Why Freelance Writers Earn More With This Simple Piece of Paper

Carol Tice

Don't write without a freelance contract. Makealivingwriting.comThere’s one easy step freelance writers can take to boost their income. It can prevent you from getting ripped off.

But I find many writers don’t take this simple step. Here are three stories out of many I’ve heard in Freelance Writers Den just recently that illustrate my point:

“I am collaborating with a friend to co-write an book. I’ve done a ton of work and now the relationship is deteriorating. He never signed a freelance contract with me outlining how we’d share the workload or the revenue, and now that I have a publisher interested, he won’t budge on their terms. He’s sending me angry emails. I’m afraid the book is now never going to come out.”

“I’ve been working through an agency with a client that sent me a lot of work. Suddenly, the client told me they had severed the relationship with the agency. I’m in the middle of the assignment! I have no freelance contract with the agency or this client, they’re not returning my calls, and I’ve done $700 worth of work that I suspect I’ll never be paid for.”

“My client is contract-phobic. It’s just a short assignment, so I was thinking of just going for it and writing without a contract. Anything wrong with that?”

Well, there’s really nothing wrong with it — as long as you don’t care if you ever get paid.

Did you notice a common theme to those stories?

That’s right. When you don’t have a freelance contract, you often get screwed.

When you write without a contract, you have no agreement. Your client is obligated to do nothing for you. They could pay you 10 years from now and be within their rights.

I have seen so many writers get screwed over because they don’t have a contract, it honestly just makes me throw up.

To sum up: Don’t write without a contract!

When you’re bouncing from one scammy, nonpaying client to the next, not getting paid, your earnings for the year are going down, down, down. When writers work, they need to get paid — every time.

Will a contract guarantee you get paid? No.

But my experience is that clients are far less likely to flake on you when you’ve got something in writing with their signature on it.

If you have to, create a short email outlining your assignment, payment, and most importantly payment terms (when they have to pay you). Ask them to respond with “I agree.” Print and save. Now you at least have a paper trail.

Will you write without a contract? Leave a comment and tell us about it.



  1. Ruth - Freelance Writing Blog

    I almost never require formal contracts to be signed (bad, right?) – but I ALWAYS require expressed approval on an email that details the terms of the contract. I specifically ask my clients to respond with “I approve the terms of the contract detailed in this correspondence”. I have no idea how legally binding that approach actually is, but I do think it engenders a sense of accountability, and it does create a virtual paper trail so that if I decide to take action, I have some frame of reference.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Ruth –

      I recently had one Fortune 500 client where that was how they did their contracts — just “I agree” on email. So I get the sense it’s adequate, especially bearing in mind that 99.9% of the time you won’t be suing anyone. But it just does give you something to come back to and say — hey, this is what we agreed to.

  2. Taylor

    Speaking as a former practicing attorney who now freelances instead (so this is not legal advice, just my own experience and what I personally do), for small writing gigs I find formal contracts that have to be signed too time consuming, but I agree with the email paper trail where you write the terms of the agreement out, including when payment is due. I find this to be CYA not only for getting paid, but also for agreeing to the scope of the project, how many words, etc. I list all the important parts of the agreement and then say something like if more is later requested more payment may also be required. I would personally feel comfortable showing the email paper trail in court as a contract and agreement between the parties.

  3. John White

    Yes, contracts can be time-consuming indeed. I like email agreements for follow-on work, but not for first-engagement projects. At a minimum, I put in place a one- or two-page proposal/statement of work with a signature block at the end for both client’s signature and mine.

    Ask your clients for a purchase order, and provide them with the statement of work to put on it. Not all companies issue P.O.s, but they’re as close as you can get to a guarantee that somebody in Accounting will know who you are and pay you.

    • Carol Tice

      Great suggestion — maybe use the PO as a workaround if they balk at a formal contact.

  4. Debra Stang

    The first few times I work with a client, I have them sign a contract. Once we’re used to each other, I don’t ask for contracts for routine work unless one of the terms has changed. I will, however, request a project if we start a new project that is different from the ones we’ve worked on before.


  5. Carol J. Alexander

    I recently wrote a story for a regional publication that had bought reprints for me previously. When the editor asked me to do this piece she never could seem to answer the question about payment. I went ahead, knowing what she paid for reprints and thinking it surely had to be at least twice that and I would settle for that even if it was low, because I needed the work. Well, it wasn’t. She refused to pay me more than what she paid for reprints, even after I explained all the extra leg work I went to to find sources in her region. I would not do it again with at least an emailed agreement. (I made less than minimum wage on this story and cannot use it again because it was region specific.)

    • Carol Tice

      I find many writers do a lot of assuming…and we all know what happens when you do that.

      I know one writer who took a $250 web-content writing gig, assuming it would be maybe 5-6 pages of content. Turned out to be 35.

      Without a contract, there was no way to say hey, that’s not included in my fee.

      When I’m talking to clients who ‘can’t seem to answer’ what the payment will be…it’s like red sirens are blaring. Run the other way.

  6. Laura Ratcliff

    Carol, do you have a standard, simple contract that you use, like a “fill in the blank” for specifics? Or do you just make up a new one each time?

    • Carol Tice

      Most publications have a contract they’re going to hand you, which you might want to negotiate off of, but they’ll have a form to start with. I used to be a legal secretary, so I felt fairly confident creating a basic 1-page contract for small-biz blogging and similar projects. There’s a template of it in the Den in the Resource Library thread of the forum.

      • Laura Ratcliff

        Thanks, I actually just found it myself when I was browsing all the great resources in the Den. I have to say, I’ve only been a member for 2 days, and I am very impressed! My head is buzzing with ideas of all the things I need to do to improve my marketing efforts. I’m so happy that I have a sales background, because making cold calls doesn’t bother me at all, but first I am going to get my new website up and running by next Friday, so when I make cold calls, they’ll have somewhere to look for my work and other information.

        • Carol Tice

          Sounds great! Glad you’re finding the Den resources useful.

  7. Ronald Sieber

    For magazine articles, I usually am satisfied with a written communication trail about what we agree on (length, payment, etc) and a notification that it has been purchased. I think that asking editors of monthlies to to a back-and-forth on a contract is a bit much. They often strike me as incredibly overworked and a bit stressed.

    I have not yet been burned by this method.

  8. Cindi

    The only time I write without a contract is when I’ve already agreed to write for free. Even then, I am very precise about what it is I’m doing for free and have actually drawn up an agreement so that my client and I are both clear about when my free obligation ends.

  9. Kay Woods

    Great topic!
    I never begin a writing job without an agreement form outlining what I’ll do for them, and my rates.
    And a retainer fee. I generally ask for a $500 retainer, and I bill at regular intervals after I’ve worked off the retainer. Sometimes I’ll submit a sample, a page or two, before they sign anything, if they ask. It’s my satisfaction guarantee. A little chancy, but in most cases they’re happy. And I’ve built a relationship of trust with them. Now they’re happy with my work, and we move forward. I send them the agreement, and I do not proceed until they have agree to it, either in writing or electronically (faster). And I retro bill for the hours I put in submitting the sample, and any subsequent billable hours. My initial consultation is free.

    • Carol Tice

      Wow, strong position! Guess I think of it as an up-front payment. A retainer to me is when you’re put on contract and will be paid whether you write or not.

  10. Cori Padgett

    I’m typically the email agreement gal as well. I do require a formal contract if the project is large or long-term, however for smaller projects, or projects where I already know the client, or other similar circumstances, I make sure there is email agreement of terms and that I get a minimum of 50% as a deposit, with the terms clearly outlined in the invoice as added accountability. I also make it clear in the invoice for the deposit when payment is expected (before work commences) and that appropriate action is taken for non-payment.

    • Carol Tice

      Right on!

  11. Stephanie Sides

    I have never required a contract because I my client base has come entirely from the university I work at, I know them all well, and I’m a registered vendor with the university, which is not likely to default on my invoices. This has been a wonderful place to be.

    I did have problems recently, though, with a new client from outside the university that I ended up firing. I learned that I SHOULD have had a contract with him that included (in addition to the items Carol mentions: outline of project, payment, and payment schedule) his total budget for the project and the terms under which each party could choose to exit the contract. For the former, the client dressed beautifully, drove the highest-end Mercedes, and had at least one daughter at Harvard, so, since he was paying me out of his own pocket (which made sense), I assumed money was no object. (Never make this assumption!) We had agreed on an hourly rate but not a total budget for the project. I had assumed a number on the order of 10x what he planned to spend… So just as I’m getting ready to deliver a first draft of a proposal, I come to realize I’ve completely spent (and then some!) his overall budget. But that was not the reason to terminate the arrangement. The REAL reason was that he would not give me access to the PI and his staff to begin figuring out how to develop all the 25-some “parts and pieces” that would accompany the proposal narrative. Yet he wanted me to take primary responsibility for pulling the proposal together and getting it submitted by deadline. That was a showstopper for me. If I’m the lead, I have to have access to ALL who will influence the outcome, and when *I* need it. End of story.

    We were three weeks to deadline. I spent a very traumatized weekend worrying I was being set up for failure. Then I realized I *didn’t have to do this*! I called the guy the following Monday morning and explained my reasons for needing to cancel the arrangement. He took it well. I provided a rough draft as a consolation prize. And he even paid me (as a gesture of good will, I gave him a $250 discount because of the circumstances and because I’d used up his entire budget).

    Another thing I’d recommend, esp. with a new client, is to try to understand (up front) their background in working with writers, what they understand of the process, how engaged they and their staff are likely to be, etc. I don’t think this client had ever worked with a writer before, was very focused on (and stressed out about) the development process of his software, trashed other people I was working with on the project, and had no time to explain anything to me. He just wanted to throw the writing work over the transom and expect it would be a winner in the end. These were all red flags that, had I noticed, should have caused me to decline the job.

    • Carol Tice

      Sorry to hear this story, Stephanie!

      But you bring up a great point — just because a client has money doesn’t mean they’re going to give that money to YOU without a firm contract. Personally, the “What’s your budget?” question is the first one I ask. Really avoids a lot of headaches.

  12. Michelle Dunn

    Great advice Carol! I tell my clients that if they only do one thing to protect themselves it is to get a signed contract or agreement! It doesn’t have to be long and involved, just a breakdown of what you will do and for how much and what the other party will do. Then include what happens if either one of you does not follow through.
    Another good way to do this is to get 50% down at the time of the assignment and the balance upon completion – but make sure to put that in writing! It is up to us as writers to protect ourselves!

  13. kymlee

    I have a basic contract I send to my clients for both editing and writing and I don’t to anything until the contract is signed. I’ve never been burned, thank goodness. I have however had to send stern emails about late payments. Not fun.

  14. Josh Sarz

    Nice post, I’m quite new to this and I didn’t know contracts are like a MUST. I guess guest posts on other people’s blogs don’t count because you’re not getting paid anyway, right?

    I didn’t know contracts were involved in writing for other people.

    Thanks for the informative post. 🙂

  15. Michelle Dunn

    Josh, contracts are involved when there is money involved to help protect you and help you if you don’t get paid.

  16. Anna

    You are so right, Carol. It is so important to point out the great importance of a contract, and it does not only apply to writing really. I know, a contract is not a guarantee for you to get paid, but if they are willing to sign a contract with you, that is a good sign, you’ll know that they are not planning to rip you off to start with.


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