The Importance of Contracts

What’s on the iPod: You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere by Counting Crows

Another busy one yesterday. I started a new client project almost at the same time the contract came in. I was eager to get going on this one as it’s a new client I located at the conference.

I waited for the contract. Not that I don’t trust the client – I don’t trust that the “limmerance” phase we’re in now where we’re on the same page and happy and smitten with expectations. Things can go wrong. Projects can go south too quickly for all sorts of reasons. I could have had that project half done, but I’ve learned not to move without a signature. It’s that important.

You’ve worked without one at least once, haven’t you? We all have. It happens that you just start in on a project and forget that all-important piece of paper. In my early days, I sure did. And it bit me hard too many times. Here are some examples of why you shouldn’t lift a finger without protection:

Avoidance. Think some clients don’t try to avoid payment? Tell me if this has ever happened to you – you do the work, send the invoice, then wait. You follow up with another invoice a month later. Nothing. A third invoice goes out. Nothing. You mention you’re thinking of turning to a collection agency or you escalate the problem some other way. It’s then that you hear from them, and it comes like so: “We were very unhappy with your work and we aren’t paying.” Often they won’t even say they aren’t paying; they’ll just hit you with a litany of problems you’ve injected into their world. They’re avoiding payment, for they had three months to complain, yet they waited until you pushed. Contracts avoid the uncertainty of whether you’ll ever get payment. You will. Legally.

Friends and other experts. The client decided to let his friends edit his work – you know, that work you just spent a week or so editing. Now their fingerprints are smudging your copy and muddying his message. Does he care? No, because they’re his friends and he trusts them! And now they have him doubting your abilities. He wants to fire you. If you have no contract, you don’t have much chance of collecting. However, if you have a contract and you’re fired, he owes you per the terms of the agreement. And a court will back you up on it.

Sudden money woes. It’s amazing how many clients become hard up for cash the minute you’re in the middle of or have just finished a project. Large bills do hit companies, but if it happens at the frequency with which writers are reporting, I’m afraid for corporate America. At any rate, their money problems are as much concern to you as yours are to them. The contract locks them in to paying you.

The “trust me” client. I’ll admit he was a rarity, but there he was, saying he didn’t work with contracts because they were “fussy.” This was as he was rounding down the words-per-document he’d pay me for, as he put it. And saying he’d pay for “the content I use.” So if I wrote a 2,000-word story and he paid me for 200 words? He refused the contract and I refused his business. That was one loss I’ve never regretted. As our priest used to say, Trust in God, but ladies, take your purses with you when you leave the pew.”

The “I really wanted this project” switch. You think you’re writing a brochure and a newsletter because hey, that’s what he said he wanted. But now your client is saying “No, I really wanted you to update the website, too. I did tell you!” A contract spells out what he really told you and makes sure he’s not adding to the list without properly compensating you.

Fee switcheroo. “No, I didn’t agree to pay that – you told me it was this!” Don’t ever put yourself in a position for someone to deny ever knowing what you are charging. Spell it out in writing and get a signature from the client. Even an emailed confirmation of your terms is better than nothing.

What have contracts helped you avoid?

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  • Devon Ellington May 10, 2012 at 11:47 am

    Everything must be in writing. YOu have to think of any possible way they can wiggle out of their end of the bargain — because they will – -and spell it out.

    No contract, no deposit — I'm not working.

  • Cathy Miller May 10, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    So agree – I never work without a contract. I have one client who always wants bare bones so in ghostwritten articles for them, the agreement is I do the draft and they do the editing.

    They are one of those edit by committee (as so many corporate clients are) and they are always down to the wire for the deadline. So, I actually like this arrangement as it saves me the hassle of chasing them down and multiple revisions.

    In my Statement of Work – in the Scope of Services – I list what services I will be doing and add Services do not include editing, layout design or final publication.

    If a client with that arrangement asks about revisions, I remind them of the scope and advise I would be happy to do xx number of rounds of revisions for XX fee.

  • Paula May 10, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    The bulk of my work consists of articles, and the assignment letters serve as contracts. Everything is spelled out: word count, fee, deadline, and often how many sources they want for the story. (They'll also note what expenses the might pay for – usually long distance expenses, if that. But I won't invoice calls unless it's more than $5in one month or a particularly difficult or slow paying client.)

    Next time I wrangle some ghost writing or corporate type work, I'll be using your tips.

  • Wade Finnegan May 10, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    So do you have several skeletal contracts configured for each type of project? Or do you write up a new one each time? Do any of you have a lawyer look it over?

    I've found with my magazine gigs that they usually present me with a contract.

  • Cathy Miller May 10, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    Wade: I started mine from a sample contract & tweaked over time. I have not had it reviewed by a lawyer. There are certain sections that remain the same, but the scope of services, fees & timeline are customized. Of course, if it's the same type of project (e.g., ghostwrittten article of same length), I'll use much of the same language.