scope creep begins. “Being asked to save a document as a Word document or PDF is fine,” she notes. “Asking to create ‘click to tweet’ snippets is scope creep.”
Owais recalls her own encounters with scope creep: She was asked to change the format of a piece by breaking up a piece of content she had written into questions on a worksheet. The simple-sounding request, she says, resulted in “three hours of unpaid work.”
Owais puts no blame for this on the client, however. “They requested [the extra work], I agreed,” she states. “They didn’t mention money, and then I didn’t bring it up when doing the additional work and was too embarrassed to bring it up afterwards.”
The scope creep solution: a strong contract
Along with most other freelancers, Owais agrees a strong contract that specifically explains the terms of a project and accounts for potential scope increases is essential.
A contract should clearly state what a project does (and does not) entail. For guidance on contract writing, The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has a detailed set of style guidelines for legal documents, including voice, tense, verbs and syntax, that can help burgeoning freelancers maximize the clarity in their agreements.
Generally, a scope creep clause comes toward the end of a contract, after all the terms of a project have been enumerated. A quick online search reveals an abundance of excellent templates for this clause. As an example, this sample writing contract from California State University Northridge states, “Any verbal or written changes… are subject to additional charges.”
Enforcing the contract
Changes to the contract should be viewed as a significant development in a project, one requiring revisions to the original terms. In “The Writer’s Legal Companion,” Brad Bunnin and Peter Berrin encourage freelance writers — though this applies to any independent contractor — to include a provision that amendments to the contract are “only enforceable if in writing, signed by the parties.”
Owais concurs. When a client asks for additional work she recommends telling them that you “appreciate their idea, you can do it and it will cost more.” Before doing a minute of work on one of these additional projects, she urges freelancers to inform clients that they will make changes to the contract and send it over to be signed.
In particular, she advises, “Don’t do additional work without being paid for it if the client seems sketchy.”
Stick up for yourself (and your business)
From a diplomatic perspective, Owais acknowledges holding clients accountable to their contract and their terms can make some people uncomfortable. Ultimately though, Owais implores freelancers to stand their ground, stick to their agreement and not let themselves be taken advantage of by scope creep.
“Don’t be embarrassed by money talk,” she says. “Bringing up money first is not classless or pushy or rude. It’s your right and your responsibility as a business owner and service provider.”