How To Keep Mistakes From Ruining Your Freelance Career

“You made a mistake on that project!”

Believe me, those are the very last words that any freelancer ever wants to hear. After all, mistakes mean rework and rework cuts into your profit (to say nothing of the effect on customer satisfaction). However, sooner or later, every freelancer does hear those words. How you respond to them could determine the future course of your freelancing career.

I remember finishing a particularly challenging project a few months ago. I don’t normally ask family members to read my freelance writing. (They find it boring, imagine that!) This time, because I had worked so hard on the project, I persuaded a family member to read through my project after I had already turned it in.

As they read, I reread the piece over their shoulder. To my horror, as I read I saw two typos that had escaped my earlier rounds of proofreading.

Now, I could have easily pretended that I didn’t know about those typos. After all, I had already turned the project in. Odds were that the client wouldn’t notice them either.

That’s the exact wrong attitude to have about a mistake. Since I had spotted the typos, I notified the client of the mistake and apologized for my errors.

When You Make A Mistake, Are You Defensive Or Responsive?

  • A defensive freelancer takes the stance: “what, a mistake in my work? Impossible!
  • A responsive freelancer takes the stance: “how can I fix it for you?

If you want to stay in business, then it’s much better to be responsive than defensive. In fact, a defensive stance can totally ruin your freelancing business. The defensive posture is also unrealistic because we all do make mistakes, no matter how carefully we work.

How then should a freelancer respond when they find that they have made a mistake? I think that the first question to ask is: what caused this mistake?

When You Are the Cause of the Mistake

If you find that a mistake is your fault, then it is your immediate responsibility to fix it at no additional cost to the client. Let’s face it. We’re all human and even the very best freelancers make mistakes from time to time.

Fortunately for me, I don’t have to deal with this problem very often. However, I have faced it several times. Usually, the fix is quick. (Such as: I forgot to attach work files to an E-mail, so I attach them and resend the E-mail.) Rarely, though, the problem is not quite so easy to fix.

Here’s how I’ve handled mistakes that I’ve made:

  • Fixing a mistake goes to the top of my worklist – even before upcoming deadlines. I’ll stay up all night if I have to in order to make it right for a client.
  • Keep the line of communication open. Let the client know that you intend to correct the problem and give them an estimate on how soon they can expect to receive the correction.
  • Make sure that you say those magic words: “I’m sorry.” Those words can do a lot for preserving the customer relationship.

When They Are the Cause of the Mistake

Sometimes a “mistake” is not your fault. Perhaps the customer didn’t communicate clearly, or even sent you the wrong information about the project.

Did I tell you I wanted ten articles about planes? I meant ten articles about trains…

In a few rare instances, the “client” may actually be trying to scam you for additional work at no additional cost.

What should you do when the client is the cause of the mistake?

  • Review the original terms of the project carefully. Is it possible that you misunderstood the terms? (This is one reason to make sure have the terms in writing – in an E-mail, if nothing else.)
  • Estimate how long it will you take you to fix the problem. If the fix is quick and you have a long-standing positive relationship with the client (and there is no history of misunderstandings), then consider doing the work for free to preserve your relationship.
  • Change of scope. If the change will take a significant amount of time, then let the client know that what they are asking for is a change of scope. Provide them with a new cost and time estimate for performing the new tasks.

Five Tips to Keep You From Making Mistakes

  • Don’t over commit. Mistakes are more likely to occur if you are trying to cram too much work into too little time.
  • Don’t rush. No matter how busy your schedule is, take your time. It’s easier to do it right the first time than to go back and fix it later.
  • Pause. If at all possible, pause before you perform the final check on your work. You’re much more likely to catch mistakes when you look at the project with fresh eyes.
  • Learn. Mistakes are learning opportunities. When you make a mistake, ask yourself: what happened? and how can I keep it from happening the next time?
  • Ask questions. You can avoid a lot of the misunderstanding that can lead to mistakes by asking questions early in the project.

What about you? How do you handle it when you make a mistake?



About the author: Laura Spencer is a freelance writer from North Central Texas with over 18 years of professional business writing experience. If you liked this post, then you may also enjoy Laura’s blog about her freelance writing experiences, WritingThoughts.


  1. says

    The mature writer calls first to say I found one I missed, we are correcting.

    Sometimes, though, I have been tempted to say that was a test to see if you ever read that stuff.

  2. says

    Excellent advice as usual, Laura. I think some writers feel that it’s better to ignore an error rather than fix it, but I like to believe honesty is the best policy.

  3. says

    Very good post – I face these in my day to day interactions at work; it’s not just a Freelance issue, but an issue in general that can encompass home and work life both. You’ll also find if you take the “responsive” route, you’re going to earn more business by a good recommendation that you ARE responsible for your actions! :)

  4. says

    Ah, a concept near and dear to my heart. I’ve messed up in the past, and it hurts to admit it, but that’s customer service. And no matter what we think, that’s an essential component of our business.

    I had that defensiveness at first, and now I try my best to push it down. When I’ve effed up, I know it’s way better to admit, apologize, and do anything and everything to make it right. That earns respect and additional work, much more than excuses.

    Great post!

  5. says

    Wonderful tips! I made a mistake once, and when the editor informed me, I corrected it immediately. In addition to letting me know about the mistake, she included a bit of advice. Her advice helped me to avoid the same mistake in all my writing. It was a grammar mistake and she told me when to use each word.

    On another note, every weekday on Twitter I read all the blogs in my RSS reader, and then I choose my favorite post for the day and place a link to it from Twitter as my “Favorite Blog Read of the Day.” Congratulations! Your post (this one) was today’s favorite. Furthermore, I also Stumble, Digg and add my “Favorite Blog Read of the Day” to Yours was added to, stumbled and dugg. ;)

  6. says

    As you mentioned, mistakes happen and they aren’t personal. I do exactly as you do. “Sorry, caught a typo on paragraph three, this sentence… It should be ‘dogs’, not ‘digs'” or something like that.

    Apologize, fix it, and act like it’s perfectly normal to make a mistake (because it is). Then move on.

  7. says

    This is so true. Making mistakes is so natural. No-one is perfect and when people get defensive it just makes them look arrogant, dishonest, and egotistical – so much more humble and honest to just admit you erred – say sorry, fix it and move on!

  8. says

    Very nice article, Laura. Indeed, we all make mistakes, but must endeavor to minimize them and also discover the true cause and source. Were we overcommitted? Did we execute poor planning? We need to answer these questions earnestly and honestly to move up in our percentages toward “work perfection”. Many Thanks, Keith Johnson, Author “365 Great Affirmations”


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