How to Write a Contract That Won’t Drive You Crazy

Dear Heather,

Do I really have to have a contract for every client?

Sincerely,

Every New Writer Ever

 

Dear New Writer,

Yes.

Sincerely,

Me

 

 

This is one of those rare cases where there are literally no exceptions. Your contract is your not-so-secret weapon against clients driving you utterly bonkers and making you want to hide under your bed until the world ends and you can walk outside into a nice, clean, post-apocalyptic setting with literally no other people in it to make you lose your crap. Or maybe that’s just me. Moving on.

The contract is also your key to getting paid early and often, and, believe it or not, the key to keeping your clients happy.

And I know. You’re in this because you like to write, not because you like to write contracts. UGHHHHhhhhhhh. So, go ahead and do a job or two without a contract and come back and read this later while you’re hiding under your bed. Trust me, writing a contract (and you only have to do it once with occasional updates) is better than nuclear annihilation. I mean, I assume.

 

The Anatomy of a Good Freelance Contract

The Cover

A cover page is not strictly necessary, but it’s a nice touch and looks professional. On the cover page, include the client’s company name and logo (first and bold), a name for the document (Blogging and Premium Content Contract, for instance), your name as the provider, and contact info for both.

Objectives

An objectives section builds confidence that you understand the client’s needs and how your work will fit into their goals. Keep it simple, a few lines at most, and focus on the customer’s point of view.

Scope of Work

This is one of the key elements that will protect you. Construct it carefully. List all of the deliverables that are included, as well as any key elements of the scope that are relevant. This can be done in a bulleted fashion, and may include items such as how many interviews are included, expected word count (approximately), how the documents will be delivered, etc.

A common question new writers have is whether to state the number of revisions that are included. I don’t, and here’s why. My goal is to deliver a product that the client is thrilled with. If I can’t get it there in two or three rounds of revisions, we have a bigger problem on our hands than just my time expenditure. Honestly, clients don’t want to go through multiple revisions either. So, when this arises, I handle the bigger issue, whatever it is, and the revisions eventually fall in line. Mostly.

However, an occasional client will send revision after revision not because I’m not getting it right, but because they don’t know what the heck they want, and they keep changing their minds and changing the parameters of the assignment. Not cool.

When that happens, what you need to do is listen to your gut, calmly explain to them that changing the direction of the piece is outside the scope of the agreement, and tell them how much it’s going to cost for you to rewrite the piece again. You may end up losing the client. That’s okay. You don’t need those clients.

Client Responsibilities

Your contract is not just about what you will do for the client. It is also about what they will do for you. A few key points I always include:

  • Timely access to relevant subject matter experts and stakeholders
  • Prompt response to requests for additional information
  • Prompt feedback on drafts
  • Timely compensation

This section does two big things for you. One, it sets the expectation in the client’s mind that you expect them to live up to their end of the bargain. Setting expectations is powerful juju. Two, it creates an “out” for you in the event that a client fails to provide critical information or feedback. The last thing you want is a client that drops off the face of the earth after your draft delivery, only to come back six months later saying, “Oh, can you rewrite this piece? We didn’t like your first draft.” No.

Timeline

Clients like to know when they can expect work. This is, in most cases, more important to them than speed. So give yourself a break, set a nice comfortable long timeline, and communicate that timeline in advance via the contract (also verbally). Then, of course, STICK TO IT. Missed deadlines are a major source of pain for clients, so don’t do that to them. Meet your deadlines, or, if you can’t, let them know plenty in advance. Clients tend to be very understanding about family emergencies and the like, and less understanding if you’re “simply overwhelmed.” Plan your work to avoid the latter (maybe a topic for another blog entry later…).

Remember that you have already set the expectation that the client will provide timely access to the things you need, so your timeline can, within the bounds of the contract, be adjusted based on their meeting or not meeting their end of the deal.

Terms

This part is fun. Whooooo! Seriously, though, this is the nitty gritty bit that will set you up for success or failure. Here are four key terms I always include:

  • Amount of the fee (duh).

This may be “Project fee of” or “Retainer fee of.”

  • Due 50% before work begins and 50% upon completion or at six weeks, whichever is first. (In the case of project work.)

OR

  • Due on the first of the month to which the retainer applies. (In the case of retainers.)

Did you read that one carefully? 50% BEFORE WORK BEGINS or ON THE FIRST OF THE MONTH. Don’t even pick up your pen/keyboard until that first bit of moolah has hit your mailbox/bank account. There are a few exceptions to that rule, but your client’s emergency is not one of them. If they have an emergency situation and need you to start NOW then introduce them to the concept of Fed Ex. Or accept credit card payments (I do), and they can charge it right away.

Notice the other clause: 50% upon completion OR AT SIX WEEK, WHICHEVER IS FIRST.

That last bit is your life saver against the never-ending project. If you’ve been in the business long, you’ve had it happen. You deliver your first drafts of everything, and then they drag their feet. It’s one thing and another and they don’t get back to you for six months. Or maybe you haven’t even delivered a first draft, because they haven’t answered your question about the outline. Whatever it is, you’ve put in time and effort on a project that you’re not getting paid for. Gurgh.

Simple solution, insist they pay at six weeks whether the project is complete or not. You’ve already covered your commitment to meet deadlines as long as they do their part, so most clients won’t have a problem with this. You can extend the six weeks on longer projects, or shorten it on shorter projects. If a project goes longer because you’re not meeting your obligations, then obviously you won’t hold them to this. But don’t do that. Meet your obligations, k?

  • A 2% per month fee will be charged for late payments.

I don’t always charge this fee if the client is operating in good faith, but it will protect you in the event a client decides not to pay at all or becomes seriously delinquent. At that point, you will start sending invoices with the increasing amount. They may decide to pay up. Or they may not, in which case you can hire a small business collections attorney to get the job done. The delinquent fee will help compensate for the attorney’s fee (which is usually a portion of the collected amount).

  • [Your name] assigns to the client all right, title, and interest in the work produced during the engagement, except that we retain the right to refer to the relationship and any results thereof in [Your name’s] own marketing and sales efforts. Retained rights do not include the right to reveal any information deemed confidential by the client.

This clause provides the client with assurance that you are signing over the rights to the work you do for them. However, it also does another thing. It ensures that you can legally use the work you do for them in your portfolio. This is particularly important if you’re doing “ghost” work where someone else is getting the official credit (i.e., byline) for articles you write. You don’t want to have a dispute over whether you’re allowed to link to something. If a client really doesn’t want to give you portfolio rights to your work, that can be negotiated too. Charge them a multiple of five. Seriously, your portfolio is your most valuable asset, more valuable than any one paycheck.  Protect it.

Limitation of Services

You need a disclaimer that states you’re not providing legal advice and that decisions made by the client, including the decision to use the work you produce, are wholly the responsibility of the client. You should also carry professional liability insurance to protect yourself, but this clause is a good start. You can Google examples of this clause, or download our premium resource pack. It contains the contract I use (and a bunch of other goodies), which you can customize and use as your own.

Signatures

Obviously, a contract is only valid when it is signed by all the parties involved. Electronic signature software is a worthy investment for freelancers, as it speeds up the process of contract-signing and gets you paid and off to work quickly. I use PandaDoc, which I love love love. Others use Docusign, which is excellent as well, but has less functionality for essentially the same price. Let me know if you want to consider PandaDoc. I’m a partner with them and I get a little discount if you sign up through me. I like discounts. I can also show you how I use it, and help you get set up. Hit me up.

Now that I’ve told you everything you need to do to write a good contract, I’m about to make it even easier for you. Yay. Purchase the premium resource pack, and you’ll get a copy of the contract I use, as a Word document, along with full royalty-free permission to modify it to suit your purposes. Nothing could be easier. Except maybe purchasing the resource pack AND signing up for PandaDoc, in which case I’ll share my templates with you and you’ll be sending out excellent contracts within minutes.

All right, friends. That’s it. Everything you need to know to write an outstanding contract that will keep you safe from the apocalypse. Or, at least shield you from standard client hassles. Give it a whirl.

Heather Head
Heather Head is an award-winning freelance writer with a special passion for helping other writers. Her work can be found all over the internet in multiple formats and industries. When she's not writing for clients or other writers, Heather is usually writing fiction, discussing Plato with her children, and avoiding the kitchen. Her fiction is represented by Ethan Ellenberg.

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