A freelance writer works with lots of different clients. Clients, like people, come in different shapes, sizes, and yes, personalities. Some clients are easy going, some are demanding, some play fair, and some don’t.
So, how can you protect yourself as a freelance writer?
The first thing most people will suggest is to get a contract signed. This is a good idea.
Bigger clients will likely already have a contract that they want you to sign. Believe it, or not, this isn’t usually to your detriment. Remember, real businesses have to do business with multiple vendors and contractors and other businesses. While mistakes happen, and there are exceptions, as a general rule, big, established businesses don’t stiff their vendors. (And, yes, the bigger the business, the more likely they are to consider your carefully crafted freelance writing business to be nothing more than another vendor.)
Smaller clients may actually ask you if you have a contract that can be used. It’s a good sign of professionalism to respond with something along the lines of, “I have simple contract that I’ve used in the past if you would like to take a look at it.”
Where do you get a pre-prepared freelance writer contract?
It’s easy. Pull out one of those contracts from the big company clients you had and cobble together the parts that you like. Leave out the parts you don’t. Voila! Contract!
Don’t worry too much about the actual contract. As you’ll see below, chances are you will never actually go to court with it anyway.
Getting Stiffed as a Freelance Writer
No matter how good your contract is, being a freelance writer is no different than any other small business. Eventually, someone is going to forget, or intentionally, not pay you at all. What happens then?
Unfortunately, there are no good options.
A contract is not magic. It’s not like some Unbreakable Vow spell where violating the contract results in automatically instantiated justice. The only thing a contract does is give you added ammunition to sue your client. More realistically, it gives you a way to threaten to sue your client, because chances are, by the time you are done with court fees and attorney’s fees, there isn’t going to be much value in actually suing.
So, what can you do?
First off, don’t worry too much about it until it actually happens.
I’ve been in the freelance business for over eight years now, and I’ve never been totally stiffed. I have had to chase down clients to get them to pay, but they all did… eventually.
The real way to protect yourself is to set up your arrangement properly from the beginning, and never work for someone that seems overly sketchy to you.
The way I run my freelance writing business is to charge by the project. The key is to not setup a long, expensive project with no deliverables and no payment until the very end.
For example, if you are a doing financial freelance writing to produce a series of personal finance training seminars over three months, don’t set up the project such that you deliver all three months worth of work at the end for a single $25,000 payment. Ideally, you would set the project up to deliver a single training right away, for which you will be paid. Then, you deliver one-third of the project each month, in exchange for one-third of the total payment, each month.
Pitch this to the client by saying that you want to deliver that first one for final approval right away, so that you know the rest of them will be exactly what they want.
By structuring your freelance writing gig in this manner, it reduces the amount of non-payment that can happen.
In our above example, if the client does not pay for the first deliverable, you do not do the work for the next deliverables. Are you out some money? Yes, but much less than if you got no payment for the whole three months of work.
This is one of the reasons many freelancers charge a lower rate for on-going projects. Once you’ve written, and been paid, for three or four months running, you can stop worrying about not getting paid and happily accept any new work from that client.
What To Do If a Freelance Writing Client Won’t Pay
Now, let’s say that you do the above and you still have a non-payment issue.
The first step is to stop working for them immediately until they actually pay you. Not until they say they will pay you, not until they say they sent it to accounting, but not until you actually receive and deposit the check. You will find that if you are a good, professional writer, that it is harder to replace you than you might think. This sounds obvious, but I’ve known plenty of writers who kept working because they didn’t want to lose the client and they kept hoping the client would pay eventually.
A client who doesn’t pay, isn’t a client anymore. If they are truly professional, they will understand, and respect, that you won’t work without being paid, and they’ll work harder to make sure that check actually gets issued. If not, even if they pay this time, you can count on it happening again in the future.
The next step is to learn the rules of your state’s small claim court. If the amount fits, then you need to do the research and sue pro se (by yourself, no attorney) in small claims court. In Colorado, for example, the limit for small claims court is $7,500.
There are two reasons to do this. First, is that it establishes a record, both of them being scumbags, and of you being someone who does not tolerate such things. Someone who deliberately scams vendors will research you first. If you’ve filed for non-payment in court before, they may move on to easier targets.
Second, depending upon the company, it may not be the person in charge who is not paying you, and things like lawsuits, even from small claims court, draw a lot of attention.
If the amount is too big for small claims court, then you can speak with an attorney, but it is almost never worth suing with an attorney unless it was a very big project, and a large amount of money.
Finally, document everything, print off email exchanges and write down notes of any phone calls you had and save it for tax time. You can write off bad debts in most cases, so at least you can take a little bit off your taxes.
In the end, the reality is that you will write for your clients as long as they pay you, and from the other end, they will pay you for as long as you deliver. As soon as one of you breaks their end of the bargain, the relationship is over and you move on.
It’s really that simple.