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Freelance journalism 101
Contracts are essential

On Your Own: A Guide to Freelance Journalism

> Home

> Introduction: The freelance side of life

Freelance journalism 101

> Vocabulary lesson

> Dollars and sense

> Contracts are essential

> Copyright 101

> Dressing for success as a freelancer

> Staying productive even when you’re not working

Business matters

> Five reasons to pay attention to business

> Contracts and copyright — beyond the basics

> Getting your business organized

> Separating yourself from your business

> Keeping track of business

> Taxing matters

> Insurance considerations for freelance journalists

Making a living

> Time and money

> Budgeting without a salary

> A simple way to boost your pay: Ask

> Retirement planning: Where to stash your cash?

Finding work

> Finding your way to work

> Trolling the web for work

> Inspiration for finding the story

> Brainstorming ideas you can sell

> Pitching your way to a full story calendar

> Tips on freelancing for newspapers

Marketing yourself

> Paying attention to business

> Making a home for your business on the web

> Networking: the key to staying happy and fed

> Business cards help make the best first impression

Tools of the trade

> Why journalism ethics matter

> Four tips for better self-editing

> Selected websites for finding freelance journalism assignments

> Journalism organizations

> Journalism reading list

Whether writing or producing for print, broadcast or online publications, an agreement between producer (freelancer) and publisher is an essential part of every job. Agreeing with the client on what should be in the contract can help clarify just what the client expects from each assignment and, if written properly, can protect both sides in case of any misunderstanding.

Media outlets that hire freelancers regularly are likely to have their own contracts. When the client does not send one, however, you can provide your own. In many cases the format of the contract is not important — it can be written in everyday language and transmitted via e-mail, or it can include legal language and require signatures by both parties. What’s important is that it describes what you will do (e.g., write, edit, produce), what the client will do (e.g., pay you) and the terms of the agreement — scope/length of assignment, date due, how much and when to be paid, etc.

If you can afford it, have the contract drafted or reviewed by an attorney who is familiar with the work of independent contractors. You also can look at samples of similar contracts online and draft a suitable one- or two-page business agreement that suits your purposes to use as a template. Then, use it as a model to be revised as needed before sending it to a client.

Generally, a service contractor’s agreement includes at least these basic elements:

  1. Names of the parties involved in the agreement.
  2. Date of the agreement and the period it covers (if applicable).
  3. Services the contractor will provide, along with applicable deadlines.
  4. Scope of the assignment, such as number of words.
  5. Agreed-upon rate or price for the project.
  6. Payment terms, including when you’ll be paid (on acceptance vs. on publication), how late payments will be handled and what happens if the work is not accepted for reasons beyond your control.
  7. Client signature block, including the printed name of the authorized party, signature, signature date, mailing address and preferred e-mail address and phone number.
  8. Contractor’s signature, date of the signature and preferred contact information.
If you have an informal relationship with the publication or editor, you could include the first six elements above in an e-mail message and ask the editor or publisher to confirm the details in a reply e-mail. For more formal arrangements, you might send two signed copies of the agreement and ask the client to return one copy, explaining that you will begin work when you receive the signed document. In most cases, the steps of coming to an agreement, including the documents and signatures, can be done by e-mail to move the agreement along quickly.

Some freelancers obtain signed agreements from each of their clients, while others use a mixture of written documents and e-mailed agreements. Although most freelancers use them infrequently to collect unpaid fees or get out of uncomfortable or untenable working relationships, you’ll be glad to have the signed contract when you need it, and you’ll find that most clients appreciate the professionalism of having such an agreement.

If a new client refuses to provide or accept a contract, it’s usually a huge red flag.

Contributor: Dana Neuts

Editorial Freelancers Association sample editing contracts
National Writers Union Grievance and Contract Division

Last updated: January 2018

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