Ask Me Anything: First Steps and Contracts

We have two very important questions this week.

Scott Cheatham asks,

What would you say is the best first step for someone wanting to enter the world of freelance writing?

There are a lot of first steps that I could suggest for getting started as a freelancer: picking a niche, setting up your bookkeeping… Plenty of things go into being successful. But the most important first step you can take is to pull together your clips. You can land some writing gigs without samples of past work, but they’re not going to be the kind of work that’s worth your while long-term. Instead, to land the type of clients who can actually help you pay your bills, you need a good portfolio.

If you’re lucky, you’ve already got a few published pieces that you can use as samples. It doesn’t matter if you were a full-time employee when you wrote them, as long as they’re solid examples of how well you write. If you don’t have so many pieces that you’re comfortable using, it’s time to start writing some. There are many different ways to build samples — no matter what type of writing you want to do. However, keep in mind, you want to write for someone else to get those portfolio pieces. Most clients aren’t going to be as impressed with a personal blog as with proof that someone else liked your work enough to use it.

Writing a press release for a non-profit or submitting a guest post to another blog can be good ways to start. You may not get paid for those first few clips and, as much as I dislike freelancers writing for free, it’s a fact of life.

Kathleen O’Connor asks,

What should you consider when drafting a contract? Is there a good template to use?

It’s been my experience that most freelance advice sites recommend that you never ever take on a project without a formal contract. In my opinion, that’s idealistic: most freelance writers aren’t comfortable drawing up their own contracts, but also aren’t in a financial position to have a legal professional draw up a contract either. Using a template can help make the situation manageable.

However, I think it’s important to note that letters of agreement or any other written agreement laying out the terms of your deal with your client (what the work is, when it’s due and so forth) are considered legal contracts, at least under U.S. law. I typically use a letter of agreement with my clients rather than a more formal contract.

That said, I do keep a contract template on hand for use with certain clients. It’s a Word .doc, which I’m making available for you to download. Please note the following disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This contract was not reviewed by a lawyer. I cannot recommend you use this contract as every business agreement is different and it may or may not apply to your project. I’m only providing it as a sample and you should check with a lawyer before using it for your own freelancing.

There are a couple of points that I specifically think are important for a freelance writer to think about when writing or signing a contract:

  • Intellectual property: As a writer, you’re creating intellectual property. Make sure your contracts clearly outline who has rights to the project at the end of the day. I’m not telling you to keep all rights — there are definitely financial benefits to choosing to do otherwise — but make sure your contracts say who has what rights.
  • Sub-contracting: It’s not absolutely necessary that your contract spells out whether you can sub-contract part of a project. Many clients will want you to remove that clause. If for any reason, however, you may need to sub-contract any part of the contract, make sure that is listed in the contract.
  • Indemnification and Waivers: Many clients will try to get you to indemnify them against any damages or loss, as well as waive your right to injunctive relief. You may try to do so in reverse (I throw in that clause with many big corporations, expecting it to be removed before the contract is signed). If you can get your client’s to leave it off, you should — in most cases, it’s not important, but if something goes wrong (like you get sued as a result of your work), those clauses mean that you can’t sue your client.

If you’ve got a question about the business side of freelance writing, send it my way. We’ll get an answer up next week!


  1. Kathleen K. O'Connor   •  

    Great, thank you for that information! It’s amazing that I’ve gone almost 2 years writing for clients without contracts. I definitely want to change that though, as I am getting a new site up and taking my business to the next level this year. Thank you so much for providing that template. Now I’m curious to know what the letter of agreement looks like :) I’ll google it and see what I find.

    Thanks again!! You rock 😀

  2. Isao   •  

    Related to the first question – to build our writing portfolio, is it more important to write in places other than our own blog (and write many) or to pick a place with reputation (and keep the standard high)?

  3. Walter   •  

    Thank you for this valuable advice. Funny I don’t consider myself as a writer. But the idea of a freelance writing always piques my interest. :-)

  4. thursday   •     Author

    @Kathleen, I don’t think it’s actually that unusual for a freelancer to go without contracts. Contracts are the ideal way of doing business, but they’re not always practical, unfortunately… but when you’re doing a lot of business, they become far more important.

    @Isao, I’ll have an answer to your question up next Saturday!

  5. Pamela   •  

    I love your blog, your articles! Thanks so much–I’m looking forward to reading more. Freelance Writing Jobs is truly blessed to have found you!

  6. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Ask Me Anything: Rates, Cold-Calling and Contracts

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