A few months ago, I met Lindsay, a freelance marketer, for coffee. Lindsay was just starting out and had lots of questions about running a freelance business.
She brought up one problem that’s easy to avoid, but often not something new freelancers think about until it’s too late.
“Revisions,” said Lindsay. “How do you handle revisions?”
She explained a client had been asking for endless changes and, like cockroaches, the project wouldn’t die.
“I’m now losing money and my mind on this project because they keep changing it,” she complained. “How do I make sure that never happens again?”
My advice: Clarify your terms and scope of work before beginning any work.
Contracts = Pain-in-the-A** Insurance
Contracts are intimidating, I know.
But they protect you from a world of hurt, miscommunication, and nonpayment.
Plus, contracts can expose flaky, pain-in-the-butt clients before you take them on, like an early warning sign for doomed relationships that aren’t worth your time, talent, and effort.
I confess: I didn’t always require contracts.
Starting out, I was fine with an email agreement (which, I reasoned, sufficed as written documentation). I’d list my rate and basic terms in an email, and if a prospect replied back accepting those terms, that was good enough for me.
But I want you to do better.
I want you to have better protection and leverage if an assignment goes south.
I want you to look professional and confident even when everything’s peachy, and smooth as butter.
And I want you to have peace of mind, knowing what to expect in every assignment.
Disclaimer: I’m not an attorney, and I really hesitated to publish this post because I haven’t had an attorney look it over. But then I thought I’d go ahead and say what I would say if you were sitting across the table from me, like Lindsay did that day.
While I’m no substitute for legal counsel, after this post you should be able to draft a basic contract template that’s going to shield you from a lot of trouble.
Before we go on, let me just say I’m not a fan of the word “contract.”
If you feel uneasy asking for a signed contract, go ahead and call it a project “agreement.” That’s what I do. Much less intimidating, right?
Other writers simply title that document “Scope of Work.” That works too.
I also find agreements double nicely as quote templates, so I use the same document for both, with minor wording changes.
Keep It Simple
Your agreement template doesn’t have to be fancy or include convoluted, legal lingo.
Rather, a clear explanation of the assignment, terms, and expectations protects you and your client, raising everyone’s level of comfort and confidence in each other, and in the final outcome.
Terms that feel right and acceptable to you may differ from mine, from other writers’, or even from one client to another.
So this isn’t about nailing the perfect contract format or language, but getting crystal-clear on expectations so you’re not hit with unpleasant surprises (and neither is your client).
Below are five elements you should address in your agreements.
1. SCOPE OF WORK
Let’s break this up into Objective, Deliverables, and Timeline:
State the project’s goal, and don’t stop at just “complete a white paper,” or whatever the project is. That’s not the real goal.
Surely, the client isn’t paying you to write a white paper just because he or she likes to read.
Is the goal to attract qualified leads? Is it to build trust with X audience? Is it to strengthen their reputation and regain ground lost to a competitor? (These are questions you should have discussed by now.)
State the problem and goal that triggered the assignment, and show your client you get the WHY behind it.
(Note: This isn’t a necessary component in terms of legal protection, but a way to position you as an expert.)
What’s the output the client expects from you?
Is it a 5-10 page white paper? Does it have to be delivered a certain way, like a double-spaced Google doc, for instance? Does it include images or graphic design?
Be specific about what you’re delivering.
Whether your agreement specifies a deadline or an estimated timeline, do your best to negotiate for more time than you think you’ll need, if possible.
Similarly, I don’t want to be held accountable for a deadline when a client is slow to respond and puts the project behind schedule.
For that reason, I like to include the following statement:
“Timeline may vary based on the timeliness of [Client Name’s] feedback, internal review and approval process.”
State your fee(s), when, and how you should be paid.
Some writers require pre-payment in full. Others require partial payments at different milestones, and others have more flexible payment terms with a discount for early payment, and/or penalty for late payment. It’s really up to you.
Advanced freelancers often advocate full payment upfront, or a down payment with the remainder due at a later date. Those are certainly good practices, but I’m not going to say you must bill clients a certain way, or adopt a certain approach.
I will say that requiring 30-50% of your fee before you begin work is a great idea, though, especially when dealing with a company you’ve never worked with before.
How do you want to handle revisions?
Some of my agreements include two rounds of revisions in the project fee, with additional revisions requiring an additional fee. Other times, I’ve been more flexible with revisions for higher-dollar projects or retainer clients.
Decide what’s reasonable and draw a clear line when a project is considered completed, and your part is done.
Ownership of the completed work is an area that gets covered in all sorts of “best practice” guides (especially those written by attorneys) but in practice it’s not something many B2B writers address formally.
That’s because most of us view our work as a custom product that belongs to the client who paid for it, and we have no interest in challenging that ownership.
Ownership can get sticky, however, if you do wish to repurpose or reuse the content elsewhere, or promote it for your own marketing. Plus, some writers like to withhold copyright ownership until full payment is received.
In the spirit of clarifying expectations, adding a line about who owns the finished work is a wise step.
What happens if a client kills the assignment before its completion? Who owes what at that point?
State your “kill fee” — the amount you must be paid in the event of termination.
Perhaps that’s a non-refundable down payment, a percentage of the full fee, or the value of completed work prorated from the original fee.
Make consequences clear and require a written (or emailed) termination notice for your records.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered
Don’t forget to identify your primary contact (usually near the top of the document) and require a signature and date at the bottom of your agreement.
If contracts make you twitchy and uncomfortable, remember they’re merely a tool to make your client relationships and assignments predictable and free of unpleasant surprises.
My advice to you: Don’t start your next assignment without one.
- Need a cheat sheet or extra guidance? Try the Freelancers Union’s free contract creator, then massage the language to make it your own.
- Sometimes clients have their own standard contract. Don’t feel obligated to accept their terms because it’s what they’ve always done. Push back (nicely) and negotiate terms that are fair, and mutually beneficial.
- Disagree or need clarification on any part of this post? Drop it in the comments below.