9 Tips for Setting Payment Terms for Freelance Writers

by Anne Wayman

freelance writing cash registerPayment terms, or terms of payment, spell out how you as a freelance writer will get paid for your work. It’s up to you to make sure the way you’ll get paid for a writing assignment is clear and works for you.

That said, there are no standard terms of payment as there often are in, say, retail where ‘net 30′ is not unusual. Yes, retailers often wait 30 days or more to pay their suppliers. As a freelance writer you’d probably prefer to be paid sooner than that.

If you’re writing for magazines

If you’re writing for magazines, off or online, the payment terms are pretty fixed and are usually spelled out in the market listings. If, for example, the listing says ‘pays on publication’ you won’t see a nickle until and if your piece is actually printed – and then it’s often 30 days after that. ‘Pays on acceptance’ means just that, or close. Once they’ve accepted the work you’ll receive your payment even if they don’t publish it right away. Thirty days is typical, but it pays to ask the editor. In fact, I like to not only ask the editor when I can expect payment but if an invoice would be helpful.

When you sell your book to a trade publisher

When you contract with a trade publisher for your book, the payment terms are spelled out pretty clearly in the contract. Those terms will include the advance, typically paid half up front and half when you deliver the acceptable manuscript, royalty percentage and frequency of royalty payments. The advance and the percentage are often negotiated – don’t believe them if they say what they are offering is standard. The frequency, which is most often twice a year, probably won’t be changed, but it never hurts to ask.

When you’re writing for clients

When you’re writing for clients, be they individuals or organizations, it’s up to you to set the terms, or at least offer the terms you want. I’m not sure why but lots of people hesitate to talk about money and you’ll find this true of your clients. Keep these things in mind:

  1. You deserve to get paid for your work, well and promptly.
  2. In order to set a rate for your writing you need to be clear on exactly what the client wants.
  3. It’s totally reasonable to ask for money up front. If someone suggests this is not professional you probably don’t want to work with them.
  4. If payment is small, say $25 or $50 or less, it’s reasonable to ask for it all in advance. Failing that it only makes sense to ask exactly when you can expect to be paid after you’ve completed the work. Get this in writing and yes an email to that effect is fine. If they don’t send you an email confirming terms, you write it and sent it to them.
  5. It’s reasonable and professional to get a retainer if the client expects you to be available to write when they need it.


  1. For larger projects it makes sense to take a deposit and the balance as you complete the writing. For example, you can take a third or a quarter to get started, then a third when roughly a third is done, etc. Another approach is monthly payments with the first month up front.
  2. Plan on invoicing no matter what the terms are. Regular invoicing should be part of your work life.
  3. Set up a late fee and include that on every invoice. Something clear and simple, like ’1 percent will be added for each day late.’ You can just state that late fees will be charged, but it works better if you spell them out in advance. Late fees really are part of payment terms.
  4. Any discounts you offer are also part of your payment terms and should be considered before your confronted with a request for them.
There really are no standard payment terms. Your goal is terms that meet your needs and that are clearly spelled out with the client before work begins.
What are your payment terms?
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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark December 25, 2011 at 4:42 pm

TYPO: If they don’t send you an email confirming terms, you write it and sent it to them. CHANGE: “sent” to “send”

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annew December 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm

good eye mark… thanks

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Trish C. July 7, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Do you have more advice for a retainer? I have a client who originally needed me fairly often, and it has steadily decreased. We have an agreement of an hourly rate with a max number of hours per week. Despite minimal hours, they don’t want to let go of the contract, and try to use me more on an on-call basis, which doesn’t work well for me. I’m wondering if a retainer would be a better arrangement.

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annew July 8, 2011 at 11:25 am

It might… but the retainer would put you officially on call. You could write it so they had to give you a day or two notice… if that would be enough. How much notice do you actually need for the kind of writing they want?

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Cathy Miller July 7, 2011 at 9:29 am

I follow pretty much what you outlined, Anne.

Most of my work is project-driven. I require 50% up front and the balance upon completion of a project. One project I had lasted 6 months and I arranged for payment monthly.

If a project is smaller, I require payment in full before starting. My smaller is a lot larger than $50 or less. ;-)

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Anne July 7, 2011 at 10:28 am

How much larger, Cathy, are you willing to say?

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Nicky Parry July 6, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Such great advice, Anne. I’ve been lucky so far – no client has failed to pay me, & only once has there ever been a “delay”. I was fortunate in being able to resolve that quickly by an email reminder though. But we both know that at some point, someone is going to either fail to pay me completely, or draw out some long payment delay. I think it’s human nature for us all to be too trusting. I’ve certainly learned the hard way in other walks of life regarding payment/repayment etc, so I’m a little more assertive in my working life now. I’m a big advocate of the “deposit down”, followed by incremental amounts – for new clients especially. It certainly pays to spell everything out up front in a contract though.

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Anne July 7, 2011 at 10:34 am

Nicky, I suspect the biggest reason you haven’t had any serious payment problems is you know you’re a pro and you act like one… you expect to be treated well so you are.

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