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. Michelle Dunn

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

  2. 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. 🙂

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

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