By deciding to make your living as a freelance writer, you also (perhaps unknowingly) decided to strike out as self-employed small business owner. While you probably gravitated towards writing because of your creative inner spirit, or your love of the written word, or because you thought some good money could be made in this field, freelance writing is not all about the writing – it’s about the business as well. And if you want to be successful in business, you need to be able to strike good deals and protect your interests.
In the business world, this is done with the help of a contract. In the fast-paced world of commerce, contracts offer certainty and protection for both parties, and this applies to freelancers as well. Therefore, if you are planning to engage in freelance writing work (especially if it is a large or long-term project), then you need a contract with your client, and this post will tell you what you need to include in it.
1. Definition of business relationship
A contract should define the nature of the business relationship between the parties. In most cases, the relationship between a freelance writer and their customer would be a contractor-client relationship. Making this relationship clear in the contract provides transparency about the intentions of the parties. This is important primarily from a tax point of view, as a mis-classification of the relationship can put your client on the hook to pay employment taxes to the government.
The establishment of this relationship can be achieved by some wording that says that the freelancer will be providing services under the contract as an independent contractor, and that the freelancer will not be entitled to any employee benefits from the client.
2. Scope of services
As with any business collaboration, it is always better to establish the terms of the engagement before any work is commenced, in order to ensure that both parties are satisfied that they are entering into the relationship on clear and enforceable terms. One of the most important aspects of this is to define what exactly you will be doing for the client.
Take the standard blog for instance. Before you start writing, you will need to discuss and agree a whole host of matters, such as:
- Will you be writing just one blog, or one blog a month for the next 3 months?
- Do you need to come up with a title, or is the client provide you with one?
- Is there a minimum or maximum number of words to be written?
- Does the blog need to contain any SEO keywords?
- Are there any words or expressions that the client does not want included?
- Are you responsible for sourcing any photos or other images for the post, and if yes, is the cost of this included in the price of writing the blog, or will you be reimbursed for this separately?
- When are the posts due by?
- Where should you send your completed work?
- Is there are review or approval process?
While it is definitely possible to agree all the necessary terms via email, having a contract makes things simpler down the line. For instance, it could take you several rounds of emails to agree the scope of a project and the pricing. If a question comes up about these points at a later date, you could end up spending a significant amount of time trawling through your inbox in search of that one email that contains the information you need; worse, it might be that the information you are looking for is spread over multiple different emails! (I have had to do this as part of my contract negotiator role many, many, many times and it is never a fun experience!). However, if you have a contract, you just flip to the right page and hey presto! the information is at your fingertips!
Another way in which a contract is superior to emails is that the former is much clearer on phrasing. While business communication has become much more informal since the proliferation of email, a side effect of this is that many people’s email writing has taken on an overtly leisurely style where grammar and punctuation are optional, and where typos that change the entire meaning of the sentence abound. As a result, it is common that an email does not accurately reflect the writer’s intentions. Contracts, on the other hand, (being enforceable legal documents) need to be as clear as possible in order to avoid any ambiguity that could unintentionally favour the other side. This is not to say that all contracts are perfect (I have seen many bad contracts in my time), but generally they surpass email when it comes to phrasing and clarity of meaning.
3. Price of services
It is important that both parties agree and are happy with the price of the services to be performed. There is no ‘correct’ way to determine the price of services – sometimes the rate is set unilaterally by the freelancer or the client, and sometimes the price is the subject of some negotiation.
Price for services can vary greatly, as some freelancers charge more for their work than others (as they may be more experienced, or they may be one of only a handful of people working in a particular niche); equally, some clients can afford to pay more than others (because they may have a higher budget, or they require some unique features to be included in the final work). In addition, prices can change over time – they can go up as the freelancer gains more experience, or they can go down if the parties agree some kind of long-term or bulk work deal. Therefore, it is good practice to include some wording in the contract (especially if it is a longer-term contract) about how the price can be renegotiated, if required.
It probably goes without saying that this section of the contract should be carefully reviewed by both parties for any errors or typos in order to ensure that the fee stated in the contract is the fee that was agreed during the negotiations. It is very easy to accidentally add extra 0s to the end of an agreed fee, changing $100 to $1000, or to overlook a wayward decimals and comma (e.g. is $10,00 meant to be $10.00, or $1,000?).
Currency of payment
This often gets overlooked, as most of us do not usually juggle multiple currencies as part of our day-to-day lives. But here is an example to illustrate why defining the currency of payment is important:
Imagine that you are a small start-up based in Australia and you are looking for a freelance writer to create some content for your new website. You manage to find a freelancer based in the US, and you agree a rate of $100 for a blog. Now – did you agree to pay AUD 100 or USD 100? The Australian-based start-up would probably say ‘AUD, of course!’, but the US-based freelancer could legitimately argue that they understood the price to be USD 100. Who is correct?
Chances are, the implications of the lack of agreement would not become clear to the two parties until payment is made, when the US-based freelancer would complain to the Australian-based start-up that the latter had underpaid (given that AUD 1 is approx. USD 0.75). While the parties can choose to resolve the lack of clarity however they see fit, the experience would most certainly leave a sour taste in both of their mouths.
4. Payment terms and conditions
An important part of any contract for services is the one pertaining to payment terms and conditions. This section of the contract outlines any rules and specification relating to payments and invoicing that the parties need to comply with in order to make and receive payment.
Parties normally include provisions detailing with the following:
- Where invoices need to be sent (normally an email address, but can be a physical address)
- What information needs to be included on the invoice (clients can sometimes require that a unique client ID number, or project number be included on the invoice)
- Deadline for the submission of invoices (can be tied to calendar days, or to the completion of project milestones)
- Payment term (i.e. how long after the receipt of the invoice does the client have to make payment)
- Method of payment (bank transfer, wire transfer, PayPal, cheque, etc.)
- Whether any specific information needs to be included on the bank or wire transfer (e.g. project ID or invoice number)
- Which party is responsible for paying applicable bank or other service charges for international transfers (if applicable)
- Late payment interest rate (if applicable)
- Any other conditions of payment (if applicable)
You should ensure that your payee details are correctly included in the contract, so that you receive payment in the correct account without any undue delay.
Many freelancers opt to receive payments via PayPal, as transactions are facilitated via email addresses. However, if you end up working with a client that does not use PayPal, then you will need to provide them with your business’ bank details in order to receive payment. It is important to remember that clients located abroad will need more information than clients located in the same country as you:
- Account name
- Bank name
- Bank address
- Account number
- Branch number (also known as sort code or transit code)
If you are dealing with an international client for the first time, and you are unsure where to find some of the bank details (such as IBAN and SWIFT) that they would need to make a transfer, then contact your bank for assistance.
5. Ownership of content
Copyright is a bit of an interesting right in the sense that it is the only intellectual property right that vests itself automatically in the work (i.e. unlike patents or trademarks, no registration of the right is required in order to activate it). Copyright is also a powerful right, as it gives the right-holder ultimate control over the work, such as how it is distributed, how it is presented and who has access to it. You can also license your work to third parties, meaning that other people can use your work as if it were their own, provided that they pay you for the privilege.
The usual state of affairs is that the author or creator of a work is the copyright holder. However, this can be altered via contractual arrangement. Since there is no default approach when it comes to ownership of work in the freelance writing world, this makes discussing it with any prospective client all the more important, so you can understand how the client is planning to use the work, and whether they will give you any credit for the work, so you can set your prices accordingly
For instance, some websites and publications will want the copyright in the work transferred in order to allow them to make edits and modifications to the text without needing to run it by the author, though they will still credit the author as the creator of the work. On the other hand, if you engage in ghostwriting services for a client, then the understanding is that you (as the author) are relinquishing any claim of ownership in the work in favour of the client (who will be able to use the work as their own), but in exchange, you can usually charge a higher fee for the work, in order to receive compensation for the lack of copyright and attribution as the author.
Legal disclaimer: Please note that I am not a lawyer and the information in this this blog post is for general information purposes only. The contents of this blog post do not constitute legal or other professional advice or opinion of any kind. Readers of this blog post should seek specific legal advice from their own legal counsel regarding any specific legal or contractual issues.