I get it: Freelance writing contracts can be scary and confusing.
And if you feel this fear and confusion, you’re not alone.
Heck, maybe contracts scare you more than Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Although I’m not sure that’s possible.
And because contracts seem confusing and scarier than a killer clown, it’s tempting to work without them.
Or maybe you think you don’t need to use written contracts.
Now that’s really scary. Especially when you encounter a client from hell.
Or you use them, but you’re not sure what terms and provisions to include.
Well, help has arrived…
Freelance Writing Contracts Are Your Friends
That’s right. Contracts are your friends, not something to fear.
They help you and your client understand what’s expected of you. And if things go wrong, contracts protect you and make sure that you get paid.
And they don’t have to be complicated. In fact, most of the time, a simple one is best.
Just make sure they contain certain provisions that work regardless of the type of project or client.
But Before We Get to Those Provisions…
A word of caution: The provisions we’ll get to in a minute are the bare minimum your contracts need. However, there are other provisions you might need, or want, depending on the client and the project.
For example, you may need provisions addressing copyright issues or indemnity. But those types of provisions are beyond the scope of this article so, for now, we’re focusing on just six important provisions that every contract needs.
Okay enough with the disclaimers. Sorry, but that’s what we lawyers do. We disclaim things.
On to the provisions!
1. Compensation = Getting Paid
This one’s pretty obvious, right? Every freelance writing contract needs a compensation provision that includes a payment schedule
But there are some not so obvious terms that you can, and should, include within this provision.
Consider Using a Replenishing Retainer
First, if at all possible, use a replenishing retainer. I started using replenishing retainers in my client agreements, and haven’t looked back. These are great for ensuring consistent cash flow, and avoiding nonpayment for completed work.
Here’s how they work:
For hourly rate projects, the client pays a specific sum of money before you start working. Let’s say it’s $500.00. Once you have a signed contract, and the client pays the retainer, you begin working on the project and bill your hourly rate against the retainer.
When the amount of the retainer falls below a certain amount, let’s say $100.00, you send a bill to the client showing the amount of work you’ve done, your hourly rate applied against the retainer, and the amount remaining in the retainer.
The client then must replenish the retainer back to $500.00.
Replenishing retainers also work for clients on a flat fee or subscription rate. For these types of projects, the client pays you a specific sum per month, quarter or year, and that amount secures your availability to work for the client.
You don’t work until the client pays the flat or subscription rate the following month, quarter or year. And, just like your work for hourly rate clients, you are ensured consistent cash flow.
Always Require a Deposit
Now, a client might not agree to use the replenishing retainer, and if that’s the case, then you should always get a deposit up front.
This will protect you if something goes awry with the project, the client goes out of business, or the client terminates the project unexpectedly.
Kill Fees Are a Must!
In addition to a deposit, you should also have a provision for a “kill fee.” This fee protects you if the client unexpectedly “kills” a project after you start the work.
If that happens, the kill fee compensates you for the time and expenses you incurred working on the project up to the point the client “killed” it.
For example, let’s say you get a deposit of half of the total amount for a flat rate project. That deposit protects you up to a point, but what if the client “kills” the project after additional time and expenses are incurred?
You might not get paid for that time or expense, unless you have a kill fee provision.
Late Payments Mean Late Fees
Always, always, always include late fees.
It doesn’t matter what your payment terms are; a late fee will encourage on-time payment.
And if the client fails to pay on time, you’re entitled to be compensated for the effect the late payment has on your cash flow.
2. Specify the Scope of Work to Avoid Creepy Projects
Scope-of-work provisions outline the specific work you agree to do, and help you defeat “scope creep” before it happens.
This provision ensures that there is no confusion about what you agreed to do, and the deliverables the client expects.
And if the client comes to you during the writing project and asks you to do something that is beyond the scope of work provision, then the two parties must execute a separate contract for that additional work.
Which will require an additional fee, of course!
3. Restrict the Number of Revisions
This provision should give the client a specific number of revisions (usually two or three), and anything beyond that costs extra
With flat-rate projects, your hourly rate of return for your time will decline precipitously when a project you estimated would take one week goes into a second week, and then a third, because of unanticipated revisions.
And for hourly rate projects, clients will expect you to do multiple revisions for free, or balk at your invoice that contains time for numerous revisions that the client requested.
So, always restrict the number of revisions.
4. Attorneys’ Fees and Costs
Remember how excited you were to land that new client? You enjoyed working with them and delivered great content.
And then you submitted your invoice.
And then, crickets.
Sure, you followed up by email and phone, and maybe you live in the same area so you visited their office.
But they still didn’t write the check.
What do you do now?
Well, if you hire an attorney to collect, it’s going to cost you — and sometimes that cost isn’t worth it.
Let’s say the client owes you $350.00. The attorney’s fees and costs will cost you more than what’s owed.
But if your contract includes an attorney’s fee provision, you can recover those fees and costs when you prevail — and just having this provision in your contract can deter some clients from stiffing you.
5. Entire Agreement/Merger Clause
This provision states that the entire agreement between the parties is contained within the written contract.
And any agreements outside the contract are “merged” into the final written contract.
In other words, anything that’s not addressed in the contract is not part of the agreement.
So if your client comes to you and says, “hey, we agreed to (something that isn’t in the contract),” just point to the entire agreement/merger clause.
End of discussion.
6. All Amendments Must Be In Writing
Much like the entire agreement/merger clause, this provision ensures there are no misunderstandings about what is and what isn’t in the contract.
However, this one deals with agreements after the contract is executed.
With this provision, your client can’t claim that you entered into a separate oral agreement to change something in the contract after it was signed.
If you and your client agree to amend the contract, it must be in writing and signed by the parties.
Bye-Bye Fear and Confusion
So there you have it.
Hopefully you feel more comfortable with freelance writing contracts.
And the next time you land a great new client, make sure that you sign one with these six provisions before you begin work.
Post author Steve Zakrocki is a Florida-based attorney who helps freelancers and other small business owners get paid and protect their businesses and families. He also runs the website Legal Ed for Freelancers, which is devoted to helping freelancers understand legal issues.
Have any freelance writing contract horror stories to share? Or more advice to add?