Avoid Hassles With A Freelance Writer’s Basic Assignment Checklist

Carol Tice

Avoid Hassles With A Freelance Writer's Basic Assignment Checklist. Makealivingwriting.com

I had a great conversation with one of the writers in my mentoring program recently. She’d screwed up her courage, called the editor of a local lifestyle magazine, and been invited to pitch an idea! She was all excited.

There were a few hitches, though.

When she called to follow up on the pitch letter she sent, the editor was confused. He thought he had already given her an assignment.

To write a piece of unspecified length.

On spec. Fee to be determined later, if he liked it.


When you’re out trying to land those first assignments — or even your first recent assignments, if you’re getting back into freelancing after a hiatus — it’s easy to get excited when you get a nibble.

You practically shout: “Yes, yes, pick me!”

And off you go, grinning happily, with only a dim idea of what you’ve agreed upon.

This causes a lot of problems later, especially when you realize you’re being paid a big $50 for your article. Or that you’re expected to develop 35 pages of content for $150. (That second one happened to another writer I know recently.)

Also, that tiny payment is due to arrive six months from now.

After this sad experience, my mentee suggested I offer a short checklist of the most important questions to ask when you’re getting a writing assignment, whether it’s from a magazine or a business. So here you go:

A Writer’s Basic 10-Point Assignment Checklist

  1. What is this assignment? Is it an article, blog post, white paper?
  2. How many words or pages long is it supposed to be?
  3. When is this assignment due?
  4. How much will I be paid for this assignment?
  5. What are your payment terms (i.e. 50% up front and the rest on publication, 60 days after I turn in the first draft)?
  6. Will I be expected to provide any photographs, images, charts, resources links, sidebars, a source list, or other related materials?
  7. Are there some particular sources you are expecting me to talk to for this assignment?
  8. Who will own the rights to what I am writing? For instance, might I be allowed to reprint the piece elsewhere after 90 days?
  9. Do you offer a kill fee if you don’t end up using the piece?
  10. Do you have a contract to offer me, or shall I draw one up? (Because you definitely want one, even if it’s just one brief page.)

Do you have more basic, important questions you ask? Leave them in the comments.


  1. Shlomo

    I don’t have a question to add. But I suggest that it would be important to send an email to the editor listing all the points that were agreed upon. Once the editor agrees with that list then you can get the contract signed.

    • Marcy

      Great tip. Also, if there were miscommunications during the discussion, this is as an excellent time to clear them up.

    • Carol Tice

      If the editor is sending me a contract, I usually just wait until it comes and then read it, assuming I think we have a basic understanding of assignment wordcount, pay and deadline.

      If it’s a market that does not have a contract, then I will propose a very brief, one-page email and ask them to confirm that this is serving as our agreement, which I then print and save.

      I have proposed and gotten changes. In the last contract I got there was a whopper of an error — I was sent the rider full-time employees have to sign where you must agree to allow them to investigate your criminal, driving, and work history! They apologized and withdrew it.

      Moral to this story is — don’t be afraid to object to a clause in a contract if you really think it’s inappropriate. I’ve found half the time if I see something that seems outrageous or really onerous, the language is in there by mistake…some secretary has copied from a previous contract and didn’t realize it was something inappropriate to this contract.

  2. Barbara

    Thanks for this list. Although I have not yet written an article for pay, I did nibble once on a potential gig and while writing the sample they required, I realized it was way too much work for the pay they offered. I knew the PT status would turn into a FT job for me. What is a kill fee?

    • Carol Tice

      Some traditional magazines will pay 10-25% of the original fee if they commission an article but then decide not to use it…that’s known as a kill fee.

      Not something you’ll ordinarily get in business writing, though you should be building in milestones where you get paid up-front and on turning in a first draft…so even if they never approved the final you’d have gotten most of your pay.

      One of my policies developed from experience is to also have a clause in business contracts where they have to pay out the final payment within 60 days of turning in the first draft in any case. This keeps projects from dragging on and on and leaving you in the lurch. Some clients will just go silent after you turn in a draft, you can’t get the time out of day out of them, and if you haven’t built a clause like this into the contract you never get the trigger to bill the final payment, since you never hear that final approval.

  3. Marcy

    Thanks for these tips, Carol. I could have used them last week! Although last week’s job brought pay for some short pieces, a couple were rejected with no feedback – and no pay. The work also took longer than planned, my fault for not thinking the project through. These tips will become a part of my arsenal.

    • Carol Tice

      @Barbara and @Marcy…you sound like you are both writing on spec for websites you saw on online job ads.

      I did a whole presentation about this issue with Angie Atkinson in the How to Make Good Money Writing Online webinar…but don’t create from-scratch writing ‘samples’ for prospective clients. Your existing clips should always be enough to show you can write.

      Most places that ask for these samples are scamming…they simply take all the ‘samples’ writers submitted and use them, often without pay or permission, to flesh out their sites and improve their search rankings, while really hiring no one.

      Writing on spec is also not something I really recommend. Most legit publications and websites don’t work that way — they make an assignment, they don’t say, “Oh sure, yeah, send us something and maybe we’ll use it.”

      So anytime you’re seeing these kind of ‘offers,’ be wary.

  4. Anne Wayman

    Carol, another way to say what your checklist says, is get clear on the assignment and don’t be afraid to ask questions… a good reason for a checklist.

  5. Kymlee

    When I was working at Entrepreneur I always sent an assignment checklist before sending out the contract. I figured it was my responsibility as the editor to make sure the writer understood the assignment if I was going to get the story I wanted. And most of the time, I got exactly what I had asked for. But as being on the other side now, I realize asking for the details is the only real way to be clear on the assignment. Thanks for the checklist. I’ll definitely be using this in the future.

  6. P-A-McGoldrick

    Thanks, All, especially Carol.
    This is such a great idea to practise. Having a checklist is the way to go!

  7. Debra Stang

    Hi Carol,

    Just wanted to let you know that I am printing out this checklist and pinning it on the wall next to my desk. It’s so easy to get caught on these issues, and now I’ll have them right beside me to read off one by one when I’m making cold calls or negotiating by email with an editor. Thanks!


  8. vonnie

    Great tips to use when submitting. A few years ago, I blindly submitted a story to a print magazine. This was before I knew to submit to more than one publication, write query letters, etc. After a year, I received an email saying they wanted to use my story. I was so excited and signed the contract as fast as I could and sent it back to them. What I hadn’t asked was when it would be published and when would I get paid. A year later I saw my story in print and received my very first check for writing. I’ve learned a lot since then and will now only submit to pubs that ‘pay on acceptance’, but I still have a picture of that $75 check. It was a very memorable experience. 🙂

    Thanks for the tips.

    • Carol Tice

      Thanks for sharing that story, Vonnie!

      I think so many writers have one of these. I know one writer who framed the small check when it finally came!

      I used to have one client whose payment plan I had officially branded the “We pay at half-past when the messiah comes” schedule. It was unreal…often more than six months from when you turned it in. I ended up negotiating to get paid 50% when I turned in the first draft, to take some of the pain out of it..and then eventually, of course, I dropped them.

  9. Thea Easterby

    Hi Carol
    Thank you for this informative post, it has given me a bit to think about. It’s a great idea to have a checklist to work against to make sure I don’t miss anything. There a few things on this list I wouldn’t have thought of, so thanks again for sharing.

  10. Julie

    This may not happen as much anymore (with PayPal) but a few years ago I sold a book review to a publication outside of the U.S. The check they sent me was payable in pounds. I couldn’t cash it at a bank and the publication recommended I take the check to the airport where they could do money exchanges. I asked them if there was another way they could make payment and we finally agreed on a credit being issued to my Visa card. I had no idea it would be that much of a challenge so I pay closer attention to where the payment will be coming from so I can avoid this type of confusion in the future.

    • Carol Tice

      Fortunately I don’t think this sort of thing is a problem anymore…I’ve gotten paid in Canadian dollars more than once and just stuck it in my bank. They charged a small fee but it wasn’t any problem to deposit it.

  11. Lakshmi

    Thanks, Carol, for this checklist. It’s a validation that I’m on track and more often than not it has helped me. The editor of a well-known travel magazine contacted me to do a story (this was my first assignment for them). I was surprised there was no clarity on per-word rate and it took a couple of mails back and forth to decide on one. No kill fee either and payment only on publication. Having burnt my hand a few times in the past because of this clause (over $700 unpaid), I turned down the offer.

    But, the positive of a checklist is I’m surprised how many times clients say yes when you ask.

    • Carol Tice

      Ouch! That’s a lot of revenue to be stiffed for, Lakshmi.

      I hate it when publications only pay ON publication. Then you’re basically at their mercy. They could decide to run it 6 months from now, or never…and they’re off the hook for payment until then.


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