Negotiating Techniques for Writers

You can’t negotiate your birthday. But pretty much everything else is susceptible to discussion and change, provided you’re open to such a conversation, and you know how to proceed.

What is Negotiation?

Negotiation is very simply a method people of good will often use to discuss their differences of opinion or choice and – under certain circumstances – to determine a way forward that all parties are willing to accept.

Since (as a writer) you generally have little or no power over your subjects, your sources, your collaborators, your publishers, your clients, or anyone else involved in your professional projects, negotiation is one of the primary tools you have available to try and produce the outcomes you want.

While negotiation sometimes produces a deal that’s far less advantageous than you may have hoped, it can also produce an acceptable deal in a situation that at some point seemed hopeless.

Important Notes:

  1. Fundamentally, negotiation is the process of reaching an agreeable way forward (often through compromise or consensus, two very different things) without the use of force. In other words, when we negotiate, we all choose to participate and we all choose to abide by the result. If one party needs or uses force to get another party to comply, it’s no longer negotiation.
  2. Negotiation works only among people of good will. If you’re dealing with someone who isn’t willing to be fair or isn’t willing to abide by a negotiated agreement, there’s no point in trying to negotiate.
  3. Just for the record: I doubt I can motivate you in this short article to want to negotiate for more than you think you deserve, but I know for certain I can help you – as I have helped many others – improve your chances of getting all you want through negotiation.

How Do You Start Negotiating?

The best way to begin negotiating is for both sides to make a plain statement of what they want. In the best-case scenario, there may be no need for negotiation because each side wants something the other side can easily and willingly provide.

If there are important differences in desired outcomes, and also a willingness to negotiate, it’s helpful for each side to supplement their plain statement of what they want by specifying more detailed “must haves” and “would like to haves” in rank order.

In other words, if I make a plain statement that I want you to write a million words for a hundred dollars, maybe I will supplement that with a “must have” of half a million words rather than a million. If you make a plain statement that you want a million dollars for a million words, maybe you will supplement that with a “must have” of half a million dollars.

Now we’re getting somewhere, because if we both feel OK with these “fall back” positions, there’s a neat and natural point of agreement: I’ll be willing to pay half a million dollars and you’ll be willing to write half a million words.

The negotiation is complete. Congratulations.

But if there is no immediately neat and natural point of agreement, we can nevertheless continue to negotiate our way through our differences, which can fruitfully be viewed as some combination of obstacles and resistance.

How Do You Negotiate Through Obstacles and Resistance?

“Obstacles” are best thought of as relatively non-negotiable differences in the agendas and goals of the negotiating parties. I need to get half a million words. You need to get half a million dollars. As the negotiation continues, we may find ways to get past those obstacles, or ways to accept those obstacles and move on.

“Resistance” is best thought of as a relatively negotiable difference in the agendas and goals of the negotiating parties. For example, I may be resistant to working with a writer I don’t know very well, particularly if I’m asked to pay an advance. You may be resistant to working on a project without getting half the payment up front, particularly if you’re working for a client whose track record on payments you can’t ascertain. We are far apart, but we may be able to negotiate through these points of resistance.

One of the first steps in completing a successful negotiation is to establish and build a relationship of trust with the other party. You can start doing this, even during preliminary phases of the negotiation, by such actions as:

  • Talking on the phone or in person, and getting to know more about each other,
  • Making and keeping commitments, such as to exchange documents or share information,
  • Asking for and giving personal or professional references from reliable people,
  • Negotiating the small stuff – such as the meeting place for the serious negotiations, the shape of the negotiating table, the number and qualifications of other people who will be in the room for the negotiations, and so forth,
  • Fully and honestly stating what you want, what you “must have”, and what you “would like to have” from the negotiation.

An important aspect of negotiation is to be clear about your own bottom line. For example, if you are absolutely dead set on not writing a word until you have received some money in advance, then you will find it easier to cut through the chatter and understand whether the negotiation is advancing, or at a standstill.

This kind of clarity helps the negotiations in three ways:

  1. Your clarity helps you understand in detail what you “must have” from this negotiation, and it saves you the time and trouble of negotiating further once it’s clear you’re not going to get it.
  2. Your clarity helps communicate your “must haves” to the other party and – more often that you might suspect – provides extra motivation for them to relent on some obstacle or resistance that has been standing in the way of negotiation progress.
  3. Your clarity fuels a unique technique: It cues you when to literally walk away from the negotiation. Physically departing from the negotiation creates an immediate sense of loss in the other party, and possibly confusion, too. You’re sending a very strong message that you’re not going to agree to their demands, and this may cause them to back down and demand somewhat less.

The good thing about physically walking away is that you don’t have to mean it: there’s nothing to stop you from immediately turning around and walking right back into the negotiations, if you wish. But you’ll often find walking away is a powerful negotiating technique that can break a negotiation log jam.

Another proven negotiating technique is simple compromise. You want a million dollars, but you’ll accept half a million. I want a million words, but I can make do with half a million. Let’s compromise on three quarters of a million – both words and dollars. “Let’s meet in the middle,” is a rallying cry that has forged acceptable ways forward through what many have perceived as negotiation dead ends. Offered judiciously, a compromise can exert great power.

Perhaps the most important technique that helps in negotiating a satisfactory way forward is to listen carefully to the other party. You can do this by letting them talk at length, by repeating what they say back to them in different words, and by a willingness to modify your demands to accommodate some of their positions. For example, I may be insisting on a full million words, but I may also be open to you delivering those million words over a 12 month period, or allowing a large number of those words to be repeated many times – effectively cutting back on the work I’m actually requiring.

I’m not going to give more examples here because that’s outside the scope of this article. But the point is simply that by actively listening to the other party and thinking hard about what they really seem to want instead of what they are literally saying, you can often find a way forward that cuts through seemingly insurmountable obstacles and resistances.

How Do You Complete Negotiations?

There are many techniques that top negotiators use to push through all the obstacles and resistances and to hammer out a satisfactory way forward for all parties. They can include any combination of:

  • Charm and charisma
  • Logical argument
  • Emotional persuasion
  • Bartering (I’ll accept your specific terms on one item if you’ll accept my specific terms on some other item)
  • Establishing a deadline for completing the negotiations
  • Shortening the term of the proposed agreement (automatically making it less onerous than a longer lasting agreement)
  • Calling for a “cooling off” period (temporarily halting negotiations and resuming later)

In addition to these, one technique I often use is to start with the least important difference and try to get it resolved, then move on to negotiating a slightly more important difference, and so on. This approach has four distinct advantages:

  1. The least important item to negotiate is often the easiest to resolve. You want to write those million words on a Mac instead of the PC I asked for? Sure, no problem. Let’s move on.
  2. Eliminating one item of disagreement simplifies the rest of the negotiations
  3. Resolving one item helps build additional trust and rapport between the negotiating parties
  4. Completing a discrete piece of the negotiating agenda establishes a point of common ground, effectively strengthening the parties’ emotional and practical commitments to completing the rest of the negotiation.

(In addition, as a writer, I just plain feel good memorializing each completed item I’m negotiating.)

Of course, there’s a lot more to successful negotiation than I can cover in this short piece. Nevertheless, I’ve found these tools and ideas generally provide writers with lasting motivation to develop their negotiating skills and use them to improve the results they’re getting as professional writers.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.