Free Advice Friday: To Contract or Not?

What’s on the iPod: Rain King by Counting Crows

Yesterday felt like Friday to me. That’s because today, I’m out of here. There’s a little river in the middle of Ontario where there are some fish and a few parents camped along the shores. I must go visit them all.

I did manage three newsletter articles and a magazine query, plus on Wednesday, I had a conversation with a client prospect. September is coming. If the way I suddenly feel like wearing pants all the time (even in the heat) doesn’t tell me so, the clients returning do tell me so. 

That means new clients, as well, which means contracts. Or does it?

With some clients and assignments, you just need a contract. It’s a given. Anything involving multiple projects or multiple thousands of dollars needs to be formalized, I think. 

So when do you need a contract and when can you get away with just emailed terms? That’s today’s Free Advice Friday topic: writer contracts (or not).

To Contract or Not?

Isn’t that always the question? Your answer is going to depend on who it is, what it is, and how much it is. Here are my loose rules for my own contracts:

Client new to working with freelancers. Contract. Absolutely. Not only will this help them feel more comfortable making the commitment, but also it will help you ensure that they understand all the contract terms and payment requirements. When I contract with a client new to freelancers, I make sure to bullet-proof it and point out key areas – Payment is due whether they use the results or not; edits are limited to three rounds of revisions; all parties giving input have to be named at the outset, etc.

New clients. Possibly. They’ve worked with freelancers before, so it’s not a question of making them feel better. Here’s what I do with new clients – if it’s a simple project, I spell it out in email and ask them to agree to the terms. If it’s more complicated, involving multiple projects or weeks/months, I send over a standard contract. 

Magazines. Maybe. Usually not. One-time contracts are okay for me. Once we get to know each other, we can skip it if they feel comfortable doing so. First time out, it’s usually a good idea to have it in writing along with any kill fees. I work with one magazine that, three years later, still sends contracts. That’s good business sense, so don’t be insulted. 

Established clients. Almost never. We’ve built trust, and as long as I deliver on time and they pay me on time, we’re both okay with emailed terms. One company I’ve worked with for six years has never signed a contract with me. I did one small job that led to a few more and a few more and….it’s no longer an issue.

Clients who set off your radar. Always and with caution. If you get a gut feeling the client may not pay or may be difficult to work with or may flake out on you, chances are you’re not going to work with them anyway. However, if you have any inclination at the outset that there could be a problem with interpretation, client availability/responsiveness, project scope creep, etc., make sure to get a solid contract in place.

Projects that can morph. Essential. I remember contracting with a company to complete an insurance licensing course. The contracted amount was thousands under what I’d ended up earning. That’s because, not knowing the size of the project or time needed, I wrote in a contingency that paid me for any time over the contracted amount. Saved me a ton of aggravation. If you’re going in blind, put a safety net under you.

Phoned assignments. Yes, but can be in email. If you know the client, just go over what you’d agreed to in email and ask them to confirm it. If you don’t know the client, get a contract under their noses before you life a finger. I remember way back when taking on a 3,800-word article (at $1 a word) and receiving nothing but silence when I delivered it. It was a new publication and it never got off the ground. Time wasted.

Writers, when do you require a contract? 
Are all your contracts formal? What percentage are emailed agreements/terms?
Have you ever accepted assignments over the phone without written terms?

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  • Eileen August 8, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    New clients and large projects, always. If they don't want to sign a contract, huge red flag, and I move on. Since many of my clients are repeat clients, I have them sign a document that outlines the terms which will govern our work together for the first and all future projects. Then, for each project, I send an email detailing the project and they signal approval by their reply email.

  • Jake Poinier August 8, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    Couldn't have said it better, Lori! It's one of the key benefits of having as many established clients as you can manage.

    Along the same lines, I'd say it's particularly important to have a contract with prospects who aren't referred by established clients; i.e., a referral from an acquaintance isn't as rock-solid as one from a long-time partner.


  • Paula August 8, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    Funny thing – I just realized that I do have signed contracts with most of my long-time magazine clients. The email agreements simply spell out the terms of specific assignments.

    One client updates contracts every 3-5 years, another updated them every time they're sold…which is about 4 times since I've worked for them!

  • Debra Stang August 8, 2014 at 7:27 pm

    Good advice, Lori. I definitely always contract with new clients and on projects that threaten to "creep." I also send out a new editing agreement to older clients if I'm changing things in any way (e.g., raising prices).