A good freelance friend and fellow blogger, Kathy Kehrli, blogged the other day on freelance contracts. She wants to know where her fellow freelancers stand on the subject. Although I left a relatively long (three paragraph) response in the comments, I had to rewrite it four times in order to make it comment-length, so I figured I would elaborate on my own blog.
The classic advice that most freelancers get (and give) is to never work without a contract. As a newbie I followed that rule pretty religiously, but I have to admit that I don't anymore. Here's what I do instead, and why.
1) Discuss everything via email. A written agreement is a written agreement, whether it's a contract or an email trail. And even if you have a contract, if you go to court chances are you'll be using emails to prove changes, additional requests, or even just that the client accepted the work. In other words, emails are considered proof, too.
Partly to maintain this paper trail, I typically refuse to discuss project specifics, payment, or anything else work-related via phone. Clients communicate with me via email. Period.
2) Require half payment up front for new clients, before I begin work on the project. Personally, I think a client paying half the money up front is more indicative of intention to pay than signing a contract. And even if you have that contract, it's not going to make it any easier to collect — you'll still have to jump through all the hoops (filing complaints, taking them to small claims court, garnishing wages if they still won't pay, etc.). At least if someone skips out on me, I have half the money already.
3) Follow my gut on whether to work with clients. Like I said, a contract isn't a guarantee that the client will follow through. It's just another piece of paper that claims they will. Since my approach is prevention rather than proof, I'll decline to work with any client who gives me a bad feeling. In general, I avoid clients who do things like:
* Wanting to discuss everything via phone (presumably so that there's no paper trail)
* Balking at paying half up front
* Producing an unfair contract, and then balking at renegotiating the terms
* Having no contact information other than email (i.e. WHOIS, business address, office phone number, etc.)
* Having a poor business plan (i.e. no evidence of income from which to pay me)
* Being really demanding
* Just giving me a bad feeling in general
All of this being said, I do recommend that newbie freelance writers work with a contract whenever possible. When I was still new at this, I almost always requested a contract. There is a certain type of "client" who preys on inexperienced writers, and you can ward most of them off by insisting on a contract. Also, it takes time to develop a sense of who will be a good client and who is out to screw you — so until you've gained experience and feel confident in your ability to sniff out scumbags, stick to using contracts!
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