As you know, I occasionally do take on freelance writing work and after a jolting experience with non-payment last week I woke up to the realities of the freelance writing world. Sure, I knew the rules. After a decade in the business I knew the ins and outs. Yet, I flung all common sense out the window and made rookie mistakes, thinking, “Well, I’m a pro now, it won’t happen to me.” But it did and after that I thought of penning this post more as a reminder to myself than advice to others.
Here are the tips I’ve gleaned over the years. You would be wise if you could use all of them.
Always sign a contract – This is a business. Even if its a friend of a friend or a favor, always. I mean ALWAYS, sign a contract. Because without this you’ve got nothing. No matter how well you know the person, sign a contract. For tax purposes, legal and official purposes sign a contract. With a legally binding document, you will be taken seriously as a professional and will be treated that way as well. Get a boilerplate contract and edit it as per your needs. Check out a sample contract from Columbia law school.
Add a late payment fee – I haven’t done this for writing but I’m increasingly leaning towards this. Having this clause in your contract, forces your client to keep cheques and payments ready on the date of delivery instead of after. This prevents any delayed payments and non payments.
Get a Letter of Agreement – A Letter of Agreement is a safeguard more than anything else. It contains details like the exact word count agreed on, dates of deliverables, first drafts and last draft dates, details of assignment and transfer. I think this is great because you have a definite plan of what your job is and what is required of you. See this sample to create your own LOA.
Deposit fee – To deposit or not? This is something that many freelance writers do, especially if you’re working with a new client. When the client has something at stake, (cough- money), then they’re more receptive to queries and emails. And magically all dealings take place above board. The client is more invested because he’s already paid. Most online services are pay first, service later and there’s no harm in this. How much? Not too little as chump change that the client can ignore you and not too large where they question hiring you. I’ve seen as much as 10% to 30%. It depends on you.
Query Sheet – A query sheet is one that a client must fill detailing their requirements. I find this particularly helpful for scientific writing, where the requirements are very specific. Not all clients fill this, because often they’re clueless. But this is important, especially given my last few interactions, where clients send in reams of data with a short note attached, “Thesis.” No kidding.
A query sheet should have certain mandatory details like title, style guide, inference and word count. You can create a detailed query sheet or incorporate it in your contact form, its up to you. A query sheet can cut a few interactions about details as it simplifies and clarifies what the client wants.
Document all communication – This is important, especially when things go wrong. And they do. Often the SPOC( specific point of contact) will be your go between and not the primary decision maker. This person could be HR and is clueless about the project. When things go wrong, the easiest thing is to deflect blame onto the freelance writer. So, document every communication with the client. If its a phone call, follow it up with an email saying, “As per our conversation earlier,blah blah.”I learned this from a previous boss who said, “Document everything.”
Know the hierarchy – This is especially if things have to be escalated. Let’s say you have a deadline, but there’s a problem with the data and you’ve sent three emails but heard nothing back, then what? So write to the next higher up. What if payments are held up, whom do you contact in case of non response from the SPOC, the editor or accountant? It helps to know whose who about the client.
Automate Invoices – I’ve not been in the habit of automating invoices, but I’m slowly converting to cloud accounting. I haven’t used Freshbooks but I’ve heard good things like automatic reminders and alarms thus preventing any guilt about asking for your own money. Creating your own invoices also makes you seem very professional.
Don’t Transfer all files before final payment – I’ve debated this, but after I cried my woes to fellow freelance writers, I was quite sternly told that this is standard practice. The understanding being that the first draft was the blueprint or sample or near finish project while the final draft is the final perfect version. You wouldn’t let someone take a painting home and check if its okay and then pay. You’d take the money and then hand over the project. Everything after that is edits not redoing drafts. Which brings me to my next point.
Limit Edits – Allow a finite number of free edits. Maybe two or three. Once you receive payment and transfer the file, there is no room for redoing the project. This is particularly important where your client is a team. If this team has eleven members and you don’t have a fixed number of edits, then you will find yourself making eleven edits based on each member’s feed back and not all of it will come at the same time. So if you allow a first edit, then a pass, the client is forced to convene a team meeting, identify problems and ask for changes. Then you do your final and last free edit and it goes to the client for a second pass. If they still have more edits, then they need to pay extra. You will find if they have to pay extra they will manage to iron the entire product in those two free edits. It all happens magically
I have to admit, I didn’t do any of these ten things as I was helping a friend of a friend and I sank. Please don’t repeat my mistakes. the above tips will prevent you from sinking in this competitive business.
Do you have any tips for freelance writers? Let me know. I’ve learned my lesson, but I could definitely learn more.