A freelance writing contract is more than a legal document—it sets the boundaries and tone of the writer-client agreement. It puts out fires before they spark because both parties not only know what is expected of each other, but also what recourse will be taken should they fail to keep up their end. But while freelance writing contracts outline the nuts and bolts of deadlines, benchmarks, and a number of other clauses, they can also be legally treacherous for freelancers, possibly locking them out of their cultivated and profitable niches or hitting them with legal damages and bankruptcy as a result of their content.
Both of these are good reasons to understand freelance writing contracts, if you ask me.
Whether you’re drafting your own freelance writing contract to send to new clients or signing something sent over by a publishing company or website, it’s essential that you understand the repercussions of what you’re signing.
We’re going to walk through a standard freelance writing contract and discuss both the benign and troublesome clauses—and what they mean for your writing business.
If you’d like your own (free) customizable copy of a freelance writing contract template, I’m working to create one so keep an eye out. I hope to have it finished next week!
Until then, let’s look at the parts of a standard freelance writer’s contract:
Scope of Work
Fight the urge to include a vague description of the work you’ll be doing. Be specific. Include word count, interviews, design parameters, the number of expected sources, images that will be included, and any other materials you’re being commissioned to create.
The Work section of your contract should also include whether the writer has the option to sub-contract any assignments and a number of legal assurances in relation to plagiarism, indemnity, and ownership:
This is one of those landmine clauses. Indemnification clauses identify the responsible party should any legal obligations arise from your work. If there are any losses, damages, or expenses—including attorney fees—associated with your work, the indemnity clause pronounces which party is responsible and who will absorb these costs.
As an example, let’s look at the Gawker vs. Hulk Hogan case wherein a sex tape of Hulk Hogan surfaced and was written about and published by Gawker media. The writer responsible for those articles is now facing bankruptcy, as is Gawker itself. (There’s a full documentary on Netflix that discusses this landmark freedom-of-the-press case titled Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press. I highly recommend it!)
Now you’re probably not breaking national sex tape stories but let’s say you write a tattoo after-care piece and a reader gets an infection. Or you recommend a combination of supplements and a reader has a negative reaction. Protecting yourself from these or any other legal repercussions safeguards your business and your family. Be aware.
Obviously, clients prefer that you, the writer, be legally responsible, so negotiate if need be to protect your legal vulnerability. Freelance indemnification insurance is available for those who bear legal responsibilities under contract.
Ownership & Rights
Chances are, if you’re creating custom content for a client, your client will expect ownership of those materials to be transferred to them upon acceptance and payment. Yet this is another one of those areas where freelance writers can preserve some rights to make more money and possibly resell their work, creating a side income of reprints without all the legwork of creating new content.
“[Be on the lookout for the phrases “work made for hire” or “work for hire.” They are relevant only in certain situations, but where they apply, they give your client full ownership of your work under copyright law. Even where they don’t have any legal force, the presence of these phrases might signal that your client expects to own your work.]” – Vinay Jain, Freelancers Union
If you hope to preserve your rights, you’ll have to negotiate an agreement to grant your client license to use your work. You can specify for how long, where, in what form, and how your work can be used. Will your client have permission to modify your work or create derivative works, based on it. Is the client required to credit you with a bi-line? Any royalties you might earn from the sale of your work should also be outlined in your contract.
Revisions, Client Approval, and Benchmarks
Will you be expected to rewrite an article ten times to gain client approval, without additional compensation for your effort? In this section, you’ll outline the exact editing and rewriting process, along with any additional fees incurred for ongoing services. Most writers include one rewrite within the project or assignment cost. Anything beyond that and you’re not only dealing with a nightmare client, but working for free if you haven’t stipulated a cost for ongoing revisions.
For graphic work and larger projects especially, freelancers should require client approval at certain benchmarks to keep your venture on track. This will keep you from wandering too far in an unapproved direction without guidance from your client, which can result in wasted hours of work. Specify if written approval will be required at any point.
Will you be paid extra to promote your client’s work to your own audience or will marketing the content be the sole responsibility of the client? Many bloggers and writers now harness the power of their influence and reach to command higher rates. If you have a large audience and they’re interested in what you’re writing for a client, offer to promote the piece through your own channels, for a fee.
Deadlines & Schedules
Deadlines, whether they be for a one-off assignment or ongoing content creation, should be spelled out clearly in your freelance contract. Larger projects should be broken down into a schedule of individual deadlines. You can also include an additional fee for any rush-jobs that require a quick turnaround. Also note that if in any case the scope of the work should change, the deadline will also be subject to revision.
Compensation, Payments & Collection
This section of your freelance writing contract will discuss any and all provisions pertaining to payments, compensation, and fees, making it a long and important agreement that directly affects your bottom line.
Payment for Work
This can be a flat fee for a strict word count or a schedule of payments made over time. It is common for large projects and copywriting gigs to command a partial payment before work is begun, with benchmark payments made as portions of the project are completed and approved.
The amount, deadline, invoicing system, and method of payment should all be spelled out to avoid confusion. You should also include expected payments from royalties of sales, any bonuses associated with ‘viral’ content (though you’ll have to define ‘viral’ as well), and any other compensation agreements made with your client.
Writers who are putting up their own money for materials, miledge, or products should push for reimbursement by the client. Otherwise you can just deduct these costs directly from your assignment earnings, absorbing it yourself.
When negotiating my rates for recipe writing, I take into account the cost of the ingredients. The same holds true for DIY writing, local reporting, and product reviews.
If you will be providing images to accompany your work, will you be compensated for them as well? In the above recipe gig example, I would push for additional compensation for any photographs the client expected me to take of my food and include these charges in our agreement.
When a magazine changes its mind about printing an article mid-creation, writers are often paid what’s referred to as a ‘kill fee’. You can protect your earnings from time spent on a project that is terminated before its completion with an early termination clause.
Your freelance writing contract should also include guidelines and fees in the event of late payments and collection activities, including any attorney fees incurred in an effort to collect any debt.
While forming a partnership this week with a tattoo shop website, I dug out the freelance writing contract I send to independent clients and dusted it off. After customizing it and sending it over, the client requested a non-compete clause, prohibiting me from working with any of their local or industry competitors during our agreement and a year thereafter.
To be fair, I don’t specialize in writing for the tattoo industry. For those with a tight niche, be on the lookout for these clauses in contracts sent by clients. Make sure you locate whichever section addresses non-compete and understand what you’re agreeing to. Not doing so could legally lock you out of your specialty. I can’t image anything worse for a writer with a targeted clientele.
Even though I’m not a tattoo-specialty writer, in the spirit of they can only say no, I countered with an offer to extend the non-compete clause for 6 months, half the time of their original request, following any termination of our agreement. I’m no negotiator, but in writing, I think I stated my argument nicely.
If you’re worried about sounding pushy by countering a non-compete, you can use my email as a template:
“I’m wrapping everything up to send back to you but would feel more comfortable with a six-month non-compete clause, if that’s okay. It’s time enough to ensure I don’t leave your site for a competitor, but not so long that, as a general freelancer, I can’t draw on my experience and clips to land work. If this is agreeable, I’ll send the modified contract over.”
I heard back from my client. She not only commended me for standing up for my business, but agreed to the six month term. (happy dance) 🙂
Brands and companies interested in protecting information privy to them may appreciate (or require) a non-disclosure agreement, binding you from talking about ‘insider’ info or benefiting from it through interactions with a third party. Confidentiality agreements outline what information is considered confidential and for how long that info is to remain secret.
Ready to create your own freelance writing contract? I’ll be back next week with Paid Write’s (free) template. You’ll be able to save a copy to your desktop and customize it for individual clients as needed!