If you are freelancing for long you inevitably discover at some point that detailed agreements with your client are required. You may find this out the easy way as you and a good client try to remember what direction the project was intended to take. Or, you may find out the hard way as you are asked to make the fifth detailed and lengthy change to the document without hazard pay.
What Is a Contract or Agreement and Why Do I Need One?
I like the term agreement better than contract. Agreement encourages communication as you AND your customer create it. Remember, the agreements you make are to protect you from capricious clients, but they are also there to protect the client if you have things come up that might make you appear flaky. Like a good prenuptial agreement, a writing contract should attempt to make sure both parties benefit in case of a break-up.
I’m not a lawyer. And I don’t work in high-risk fields. I find that for my purposes a simple, “I agree to do the following by this date,” and “Client agrees to pay X amount on Y date(s)” is usually sufficient. I take a non-refundable deposit, and in large projects I include several kill dates through the timeline that either of us can take advantage of if we discover that things aren’t going in a productive direction.
If you are agreeing to a large and complicated project (whether or not in a risky field) you should contact a lawyer before you sign (or present to your client) any agreement. Have the attorney make suggestions, and make sure that the language in complicated bits actually says what you intend it to say. Legalese can shift meanings of words we think we understand in odd directions. Punctuation is even more important to attorneys than it is to technical writers!
If the agreement you make with a client turns out to be insufficient, you can choose to renegotiate (politely) or eat the extra costs. I’ve been known to do both. In either case, take time after the experience to analyze what shifted and why, and decide what (if anything) you could have done differently to avoid the situation. Sometimes you will decide to alter your standard agreement to cover the situation in the future, and sometimes you may decide it was such a rare occurrence that you don’t want to worry about it.
Simple rules for creating agreements:
- Be clear. This should be easy. You’re a tech writer.
- Cover your bases – include policies for getting paid and for how you handle changes to the work you are doing.
- Be willing to negotiate and make changes – Think of this as a prenuptial agreement. Both you and your client want the best outcome for each other.
- Talk to an attorney:
- if the project could cause personal liability to you
- if you are concerned about wording the client wants to include
- to clarify your own initial standard agreement
Remember, talking to an attorney may cost you now, but can save you money (or even your house) in the long run.