Tuesday, 11 February 2014

TOP TEN CHECKLIST for contracting freelance writing

As a freelance writer for decades one would think the basics should be second nature. They are well ingrained although the challenge is the market’s continual shift and the good ol’ how-to’s are constantly evolving. A writer can take many steps to secure freelance writing these days and many markets co-exist in which word-services are required. Freelance writer does not just mean magazine writer in these new times. Many professional freelance writers offer a cross section word services and have an array of business content skills. Work can be in the traditional magazine writing of article features but also encompass books, research, copyrighting, content strategy, business newsletters, brochures, newsletters and marketing materials, advertising, editorial management, press release and promotional materials, web site content, company report narratives, white papers, ghost writing and so much more. If it has words chances are a professional was enlisted to take the messaging to a professional polish.

A freelance writer is self-employed, contracted, home office based and an independent contractor. They are also their own salesman, book keeper, accountant, accounts receivable department, collection agent, janitorial services, human resources department managing benefits, insurance premiums, professional association and union affiliations and  the many other positions that run a large or small corporation all while being the star employee-of-the-month time and time again.

The initiating element for work in freelance that never changes regardless of the market one is earning in is the basic contract or assignment letter secured as a note of intent and a promise of a good faith payment to the independent worker. For the most part the polish of this arrangement often depends on the level of employment with larger companies and publications having formal multi page (often rights grabbing) contracts in place while many smaller or start up businesses use emails as confirmed assignment letters noting terms in the conversation writer to publisher/editor. Elements such as word count, rates, rights, deadlines, payment terms, kill fees and more are basic items to always solidify before starting any assignment or taking on any contract for words-for-hire.

As a starting point for an early career freelance writer and a refresher for a seasoned writer, taking the early steps to a mutual understanding of an assignment saves time and even rewrite frustration or payment lagging angst. In today’s busy web communication world much of the past formality to assignment has gone by the wayside. In the click of a few emails a well presented query from a solid qualifying writer can garner an assignment but often comes without a formal contract. As a precaution at the very least secure a basic confirmed email making note that it will serve as an assignment letter. Should there be a breakdown of any of the elements having this clear mutual starting point will be of great value for resolving issues or chasing a late payment or a worst case scenario kill fee.

The TERMS OF ASSIGNMENT need to be clear and in agreement with both parties. Here are my TOP TEN suggestions:

1.      TITLE of the assignment / working title of the article
2.     DESCRIPTION including a few sentence narrative description of the assignment
3.      ACCEPTANCE noting approval of both the assigning editor and the writer
4.     DEADLINE clearly noted and also a note re the potential changes scenario as a writer you do not want to get into a constant rewrite scenario if the editor had a different perspective on the concept of the assignment (so making the title and description tight is key)
5.      WORD COUNT of the assignment (specific to payment per word or payment for a size range such as $1.00 / word or $600 for 800 – 1000 word feature)
6.     IMAGES be very clear if the writer is expected to supply or arrange for images as a writer can lose valuable unpaid time tracking down subjects or arranging for images sent to editor
7.      PAYMENT TERMS of when the payment be made such as on acceptance, or on publication, cheque, e-transfer, etc.
8.     KILL FEES that allow for scenario such as writer editor butting heads or an article going in-the-can as they say, on hold for a later issue (this is key if the payment was on publication and that dates becomes undeterminable or never)
9.     RIGHTS including noting agreement on parameters such as byline, one time print or other, English and/or French, Canadian or North America, print or web, and the dreaded moral rights (which very basically would allow your byline to stand regardless of changes to your words and other not desired scenarios for your work), serial, digital, future rights and more
10.   MATERIALS used to gather assignment can sometime be requested filed to the editor including interviews, research, contacts, etc. so be clear if this is not your intent as a writer to share these sources other than cooperation for fact checking if requested

I strongly suggest that at least these point and maybe more be clearly defined before starting any assignment. For early career writers also know that what is termed writing-on-spec is not a professional ask of your skills. A publication that suggests you pre-write the article before they decide if they buy it is not worth your efforts or compromising your professionalism, nor is writing for free to garner a clip (more on these topics in a later blog).

My experience urges professional freelance writers, or those working to be, to consider aligning their career path with a professional association. Membership for me in the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) for a decade has been invaluable to my knowledge of the writing industry and protecting my work while I grew my business.  Access Copyright is important to join as a rights holder. The Canadian Freelance Union is a key alignment and also many writing guilds are important organization to support who will in turn support your career.

After all this sage advice I am unhappy to report that even in spite of following my own solid securing of an assignment I have outstanding invoices against a start-up publication that has now ceased and has not met their payments to contributors. An unfortunate scenario, not the norm in my experience but having a solid paper trail of the assignments and payment information makes for a strong case against a non-paying publication. Again an alliance of professional association and an industry standard many work to uphold has been supported by the organizations and union I hold membership and even by those I don’t. I am grateful for the added support of TheStoryBoard.ca for covering the story as a warning to other freelance industry professionals and the concern alongside that story of the Canadian Media Guild.

Read the details of a publication start up not respecting their assignment agreements and the resulting non-paying market at http://www.thestoryboard.ca/warning-freelancers-revelation-magazine/ and watch here for follow up on how I and other writers are using our professional associations, unions and guilds to spread the word and hopefully recover the outstanding invoices or at the very least ensure this scenario does not happen again.


If you have other freelance writing assignment term suggestions please add to the discussion here in the blog comments as I am always happy to update and share this list.


Writing always,
Michelle

2 comments:

  1. Well done, Michelle. I think that too often we run into accepting an assignment because we are too busy to followup with the points you have raised or just too lazy. It's better to safe than sorry, and clarifying the points up front will save headaches later.

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  2. Thanks Doreen and good points. Also perhaps inexperienced writers might get too caught up in the excitement of landing an assignment to consider the key points to nail down with an editor. Equally, as you say, experienced writers might get to lazy to bother with the details. Regardless it is good business practice for each assignment to be clear on this top 10 checklist.

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