As a freelance writer who works at home, you’ll deal with nearly all of your clients online. Rarely, if ever, will you meet the clients you picked up online in person (it’s only happened to me once). You won’t be able to shake hands or look your clients in eye, but that doesn’t mean you can behave however you want. When you work independently, especially in a digital world far away from your clients, you absolutely have to be trustworthy.
But do you need a contract to prove your trustworthiness?
Coming to terms
If you and a potential client have shown mutual interest in one another, then it is time for negotiations. Usually, these begin with some questions about the project and expected duties. As the picture starts coming into focus, you’ll need to transition from mere questions into “establishing terms.”
The “terms” are the agreement. They should include:
- The type of rate (per-word, per-hour, per-piece, etc.)
- Scope of the project
- Format in which you should present the final file
- The deadline
- Topics (if provided)
- SEO requirements
- Method of payment (PayPal, credit card, etc)
It is also a good idea to discuss tone/voice, the intended audience, and how you handle edits and rewrites.
Signing on the dotted line
A contract is used to clearly outline the terms of an agreement and to prove that both of the parties involved agreed to the terms. It can keep weasels from getting out of their obligations, but it can also bind ignorant parties to terms that they didn’t understand. More times than not, however, a contract is a safety device that protects both parties’ interests.
Your favorite magazines, most big corporations, and lots of professionals in the $70-100k/year earnings range would never enter an agreement without an explicit contract. Once you graduate from web content to printed publications, you’re unlikely to write anything for money until you’ve first written your name on a contract. That’s just how the industry works.
So you should have one, right?
Well…I don’t know if I’d go that far. You see, contracts – like most other things – have limitations. They aren’t magically binding like the one that Ariel signed for Ursula. And that’s why I tend not to use them.
[GIF courtesy of http://lessonsfromdisney.tumblr.com/post/74316990204]
Using your contract
Naturally, you don’t need to bypass on a contract just because I do. In fact, if you wanted to start implementing contracts, I’ve known a writer or two to use this step-by-step template on Rocket Lawyer.
The thing is that even an incredibly clear, watertight contract is only as strong as your willingness to enforce it.
Suppose you write out a contract for a project paying you a total of $150. You do the work and submit it to your client. No response by email. She doesn’t answer your phone calls. After giving her an extra two weeks, you realize the hard truth: she’s bailed on your agreement.
But how can she do that? You had a deal. She signed the contract! She’s bound by law to uphold her end of the agreement! True, true, and true. Unfortunately, you can only enforce her legal obligations in court. In order to get your money, you’d need to sue her.
Is that something you’re really prepared to do for $150. Even more, is it something you’re even capable of doing? She might live out-of-state or even in a different country altogether! Plus, you only knew her on the internet, right? Who is to say she lives anywhere close to where she says she lives?
You see, enforcing your contract is much harder than it seems, and that’s what makes them largely useless.
But don’t worry
Most clients are not going to be an issue with regard to payment. You’ll get some payments that are late, but in my experience, most clients are willing to pay for your work. In particular, I’ve noticed that my highest-paying clients make their payments with the least amount of trouble. It’s the low-paying clients who tend to get stingy.
Using a contract, after all
I had been working free and loose without a single contract (except those automatically created and enforced by freelance platforms like oDesk and Elance) when a lawyer friend told me something I didn’t know – I had been using contracts all along.
That’s because my preferred method of communication is email. As a result, my negotiations with clients took place that way. I made a habit of ending every negotiation with the same question. It read something like this:
So, I’m going to run this by you one more time, just to make sure we agree. You’re going to pay me [some amount of money] for [a predetermined amount of work], divided in [an established number of] milestones. You want me to get it to you by [the deadline] and, when I do, you’ll make the payment by sending the money via [some agreeable method of payment]. Does that sound right?
When they respond back to say yes, they’ve entered into a contract. And – at the very least – I get the intimidation factor of pointing back to it and saying, “but you agreed.” Sometimes that’s enforcement enough.
Are you a fan of using contracts for your work? Have you had an experience that changed your mind?