Contracts are your friend
Here are some words that come to mind when someone mentions the word ‘contract’.
Technical. Boring. Complex. Eugh…
When you decided to become a freelance writer, your thoughts were probably on starting a kick-ass blog, writing for a major publication, or even just writing for fun – nowhere in your plan featured the concept of contract or law. But, the fact of the matter is that by choosing to become a freelance writer, you have also chosen to set yourself up as a small business owner. And part of being a small business owner is not only growing your business through your skills and knowledge, but also being able to protect your business – and the best way to do that is through a contract.
While the word contract conjures up negative reactions in most people, at it’s core, a contract is simply an enforceable agreement between two people. Most of the time, contracts are written down (to clearly show exactly what the parties agreed), but they can be verbal or even implied. A contract can be several dozens of pages long, but it can also be just a few simple paragraphs. In short, contracts are versatile tools that – when used correctly – protect you and your business from vague and sometimes unscrupulous clients, and also help you grow your business.
Here are 3 reasons why you will be grateful that you put a contract in place with your client before starting any freelance work.
Probably the number one most important role of a contract is to provide clarity.
Before starting on any kind of freelance work for a client, you are likely to have some discussions about the project. This discussion will probably cover areas such as topic, word-count, fee and due date and will most likely take place over email (or maybe a phone call). Now, unless you are a meticulous organiser of your inbox, have the ability to recall conversations with blinding exactness, or are a spreadsheet whiz, chances you will not remember exactly what you agreed a few days or weeks after the negotiations with the client concluded. In addition, there may be things that you forgot to mention, or maybe you said something that you later realised was incorrect – but how is the client supposed to know what was going on in your head (and whether you had enough coffee that day)?
Informal emails and phone conversations are great at building relationships, but they should not be relied on to document the scope of the project. This is what a written contract is for.
A contract will clearly document all the important agreed and implied terms of your working relationship with the client, so that there are no misunderstandings by either side about any aspect of the project. For instance, a contract will clearly state the agreed per word rate for the work, so the client cannot later turn around and say, “Oh, sorry, I realised that there was a typo in my email, and I had meant to write $0.02 per word, instead of $0.20. Hope you’re okay with that!”
This leads onto the second point – protection.
One of the other important jobs of a contract is to protect the interests of both parties. People enter into business relationships because they want something from the other side. In the case of a freelance project, the client wants your writing expertise, while you want their money. But this business relationship can be constructed in may different ways – for instance, the client could ask you to write a 2,000 word article, complete with references, SEO and images, to be submitted in 2 working days and pay you only $0.01 per word. While you could certainly agree to these terms, they would be very one-sided in the client’s favour. A written contract allows you to balance the terms of the engagement in your favour, so the two sides are on a more equal footing (for instance, but stating that you will own the intellectual property rights to the work and that you will be attributed as the author).
This is not to say that all contracts will be completely fair and balanced, or that every client will be willing to negotiate. You are ultimately free to enter into or reject any offer of work, but if you do decide to engage in work, then you need to ensure that the contractual terms offer you the level of protection that you feel comfortable with. For instance, you could stipulate that the agreed fee includes one round of revision by the client, and any further revisions or rewrites would be payable by the client on an hourly basis, so that you do not end up losing money on perfectionist nit-picky clients that insist on multiple rounds of revisions. These kinds of clauses provide you with protection, but they also provide the client with transparency, letting them know where they stand, and what’s included in the agreed fee.
Therefore, after you have agreed the bare bones of the project, transfer all that information into your service agreement and send it over to your client for review and signature. If the client notices anything that they realise is incorrect, or something that they do not agree with, they will let you know. But, if both of you sign the contract, then the terms of that contract become legall enforceable, and can only be changed by the mutual agreement of both parties, therefore preventing clients from reneging on promises they made previously.
3. Client Pre-Screening
Following on from protection, another important function of contracts is that they help you weed out unscrupulous clients before they have a chance to burn you.
Take an experience I had recently – a new client contacted me asking if I would be able to write a 2,500 word article about the effects of social media for an upcoming conference, for which the client would pay me $1.00 per word. Pretty brilliant! I thought.
We exchanged some emails about the project, but as soon as I said that I will send over a service agreement to finalise the terms of the work, the client suddenly stopped responding. Maybe they are busy… or ill… or the conference got cancelled, you are probably thinking. Or – any maybe this is just the cynic in me – the client was never intending to pay for the article (or was planning to pay significantly less) and got spooked when I brought up that fact that there would be a legally enforceable contract governing the work.
Now, I could be wrong about my assessment of why this client suddenly stopped responding to my emails, but imagine if I had done the work and submitted my invoice, and then the client stopped responding. I had just written 2,500 words that I am suddenly not getting paid for. And while a court would probably agree that there was a verbal or implied contract between the two of us, how in the world was I going to enforce it? How can I be sure that the name and email address that the client was using is their real name and email address? And what am I supposed to do if it turns out that the client is actually located on the other side of the world in Australia? Was I to jet out their on my own dime and try to get her to pay up with the help of an Aussie court? Or should I just suck up the fact that I had been cheated out of my fee?
Unfortunately, in the world of freelance writing, there are plenty of unscrupulous clients who will try to take you for a ride, especially if you are a newbie just starting out. But, if you present yourself like a confident professional who knows what they are doing, then you are more likely to weed out the bad clients before you start doing work for them. This is not to say that all clients who sign a contract will be angels, but at least there will be less of them.
Hopefully, this post has convinced you of the merits of using a contract for your freelance writing business!
If you are ready to start putting together your own contract, check out my helpful post on 5 Clauses You Should Include in Your Freelance Writing Contract.
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.