Features November/December 2023

Scoping Projects: Ten Tips Freelancers Need to Know

Advance planning tips that can help you better meet your client’s expectations and preserve your sanity.

By Alisa Bonsignore | Associate Fellow

“So… I’m thinking about going freelance.”

The conversation always starts the same way: job dissatisfaction or a layoff pointing towards the presumably verdant pastures of freelance life. My 15 years of experience make me a prime candidate for these kinds of discussions. And then, as we talk a little more about my experiences, a wave of terror passes over the soon-to-be freelancer’s face.

“I don’t know how to scope projects.”

Guess what? Most people don’t. It’s not a skill that most people have had to learn in-house. Here are 10 tips for where to begin.

  1. Do the pre-work. In a moment of relative calm—without the client’s needs staring you in the face—figure out how long it takes you to do a variety of common projects. If you’re still in-house and can refer to past projects for examples, this is easier. Look back at your files, your emails, or anything that can help you track the number of hours that things take. Document this, and then add 50% to it because you’ll now be doing this all by yourself. Solo work takes time.

    This is not a one-time process. At the end of every project, audit your hours. Does one phase consistently take longer than expected? Does one client always slow the process? Keep track of this so you can more accurately estimate the project the next time.

  2. Estimate project phases separately. This includes discovery, creation, editing, etc. Make them separate line items so both you and your client know what’s needed, how much time it takes, and what it costs. This also allows you to establish milestone billing, rather than trying to negotiate invoicing at some arbitrary midpoint of the project.

  3. Every project requires a discovery phase. Employees are onboarded into companies and teams. Contractors are not. Every project requires time to familiarize yourself with the product, the competition, the customer, and the challenges—even one with a familiar company. Do not shortchange yourself on this phase of the project. The more you can learn upfront, the more valuable your contributions will be.

  4. Establish project phase timelines. Once you know your project phases, start building out timelines. I always overestimate the timelines based on how well I know my client contact or organization. The less familiar I am with them, the less likely I am to have everything I need upfront. Therefore, I need to add extra padding for meetings, administrative work, or other challenges that stand between me and the work itself.

    Example: The project is due to start on the first of the month. By that date, the client is supposed to have sent you all relevant background information, plus the names and contact information for four subject matter experts (SMEs). The first of the month arrives, and you’ll discover that you actually have one-third of the necessary background material and an email for only one of the four SMEs. A padded timeline prevents deadline slippage when you’re chasing the information for the other three SMEs, and trying to get a response from the other one who wasn’t told that they would be contacted by an outsider.

    And remember, as an outsider, you don’t know what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or to follow up with a request for additional information after the SME interview reveals something that hadn’t been mentioned before.

  5. Show clients a real-time timeline. Let’s say that Project Phase One has you submitting your work to the client by the 15th of the month, with client responses due by the 30th. They will say that this is reasonable, even generous. And then they will promptly miss that deadline, often by weeks. Modify the client-facing timeline accordingly, showing where the breakdowns occurred and how it affects the overall project.

  6. Most of my clients have their own project management tools that are used internally; this is where I post updates for their benefit. For my personal timelines, I haven’t found anything that works better than a plain old year-at-a-glance calendar with color-coded sticky notes that I can move around as the deadlines shift. This helps me to easily visualize where things stand, what weeks are open, and how the projects are about to converge.

  7. Protect against rush projects and scope creep. For every project, establish minimum turnaround times to give you the breathing room that you need. Sure, those updates may only take you one day, but they’re not your only client. You have other things going on. Make sure that you have breathing room so you can fully focus on their project without distractions from other projects. If they want it faster, make it clear that they can pay extra for a prioritized spot in your queue. If the discovery phase uncovers something unexpected, make it clear that they can pay to add that in.

  8. No project occurs in isolation. Keep in mind that none of your projects occur in a vacuum. It is entirely possible (and surprisingly likely) that three different clients with staggered deadlines can converge into one absolute hell week. Make notes in your proposal that any delays on their end can affect the speed of turnaround on your end. If you reserved the third week of the month to make the updates, that doesn’t mean that you’re free and flexible in the fourth week of the month.

    Sometimes you are the bottleneck to the schedule. Delays on other projects, federal holidays, planned vacations, unplanned illnesses, and other life events can affect turnaround times. Note as many of these as possible in your project estimate. My proposals have a section that says, “[Contractor] will return edited work within [X] business days unless otherwise noted in Section [ABC].” Section [ABC] lists holidays, vacations, conferences, and other known schedule bottlenecks.

  9. Make your office hours clear. I’m guessing that you aren’t planning to go freelance because you want to be online and accessible 22 hours a day. (Admittedly, I am online all the time, but clients don’t need to know that.) Establish your working hours and time zone upfront, whether it’s 9:00–5:00 or something that works better for you. This is especially important if you work with other time zones. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received an 11:00 PM email with an invite for a 4:00 AM meeting. Establishing office hours makes it clear that you shouldn’t be expected to see the email, let alone attend that meeting.

  10. Establish billing parameters. I touched on this above, but this is an important one: make payment terms and timelines clear. Does this mean that clients will always pay promptly? No, it does not. But having this documented upfront makes the process go faster.

  11. Never, ever begin work without a written and signed agreement in place. Do you expect to be paid? Then never, ever, EVER leave things to chance. Your client contact is not the same as Accounts Payable. If you don’t make it clear what you’re doing in exchange for the money that they’re paying, don’t expect to see the money.

With a little bit of planning and preparation, you can effectively scope projects in a way that keeps clients happy while minimizing your stress levels.

BonsignoreHeadshotAlisa Bonsignore clarifies complex ideas, developing sustainable content strategies for a global clientele. Her experience spans several industries over more than two decades, with particular focus on measuring and mitigating the carbon emissions of digital content. She is an Associate Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, a Certified Master Gardener, and frequently speaks at conferences and workshops. She’s taller than she looks on Zoom, and likely to be spotted with a crochet project in hand.