Writers work on all sorts of projects for clients – advertising copy, press releases, romance novels…
Most of the time, these projects aren’t close to the client’s heart. They’re necessary for business or marketing, but they’re not excessively wrapped up with the client’s life and emotions.
Once in a while, though, clients make a personal request – sometimes overly, uncomfortably personal. Dating site bios, pleas to get into a student’s top choice college, letters to banks begging for more time to pay the mortgage.
Those projects are more personal, but only to the client. To the writer, it’s still a job: words that have to turn into sentences that require a format, etc. Also, these assignments don’t become strong client relationships. Even if you become the client’s “personal stuff” writer, how often does that personal stuff come along? Not often, if ever again.
This type of client feels that their importance is your importance. You’re approached with a sort of “we’re in this together” attitude. The expectation is that you’ll accept the project at any cost, literally and figuratively.
When a longstanding client of mine asked me to write a letter that went in-depth about a medical issue he’s ashamed of, I felt that the best response was a professional one. He was obviously uncomfortable with having me do this in the first place, and I thought I was doing him a favor by not drawing more attention to it than necessary. Keeping my distance caused him to abruptly pull the assignment, though. He had wanted me to straddle a line between “don’t make me uncomfortable about this” and “this should be as important to you as it is to me” that I just couldn’t straddle. I couldn’t rearrange my schedule to get it done before my normal turn-around time; I couldn’t give him a price break because the information was difficult for him to share; and I wouldn’t pretend we had a closer relationship than we had simply because he was trusting me with sensitive information.
Boundaries are still important, even when you’re dealing with a topic that makes your client well up with tears. To continue valuing and respecting your clients, you have to keep your distance. Getting wrapped up in a dramatic situation in a way that evokes your emotions or drains your energy means you can’t move forward with a clear head. When it comes to your own work, passion is a phenomenal motivator. But when it comes to helping another person with their priority, clearheadedness and pragmatism serve both of you.
You may also be feeling that thing we’re not supposed to feel: do it yourself. If it’s so important, personal and time-sensitive, and if you’re upset that I’m not as emotionally invested in it as you are, do it yourself. Every time a mother sends me a frantic email because her child is about to miss a deadline for an admissions essay, college paper or letter of recommendation, I think, “Just do it yourself.”
We have to keep a safe distance from our clients and projects to move forward. Personal assignments are important, and many of them are confidential. They need lucidity, which is probably why the person closest to the issue can’t write about it themselves. Our boundaries, processes and workflows don’t fall away because a client has an urgent need, though. Putting yourself first will always result in better work. You’ll turn out focused, polished writing, and you’ll move through your workdays surrounded by better energy than if you had to carry another person’s stress on your shoulders.