RN2W: Know Your SOW: What It Is, How to Craft It, and How to Enforce It

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Recently I’ve been embroiled in a situation with a soon-to-be-ex client that does not want to adhere to the SOW requirements we mutually agreed on in the contract, and I thought this would make an excellent topic for the newsletter.

What is a SOW, you ask? Great question.

SOW stands for Scope of Work. A poorly defined SOW can make or break a client relationship. A poorly defined SOW can allow clients to take advantage of you. A poorly designed SOW can spark feelings of resentment in you towards a client. So, yes, it pays to learn how to craft a SOW that works for you.

But even if you draft an ironclad SOW, it’s a useless document if you don’t enforce it. Today I’m going to share some strategies for tactfully getting clients to adhere to the bounds of the scope of work.

This is No Time for People-Pleasing

Many of us went into nursing because we love helping people. I know I do. I freely share nursing advice with people who ask me, and, of course, I’m sharing my freelancing knowledge with you all because I’m passionate about helping you use your nursing skills in a new way as a successful freelance writer.

But there’s a difference between ‘helping’ and ‘people-pleasing.’

People-pleasers tend to have difficulty setting and enforcing boundaries. People-pleasers frequently let others walk all over them (often while grousing about it under their breath). As a business owner, you need to learn how to help clients without necessarily being a people-pleaser. It’s a delicate balance, and it’s where the SOW comes in.

What is a ‘Scope of Work’ Statement?

Simply stated, the SOW defines in detail the services you will provide to the client. Here’s a great analogy…

As a nurse, your professional practice is bound by a formal Scope of Practice (SOP) document set forth by your state Board of Nursing. In my state, for example, the SOP bars me from administering ketamine drips. Therefore, if a physician asked me to administer a ketamine drip, I could point to the SOP and say no, it’s outside my scope of practice.

In freelance writing, the SOW performs a similar function. It places boundaries on what you will (and will not) be doing for the client. It sounds straightforward – and in a certain way, it is – but a million little nuances can come into play on any given project. That’s why it pays to be as detailed as possible when crafting the SOW for any assignment.

The Elements of a SOW

At a bare minimum, the SOW should include:

  • Description of the deliverable (e.g.: white paper, blog post, article, etc.)

  • Number of each asset to be delivered (e.g.: “one white paper,” “10 blog posts,” etc.)

  • Length of the deliverable (word count or other measure)

  • Sourcing requirements

  • Deadline

  • Number of revisions

  • Timeline for revisions

  • Submission method (e.g.: email a Word document, create in Google Docs, submit through Basecamp, etc.)

  • Number and format of client meetings/consultations (e.g.: phone calls, Zoom meetings, etc.)

  • Point of contact on client side

The precise elements of a SOW will vary depending on the type of asset you’re producing and your client relationship. For example, the SOW for a monthly retainer project that’s ongoing may cover multiple discrete elements, such as defining the word count for a blog post as well as the word count for social media posts. Or maybe you’ll have different deadlines for different deliverables. ALL of this information should be captured in a SOW clause in the contract, contract addendum, separate signed document, or, at a bare minimum, email exchange.

Now let’s go over each of these items in detail.

Description of the deliverable

Be as detailed as you possibly can. For example, instead of defining the deliverable simply as a “white paper,” try to add more description: “One white paper on the topic of how a new retina scanning technology has led to increased detection of macular degeneration in the over-50 population based on the findings of five clinical trials.” This level of specificity will help you keep clients on track if they decide, mid-project, to go off on tangents. (Believe me, this happens all the time. Iteration-on-the-fly is very real with creative types like editors and project managers!)

Number of each asset to be delivered

Always, always include the precise number of deliverables. This may be less important if you’re defining a one-off assignment, but it’s still good to get into the habit of writing numbers (“one,” “seven”) instead of “a” or “the” in your SOW documents.

Length of deliverable

Sounds straightforward, right? “One 500-word blog post.” Ah, but is that 500 words based on the original draft? The final, edited number? What? This is a crucial point to nail down, especially if you’re being paid by the word. My social media timelines are littered with the mournful tales of fellow writers whose editors demanded long drafts only to whittle them down and pay based on the final count. Be very, very clear about the word count or other measurement (it could be time-based, for example) to save yourself much heartburn in the future.

Sourcing requirements

Will the piece require you to interview primary sources? If so, how many? And does the client have any particular source requirements, such as being attached to a research hospital? Being considered a social media ‘influencer’?

Or will using secondary sources be sufficient? If interviews are required, does the client require these to be performed on the phone, or will email suffice? These extremely important details can vastly affect the amount of time it takes you to complete the initial draft of a content asset. Be as specific as possible here.

Deadline

Here, I’m referring to the deadline by which you will submit your draft. Most projects involve multiple deadlines to accommodate revisions, and I’ll touch on those next. When articulating the deadline, be sure to include not just the date but the TIME. Are you agreeing to “end of business day” in the client’s time zone – or your own? Setting the date AND time demonstrates to the client your attention to detail and also sets expectations on both sides. Also, avoid setting deadlines in terms of length of time elapsed, such as “in two weeks.” That’s far too vague to be useful.

Number of revisions

Many writers offer two or three revisions of the initial draft. You’ll have to negotiate this with the client, but that doesn’t mean you need to agree to unlimited revisions or revisions requested six months after you submitted the draft. (Can you hear the personal experience here?) These days I try very hard to set both a number of revisions and timeline for them. For example, “This project includes two sets of revisions within two weeks of initial draft submission, after which the copy will be considered final and accepted by the client.” As I said, you can’t dictate these terms, so put your negotiation cap on and learn how to hammer out these little, important details.

Timeline for revisions

Always remember that the client relationship is collaborative in nature. You are not the client’s employee, subject to their beck and call at any hour of any day. Rather, like you, the client has responsibilities related to moving the project forward with consideration to your business needs. Setting a timeline for revisions is among those responsibilities. The client needs to tell you when you can expect to receive revisions from them, and when they will respond to the edits you’ve made. If you do not define this in the SOW, then you run the risk of clients taking (see above) six months to get back to you with revisions.

Submission method

As often as possible, I try to simply submit Word documents to clients via email. This marks me as an old person, I know. The particular method used is less important than defining it within the SOW document, because there are a million potential ways a client might want you to submit: Docs, Basecamp, Asana, WordPress, their own proprietary CMS (content management system), etc., etc., etc. Be sure to nail this down with specificity.

Number and format of client meetings

Many editors simply assign you by email, and you never hear from them again except to bat a few edits back and forth. Great. But you should still define this in the SOW to protect you from those other clients, the ones who want to get you on the phone every few days “just to see how things are going.” Personally, my standard process includes offering weekly phone or Zoom meetings of 30 minutes or less, just to check in and go over any details. Most of my clients decline, but I put it in the SOW as an option anyway.

Point of contact on the client side

Try to pin down a single contact to interact with on the client side. It’s very helpful to identify one person to act as the ‘gatekeeper’ for all of your questions, etc.

What Format is Appropriate for a SOW?

In many cases, the SOW is presented as a clause within a contract extended to you by the client or as an ‘appendix’ document: Exhibit A, as it were. What I’ve noticed, however, is that these Exhibit As tend to be highly non-specific, which benefits the client. These appendices tend to say things like, “Writer will produce blog posts each month, per schedule.” That’s not advantageous to you.

But the good news is you don’t have to try to renegotiate the entire contract – or even the exhibit in question – if this is the case. You also can rely on email exchanges to outline the SOW, and these are usually considered equally legally binding (if it ever came to that).

If an assigning editor or client approaches you by email with a project after you’ve signed the contract, feel free to outline all the SOW elements in a return email “just to make sure we’re on the same page.” Boom, done!

If you’re in the lovely position of writing up your own contract for a client to sign, then, of course, you can try to include anything you want – including a detailed SOW. I recommend, though, that you create a master contract that refers to ‘assignment letters’ or ‘addendums’ or some other document that defines ongoing SOWs in detail for each project. Then, issue a separate SOW for each discrete project.

What if the Client Doesn’t Agree to Any of this Crap?

If a client refuses to accept a SOW without negotiating, walk away. Massive red flag, there. That’s a client you don’t want to work with.

But do expect clients to negotiate with you. After all, they need the SOW to work for them, too. Expect some back-and-forth to massage the details to mutual satisfaction.

How to Enforce the SOW

No scope of work document is worth a hoot if you allow clients to abandon it at will. The SOW should protect you from that sort of behavior, in fact. This means you will occasionally have to take a deep breath and communicate to the client that their requests/demands lie outside the scope of work. Here’s what I do.

I generally try to accommodate minor client requests that fall outside the SOW. I consider this to be good customer service. Only you can define what “good customer service” means to you. Personally, I like a saying my late husband always employed: “The customer isn’t always right, but they are always the customer.” I use this as a guideline for communicating professionally and rising above any “right-fighting.”

If a client begins to stray far outside the stated SOW, I address it as quickly as I notice it. Usually I send a brief but polite email with a message along the lines of, “I hear what you’re saying and can understand why you want to do that, but I do want to point out this request is outside the agreed-upon scope of work. How do you suggest we resolve that?” Putting the responsibility onto the client’s shoulders helps them feel empowered to negotiate a solution to the problem. In my experience, this step often becomes the only one necessary to resolve SOW issues.

Occasionally, however, I get that client who either doesn’t understand the SOW or doesn’t want to understand it or simply doesn’t want to adhere to it after they’ve agreed to it. They just want what they want, and they figure they’re paying me to do what they want.

Au contraire, mon frère.

I will point to the SOW in client communications as often as necessary to rein in a project. Recently I dealt with a client who assigned a “1,000-word” article, but it became clear very quickly what they really expected was for me to write an article twice as long that they could then edit down to 1,000 words. I politely declined and pointed to the SOW. I said I was commissioned to write a 1,000-word article, and that’s exactly what I turned in. The client was not happy and will never work with me again – and that’s fine by me, because I don’t want the headache of dealing with their unreasonable demands.

This story illustrates why you need the most ironclad SOW you can craft. It will save you from clients like this one that try to take advantage of you. Thankfully, these situations are few and far between. But a great SOW document will be your lifesaver on the rare occasion a circumstance like this arises.

And that, my friends, is my insanely long dissertation on scope of work. Please keep in mind this is a very general outline of the subject (despite its insane length). I’m sure I’ll come back to revise this post periodically, as I remember something I forgot to include.

Questions? Hit me in the comments!

Elizabeth Hanes

Elizabeth Hanes

Elizabeth Hanes BSN RN is known professionally as "the nurse who knows content." By day, she uses her nursing knowledge and creative writing acumen to produce content that drives results for clients. By night, she teaches other nurses how to achieve their dreams of a professional writing career. In between, she takes frequent breaks to drink Cosmos and walk her dog, Mitzi. Elizabeth lives in Albuquerque, NM. She has never met Walter White or needed Saul Goodman.

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