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5 Essential Components of a Freelance Contract

Freelancers, repeat after me: “I will not work without a contract.” It’s a simple mantra, yet so many of us don’t follow it. I know this, because I learned it … the hard way. Contracts don’t just protect the client’s interests; they can also protect the freelancer from scope creep or nonpayment.

Even if the editor or client says, “I don’t do formal contracts,” it’s still a good idea to outline the project terms in an email and ask them to confirm so you’ll have a paper trail later on. And remember, everything’s negotiable. Here are five components to include:

1. Project scope.
For a copywriting project, the project scope might be a certain number of web pages of approximately a certain number of words subject to a certain number of revisions. For a journalism assignment, it might be a word count range (for instance, 500-700 words). If the editor or client wants the work delivered in a certain file format or in a certain other way, they’ll sometimes outline that in the contract. The more specific, the better to avoid miscommunications.

2. Deadline.
Agree to a deadline, but if you need certain background materials from the client or editor before you can move forward, make your deadline contingent on that. If you aren’t comfortable negotiating the pay rate, you can often negotiate the deadline so you won’t have to scramble to finish on time. Ask for more time upfront; don’t wait until the day before your deadline! I might use a message like this one, “in order to do this topic justice, I wondered if you have any wiggle room in your deadline?” I’d especially recommend negotiating the deadline if you have a day job and moonlight as a freelancer in case things get hectic at work.

3. Rights.
Your contract should also detail what rights the publisher or client is purchasing: all rights, one-time rights, print rights, and so on. This rights primer ( explains what these term mean. Nowadays, work for hire or all rights contracts are increasingly common, since publishers want the ability to post articles online without worrying about duplicate content. Sometimes, however, you can request a less rights-grabby contract, especially if you know other writers have gotten one. Try this: “Is there another contract that some of your contributors use? I’m concerned about giving up all rights to this piece, so I wondered if there’s any flexibility on that point.”

4. Pay rate.
Don’t wait until after your article is published to find out how much you’ll get paid! I’m shocked that some freelancers and article writing services I know actually do this, focusing more on the clip than the compensation. But that sends a message to editors and clients that they do this for fun rather than pay and sets a bad precedent for future negotiations. I’ve successfully negotiated for more money using strategies like this: “Given the complexity of this topic, would you be able to bump up the pay rate?” or “Similar publications pay X for an article of this length and depth, so do you have any extra room in your budget?” As with negotiating rights, it pays to know what other writers are getting from that client or publication so you’re not pricing yourself too high or too low for the market.

5. Pay schedule.
I’d argue that knowing when you’ll be paid is just as important as the amount on your check. Does the market pay within 30 of acceptance, 60 days after publication, or on some other schedule? Do writers need to submit an invoice or does the editor take care of that? Do they pay by check, PayPal, or direct deposit? It’s important to ask so you’ll when it’s appropriate to follow up. And these days, I’d be very wary of publications that pay on publication, because so many publications are folding or holding articles indefinitely, which means you might never get paid for your hard work. Sometimes you can get them to add language to this effect: “ABC Media agrees to pay contributors within 30 days of publication or 60 days of filing the article, whichever comes first.” That way you’ll get paid even if they postpone publication.

NOTE: I’m not a lawyer (nor do I play one on TV), so these tips are offered as suggestions. If you really want to cover your bases, you may want to consult a contracts lawyer to discuss your individual situation.