7 elements of a solid freelance copywriting contract

May 17, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Freelancing 

freelance copywriting contractFreelance copywriters can be a bit shy about the business end of freelancing, especially when it comes to contracts.

That’s because most freelancers are writers first and business people second.

But contracts are an essential part of any copywriting business. Why? Three reasons:

1. A contract helps you set a businesslike tone at the beginning of a project.

2. A contract specifies and clarifies your responsibilities and the obligations of your client, primarily the work you will do and what the client will pay.

3. A contract acts as a screening device to weed out bad clients.

For me, that last point is the most important.

I ask new clients to sign a contract and pay a 50% retainer before I begin work. When someone balks at signing a contract or paying the retainer, I know from experience that there is a high probability that this person won’t pay me.

On the other hand, someone who is willing to sign a contract and make a written commitment is someone who is unlikely to stiff me later.

In my entire career, only 3 clients have refused to pay. Each of them refused to sign a contract, refused to pay a retainer, or both.

Elements of a freelance copywriting contract

Every freelance copywriter has a slightly different approach to contracts. Some have long and elaborate contracts that spell out every possible scenario. Others rely on little more than a handshake or a detailed email message.

I take a middle road, asking first-time clients to sign a simple one-page copywriting contract, or what I prefer to call a letter of agreement, that spells out these 7 basic elements:

1. The date of the agreement.

2. The name of the business hiring me.

3. A description of the project, including the format of the work, how many pages, the various parts of the project, whether I will include design, the number of edits included, etc.

4. The date I will deliver the first draft.

5. The fee, including the retainer and balance due at the end of the project.

6. My signature and the signature of the client.

7. A list of terms and conditions.

I want to be clear that I’m not a lawyer and that I make no promises that a contract like this would stand up in court. I am simply sharing the contract I use with my clients.

However, I believe these 7 elements make for a reasonably solid, clear contract that should serve you well.

You may choose to make yours more simple or more complex, depending on your situation. Just remember that no matter how carefully you write your contract, if clients don’t want to pay, they won’t pay.

You can only enforce payment by hiring a collection agency or taking legal action, which generally means going through small claims court or hiring a lawyer and filing suit. Whether this is worth the effort, expense, and risk is entirely up to you.

Personally, I prefer to see a contract for the three reasons I mentioned above, to set a businesslike tone, specify responsibilities, and screen clients.

Plus, there are drawbacks to making your contract too complicated: You will force your client to run it by a lawyer before signing. You may scare off an otherwise good client. You will come across as distrustful.

As I said, only three clients ever stiffed me, all small-time operators for relatively small amounts of money. Most clients are honest and will pay whether you use a contract or not.

More information on freelance contracts

Here are some additional resources you might want to check out:

Freelance Contracts: Do’s And Don’ts

How To Create a Freelancing Contract

Do You Need A Contract For Freelance Work?

What do you think? Do you use a contract? What do you spell out? Share your thoughts or experiences.

Related posts:

  1. 8 website elements that generate freelance business

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Smart Comments

15 Comments on 7 elements of a solid freelance copywriting contract

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  1. Mark Andrews IMCopywriting on May 17th, 2010 10:48 am
  2. Hello Dean

    You raise some excellent points above which any new copywriter online would do well to heed.

    Even with a copywriting contract in place, unfortunately you will still have clients who have no intention whatsoever of keeping to their contractual agreement made between both parties.

    I too have been well and truly stitched up a few times – sad to say by Americans who generally speaking, you expect to be a little more honest in their business dealings.

    The last time this happened, it was for a pretty high amount of money in the tens of thousands of dollars range (a flat copywriting fee + royalties.)

    Even with the contract in place and helping this individual make well over $20,000 in his first hour of opening, he still wasn’t satisfied and renegaded on the agreement / contract almost immediately.

    One way to ensure that no one carries out a chargeback on their credit card is to insist on receiving the 50% deposit and final balance via Western Union.

    Unlike Paypal, there is no way a client can reclaim their monies paid if the payment process is carried out via Western Union.

    It really is sad that based on a very small minority of bad clients that every other honest person has to pay the price.

    Renegading on a copywriting contract, not paying for it after the copy has been supplied is very similar to shoplifting, stealing goods that belong to someone else and taking them for yourself.

    The copywriter concerned in such a scenario is left high and dry, having just wasted upwards of 40 hours of his or her professional copywriting expertise, not to mention all of the highly professional marketing advice often imparted to the client during the process of advising said client.

    Any person stitching up their copywriter in this manner is nothing more than an outright thief in my opinion.

    So of course, the more you can do to protect your business interests – the better.

    Another clause I write in these days to my copywriting contracts, is that a client must not adjust the sales copy supplied within the first 30 days.

    I’ve had it happen once or twice now where the copy has been supplied absolutely perfectly, the client puts it up on their site…one checks it out to make sure everything is formatted correctly and lo and behold…

    The client has made changes to the sales copy supplied willy nilly.

    With no real thought behind this decision, headlines changed, formatting changed – even the main body of sales text changed out, misspellings introduced, back comes the client 2 weeks later blaming the copywriter that it’s not converting as well as they expected!

    They then ask, “What can I do about it?”

    Staggeringly, difficult to believe as it is, I’ve had one or two clients pay me a few thousand dollars for their sales copy only to employ this daft tactic almost immediately – hence the reason these days for putting in the above 30 day clause.

    Thanks Dean for taking the time and the trouble to write the above very salient points out for everyone elses benefit – this is very much appreciated.

    To your continued success!


    Mark Andrews – Copywriter IMCopywriting.com

  3. Chris Mower on May 17th, 2010 11:58 am
  4. Great article Dean. As another perspective, I’ve been burned by people I’ve hired to help out who I pay some money, and then they never deliver and just run away with the dough… the punks.

    A contract is very helpful, but unfortunately even if a contract is in place, a person can still hose you.

    I like the simple contract idea. I lean toward the simple contracts as well because they’re not as intimidating.

  5. Sally Bagshaw on May 17th, 2010 7:02 pm
  6. Good advice Dean.

    I also include something about how I retain copyright until I get paid. For some reason that seems more ‘legal’ for some people.

  7. Dean Rieck on May 17th, 2010 11:00 pm
  8. Sally,
    Nice tip on retaining copyright. And it makes perfect sense. If people don’t pay for your work, how can they possibly expect to own it? I just might add this to my own contract.

  9. Charles Cuninghame on May 18th, 2010 6:56 am
  10. Hi Dean

    I use a “copyright” clause in my contract as follows:

    “Copyright for all work produced by text-centric remains the property of Charles Cuninghame until all monies due under this agreement have been paid in full.”

    I’m not a lawyer either (although I do have a law degree!), but it’s my understanding that copyright laws are more powerful and immediate than contract law.

    If some deadbeat client publishes your unpaid-for copy on a website, they’re infringing your copyright. So you could, for example, contact the website host and inform them of the copyright infringement and demand the offending pages/site be removed.

    Hopefully that would encourage the client to pay. If not you could sue them for payment as well.

    Ultimately it’s still a hassle, but the copyright angle gives you a bigger stick than suing for payment alone.

    The other thing I think is important to include is a clause about kill fees. Here’s mine:

    “Should you choose to cancel or put this project on hold at any time and for any reason, I will be entitled to full payment for all time invested to that point. ”

    I also prefer to call my contract an “agreement”. Sounds less threatening.

  11. Mark Andrews IMCopywriting on May 18th, 2010 7:23 am
  12. @Sally Bagshaw

    Another good point Sally.

    This I also automatically put into every contract these days, retaining the full copyright until such time as it’s fully paid for.

    Wishing you and all the other copywriters here all the very best for the summer months ahead.


    Mark Andrews – Internet Marketing Copywriting

  13. Andraya Skiles on May 18th, 2010 9:10 am
  14. @Mark: Western Union? Seriously? Heck, if you’re going that far, just ask for payment in mink pelts and raccoon skins.

  15. Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire on May 18th, 2010 1:23 pm
  16. Dean,

    This is great outline of a solid copywriting contract. Thank you for sharing your person foibles as well.

    There are a lot of people out there that are willing to screw over a small business owner and contracts can help keep that in check.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

    [...] I wrote about freelance contracts, the point being to weed out bad clients at the beginning of a project and improve the odds of [...]

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  17. Copywrite contracts | Killersquad on Jun 6th, 2011 1:19 am
  18. [...] 7 elements of a solid freelance copywriting contractFreelance copywriters can be a bit shy about the business end of freelancing, especially when it comes to contracts. That’s because most freelancers are … Every freelance copywriter has a slightly different approach to contracts. Some have long and elaborate contracts that spell out every possible scenario. [...]

  19. Yasmin Selena Butt on Feb 7th, 2012 1:32 pm
  20. I’ve only ever freelanced with the protection of a recruitment agency behind me but will shortly be drawing up my own copywriting contract for freelance work before I start approaching businesses. I feel abit intimidated!

    I just wanted to say a big thank you for the piece as well as everyone’s comments. I think I’ll aim to sit somewhere in the middle regarding complexity. And I really loved the point about retaining copyright until being paid. That is definitely going in! Yasmin x

  21. Yasmin Selena Butt on Feb 7th, 2012 1:35 pm
  22. “Consider putting a line in your contract that you will get paid even if the project does not make it to print. A client could say the project was killed or changed so that your copy wasn’t usable. And this results in you not getting paid for the work you have completed.”

    I saw this on another post and thought the point might be handy?