We Won!


Today, Supreme Court delivered an historic victory for advocates of gay (er, human) rights when it ruled 5 to 4 that the Constitution requires that same-sex couples be allowed to marry, no matter which backwards state they happen to live in.

Remember when Obama invited known homophobe Rick Warren to deliver an invocation at his historic inauguration after rallying LGBT supporters for the vote? Things have really changed.

The Obama administration certainly is imperfect, with its war on whistleblowers, an unprecedented lack of transparency, and a near-obsession with drones.  And the queer community faces inequality in a myriad of ways, ranging from transphobic violence to housing discrimination. In many states, you can still get fired from your job for being gay.

But sometimes it’s nice to take a moment to celebrate just how far we’ve come, so here’s to incremental progress and savoring the victories!

Lead photo by Guillaume Paumier

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How I Work

PreviewSometimes when I contact someone to get background information on something I’m researching, they’ll say something like, “Please tell me this isn’t for an article about me.” I can’t tell if they’re joking or not, but it’s happened often enough that I wanted to clear up a few things about how I work. I’ve tacked on some answers to a lot of questions I get asked on as well.

Researching Stories

I’m always poking around and asking questions. This doesn’t necessarily mean I’m researching a story or want to write about the thing I’m inquiring about. My questions could be contextual, or just filling my knowledge bank.

If I am trying to investigate something, I will always contact someone accused of wrongdoing to ask them to respond to allegations. I will not do this in a sneaky or surreptitious way–I’m not going to ask friends questions during personal discussions and then sneakily write things up–but rather in an official email with a subject line that says something like “media inquiry: response to allegations,” and/or a phone call.

Allowing people to respond to allegations cuts both ways: it also means that if you make an accusation of someone, I will always need to reach out to that person or company for comment if I write about them. There are a lot of situations in which this might be unacceptable to a source, in which case I may not be the best reporter for the job, because this isn’t something I’ll budge on.

In general, if I want to quote someone on a topic, I’ll make it very clear that this is what I’m doing (and there’s a chance to say no or refer me to someone else). I may decide someone is a good potential source on a subject based on casual conversations, but that’s about it.

Quoting From Listservs or Emails

I do not quote from personal emails without people’s consent. It’s extremely unlikely that I’d quote directly from a public listserv or discussion without reaching out to the author of the comments for clarification and permission, unless it is a public statement. I have sometimes linked to Github bug report responses, though.

Public Figures vs. Everyone Else

I believe that public figures have less of a right to control information about themselves than private people do, and make reporting decisions based on this belief.

Off the Record vs. On Background

Many times when people say they’d like to discuss a topic off the record, they really mean on background, but balk when I make that suggestion. To clear things up, let’s go over some definitions.

On the record information means it can be used in a story which quotes the source by name.

Off the record means the discussion didn’t happen; the information can’t be used for publication. If it’s off the record, I can’t even discuss it with an editor who asks me if I reached out to someone to say “yes, they said X is happening but didn’t want to be quoted.”

On background typically means information can be published, but without the name of the source; for example, “a company spokesperson said XXX.” It can also be used to share, uh, background information without any type of quote.

There are, of course, a myriad of ways one can be attributed/identified or not, which are typically reserved for victims of crimes or other sensitive situations.  It is, in my opinion, unethical to ask a source to go on the record when there are reasons doing so would put them at risk. I will, however, sometimes ask someone who asks for off the record if they actually mean on background, if it seems that way to me.

Interview Recordings and Logistics

I typically conduct interviews in person or by phone. If it is a phone interview, I will ask permission to record the call. I record it using Voice Memos if in person or on a web app like Skype. I will use an app called TapeACall to record phone interviews.TapeACall says that it stores recordings on its server for one year. Depending on the length of the call, my budget, and the deadline, I will sometimes send calls to third parties for transcription. Recording and possibly transcribing an interview, of course, means that a third party or perhaps more than one third party has access to the call.

Sometimes sources will decide that specific information on a call is off the record after they’ve said it. This has happened to me on Skype and Google Hangouts and other mediums, in which information is already accessible by third parties. I will transcribe entire calls that have even one off the record sentence in them to minimize exposure, but in general I’d recommend not discussing off the record information on a phone call that’s being recorded by a third party app. This is particularly true if you are, for example, a human rights worker living in a country in which Skype is monitored.

When Will The Post Be Up?!?!

The short answer is, “I don’t know.” Also, not everybody I interview gets quoted in a draft, and not everyone’s quotes in a draft make it to the final piece. And sadly, not all of my finished pieces go live. Sometimes they get stuck in purgatory.

Reviewing Material

Depending on policies of the publication I write for and on how tight my deadline is, I can sometimes allow sources to review their own quotes. I do not show sources the entire article in advance, but can sometimes discuss specifics for clarification. For a thorough explanation on why journalists don’t share entire posts or articles in advance, and to understand some other options, see Steve Buttry’s post on this very topic.


Sometimes I get angry emails ringing the alarm bells because a reader feels the post was inaccurate. If there are legitimate factual errors, I do my best to correct them, though it is of course at my editors’ discretion. I will typically discuss any issues that arise with my editor, with a few exceptions. Some purported inaccuracies are simply a difference of opinion. Sometimes I summarize reports and the readers disagree with the actual research cited or source I quoted, which isn’t always a factual error. And sometimes information is omitted for deliberate reasons, such as reader interest or the target audience. There are also times in which information I receive in an email or a comment (yes, I do typically read them) gives me a broader view of an issue and may guide future work, but I don’t feel that the original post needs a correction.

Correction vs updates

If I reach out to a source for comment and they do not do so, but then contact me after the post goes live, I will add the comments into the piece, but this is typically an update, and not a correction. Corrections are reserved for factually inaccurate information, not for sources responding to request for comment after a piece has already been published.

Conflicts of Interest

I always disclose conflicts of interest, but sometimes they are ridiculous, like when I had a cup of coffee with someone three years ago and can’t remember whether or not they paid.

Branded Content

These days, there’s been a bit of blurring between journalistic endeavors and PR, with brands often owning websites and publications. (For example, I edit a fitness journal owned by a gym and have written for a website owned by an accelerator.) I have edited for a pet brand and edit for a lifestyle brand, and done a bit of content marketing (read: blogging) for brands covering content marketing (so meta). Where I draw the line is in writing sponsored content on technology and other topics I cover editorially. If I were to reach out to interview someone for sponsored content (which typically does not happen since the interviewees are pre-selected and before a writer comes on the scene), I would always disclose this upfront.

Stuff I have very little control over

Headlines. Stripped links. And some edits, though I do my very best to only write for publications that will allow me to see edits before they go live so we can have a discussion, if needed, about changes made.

Deleting Comments

I like to think I’m open to constructive feedback, but I am sometimes mercurial about blocking people on Twitter and do delete racist or even just annoying comments on Facebook. Now you know up front. I also moderate comments on this blog, which I have to approve before they are posted. I did this in response to abusive comments and because I don’t want to keep blocking Tor users. Oh, and speaking of Tor, as of right now, IP addresses are tracked for comments.

Contacting Me

There are a lot of different ways to contact me, listed below.

Email: [email protected]
Phone Number: +1-715-456-4273
Documents: OnionShare
PGP Fingerprint: 6E72 C713 979F 9EEA EFB8 A40B 5E34 C751 4A11 536A
Jabber/XMPP: [email protected]
OTR Fingerprint: 7D8A1972 94324731 C22D50EA 71AC732F 88BAD4DD
Jitsi: Upon request
PondContact me to set up a secret to exchange.
Signal/TextSecure fingerprint:  05 6d 1b 54 20 6f bd c9 75 27 a9 68 89 bb 2c 1f 60 3a b9 9c 9b 99 fe ce f9 2c f1 93 9a 91 8a 04 30.
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/yaelwriteshttps://www.facebook.com/yaelgrauerwrites
Twitter: @yaelwrites

If you are planning on disclosing tips or leads for investigative reporting projects I’m working on and believe that you may be at risk if the information is somehow traced back to you, I encourage you to consider the implications before doing so.

I will challenge any subpoenas or attempts by either government agencies or private sector organizations to gain access to any information I obtain, and will attempt to provide notice (unless legally prohibited from doing so) if legally required to disclose information, in order to give you an opportunity to object to the disclosure.

However, please be aware that there are numerous ways to trace individuals to social media and email accounts (even pseudonymous ones), that secure messaging tools typically allow any user to see who else in their phone’s contact list has downloaded the tool, and that even encrypted communications typically leak metadata (e.g. who you emailed, when, and with what subject line…or who you called, when, and how long you spoke).

For more information on secure, private communications, and on threat modeling, please seeAccess Tech and Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self-Defense Project. I have listed ways to contact me with a variety of tools (OnionShare, Signal/RedPhone/TextSecure, Jitsi, PGP, Pond, etc.) depending on what makes sense for your situation).

I hope to add more tutorials about these tools in the future.


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Dear ICANN, Please Don’t Expose WHOIS Data!

megaphone vector

I can’t think of any good reason a small business owner should have to publicize her home address just to have a website. Can you?

Right now, website owners can pay a few extra dollars to conceal their private information with WHOIS protection services. Scary guidelines proposed by MarkMonitor would prohibit sites with commercial activity from doing that, forcing business owners to publish their contact information or sharing it with people who complain about the site.

If you’re opposed to these proposed rules and would rather not have your personal information (or anyone else’s) revealed without a court order, email your views to ICANN at [email protected] by July 7th, or use the phone and email tool of another coalition at respectourprivacy.com. You can also sign a petition at  savedomainprivacy.org.

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If You Hate Shopping But Love Cute Clothes…

imgresI’m not ashamed to admit that I spend a fair bit of time on men’s websites. Who doesn’t want to make sense of hair paste, pomade, and putty or learn how to train for an obstacle race? In fact, I’ve always wished that there were men’s sites for women that had the same no-frills, low-maintenance approach instead of overwhelming me with 29 ways to braid or 16 summer pieces on sale.

That’s because I want to look cute (who doesn’t?), but barely have time for all the regular primping and preening without making things more time-consumingly complicated. I barely remember to eat and sleep some days, and when I do wear makeup, I try to put it on in 15 minutes or less. Who’s got more time than that?

I also find shopping painstakingly depressing and far too time-consuming, especially since I have an annoying hourglass figure which is apparently traditionally chic and yet I can’t find anything I fit in and just try stuff on and can’t wear it and want to tear my hair out.

And that’s why I love Stitch Fix. Sure, it’s a little pricier than thrift shopping or discount department stores, but it’s so easy. You fill out some details about your style, size, and what you’re looking for, and a box of clothes appears at your doorstep.

It’s definitely a learning process–I rejected almost everything from my first few boxes–but as the stylists get to know your style and what you’re looking for–you get to leave detailed notes about each piece– you’re more likely to find more clothes you want to keep.

Here’s how it works: You pay $20 for the fix, subtracted from any item you buy. If you purchase all five items, you’ll get an additional 25 percent off. Fixes include slacks and jeans, shirts, dresses, skirts and sweaters, and also jewelry, scarves, and bags. You can sign up just once or get automatic shipments as often as every three weeks, or every month and even every other month. Returns are free–an envelope is included.

I’m recommending this because it’s quick and easy and fun. I get compliments whenever I wear items from my fixes. If you want a $25 discount, just use my referral link. (I think I’ll get $25, too.)


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Scrapbook Diaries: TVs and Hippies

FullSizeRenderScrapbook Diaries is a series I started to share some more personal thoughts by annotating pages from a scrapbook that I kept in college.

If you can’t read the writing, it says:

“I eat twigs and berries
and I’m kind of furry.
I may not always smell so good.
But when you call me a stinky hippie,
Aww shit, it really hurts the team.” –Bull

I’m sure you can read the bottom part.

I’m posting this particular scrapbook page because I’m enjoying the endearing poem written by a guy I met who was just trying to be himself and fit in, juxtaposed against a very harsh and judgmental sticker urging TV viewers to read more.

I grew up in a family where an overworked parent was more interested in television, it seemed, than in interacting with her children, which I think is where my TV rage stemmed from. I still don’t watch a lot of it but I get plenty of screen time and no longer begrudge people their shows… just find the contrast between these two on one page and my apparent lack of awareness about it somewhat amusing.


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Small Claims Court, Technical Questions, & Creepiness: Yael Writes’ Weekly Wrap


Where has the time gone? Week three of the Freelance Success/WordCount Blogathon is now coming to a close.

Blogathon Posts From This Past Week

I also wrote this for WIRED:


Coming Up This Week

I keep putting off the posts about online courses for writers, apps/tools of the trade, herbalism and science, and some security stuff for writers, so those are still in the running, along with more music to write by, perhaps, and maybe another page from the scrapbook diary…


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What Is Processed Food, Anyway?

4698597608_06411e33da_zI decided to stop eating processed food for a month, which is a great way to get really philosophical about what the definition of a process is. Does pulling a food from the ground, chopping it up, and cooking it count as a process? What about drying or rehydrating it? What about additives and chemicals? Are quote unquote natural ones more harmful than artificial ones? Some foods like coffee take extensive processing to get to their final form. You pick the beans and husk the shell and dry the beans and rehusk the shell and roast and brew… still, I’d argue that coffee is healthier than, say, juicing fresh fruit if you’re looking at your blood sugar level.

Some people say processed foods come in a box or a jar, and yet it’s possible to get unprocessed foods in a box or a jar, like the whole vegetables boxed up at Trader Joe’s. I’ve made my own pickles before which certainly come in a jar, and anyone who’s done their own canning would hardly think canned veggies are less nutritious; they’re just preserved, is all.

Instead of arguing about what a process is, I think it makes more sense to determine the reason you’re going on this weird diet, and make decisions accordingly. Let’s explore.

Reason #1: Weight loss

I almost don’t think it even matters which diet you go on for weight loss. Any kind of dietary restriction means you’ll likely be getting fewer calories, and boom. Pounds lost. It is a bit easier if you’re eating nutrient-dense food that makes you full than trying to subsist on nothing but a large popcorn at the movie theater a day, for example. And elevated blood sugar can stymie weight loss levels. Still, being super strict about trace amounts of additives with weight loss being the ultimate goal seems a little silly.

Reason #2: Learning to deal with your shit

If you’re prone to eating emotionally and give up those things you crave for any length of time, you’ll either be miserable or learn some new (and ideally healthier) strategies to help you change the way you feel. Or maybe you’ll do both. Still, giving up sugar or meat or grains or whatnot is likely to lead to the need for new coping mechanisms. Some people find they were eating to indulge, and look for other ways to indulge. Some people eat crap food when they’re feeling self-destructive, and you can even find healthier ways to deal with that. If you’re trying to eat clean to work on emotional eating, probably sticking to whichever rules you created and avoiding those foods you crave when emotionally triggered is probably more important than the minutiae of the rules themselves.

Reason #3: Purity

Some people think giving up certain foods will help them get rid of distractions and focus more on spiritual matters or whatnot. I’m not sure this is true for everyone, because I know a lot of people who are vegans but treat people like dirt, but whatever floats your boat. I don’t think I’m in a position to tell people what to eat to feel pure, so I’ll leave that to the seekers.

Reason #4: Pinning down food sensitivities

Cutting out a bunch of food and then slowly reintroducing it can sometimes help people with food sensitivities pinpoint them more specifically. I was just about to write that being allergic to preservatives is probably unlikely, but then I remembered that  but I’m personally allergic to the preservatives in contact lens solution (you know, in my eyes) and have to use Unisol, so I guess anything is possible.

Reason #5: Health?

I put a big question mark next to that because some unprocessed foods are far from healthy. Like if you don’t consider juicing a process and are drinking apple juice and praising yourself for not eating sugar, you’re probably doing it wrong. I mean, avoiding empty calories can certainly be effective for health, but it’s also possible to seek out substitutes that aren’t really that much healthier. Something to watch out for. It’s also worth noting that different people respond to food in different ways depending on a wide range of issues…

So What Is A Process?

Um…I still don’t know, exactly, but hopefully this has given you some food for thought and a way to try to figure out what to eat based on what you’re trying to do. As for me? I decided to stick to meat, veggies, nuts and seeds, and a little fruit, but decided canned and frozen foods and herbal teas were a-okay. Also, I ate s’mores while camping because s’mores are delicious.

Lead photo by Cam Evans


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But I’m A Creep….

I can’t count on both hands the number of conversations I’ve had with people about creepy creepers and all of the creepy things that they do…. but as I was driving to New Mexico the other day, I started thinking about all of the things I do that are creepy. Maybe they’re not objectively creepy, but reasonable human beings would probably perceive then as creepy…. or maybe I’m just lying to myself. I know I’m not the only one who worries about this, but I thought I’d put it all out there, because that is what I do. So, I’m Yael, and here are the creepy (or ideally, just quirky and weird) things that I do.

1.  I send people anonymous gifts.

The gifts are normal. I swear. But sometimes I’ll see a book or CD or something I want someone to have, but it would be weird if they knew I sent it. I don’t want them to think they have to send me something or that I have weird ulterior motives, so I’ll go to great lengths to send it anonymously. It’s becoming harder and harder since Amazon and Ebay totally sell me out, but at  least I can secretly and anonymously send people Reddit Gold. (Yes, that was probably me.)

2. I send people weird things non-anonymously, too.

I’m not as bad as my friend Billy, who once mailed me a doll he mutilated which he said was an art project when I told him we had to talk. However, I do have a tendency to send people strange things. Like, sometimes I use this comic book app to send people pictures of themselves as drawings, or I use Poetweet to create sonnets, indrisos, and rondels comprised of people’s tweets and then send it to them. I also sent someone a Unicorns Are Jerks coloring book to expose the cold, hard, sparkly truth, and I don’t know if he had the same reaction as I did when Billy sent me that deformed Cabbage Patch kid. I never know if people like what I send or are just too polite to complain about it. I also send people poems I’ve read that I think they’ll like, but nobody ever responds. So yeah. Probably creepy.

3. I’ve probably stalked researched you online.

Stalking is the new research, isn’t it? But sometimes I’ve taken this to extremes, looking at YouTube videos from 2007 or the 10th page of Google or those public Facebook pics from people who I don’t send a friend request to because we’re not actually friends. Whenever I find a new tool, I usually look up a dozen or so people I know on it. My “research” excuse is probably bullshit because I probably don’t need to know about an MMA fighter’s traffic tickets to interview them about an upcoming fight… (But I was trying to paint a picture! Yeah, no.) If you know me, I’ve probably looked you up on Crystal to figure out how to better word an email. I’ve also probably read your out-of-print book, if you have one, or even your ex-girlfriend’s book. I may have read your dissertation. I try to keep this on the DL because people would probably be totally weirded out if you knew how much I knew about them, but probably keeping it secret is even creepier. On very rare occasions, people have told me all sorts of things because they thought I’d know anyway, and they were wrong. So even writing about my, uh, research problem is probably creepy.

Oh, and it gets worse. In the past, I’ve used ToutApp and other tools to tell me when people were clicking on links I sent them or opening emails I sent. I’ve stopped doing this now because I write about privacy and people would kill me, and because it made several of my friends uncomfortable, but I think I still have the creepy gene that compels me to do this.

4. I hold onto my phone will showing you pictures and take my laptop to the potty.

Not only will I bore you to tears with photos you probably don’t even want to see, I’ll also make you feel like a criminal by holding onto my phone while doing so. I’ve also had a lot of strange looks and questions about why I’ll leave my wallet and such out on a table but take my phone and laptop to the bathroom with me. I guess you could call it being security conscious, but I figure if someone steals my wallet, it affects nobody but me. I mean, you don’t know what else is on my laptop or cell phone, or what it’s been on..

5. Oops, I called your cell…

Yesterday I called someone’s cell phone number rather than his work number. I would’ve been creeped out. I don’t even know how I got his non-work number on my phone, but there it is. He said it was okay but it was super creepy and I felt bad. Anyway, this is one of the creepy things that I accidentally do. Then I apologize for it profusely which is even more awkward and creepy. I’ve also been known to call what I thought was a work number at some weird hour hoping to leave a voicemail message before I forgot and gotten a real person. Oops.

6. I am super awkward.

When I’m not making jokes that people don’t understand or find funny, I’m taking things that aren’t literal way too literally. When there aren’t awkward silences, I’m rambling way too much. I’ve been known to stumble over my words, splain basic information to experts by mistake while trying to make conversation, and so forth. Good thing I can make a living writing from the confines of a secret, soundproof closet. I’ll lock myself in.

7. Remember that thing you said in 2009?

Sometimes I bring things up from ages ago. I remember tiny details people have forgotten about, much to their dismay. I mean, who does that? SO creepy.

8. I put 2+2 together. Oops.

One time I asked a housemate where she was hiking, since I noticed her filling up a water bottle and she only did that right before going on a hike, and it really freaked her out. I am often completely oblivious about things that should be obvious and figure out the hard ones, in my quest to fulfill the archetype of the absent-minded professor. (Are those guys creepy, or what?)

9. I try to interpret all those offhand things you say.

I am happily married, and my incredibly patient husband will always humor me and explain the minutiae to me of why he selected one word over another and why it may not mean what I think it means. This doesn’t stop me from obsessing over random things other people say, trying to figure out the hidden meaning. I’ll go to great lengths to try to determine the specific meaning of slang from other countries, ask people in similar professions if there’s another way to interpret something someone said, and so forth. I don’t do this all the time or with everyone, but some glitch in my brain makes me susceptible to this, and my close friends get to hear all about it. At least they accept me for who I am…

10. I really want to be OMGBFFs with people who don’t like me.

I took a StrengthsFinder test once and it told me that my biggest strength was WOO, which stands for winning others over. I personally think it’s my biggest character defect. I have this running list of people I think are really cool that I sense don’t like me. Maybe I think they’re cool because they don’t like me. Maybe we just don’t resonate, but I still want to be friends with them anyway simply because I can’t. One time a tech writer whose book I read blocked me on Twitter (long story), so I stalked him on LinkedIn, sent him a typo that I found, and tried to convince him that we should be friends (or at least to unblock me). One time I was at a Brazilian jiu-jitsu class and my teammate was talking smack (I thought playfully) and I gave it right back and he said we shouldn’t train together anymore (I swear I was joking). I spent the next few months trying to win him back over and finally asked him to train again and promised not to talk. We’re cool now, but I still have about three people on my list right now. I have no idea why I do this, but there it is.

I was hoping that by writing this, I’d make quirky but well-meaning people feel less creepy themselves, or even worry a little less about my own quirks. I’m not sure it worked, but…feel free to share some things on your list with me, either publicly or privately. Some of my best friends can be creeps, I swear it.

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How To Take A Client To Small Claims Court

14135683605_a5650500d5_zTurning in work and not getting paid for it is a pretty depressing part of freelancing. If you’re owed a substantial sum and have a bit of spare time, it’s often useful to pursue payment rather than just giving up. About three years ago, I wrote a long post about taking a client to small claims court and winning, but I wanted to put together a nuts and bolts how-to piece for those of you who don’t want to read about the details of my experience. Here it is.

(Disclaimer: each state small claims court system is different, and this is just based on my experience in Minnesota. However, there will likely be similarities.)

An Ounce of Prevention…

You can’t always avoid deadbeat clients, but getting contracts in writing can be really really helpful if things ever end up in court. (However, I did win my case with just a verbal contract, so it’s not impossible.) Even with a contract, you may consider asking for partial or full payment upfront if it makes sense for the type of work you do. Last but not least, don’t be afraid to walk away from a client if there are red flags. I personally will turn down work from a client if they spend too much time badmouthing the last writer they had. I’ll also literally get up and walk out of a meeting if the client is rude to their sysadmin or tech support person. The deadbeat client I beat in court was screaming about new bugs every few minutes in our five-hour planning meeting that should’ve taken an hour max. It probably shouldn’t have taken me that long to realize that if someone is super nice to me but a raging asshat to their tech guy, he’s probably not a nice person or one worth trying to work for.

The ‘Pay Or Die’ Letter

Often sending a certified letter to a deadbeat client letting them know that you’ll be taking further action if necessary will trigger payment. I like Kelly James-Enger’s template. The important part is to set a firm deadline of when you will take payment to collections and to follow through.


Some organizations, such as the National Writers Union and ASJA, will sometimes negotiate with a client on your behalf if you are a member. This is often ineffective, as all they do is send strongly worded letters and sometimes threaten to out clients publicly, but if you are already a member, it might be worth it. Paying for membership for this service, on the other hand, may not be.

Small Claims vs. Collections

If you have a contract and the client doesn’t dispute the fact that they owe you money, you can try to go to collections instead of small claims court. Or, you may need to send a client to collections at some point after a judgement is rendered. I like CashIn Usa, which is affordable even for small sums… but of course they do keep a percentage of payment received.

Going to Court

You should be able to find a local small claims court website in your area with instructions on what to do. Typically you just have to fill out a claim and pay a small fee, which may get added to the claim, and then the court takes it from there. Just make sure they amount you are seeking is below the maximum allowed amount you can go to small claims court for.

Settling out of Court

Once a court date is set, some clients will settle outside of court. It may be worth considering if you’re comfortable with the amount offered, depending on the circumstances. Of course, some debtors never make an offer.

Gathering Evidence

First you’ll want to gather evidence for each claim you intend to make. This could include contracts, copies of work completed, emails and texts about meetings, correspondence about the actual dispute, invoices, past due notices, and so forth. Often you need to make copies for the judge and for the deadbeat client as well as one for yourself.


Write your case out, summarize it on an index card, and practice it a few times in front of a friend. It helps. Judges also really value clear, logical thinking so try not to jump into tangents about peripherally related issues or getting too emotional. Just the facts, ma’am.

Quantum Meruit

Look this up–it means that your client owes you the amount due for work performed, when he or she cancels the project before it is completed. See if there are any local laws referencing this that you can refer to during your case. It’s not absolutely necessary, but can sometimes help.

Subpoenaing Witnesses

Look up the fee for these, if relevant–it sometimes includes a witness fee, a fee per person, and travel expenses, as well as filling out an affidavit and signing it before a notary. Keep this in mind when calculating cost and time to determine whether you want to go to court. You don’t want to spend more than you are trying to gain.

Just Chill

I brought my now-husband with me to court, which helped me relax a bit. I also felt like trying to get the money owed to me was worthwhile in and of itself, even if I had lost. This helped, but the process was still nerve-wracking, especially because I felt like an imposter wearing my pearls and suit. Sometimes seeing the debtor will make you feel a bit frazzled, too. This is when your index card with the points you want to make will come in handy. Just be aware that you may not get the results that very day, and even if you win, there’s a small chance that your client may want to appeal to district court. For the most part, this is more trouble (and money) than it’s worth.


You don’t always get your money right away after winning in court. There is a process you most go through. Typically you need to get the judgement transcribed to the district court, which puts a lien on the client’s property. After that, you can try to obtain bank accounts or other information to help aid in collection. If you can’t access it, you can often file an Order for Disclosure, requiring the debtor to disclose his assets. There is a small fee associated with this (I paid $5 per mailing and had it sent to both a business and a home address). In Minnesota, if the form is not received back within a certain time period, you can fill out an Affidavit in Support of an Order to Show Cause. This would require the debtor to appear in court to fill out the form (or explain why he couldn’t fill it out). There is another fee for the County Sheriff to serve the order. If this doesn’t work, you can ask the judge to issue an order for a Writ of Attachment, a warrant for the debtor’s arrest for civil contempt of court. It costs another $55 and again, there is no guarantee that it will work if the debtor isn’t arrested or detained for another reason. In that case, they’ll have to fill out the form before being released.

If the form is filled out, or if you find the debtor’s assets (bank account, employment, etc.), you can often either put a levy on the bank account or garnish the debtor’s wages. In Minnesota, you need to pay $55 for a Writ of Execution for this. It is served by the Sheriff of the county where the debtor works or bank account is located. Having the papers served is an additional fee, and garnishing wages requires an additional form, a ten-day notice of intent to garnish. That needs to be served via certified mail (an additional fee). The good news is that any collection fees paid to the Court or Sheriff’s Office by the judgement creditor are added to the judgement and owed by the debtor–but again, there is no guarantee they will get paid.

Is It Worth It?

Although the process is time-consuming, it can also be–dare I say it?-kind of fun. In my situation, I was seeking $845 and $75 in court fees. The judge ruled that I would receive $500 and $75 in court fees. I also spent an additional $55 for the transcript of judgement, order of disclosure, and paperwork to file a partial satisfaction of judgement. At that point, I was going to drop the matter because it costs $55 to pursue wage garnishment in Minnesota, and spending $55 to try to get $55 didn’t make sense. However, I got the remaining $55 from the deadbeat client’s company from the new owners after he was ousted as CEO.

Small claims was worth it for me because I actually enjoyed the process and got $500 out of it, and because getting payment from a terrible client was personally satisfying. (I also ended up making a lot of friends with people who’d heard about the case and had their own bad experiences with the guy, so having cool people know  my name at events and get really excited about meeting me was an added bonus.) I can’t say whether it’d be worth it for you, but hopefully understanding the process a little better can help you make a good decision.



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Lead image by Tori Rector

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