There are at least two good reasons for insisting on a written contract with every single one of your writing clients, including your cousins and your aunts.
The first is if the project you’ve been hired to do lasts any length of time or goes through multiple revisions, you and your client are apt to lose track of what your original mutual intention was when you started. The contract is how you either get back on track or recognize some adjustments need to be made.
For example, if six months ago you hired me to write a blog about your hardware store, and your goal for the store changed from excellent tools to gardening, we’d have to adjust the part of the contract that spelled out what I’m to write about. No big deal.
The second reason is if either you or the client decide the contract needs to be changed in a major way, you need a common place to start from. There are other reasons, but in my experience these are the best and most common.
A bigger deal would be if your client decided you should write 1,000 words a week, rather than the 500 words you started with and assumed you’d do it for the same price as the shorter one. The fact their contract with you spells out these details means you have a valid case for more pay for more work.
What, exactly, is a contract?
Before we go any further, let’s review what constitutes a contract. A Google search reveals this definition: a written or spoken agreement, especially one concerning employment, sales, or tenancy, that is intended to be enforceable by law. (By the way I should probably tell you I am not a lawyer although I do have a good friend who is one. Chances are he’ll never see this article.)
Yes, contracts may be spoken or oral. The problem is a court needs evidence that the two of you have an oral agreement and that can be hard to come by. An email that lays out the purpose, payment, method and timing of both payment and delivery is simple to put together and memorializes your agreement in writing. That written email makes it much easier for a court to understand what really took place, or at least what you intended, and to help enforce it if necessary.
You can, of course, hire a lawyer but unless the conditions of the contract are terribly complicated, the chances are you won’t need to. As a writer, you can write a clear email, letter of intent, memorandum of understanding (MOU), etc.
You also need a signature or some action on the part of the other party that let’s a court know they agreed. I use a statement like ‘payment indicates acceptance of this contract.’ In theory digital signatures are acceptable, but there’s still enough resistance to them that adding something like my phrase can make life easier down the road.
My goal with the contracts, often called letters of agreement, I create is to keep them simple and clear. I want a judge to be able to read it and quickly understand what we thought we were doing when we created the agreement.
Contract changes can signal a whole new deal
If a contract needs to be changed, the changes must be agreed to by both parties, preferably in writing. In writing and other creative activities the scope of the work and the price are the most likely changes that will be asked for.
It’s not unusual for a client to decide that what the client defined as, say a sales letter, turns into a request to do the content of two or three web pages. Or a client who wanted words for a sales brochure decides what he really needs is a two or three page report of ebook. Or maybe the client discovered his cousin is learning how to write and wants you to lower your payment as a result. Or the person who hired you is replaced, midway through the project, with someone new who wants something entirely different without a change in price.
And you might find that you want to change the contract as well. Perhaps the scope of work has grown and you want to be paid for that extra work.
First of all, unless the contract states the client is able to make changes willy-nilly, and yes that happens, usually with the use of lawyer generated cleverly written contract clauses, you don’t have to agree. Nor, if you initiate changes does your client have to accept. You can renegotiate any contract as long as both parties agree.
You don’t have to accept the proposed changes, nor do they.
I usually add an escape clause for both parties
Many people think I’m nuts but if the wheels fall off a project I don’t want to try and hold a client to our agreement. Writing isn’t like making nuts and bolts; it’s more of an art and the exact results can’t be nailed down completely in advance. I once had a man hire me to ghost write his story. I got a nice advance and when I showed up for our first interview he was frantic.
“I simply can’t do this,” he stated. “I’ve been to my psychiatrist twice since we met last week and he agrees, I simply can’t have you or anyone write my book.”
His inability to follow through on a book is not unusual and there’s simply no point in my opinion in trying to force someone to do so.
That’s actually true about any writing project. The wheels can fall off badly enough to cancel the whole thing. So I put an escape clause in so we can end a a falling-apart-situation with some elegance and not a ton of stress.
That escape clause is also why I demand significant up front money — a topic for another time. That and how I time my payments so all my writing gets paid for regardless.
Write well and often,