If you’ve recently landed a new writing gig, your first thought may be “when do I get started?” Before you ever write that first word, however, you need to ensure that your future as a freelancer is secure with a legally-binding freelance contract that protects you and the income you’ve planned on receiving.
Contracts don’t need to be complicated or even very long. They do, however, need to be clear. Here are the basic steps to making a contract that your clients will be comfortable signing and that covers your interests.
Use a template
You may write for a living, but that doesn’t mean you can’t outsource things or build on existing work when appropriate. Using a freelance contract template ensures that you have a starting point for the essentials in a legally-binding document and gives you inspiration for ways to customize it for your unique services and projects. Templates may have more detail than you need, so scan through each one and make sure all sections apply.
Cover the basics
While every contract has the potential to be unique, some terms shouldn’t be optional. Make sure your document covers the following:
- Project and payment (including what will be done, the schedule for completion, cost, how expenses will be handled, when you send your freelance invoice, when payment is due, and how any late fees will be applied.)
- Ownership and licenses (including who owns the work, how the work can be used, who gets credit for the work, and whether the work can be used as a sample in the freelancer’s portfolio.)
- Competitive engagements (including if the freelancer can work for competitors of the client during the project.)
- Non-solicitation (including a promise by the freelancer to not approach client employees with offers of work or seek clients of the client directly for business.)
- Representations (including a statement that the client and freelancer are who they say they are, will follow the law in fulfilling the agreement, and are authorized to sign the contract.)
- Term and Termination (including when the contract ends, what is needed to end the contract early, and what will happen if either party decides not to fulfill their end of the agreement.)
- Independent Contractor (including the definition of “independent contractor” and the obligations the client has to the freelancer, as well as the obligations the freelancer has to the client – under the terms of non-employee.)
- Confidential Information (including how sensitive material and information will be handled by the freelancer.)
- Limitation of Liability (including who is liable in a breach-of-contract.)
- Indemnity (including what happens if the freelancer or client is sued over the work completed under the contract or accused of copyright violations.)
There may be other sections you’d like to include, but these are the basics. A valid contract must also have a place to sign at the end. If you’re wary of changes being made after the signing, you can also initial each page of the document before you scan or copy to indicate that you agree with each page as written.
Make sure that the contract represents your unique talents, skills, and services. A contract for a writer may differ from that of a developmental editor or consultant. Include terms that specify what you will do and what you won’t. A writer, for example, may choose to submit one draft, complete a single major revision, and deliver two rounds of minor revisions for the price indicated in the contract. A consultant will have completely different terms based on the unique nature of their work. Make the contract match your deliverables.
Deliver, notify, and track
Once you have a solid contract developed, find a protected, digital method to send it to the representative at the client’s company. Ensure a quick response by sending it through a tool that lets them sign digitally and send it back securely. While it is possible to send as a document attachment through email, you won’t be notified when they have signed and may have to wait for them to have access to a printer and scanner – which can delay the contract start date and your subsequent payment. Give the client a timeline for when you expect the contract to be returned, and how to handle any edit requests.
Be wary of edits
Speaking of edit requests, you really don’t want to have many of these. In the real world, however, most clients will have one or two. Use your instincts to determine if their requests are reasonable. A slight change in the timeline, for example, isn’t something to worry about. A complete overhaul of the contract, a request to replace your contract with their standard contract, or changes to important terms (such as liability, non-compete, or payment schedule) may warrant re-examining of the partnership will be worth the trouble.
What if either party wants to make changes after the contract is signed? It can be done, but both parties must either draft a new contract or initial as close to the edited section of the contract as possible. (Somewhere in the margins on the same line as the changed text will do just fine.)
Refer to it early (and often)
Getting a signed contract is a big step in the onboarding of a new client, and it is something that should be considered to be the bedrock of your relationship. Any disputes should be handled by referring back to this document. Clients may need to be made aware of what they agreed to, and it’s considered ethical and professional to invoke the terms of the contract at any point it seems necessary.
Remember, a contract is essential to ensure healthy professional boundaries between freelancer and client. Without one, personalities can get in the way, and it’s possible to be taken advantage of in a manner that affects your income, reputation, or morale. While many freelancers swear by an informal email exchange as an adequate tool to document project expectations, there are many things left out of this type of communication. Take time early on to get a formal contract in place, and you’ll avoid many of the headaches experienced in an already-complicated freelance career.
Author bio: Matt is the founder of Bonsai, an automated contracts and invoices product used by 100,000+ freelancers and agencies globally. He lives in San Francisco, where he enjoys surfing, science fiction, and leafy green vegetables.