You go outside to look in your mailbox, and once again the check you’ve been waiting for isn’t there. In fact, it’s been so long that you’re no longer certain if you’re even owed money. Maybe writing that article was a dream, and you’re living out some sort of Twilight Zone episode. At least, that’s how it feels.
Every freelance writer deals with a late payment if they’re in business long enough. Psychologically, it can be torturous to wait on a late check. Financially, you may have trouble paying the bills on time. Or at the very least, you’ll have to waste your valuable time tracking the payment down.
So what recourse is there when you’re waiting for a late check? There are a lot of options; unfortunately, many of them are pretty bad. Still, in my 20 years as a full-time freelancer, I have always managed to get paid for my work without suing anyone.
What strategies you employ for reeling in that payment really depends on how late it is, so I’ve broken down the methods based on the lateness of the check.
Lateness: One week.
Solution: Ask where your money is.
This solution is obvious, but a lot of new writers are timid about asking the editor for payment. You aren’t being greedy. When you hire an auto mechanic, you pay before you drive your car away. McDonald’s doesn’t send you a bill hours after your visit so you can reimburse them for a Big Mac at a time of your choosing.
You wrote an article. Maybe it’s already been published. You have a mortgage and a cell phone bill to pay. Your editor knows that. So ask about the status of your check. As long as you’re friendly, this isn’t going to hurt your chances of getting more assignments in the future.
I often contact the editor about my payment well before the check is due, especially if it’s my first time writing for a publication. After some email chitchat, I’ll say something like, “I just like to make sure my i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed. Did you receive my invoice, and have I done everything I need to do to be paid on time?”
You may learn that, whoops, your editor didn’t send you a W-9 to fill out, and no invoice will go out until that happens. Or double whoops, you didn’t send in an invoice, which I may have done a few times.
Lateness: Two weeks. You’re getting anxious now.
Solution: Sadly, two weeks late is practically on time in this Freelance Bizarro World we live in. Still, ask your editor more frequently (say, once a week) about your check if you aren’t already getting replies or reassurance the money is coming. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone, either. A five-minute phone call could go a long way.
Stay personable, but don’t make things personal. There may be staff turnover delaying your check, or some cog in the system who processes your payment may be on vacation. This doesn’t excuse them for paying you late, but at least you know you’re not forgotten. For now, assume that you’re all on the same side. In all likelihood, your client wants to pay you, and if you’re pleasant while being persistent, you’ll get paid soon.
But now isn’t the time to be too persistent. Once you get someone working on your behalf to get you paid, give them a chance to work some magic.
Lateness: One month late. You’re officially pissed.
Solution: Now I start contacting someone other than my editor. Your editor may not appreciate it, and you need to be okay with that. If it’s a fairly big company, your editor may never even learn that you went rogue.
You can probably figure out who to contact by poking around for names on LinkedIn, or, again, by picking up the phone. Call the client’s main office and ask for the name of the person who sends the checks. You can even ask your editor for that person’s information (which may finally get his or her attention).
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten paid faster simply because I found the accountant in charge of sending out checks. Last year, an international news company was fairly late with my check, and I emailed the name of a woman in accounting. She was extremely gracious, explaining that task of mailing checks had been outsourced to another company and that she had a high regard for journalists.
A few days later, I received my check for over $1,000. And, no, the company didn’t stick me with the FedEx bill.
Lateness: Two months late. You’re wondering if you’ll ever get paid.
Solution: Have you tried contacting the owner of the company?
I did this once, years ago, telling the owner of the magazine I was writing for that if he didn’t get my late check to me in two days, I wouldn’t be able to pay health insurance for my two daughters. I wasn’t lying. He wired the money to my bank, and I still wrote for his company for a few more years.
But that’s nothing compared to what Mark Debono did. He runs Systemato, a digital marketing and copywriting agency on the island state of Malta. He came up with a creative way to deal with a soon-to-be-ex-client who evidently had no intention of paying him.
“I turned up at their office unannounced and waited there until the managing director saw me, at which point I explained that this is not a social visit, and that I have no intention of leaving without a signed check for the full amount,” said Debono, who soon walked out of the office with his money.
And as brazen as that was, it was professional. Debono, for instance, didn’t shame the company in a rage-filled tweet or blog posting. You may get your client’s attention that way, but you’ll get everyone else’s attention too
Lateness: Three months late. You’ve given up hope.
Solution: If you’ve exhausted all of your other options, then it’s time to consider bringing in an attorney.
I’m sure there are some writers who would argue that you should start this process much sooner. That said, it depends on common sense and what you can tolerate. The longest I waited to get paid was six months, and it never occurred to me to bring in an attorney. I knew I’d wear down the staff eventually with repeated phone calls and emails. But the check was only about $600; lawyer fees could’ve potentially swallow all of that.
But if the check were for $6,000, then I certainly would have considered an attorney.
Lawyers tend to counsel patience. Zachary Schorr, who runs Schorr Law in Los Angeles, told me that freelancers should very carefully “weigh the pros and cons of getting the attorney involved.”
“A firm but somewhat friendly letter from an attorney can demonstrate the seriousness of the demand for payment, but in a respectful way,” Shorr said. “Using language like ‘We hope to avoid having to pursue this further and hope to maintain a good relationship despite the payment oversight’ can go a long way to making the writer’s point while not further upsetting the situation. Sometimes you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”
Schorr is correct that honey is almost always more effective then vinegar, but regardless of how soon you get your check, I can’t imagine that you’ll continue writing for a client if you get a lawyer involved—even if the attorney puts smiley emojis in the letter.