Freelance Non-Competes: Writing About the Same Topics for Different Clients
If you aren’t new around here, you’re probably already familiar with the fact that I’m a big believer in finding a niche for your freelance writing career. However, that little piece of advice typically inspires an insightful follow-up question: How do you deal with freelance non-competes? How can you cover similar topic areas for all sorts of different clients—without causing any issues?
First of all, the fact that you’re concerned about this very issue speaks volumes about your integrity and honesty as a freelancer. You never want to land in legal hot water or cross over into any territory that could be unethical. So, being aware of what you’re writing, who you’re writing it for, and any potential problems or conflicts of interest that could crop up is very, very wise.
But, that encouraging sentiment doesn’t change your concern. What do you need to know in order to successfully and lawfully write similar content for various clients, without disobeying your contract, seeming like you’re ripping off ideas, or plagiarizing yourself (as odd as that sounds)? Let’s dive into the details.Can you be a #freelancewriter for clients that are technically competitors? Find out here: Click To Tweet
Writing for Numerous Outlets: An Example
Nothing helps to add some clarity like an example. So, in order to illustrate the sort of situations I’m talking about here, I’ll use myself as a sample.
While I write a lot related to productivity and self-development as well, I’m usually pretty quick to say that my main writing niche is career advice. That’s my bread and butter–which means I’ve written countless articles about resumes, cover letters, interview tips, and other career-related topics for numerous different outlets—outlets that typically operate in the same space or industry (like job boards, for example).
This inspires a lot of questions from people. Doesn’t Client A get pissed that I’m also writing about cover letters for Client B? Doesn’t Client C care that I also write for their competitor—Client D? How can I possibly work with Client X without causing major issues with Client Y and Z?
I get it—this was a huge concern for me when I was just getting started. In all honesty, I figured I’d land a gig with one client in the career advice space, and that would be it for me. But, fortunately, that’s not the way things turned out.
Here’s how I manage these client relationships, without a lot of drama (or, thank goodness, lawsuits).
How to Prevent Issues With Similar Clients
Before I dive into my tips and best practices, I need to offer my standard warning: I’m a writer, not a lawyer—which means I can only speak generally, and not about any existing clauses or requirements your specific client might have.
Every client is different (I’ve been on the receiving end of enough contracts to realize that!). So, the smartest thing you can do is take a magnifying glass to every single agreement—before you ever sign on the dotted line. And, if you don’t feel like you’re qualified to weed through all of that legal jargon and mumbo jumbo yourself, enlist the help of a lawyer or another advisor you trust in order to make sense of exactly what you’re signing. That is so important.
Alright, with that friendly reminder out of the way, here are some strategies that have helped me work with multiple clients that all want the same types of content.
1. Keep a Close Eye on Your Contracts
Am I beating a dead horse here? I know I just mentioned this very thing in the above paragraph. But, trust me, this tip is more than worthy of this much emphasis.
Many times, if a client sends over a contract that they’d like you to sign, you’ll find some sort of clause in there that dictates who you can and can’t work with as part of that agreement.
I’ve seen this phrased almost endless ways, including:
- Something Really General: In this sort of scenario, the language is incredibly vague. For example, it will say something totally nondescript like, “The contractor agrees not to perform services for any other business that currently competes with Company or could eventually become competitive with Company.” Huh? Couldn’t this apply to pretty much any business ever on the face of the earth? Whenever a section is purposely vague like this, I typically flat out disagree and ask to have that portion amended or removed from my contract. If the client refuses? Well, I’m probably not going to work with them.
- Something Really Specific: On the totally opposite side of the spectrum, I’ve had clients explicitly list out competitors that they wouldn’t allow me to work for if I signed that agreement. For example, the contract section would state something like, “Contractor agrees not to perform services for the following competitors of Company A: Company X, Company Y, and Company Z.” This is typically another section I ask to have amended or revised. I make my living as a freelancer in a very specific niche, which means I don’t like to limit myself in this way.
- Something That Provides Direction: In comparison with the above two options, this one is preferable—it just dictates that you’ll need to make the client aware if and when you begin working with a business that could be deemed competitive. The language might look something like, “Contractor will notify Company A in writing if and when contractor begins working with a business that could be considered competitive with Company A.” I usually agree to this. But, I’ll also typically follow up with the client for clarification on what sorts of businesses in particular they would consider to be competitive—I don’t want to have to let them know whenever I sign any new client.
If you didn’t notice from the above examples, I typically stay far away from any sort of strict or rigid non-compete clauses. While I’m totally fine with communicating to my client if and when I’ve signed a new client that could potentially be competitive (more on communication in a moment!), I generally don’t sign anything that would restrict me from expanding my own business. After all, I can’t guarantee that I would never get an awesome opportunity with a potential competitor, and limiting myself in that way just makes me nervous.
What should you say when requesting to have a contract amended? Grab my free email template!
2. Communicate Openly With Your Clients
I briefly touched on the importance of communication. But, when you plan to work with numerous clients that all require you to cover similar topics, you’re honestly never wrong to over-communicate.
So, as a common courtesy, I typically let any potentially competitive client know when I’ve started writing somewhere new—whether their contract required me to or not. I just do this with a quick email that usually looks something like this:
Hope you’re having a great week!
I wanted to let you know that I recently started freelancing for Company X. Since you both run in similar circles, I wanted to give you a heads up myself—so you aren’t surprised when you see my byline there.
As always, don’t hesitate to let me know if you have questions!
Now, there’s no need to do this for every single client—only the ones that you could potentially see any conflicts arising with (which, honestly, are few and far between). Yes, it takes a little bit of extra time and effort to send this note. But, this sort of honesty and willingness to be upfront is exactly what it takes to foster a thriving relationship with your clients.
3. Never Repurpose Your Own Work
I would hope that this point goes without saying, but I couldn’t just leave it out entirely. While the concept of plagiarizing yourself might seem strange, it’s a real thing—and, even further, it’s a thing you want to avoid.
What exactly do I mean? Well, let’s say that I previously wrote a piece for Client A about the best opening lines to use in a cover letter. Now, I’m working on a separate post for Client B that covers different tips for writing a strong cover letter. One of the tips I’m including is to use a powerful opening line. “Well, hey!” I think to myself, “I had some awesome paragraphs on this in that other post! I’ll just use those and change out a few words.”
Stop right there—you never want to do this. I’ll admit that sometimes it’s tough to find more than one way to say something (and, honestly, there are a few times when it’s plain ol’ impossible), but you should not be lifting huge pieces of text from your previous work. Ever. For any reason.
Everything you write for your clients should be 100% original and not already published elsewhere—just because it was published under your byline doesn’t make it ok to copy.
4. Beware of Confidentiality
Confidentiality is a concern for all of your freelance clients. But, it’s of even more importance when you’re dealing with numerous clients all within the same field or industry.
Make sure that you’re always doing your best to keep clients separated and keep all confidential information under wraps. You’d never want to bring the same article pitch to two different clients, for example. Or, you’d never want to divulge how that other client sets their rates or the details of a new feature or product they’re developing. Spilling the beans on anything that isn’t already public information could get you into some trouble.
Here’s my golden rule: If you get even the slightest inkling that what you want to say shouldn’t be shared, keep your lips zipped. It’s better to keep quiet than to blurt out something you shouldn’t have. After all, not maintaining confidentiality is a surefire way to blow your client’s trust and damage your reputation.
Don’t forget to grab this email template to make requesting contract changes a little easier!
Over to You
Working for different clients within the same niche or industry does present a few challenges. But, rest assured, it’s totally doable.
Make sure that you keep these tips in mind, and you’re sure to manage all of those relationships without any major issues (there’s nothing more anxiety-inducing than legal trouble!). And, remember, if you’re ever in doubt about something you can or can’t do, enlist the help of a lawyer. Sometimes you just need to call in the experts!