Lately I’ve been devoting time, energy and money to the process of drawing up a set of contracts for my freelance writing services. If you’re a freelance creative, you should do the same. Why? Because I’m now convinced that a tightly drawn contract is worth more than its weight in the precious metal of your choice (gold is so yesterday, darling). In this article, I share my journey from bambi-eyed newbie to the twisted cynic you see before you.
Freelancers! Don’t Start Work Without a Contract
When I started out as a freelance writer, I was given an excellent piece of advice: never begin work until your client has signed a contract with you. If you have a contract, I was told, this demonstrates your professionalism. It shows that you can’t easily be scammed out of your fee. It makes clear what services you’re going to provide, and what payment you expect in return. In short, a contract clarifies expectations for both parties, and keeps things fair and mutual.
This is all true. But what I wasn’t told is this: if your contract doesn’t contain the right clauses, it won’t provide enough legal protection to be truly worthwhile.
The Down Side of Using a Contract Template Service
Let’s think about what that means for a minute, especially if you (as I originally did) use a cheap contract template service. It means that unless you know how to customise it to your full advantage, a generic contract isn’t much use. If push comes to shove and you end up considering legal action, there will be lots of loopholes, possibly so many that your only option is to chalk up a loss and walk away.
This leaves you in an awkward spot if, like most freelance writers, you’re trying to start your business on a shoestring and don’t have enough money to pay lawyers. While I agree with the argument that you can’t afford not to get legal advice, I also appreciate that a couple of hundred quid here and there matters a lot when your client base is not yet established. But fear not, for help is at hand. I’m about to point out a few scenarios where a tighter contract could have saved me stress and money.
A Few Precautions I’ve Included in My Freelance Contracts
Since setting up shop as a creative freelancer, I’ve worked with clients who:
- Tried to phone me at 7am, and became highly annoyed when I wasn’t around to take their call.
Avoid this by: including a ‘reasonable response’ section in your contract, setting out the times during which you’re available for consultation. Remember that you’ll need enough time in your day to actually do some work, though!
- Decided not to pay me on the grounds that they didn’t use my work.
Avoid this by: stipulating in your contract that work done and accepted must be paid for, whether used or not. It also helps to clarify the project brief in writing, and get your client to sign off on it as part of the contract.
- Tried 2. above, then suddenly decided to use my work after all. Still without paying.
Head this off by: stipulating that intellectual property only transfers to your client upon full payment. Then if they do try to use work they haven’t paid for, you at least have a basis for legal action. NB Don’t say copyright – say intellectual property. This is a broader, more inclusive term (though don’t ask me how exactly, because I’m not a lawyer).
- Wanted me to make numerous revisions to a piece written months ago.
Prevent this by: specifying how many changes you’re prepared to make to each piece of work, and by stating the timeframe within which ‘edits’ should be requested.
- Expected me to keep working for them at the same—ridiculously low—rates I was quoting three years earlier.
Move on from this by: making provision in your contract for rate rises at least once a year.
A Final Word About Contracts for Freelancers
I’m a writer, not a lawyer, so what I say here is intended to get you thinking ahead about the kind of issues you’re bound to encounter in your freelance career, all so you can customise your contract to give you more protection. It’s definitely not legal advice. If you’d like more input and have half an hour to spare, I’d recommend watching this funny, sweary, informative talk by Mike Monteiro, who heads up a small design agency in the USA. Watch out especially for his advice on how to deal with potential clients who use variants on the phrase “Trust me”.
Do you have any hair-raising, funny or educational stories about vexatious interactions with clients, or situations where a contract saved you stress and money? Share them with us in the comments section below this post, or by connecting on Twitter.