C is for Contracts

Illustration by Ramiro Roman.

Illustration by Ramiro Roman.

Never Write for Free

Anyone who’s seen an after-school special is probably familiar with the term “the first one’s free.” That’s a good business tactic if you’re selling highly addictive drugs (except for it being illegal and morally sketchy, that is); but, unfortunately, writing isn’t addictive. No, not even if it’s really good writing.

To put it simply: If you give your client a freebie, they’re going to keep expecting more freebies.

To break it down even more for you: If you work for free, you will never make any money.

Now, you’re probably looking at that last sentence and thinking “no duh,” but don’t be fooled! This is an easier trap to fall into than you might think!

Don’t Fall into These 3 Traps!

Here are three of the traps you might fall into if you aren’t careful. When looking for jobs, beware of clients who ask you to…

…Work “on spec.”

This means that they won’t pay you unless they decide to use what you wrote. That might not sound too bad, but keep in mind that they might not use your writing until months (or even years!) later. Or maybe even not at all.  Is that a chance you’re willing to take?

Note: If you do decide to take on an “on spec” project, be sure you ask for a “kill fee” in your contract—that way, if they decide not to use your writing, you’ll still get paid at least a little money.

…Write “for exposure.”

This is something that new writers are especially susceptible to. People out there know that new or under-confident writers feel that they have to “pay their dues” (you don’t) and they’ll take advantage of you to get some free writing.

But as Linda Formichelli said recently:

“People die from exposure. In other words, don’t let tightwad editors talk you into writing for free for ‘the exposure.’ You get better exposure from paying mags, anyway.” (Morning Motivation; 7/16/13).

…Send them some free “samples.”

Sure, sometimes clients will legitimately want to see samples of your writing (in which case you can break out your portfolio!), but most of the time this is a scam. In fact, many so-called “clients” cruising for samples are just looking for free writing that they can sell later. (I see this a lot on CraigsList). The nerve!

Get a Contract

Always, always, always have a contract. Get in writing—somewhere—the terms under which you’ll be working. Do NOT work without some sort of written agreement.


  • Accept an oral contract (over the phone or otherwise)
  • Accept a handshake as a contract
  • Accept a contract over an instant message or in a chat room

If your client doesn’t agree to entering into a contract with you, then they’re probably shifty and not worth working for anyway.

A good, smart, client will know that a contract protects them as much as it protects you. It makes sure you will be paid, but it also makes sure that they will get their finished product.

Or, as copywriter Carol Tice put it: 

“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.”

Truer words were never spoken.

And, the fact is, you’ll be less likely to flake on the client if they have your signature.

Contracts are a win-win!

Just make sure your contract terms are well-defined.

Posted in Freelance Writer's ABCs

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