4 Questions to Ask When Drafting Freelance Contracts

By Joanna Plucinska December 4th, 2014

To draft or not to draft?

The freelance market is so varied with fluctuating rates and distinct expectations that it’s hard to know where you stand without clear written guidelines. However, to some degree, the gig economy still runs on handshake agreements completed over email. Without any universal standards, freelancers are often left in precarious situations when finalizing projects. That’s when a well-written contract can become a great asset.

On behalf of Columbia Visuals, I met with Bill Loundy, Contently’s director of talent management, to discuss what every freelancer should keep in mind when thinking about contracts. Here are a few of the more pressing questions we decided to answer.

Do you actually need a contract?

It can feel awkward to draft and send out a contract to an editor, particularly if you’ve never worked together before. But, if you’re nervous about teaming with a new editor, especially if that person has a reputation for being demanding or difficult, it might be a good idea to write one up to avoid conflict once your project is underway.

Contracts can be useful when you’re trying to clarify what an editor’s demands are for complicated projects. Multimedia projects are becoming more and more popular, and they often have many moving parts, like multiple videos, bits of code, and audio files. The contract lets you identify exactly what the editor wants for every step of the project.

Not sure where to get started? Freelancers Union has a great contract generator.

What details should you include?

Make sure you clarify the main deliverable right away. How exactly does your client want the final product to look? Do they want title cards? Do they want any interactive elements or graphics?

A contract also clarifies your deadlines. That way, you’ll be able to schedule the entire project at the beginning without any anxiety about final dates. One option is to break down your work into smaller pieces delivered at intervals, making it easier for both parties to monitor progress.

Visual journalists in particular have to cater to the specific preferences of their editors. Keep in mind every editor has different taste in lighting and style. Ask your contact to show you examples of work you can emulate. That way, if you don’t produce exactly what an editor wants, you’ll be able to point to the document if there’s a conflict.

What should you charge?

The money question is usually the most important question. It’s also a question you might not be able to answer yourself. Clients will typically come to you with a rate that fits into their budget, which you may be able to negotiate. But regardless of whether you’re able to squeeze out more money, make sure you are clear about compensation before you start the work.

It’s important to outline everything, not just the lump sum or the hourly rate. If you’re unsure of how much money to ask for, Who Pays WritersPay Me Please, Who Pays Photographers, nuSchool’s design rate calculator, and Videomaker’s rate calculator are all good resources that provide reasonable estimates. You should state in your contract how much you’ll be paid, if at all, for revisions or reshoots. Your editor won’t be surprised by your invoices if you’re up front with this, and you’ll have something in writing if you get a check for less money than expected.

It’s also good to clarify when you would like to get paid. Some places won’t pay you for months unless you negotiate a firm date. Especially if your freelance earnings is your main source of income, it’s important to make sure you get paid either with the first draft, upon completion of the project, or a few weeks after completion.

Finally, you should establish how you will get paid. A lot of clients still send checks in the mail, so keep that in mind if you’re used to handling accounting through a quicker service like PayPal.

When do you need to take your contractor to court or hire a lawyer?

Court and legal fees can cost more than what your original contract is worth. Only the most extreme situations would warrant going to court. More often than not, this when a publication hasn’t paid you for months and stops communicating with you. This realization is often an ugly truth of freelance contracts. But even if you probably won’t sue a client, it’s good always good to protect yourself legally. Most clients don’t want to wrong you anyway, since it reflects badly on them and can lead to negative press if you have official documentation.

Final thoughts

A specific and detailed contract is a great way to ensure all parties are happy with any freelance project. By keeping these points in mind, everyone will know what to expect in terms of style, quality, deadlines, and payment. And ultimately, using contracts helps out all freelancers by setting clearer (and hopefully higher!) standards for the work you produce.

A modified version of this article also appears on Columbia Visuals.

Image by Ed Maloney
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