Contracts are essential to protect your work and time as a freelancer. Ruth Thaler-Carter, resource coordinator for the SPJ Freelance community and author of Get Paid to Write! Getting Started as a Freelance Writer, underlines the necessity of having a contract for every gig you take.
“A professional relationship starts with a clear understanding of who is going to do what, which is a contract. It doesn’t have to be long or complicated, it can be yours,” says Thaler-Carter.
A standard contract should state what type of work you are going to do and your deadline. Some clients also ask for an initial outline or lead sentence, which Thaler-Carter thinks is needed because that way she stays on track and does not waste time. She also mentions fees should be clearly expressed.
“You should have the fee spelled out – flat fee per word, per page – and you want a kill fee in case something happens where you do the assignment and it gets knocked out of the publication […] so you want something to protect you in case you do what they ask you to do and it doesn’t get published anyhow,” says Thaler-Carter.
She adds that you might want to be friends with a lawyer, just in case. When she is having trouble getting paid, she usually sends a polite reminder to her employer informing a late fee may be applied if the payment is not done within 30 days of the invoice. But if the payment is still late 45 or 60 days, she asks her lawyer to send a letter mentioning she will consider taking legal action without receipt of payment. The official letterhead usually intimidates the employer enough for her to get paid rapidly.
On the other hand, Katherine W. Reynolds Lewis, an award-winning journalist based in Washington D.C., prefers to discuss projects directly with her clients so she knows what to expect, on top of asking for a down payment.
“When I’m taking an assignment, I always ask how they pay and how quickly they pay, because then you know if they expect to pay in 30 days and you haven’t been paid 30 days after your invoice, you follow up,” says Lewis. “When I am doing a non-writing project, I ask for a third of the project fee upfront. That’s another really great way to get paid faster, and also serves as a kill fee if they decide that they’re not gonna do the project.”
And if you are still struggling to get paid but do not want to bother your clients at the risk of losing them, you can always ask for a contact in the accounting department.
“If you have a late invoice, ask your editor ‘hey can I just talk to somebody in accounting’ and then you can bug them as much as you want without worrying it’s going to jeopardize your relationship,” says Lewis.
Keeping track of paychecks is definitely an essential part of the job. Instead of having one monthly paycheck, you might end up having to deal with 6 or 7 at a time. Lewis says you should not be afraid of math.
“The math that you need to be an independent journalist is just excel spreadsheets, addition/subtraction, percentages. It’s very basic maths and you need to be comfortable mastering it,” says Lewis.
And in order to reach your target income and meet your bare expenses, keep in mind that there is always room for negotiation. Thaler-Carter says it never hurts to ask for a higher rate.
“A lot of the work we get offered these days pays ridiculously low amounts, but that does not mean we have to accept those amounts. Say no to things that don’t build your business either financially or in terms of presence and how the rest of the world sees you as a journalist,” says Thaler-Carter.
She adds that if you choose to negotiate better rates, you have to base it on your skills and experience. Never ask for more money because you cannot pay rent or want to buy a new car. Ask for more money because you deserve it as a professional.
Our experts shared their views during the SPJ 2020 Conferences “Setting Yourself Up for Success as an Independent Journalist” and “Business Basics for Freelance Success” organized by The Society of Professional Journalists.