Free Advice Friday: Using Writing Contracts to Nail Down Projects

What I’m reading: Strip Jack by Ian Rankin
What’s on the iPod: Just Another by Pete Yorn

Yesterday was a bit of a blur. I sat down to accomplish something. Well, I managed my marketing and a little editing on my poetry. Nothing more. There’s a fatigue running through me that can only be thyroid-related. Good thing I have an appointment in two weeks. I just hope I’m awake for it.

There’s a discussion on a LinkedIn forum I help moderate about managing client expectations. The original poster was lamenting what she thought were mistakes made. I’m not so sure. See, while we writers do make mistakes sometimes, most of us are pretty good at dotting our I’s and crossing our T’s. I suspect in her case, as in quite a few cases, the problem was unequal expectations — she expected one thing, the client expected the other.

Ineffective communication is the death of many good client relationships.

Sometimes there’s nothing you can do. Not every client is understandable, and not every writer can interpret “We want something different” into a winning project (well, probably no writer can do anything with that without further direction or information). For those times, give yourself a pass. Chalk it up to you can’t please every writing client every time.

For those other times when it’s more a matter of not asking enough questions (or the right questions), we writers do have options. For me, I like to use both the formal project proposal and the writing contract for spelling out projects and getting on paper exactly what’s expected. Here are some areas in the contract where you can both get it in writing and cover your arse should they decide suddenly that a new direction is in order:

The Scope of Work: It’s at the beginning of my contract, right under the intro to who’s who. My phrasing looks like this:

  1. In the
    Client’s estimation, the project requires that the Contractor …. PROJECT DETAILS HERE.
     The Contractor will provide the
    following services: PROJECT
    DETAILS HERE. Research will be provided at the Contractor’s
Right there where it says “project details here” you fill in everything you expect to be working on. Don’t skip any details. For example, suppose you’re writing a course for a client. You might want to use this type of language: 
  1. In the
    Client’s estimation, the project requires that the Contractor write an
    online course. The Contractor will provide the following services: writing
    of a telecommunications certification training course. Client will ensure compliance with
    accreditation requirements. Research will be provided by the Contractor.
That section shows who is responsible for what. The client can’t say he didn’t know you weren’t ensuring compliance for him because it’s right there in the contract.
Project Objectives and Deliverables: Much like the Scope of Work, this section spells out exactly what you’re going to be doing. In some cases, I like to include mention of project details twice in contracts (not always, but with complicated projects, it’s essential). I spell out the client objectives as I’ve interpreted them, and I include exactly what I’ll be doing. For example, our telecommunications course might look like this:
Create six chapters, including summaries and 10-question chapter exercises, on the following topics:
  1. X
    1. point one
    2. point two
    3. point three
  2. Y
    1. point one
    2. point two
    3. point three
  3. Z
    1. point one
    2. point two
    3. point three

Payment and Fees: This is as important as the Scope of Work and Project Details sections. Communicate very clearly to your clients what your payment process is, when you expect payment, and what you’re charging. If they sign it, they’re bound to it. So are you, so make sure you estimate wisely.
Note: for times when you’re giving an estimate and don’t know, you may want to use a disclaimer. I use one that says something like The Contractor’s fee for writing is $XXXX.  It is estimated that the writing process will
take XX hours of
the Contractor’s efforts.  If the writing
process takes longer than the initial estimate the Client and Contractor may
agree to extend this Agreement with a simple addendum to this Agreement. The
Contractor’s hourly rate for additional work is $XXX.” It’s then clear exactly what’s going to happen should you exceed that estimate. This gives both you and your client assurance that neither projects nor fees will spiral out of control.
Writers, how do you use your contracts or proposals to make sure you and your clients are on the same page?

About the author




  • Cathy Miller August 22, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    I use what is called a Statement of Work. Mine is very similar to yours, Lori. It has the following sections.

    -Scope of Work – includes type of project (e.g., ghostwritten article, white paper, etc.), word count range, tasks (including conference call, research, etc.)

    Also identifies what's NOT included – like graphic design or marketing

    – Timetable – targeted dates for tasks including receipt of requested info from client, conference calls, draft


    -Terms – includes payment terms (e.g., deposit), copyright (until paid in full, I retain copyright), changes to Scope requires amendment to Statement of Work and fee

    Confidentiality – mini-Non-Disclosure statement

    This has evolved over the years as patterns develop that I want to cover.

  • Lori Widmer August 22, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    Absolutely love the idea of what's not included, Cathy! I think that's so smart.

    My proposals usually have very detailed timetables/client responsibilities so everyone knows what's due when. It helps when the thing is stalled and they're pointing to me — uh uh. You have to complete X first.

  • Ashley August 22, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    You probably remember that you sent me your contract a while back, Lori, and I've been building on that ever since. Any time I hear a good tip to include, I add it to the contract. It has been VERY beneficial in several instances, especially in the Scope of Work portion. There have been at least two occasions in which the client and I had different expectations about the project. For example, one client and I had discussed a certain word count, but apparently we weren't clear at the end about what we'd finally agreed on (I understood 500 words, whereas he wanted 1,000). So that saved us both a lot of grief to have it in writing, where he could review and correct the expectations up front, rather than being unhappy when I turned in the final project!

  • Lori Widmer August 22, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    The Scope of Work is essential, isn't it? It helps immensely to have everything in writing. Saves a TON of headaches!