Ask Google to define the word, contract, and you get this:
a written or spoken agreement, especially one concerning employment, sales, or tenancy, that is intended to be enforceable by law.
I bring this up because you’ll often hear me tell writers they simply must have a written contract with the person who hires them to do some writing. If we’re face-to-face I can tell the writer at least wants to roll their eyes and say something like ‘… but I’m a creative. I hate making up contracts…’
I also want you to be crystal clear on what writing a contract really means. That’s why I opened with the definition. It’s surprisingly simple. All you really need is an email that says “I agree to write a blog post a week for John Lastname who will pay me $xxxx for each one to my PayPal address: firstname.lastname@example.org”
Not only does email count, but this could be sent as a formal or informal letter, scratched out on the back of a napkin, or envelope or your shopping list, etc. Countless details might be added to the document and maybe should be. Like so many things in this world of freelance writing, it depends.
Contracts are a statement of intention
I once told a Harvard trained lawyer that I wrote my own contracts or letters of agreement. I almost didn’t say a word because I was a bit more than slightly intimidated by his admittedly impressive degree. I’m glad I did, saying something like “what I try to do is create a document that 10 years from now if we have to go to court, a judge will be able to tell what we thought we were to agreeing to when we wrote it.”
My lawyerly friend chuckled and said quietly, “that’s what we all try to do.”
I see a contract as a statement of intention that covers two or three things:
- My understanding of what you want written.
- My description for you of how I intend to get that done.
- How much you’ll pay me and how.
If we’re clear on these basics it’s like the project will work pretty well.
When more details are required
Larger projects like books or other major and long pieces of writing may require more detail. For example, ghostwriting a book can take from 6–18 months depending on how the writer gets the material to the ghost and how the editing will be done, etc. I’ve found it best to make a tentative schedule part of the contract, as well as copyrights, and many other items that are not always needed in, for example, blogs.
Lawyers sometimes get in the way (gasp!)
Writing for corporations or for people who are afraid of being ripped off or of being sued for liable often means contracts that are pages and pages long. Lawyers who write contracts in these situations often try to cover explicitly as many possible ways things can go wrong as they can think of. The result is many words and much dense, often confusing language. It’s an art all in itself. And it’s designed to protect the client, not the writer.
I try to avoid these situations just to keep my life simpler. This only means that while I’ve written many one and two page contracts or letters of agreement, I haven’t signed many that are longer.
Back in the day an agent talked me into signing a contract with a major book publisher, assuring me it was okay even though I found the document largely unreadable. It was until we moved into electronic rights that a problem surfaced. Because that book contract, which was written before ebooks and such, didn’t spell out that being able to send an ebook didn’t mean the book wasn’t out of print, I lost the ability to buy back my book at a reasonable price and maybe some serious income. But we didn’t know. The publisher’s lawyer hadn’t been smart enough to leave it out either, they just got lucky. The heaviness and number of pages really didn’t mean every issue was addressed… maybe every or most known issues, but there are no perfect contracts. It’s the nature of the beast.
Which isn’t to say contracts are worthless. A written contract will protect you or can. More importantly, if written simply and clearly enough you and your client will be able to get back or at least look back and remember what your initial intention and agreement was. That’s a good place to be able to return to when wheels start coming off a writing project. Sometimes it’s good enough to get the contract extended or clarified, again in writing. Other times the client figuratively slaps his forehead and you two get back to the business as you originally intended it.
Write well and often,