The notion of writing a contract for your writing services scares some freelance writers half to death. I’m not sure why.
Maybe it’s because we associate contracts with lawyers and lawsuits.
Or, more likely, it’s because some of the contracts we’ve seen or even signed were impossible to understand – mortgages, credit card contracts, publishing contracts, and the terms and conditions on almost anything being prime examples.
Reading those contracts, or trying to, and thinking you have to have something similar with your writing clients is more than enough to make anyone shy away from writing them.
First of all, I am not a lawyer and I’ll bet if you ask any their opinion will be different than mine. What I tell you here is based on my 30+ years of experience as a freelance writer.
What is a contract?
A contract is an agreement between two or more people. That’s all, although it may cover all sorts of things of value, from the purchase or sale of a corporation, to a lease, a home purchase, signing up for a cell phone or between you and a client who wants to hire you to get some writing done.
It’s really quite simple sounding, isn’t it?
Here’s my personal goal when I’m writing a contract or letter of agreement for a client who wants me to write:
If we ever go to court I want the judge to be able to tell what we thought we were trying to do.
Why not a verbal contract?
Yes, verbal contracts are legal and enforceable, at least in theory. I even use them on occasion, but only with long term clients for easy projects. And I don’t even recommend you do that.
The problem with verbal contracts is they depend not only on mutual good will, but the notion that both parties will remember what the agreement actually was.
Memory is fallible – we all know that from direct experience if we think about it. You’re sure he wore a pink shirt and he knows he didn’t – unless you’ve got a color photo that hasn’t been Photoshopped it’s anyone’s guess what color the shirt really was.
I’ve been known to change the subject of a writing piece if I haven’t written down – usually I’m close, but the change isn’t what the client wanted. I’ve also remembered pay rates both higher and lower. In fact yesterday I couldn’t remember if I charged a client I do industrial blogging for $70 or $75 a post. I looked it up and it was $75.
If you agree verbally about a writing project today, but don’t do much on it until next week, I can promise you something will have slipped in your memory. It’s just the nature of being human.
Which goes to say you need a written contract!
Written writing contracts solve problems
When a the work you’re doing for a client is properly spelled out in writing it solves all sorts of problems.
First of all, because it is written, you don’t have to worry about remembering the details. There all right there if and when you need them
It also states the intention you and your client have concerning this joint project, and tells in some detail just how the project will get done – what both parties have obligated themselves to.
Ideally, if you and/or the client begin to lose focus on the writing project, which happens, you can come back to your intention expressed in the contract and either get back on track or decide what needs to be changed.
In fact that intention setting is more important to me than the idea that a contract or letter of agreement I’ve written might hold up in court.I don’t want to go to court.
I actually believe a clear contract is a great way to stay out of court and that attitude has worked well for me.
What should be in a writing contract?
Writing contracts, to work, need certain elements. At a minimum you need:
The date the contract is started, usually the signing date.
The names and job or job title of both parties. You’re the writer, the client is the client or the author if you’re ghostwriting.
The goal of the project. Here is where you begin to define the scope of work. In fact this section could also be called ‘scope of work.’ You spell out things like a 50 page white paper, 20 blog posts of about 500 words each, 2 1,000 word articles a month on (topic), a book of about 60,000 pages, etc. etc. etc.
Any deadlines or milestones.
The method. How are you going to proceed with the work? If it’s an article, this would be covered by the deadline. If you’re ghostwriting a book you might want to spell out things like the author will have tapes of her last conference transcribed into Word files at her expense and send them to the writer who will turn them into written chapters.
This is about how the work will actually get done. Here’s where you spell out the client’s responsibilities to read, edit, comment, send material, be available for interviews in addition to your responsibilities.
Who owns the copyright. Usually it’s the client, but spell it out… letting the client know you’re protecting their copyright is a good way to develop trust.
Payment and method of payment. How much you’re to be paid for the project needs to be stated, so does when you’ll be paid. The when might be on completion of the project, at stated milestones, half or more up front, etc. etc.
The method of payment is also important. Check, cash (rare), Paypal, currency if you’re dealing outside your own country, etc. Get it in writing so everyone knows what to expect.
I always also include a clause that let’s either of us cancel the project with 14 or 30 days written notice. I do this because, particularly on large contracts like books, wheels fall off and both you and the client are truly stuck. Sure, you try to work it out, but if you can’t far better I think to allow for reality in a contract than have this sort of thing become a legal struggle.
Contract, letter of agreement, and email
I use a letter of agreement, which contains all the elements I’ve spelled out here, but in a less formal style and with no whereases and whatfores, etc. None! It says it’s a letter of agreement up on top and I sign it with a digital signature.
You can make it more formal or contract-like if you want. I like the less formal approach.
And yes, the emails you and a client exchange about a project can be an enforceable contract. On short assignments that’s all I require.
You can see a copy of an actual letter of agreement I wrote here.
What questions, comments, etc. do you have? Did I leave anything out?
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Write well and often,