Diana Kelly Levey

What Freelancers Need to Know about Scope Creep

A frustrated woman looking at her computer

June 24, 2022

You may have heard of scope creep as a term thrown around freelancers’ message boards and Facebook groups, as well as conversations with friends in the freelance community. Whether you’re a beginner freelancer or an experienced, six-figure freelancer, it’s likely you experienced scope creep, even if you weren’t aware of it at the time. Here is a freelancer’s guide to identifying scope creep, dealing with scope creep and some freelance scope creep scenarios in the types of freelance writing I’ve done I’ve come across (particularly as a freelance writer) to be aware of and avoid (or, ask for more money from the client—stat!).

What is Scope Creep When it Comes to Freelancers?

Scope creep is a scenario when your freelance client makes requests that are beyond the initial “scope of work” as it was outlined in your contract or freelance assignment. Usually, it doesn’t involve more pay for freelancers and can require more work and hours than the freelancer initially anticipated, therefore decreasing the freelancer’s hourly freelance rate.

Follow these freelance scope creep tips to be aware of possible scenarios and get expert freelance advice on how to handle each situation so you can protect your time and energy as a freelancer.

(If you’re looking to earn more money hourly as a freelancer, check out my self-directed online course, “How to Earn $100 an Hour or More Freelancing” on Teachable.)

Freelance Scope Creep Tips: Ways Clients Make Requests and Add on Scope Creep for Freelancers

Here’s are scope creep examples you might come across as a freelancer:

1.      Scope creep example: Increasing the word count of a freelance assignment.

Your editor or client may have asked you to turn in a 500- to 600-word freelance article based on your freelance article pitch or a project they assigned to you. After you turned in the article, the editor may send it back to you with edits and request you answer a few questions and fill out some article copy and add a few more paragraphs to make the article better. That would be a freelance scope creep situation where additional words that weren’t identified in the contract are requested without giving the freelancer more money for the assignment. This has happened to me multiple times as a freelance writer who’s been freelancing for over 15 years. Addressing editor questions and adding a sentence here and there to clarify are to be expected as part of the editing process. But, keep an eye on the word count and details you’re expected to include on the edited draft.

How to manage scope creep in this situation: If an editor asks me to add a few more sections or paragraphs that weren’t defined in our contract or assignment, I would push back against this scope creep example. I’d say something like, “I’d be happy to add another 200 to 300 words of copy to address these changes and make the article stronger. The initial assignment didn’t detail this and requested I turn in copy around 600 words. If you’d like me to flesh these sections out, I can do it for an additional fee.” If it’s a few words here and there and a sentence that would help clarify things for the reader, I don’t consider that scope creep. (Related: How to Set Freelance Rates that Help You Meet Your Income Goals)

2.     Scope creep example: Increasing the number of interviews or sources.

Another common situation for freelance writers who experience scope creep is to add on an additional source interview or ask for more expert comments in the article than originally agreed upon. I think this situation is different for journalism assignments and content marketing or branded content assignments as to whether it’s actually “scope creep.” When I write a freelance article pitch for a magazine, I tend to include a line or two about who I will interview as part of the article, for example, a certified fitness trainer for a fitness article, a psychologist for a mental health article, etc. My job is to find the best expert for the piece and make sure I ask the right questions of this expert so I can deliver a strong article for my editor.  If I turn in an assignment with this expert and the point of the article wasn’t justified or the source didn’t produce strong quotes or a good point of view that improves the article, the editor might ask the freelance writer to find another source to improve the article for their readers. As someone who is a freelance editor and edited journalism articles, that request is justified. (Interviewing the best sources is just one way to create great content.)

If the editor reads the article and then realizes he or she wanted another quote from a different expert to lend credibility to the piece but they didn’t mention it before, that might be scope creep and you can possible push back and ask for more money in this scope creep example. I’d say that determining whether you’re experiencing freelance scope creep depends on the type of interview needed, how long it’ll take you to add their quotes to the article, and your relationship with the editor.

If you’re a freelance content marketing writer working on a subject matter expert article or a whitepaper with a set number of interviews provided by the company, and then the editor or managers decide later that they want to add more interviews, that would be a good example of scope creep you should push back on.

How to manage scope creep in this situation: The trick with managing freelance scope creep in this situation is to carefully outline the details of the assignment or project ahead of time so you and your editor know the number of interviews that will be included in the assignment as well as who you will be interviewing so there are no surprises. Again, this can be a tricky situation in a journalism freelance article because you might need another quote or two from an expert source or a “reader POV” that rounds out the article, and if it’s a simple request and you have a good relationship with this editor—and they rarely ask this of your work—you probably don’t want to ask for more money right away. Just be aware of the situation, and if you keep working with the editor, make sure you have the number of interviews noted in the assignment the next time and bring attention to the situation if they ask you to turn in more work again. This could be a sign that the editor doesn’t have a clear idea of what they want when they give you the assignment and they try to iron out the process in the edits—making more work and a bigger time suck for you. More time spent on the article means you’ll be lowering your freelance hourly rate.

3.      Scope creep example: Increasing the rounds of edits within their team.

In this scope creep freelance scenario, you should set the number of edits that you are willing to comply with in the initial contract as well as have an understanding of who needs to approve your final article or freelance assignment at the company. In magazine journalism and newspaper journalism, there are often a few editors and at least one fact-checker who will go through your copy before it’s published. Making tweaks to your copy or answering a clarifying question here and there is not considered freelance scope creep in my opinion. When you’re turning in content marketing articles, you’ll probably also have a few editors (perhaps from an agency) and then the client themselves might have feedback on your article that you need to address. These are standard edits in my opinion. (Check out the reasons freelancers don’t want to accept one-off assignments.)

A scope creep situation where you should pump the brakes on is where a few people at the company are editing your piece and asking for rewrites or more copy than you initially anticipated. Ideally, the editor you’re working with knows what his or her managers want and expect from the piece so they should be able to get your copy into good shape that would be approved and make the process a smooth one.

How to manage scope creep in this situation: In my “how to earn $100 an hour or more freelancing online course” I include a template for freelancers to reference when they onboard a new client or potential client. A question in there addresses “who makes final decisions on this assignment?” and if it’s not the editor you’re working with, it requests an understanding of the editing process from the company so I can better understand what I need to know about edits and revisions when calculating my rates. Again, a few small edits and answers throughout the editing process for freelance writers isn’t scope creep in my opinion. But when you’re getting pushback or requests for more work than you initially anticipated from other people in the company—and everyone isn’t on the same page with the assigning editor’s edits—you should kindly request a call with the assigning editor and ask for clarification on their process as well as whether anything can be done about this process. (Wait, how do you write SEO freelance articles?)

Some other freelance scope creep examples I’ve experienced include clients:

  • Asking for a rewrite.
  • Requesting product research beyond the scope of the assignment.
  • Doing SEO research and copywriting that wasn’t part of the freelance assignment.
  • Finding images for products mentioned in the article.
  • Including original photography if it wasn’t mentioned in the assignment. (Hello, you should get paid for your photographs!)
  • Building the freelance article into a CMS.
  • Resizing images, uploading them into the article, adding ALT Tags and SEO and links within the article as part of production.
  • Including infographics suggestions or doing infographic research.
  • Writing social media copy for an article.

What are some scope creep examples you’ve come across in your years freelancing—whether you’re a freelance writer, freelance designer, freelance photographer or another independent worker in this gig economy?

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