Most clients accept a copywriter’s proposals without problem, but a few clients want to negotiate.

When I was starting out, some clients – knowing I was new – negotiated hard, and got me cheap. Others negotiated more work than they paid for.

Most distressing was the fact that I didn’t know what was happening.

I was losing the negotiation battle.


Finally, I picked the brains of a top salesperson. What he taught me was invaluable.

#1 Confidence is Critical

Confidence was a big part of the problem. I didn’t believe I was worth what I charged (I now realize I was worth a lot more).

And after getting creamed in a couple negotiations, I thought the best tactic was to become a bigger asshole.


It only created hard feelings, netting me nothing.

My problem was my lack of negotiating skills. I gave up far more than I had to, and often made matters worse by trying to “fix” things which were the client’s problem, not mine.

Believe in your worth.

#2 Don’t Take Negotiations Personally

A negotiation is not a measure of your worth as a human being – or a fight to the death.

Instead, it’s simply a part of the business process. We negotiate every day, and it’s not a personal slight – just an attempt to meet everyone’s needs.

Remember that next time your blood pressure’s rising. Don’t be a jerk, and keep it civil even if the other side won’t.

#3 Avoid Negotiating When Possible

You just handed a client a proposal, and there’s a moment’s silence. They might even make a physical show of distress (it’s a technique called “the Wince”).

Do not immediately dive in to “fix” the problem. In some cases, a savvy buyer is testing to see if you’ll do something foolish. Don’t.

Still, perhaps your proposal isn’t quite on the money (the scope of work is wrong, the project’s changed, etc). Or maybe you’ve come across a true asshole – the person who isn’t happy until you lose and he wins.

Congratulations. You’re in a negotiation.

#4 Make Them Go First

Your first task? Don’t start the process. Make them go first.

It’s up to both parties to make this work, and if they have your estimate, proposal or verbal quote on their desk, then you’ve given them a concrete starting point.

If you retreat without even hearing their solution, then you’ve made a concession and gotten nothing in return – which just happens to be point #5.

#5 Never Give Up Anything Without Getting Something

One of the cardinal rules of negotiating is this: never give up anything without getting something in return.

In other words, don’t lower your price, tighten deadlines, or agree to do more work unless the other side moves too.

For example, a common freelancer’s mistake is to accept burdensome deadlines without getting anything in return.

You might do this for good, repeat clients, but be aware of it – and try to negotiate something in return when possible (smaller project, streamlined review, etc).

#6 Don’t Fall for Common Negotiating Ploys

Craig warned me about some of the tactics used by negotiators. I already mentioned “the wince.”

Another is called the “hot potato” – where your opponent keeps lobbing the hot potato back into your lap. He’s trying to force concessions from you with making any himself. Don’t fall for it.

Also recognize the dangers of “the higher power.” A staple at car dealerships, it’s where you negotiate with someone, reach an agreement, and he then tells you it’s all subject to his manager’s approval.

This opens the door for more negotiation. Avoid it. Why negotiate with someone who can’t say “yes” – only no?

There are many tactics, and means for countering them. But they’re a bit beyond the scope of this basic post. And in truth, most aren’t that effective if you know the key principles I outlined above.

Still, for those interested, I included links to some popular books below. Those will help.

#7 Know Your Goal

The ultimate goal of any negotiation isn’t to kill your opponent, leaving his mashed body on the conference room floor.

The goal is to arrive at a place where everybody’s happy, and sometimes that simply requires a little fine tuning. If you are locked in a negotiation, recognize what you will and won’t do to get the job.

That means you might be willing to accept a tighter deadline, but you’re not going to double your word count for a 15% fee increase.

#8 Don’t Be Rushed

A common tactic is to rush you into a decision. Delivering a snap quote over the phone – when the scope of a project isn’t even clear – is a bad idea.

Take the time you need to clarify the scope of work, deadlines, and the deliverables before starting a negotiation.

Never forget the client needs something from you, so don’t panic when an imaginary deadline appears.

Recently, a small town near my northern California home fell prey to a large corporation. The company threatened to break off negotiations on a water bottling plant unless their proposal was accepted in just a few days.

The council buckled immediately – and agreed to a horrifying deal. They clearly they had the one thing the company wanted (clean water), but got stampeded.

Don’t let that happen to you.

#9 End the Negotiation Quickly

Don’t negotiate endlessly. In fact, you’re always trying to close the deal, and your negotiating stance must reflect that.

For example, your client’s budget doesn’t equal your fee, but he’s willing to make concessions. You’re happy – so end it now!

Say something like “if I agree to lower my fee, and you do these things for me, then do we have a deal?”


I was lucky to learn my lessons from a mentor. For those without that kind of help, I’ve heard good things about the three books mentioned below. I lack first-hand knowledge, so I certainly welcome any other recommendations or comments.

First, my lovely and talented wife – the director of an economic development non-profit – suggests the classic “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” as a good starting point.

I’ve also heard good things about Dawson’s Secrets of Power Negotiating, another popular book that’s also available on CD.

More basic is The Only Negotiating Guide You’ll Ever Need: 101 Ways to Win Every Time in Any Situation, which came recommended via a friend.

While I don’t think any freelancer needs to invest a lot of time becoming a master negotiator, learning how to negotiate pays dividends throughout your career.