• Advice

Why you should put everything in writing

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I have several friends and family members who work in the law. Yes, they’ve heard all the jokes. Yes, holiday dinner debates are intense. Yes, one of them may own a boat called the Sue M. (get it?).

They practice the law in different specialties, but all of them have – at one point or another – recommended a very simple work strategy to me, one that most freelancers stand to benefit from.

Put everything important in writing.

Everything? Yes, everything and anything that you think miggggghhht be important down the road. An incomplete list of working terms that freelancers should put in writing includes:

· Agreed hourly rate

· Agreed # of hours to be devoted to a project

· Agreed # of revisions

· Your availability

· Timetable for payment

· Deadlines

· Deliverables

· Your (and their) expectations

… etc.

For those of us who don’t work in professions that are traditionally as straight-laced as the law, the concept of “putting everything in writing” can seem daunting. Especially when you’re starting out as a freelancer, it can feel too hard-edged, too stiff, and dare I say, too serious – to delineate terms in writing. Many freelancers feel tremendous pressure to be endlessly easy-going, rolling with the flow and relying on spoken, handshake deals…

… and that, my friends, is the path to freelance angst.

Putting terms in writing does several wonderful things – things that are good BOTH for you and your client. It eliminates misunderstandings and clarifies communication. It protects you from exploitation and unpaid overtime work. It reassures nervous clients who fret about deadlines and deliverables – establishing a concrete schedule and laying out expectations.

And yes, it encourages clients to take you SERIOUSLY. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a lovely, fun, laid-back freelancer who’s a pleasure to talk to (and no doubt a hit at parties. Bet your chip dip recipe kills). But it also signifies that you’re a professional who’s committed to delivering the goods on-time, for a reasonable wage.

I try to work under a contract whenever possible – it’s clear, it’s standard, and it’s a nice, soothing insurance policy for both me and the client. But on the rare occasion that I’m not under contract, I am careful to still get important terms in writing. This can be as simple as a follow-up email:

Hey, Client X!

So nice to speak with you. Just wanted to make sure we’re on the same page with dates and deliverables; as I said, I’ll deliver the complete first draft by March 1rst by 5 PM. You’ll have one week (until March 8th) to request revisions – I do two rounds gratis as part of my project fee, and you’ll have the final draft by the end of March. Payment is due 30 days after the final draft is submitted; that will be X hours for X rate. Please let me know if you have any questions; if not, I’ll start today!

Looking really forward!

It’s chirpy! It’s cheery! It’s comprehensive, concrete, and clear! It suggests not only that I’m excited to start, but also that I’m open to questions AND that I do, uh, expect to be paid.

When I first started putting everything in writing, I expected to encounter resistance: some rolled eyes, some raised hackles, maybe even some lost clients. To my surprise, I ran into almost no consternation whatsoever. Clients took it as a matter of course; some were downright relieved to have contracts and written terms.

Even better, putting things in writing became a valuable litmus test, helping me to automatically flag bad-apple clients when they were still just potential gigs. If a would-be client was remarkably resistant to any kind of written communication, I backed WAY off – and politely insisted. It’s saved me from many a nasty situation.

Listen, lawyers follow this policy for a reason: because in the confusing he-said she-said world of law, concrete terms are invaluable. Take a page from their wonderful, sometimes-combative, sometimes-quite-serious book… put everything in writing. You’ll be glad you did.

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.