Five reasons why freelancers need a contract

by Leo Wiles
17 November 2017

Talking about contracts when seducing a brand new client may be as enticing as, oh, cleaning the loo – but if you want healthy happy client relationships, it’s crucial. Because, as we’ve all experienced, clients may work in-house but it doesn’t always mean they’re professional.

A written agreement can secure your income, potentially cover you legally and head off hours of exasperation, frustration and stress caused by project creep. For those of you not there yet, or feel that the job isn’t big enough to warrant a contract, at least safeguard your time and earnings by regurgitating everything you understand the job to mean in an email back to the client.

Doing this one thing can help you avoid any misunderstandings, or overlooked contingencies such as milestone deadlines.

If you’re still not convinced? Here are five reasons why a written agreement or contract is essential to your business.

1. It clarifies the commission Getting things in writing means that commissioners who aren’t great at briefing freelancers can see your expectations in black and white. First up, this reduces wiggle room AND enables you to understand exactly what you’re being asked to do. It’s also key in helping you assess whether the story / job / project is seriously doable for the time, money offered, etc.

It’s here in this first email that you should outlay everything from the house style and the word count to who’s responsible for sourcing case studies, images and research. And of course, don’t forget that all important deadline.

2. It locks down the project scope By being up front with a bullet list about what you will deliver and for how much, you neatly sidestep conversations that begin with ‘Could you just…’. In fact, when those follow-up emails from inexperienced clients come, you can reply, “Absolutely, I’d be happy to.  My fees for X additional interviews / words / picture research / audio, etc are $X…”. (We have a script covering this very thing in our ebook, 25 Scripts Book for Freelance Success, available in the Toolkit.)

Unlike a handshake or verbal agreement, such an email, with a caveat in bold that if you do not hear back within 2-3 working days you will proceed as agreed, will leave you in a much stronger position when they decide they need 1,000 words less and want to cut your pay – or insist on another six interviews and expect you to deliver for the same fee.

3. It raises obstacles upfront that could potentially derail the project With huge projects that have to be signed off by multiple departments, it’s important to lock down how many drafts and/or reasonable changes you’ll agree on, and the deadline extension you’ll need if it takes a client more than three working days to turn around each draft.

That way you’ve built in safeguards to clearly demonstrate that the eclipsed or changed deadline and potential budget blowouts were due to the client and not you.

4. It protects you financially Defining how and when you’ll get paid before you begin writing is crucial to your financial well-being and sanity. For big jobs, or on-going contracts you may ask for a monthly retainer and agree on a timetable and an account where your fee is to be paid to.

That way there are no ugly surprises if you end up having to chase payment and find out they pay on publication, or that the fee is in Australian dollars (rather than the USD you’d been holding out for).

5. It clearly denotes ownership of intellectual property Are you signing all rights or only first rights over to the client? Are you retaining intellectual property for international sales? This murky area has taken a hammering in the photographic industry where most clients believe a commission means owning the image forever. Which is why I outline terms of usage very clearly in my emails, the booking fee, the invoice and even when labelling uploaded images.

Of course your email /written agreement may not legally protect you from unscrupulous clients, but I guarantee it will minimise heartache if you ensure everybody ends up on the same page before you begin.

Do you have a contract you give to clients? Or are you more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants freelancer?

Photo by Mari Helin-Tuominen on Unsplash

Leo Wiles

Leo Wiles has worked as an editor, journalist and PR for over 20 years before recently retraining as a photographer. These days, she spends her time behind a lens, juggling her own clients with her work at Rachel's List, and her three gorgeous but lively kids.
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