Let me start out today’s post with another case study in freelancing do’s and don’ts. A friend of mine accepted a freelance job at the beginning of the summer that involved writing press releases, blogging, and social networking, as well as basic admin work like updating contact lists, and designing promotional materials. Although the duties for this particular job were very specific, my friend never got anything in writing. She also had a verbal agreement with her client that she would work a set number of hours per month, but given the work that she was assigned to do, she ended up exceeding that monthly time allotment four months in a row. Since she didn’t have anything in writing about how she was to be compensated for her time, the client ended up majorly underpaying my friend for her work.

There are several lessons to be learned here.

First, get it all in writing at the beginning of a project. Remember the list of questions that I said you should ask the client in the first case study I provided in this series? Those questions will help you build your letter of agreement. Consider asking the following questions (but this list should obviously be tailored for the particular type of freelance work that you do):

  • What is the client’s time line?
  • What is the final deadline for the project?
  • How many people will be involved, in addition to yourself?
  • What will the communication process be like?
  • How many revisions does the client get?
  • Does the client expect ongoing support after the project is completed?
  • How big is the project, and what are all of the factors involved?

Let me give you a specific example of the type of questions I would ask a client if I were booking a line-editing project, so that you can see how these generic questions take shape.

  • When is your manuscript due to the publisher?
  • Is the manuscript finished now, or will you be sending me each chapter individually?  If so, what is the time line for each chapter?
  • When do you expect the edits to get back to you?
  • How many pages is the complete manuscript, or how many pages do you anticipate the final manuscript to be?
  • What style manual are you using?

Since a line-edit is pretty straight forward, I wouldn’t ask about ongoing communication, nor would I ask about support after the manuscript is returned to the client.

For line-edits, I generally charge $2 per page. That rate depends on the time line, though. I’ve had clients who expected a 48-hour turnaround on their manuscript. In that case, I’ve doubled my fee, because it has meant setting aside other work in order to meet the deadline.

Here’s an example of what my letter of agreement would look like for this particular line-editing project.

Dear XXX,

This letter of agreement confirms that I will be conducting a line edit of your 349-page manuscript, called XXXX. As per our e-mail conversation, the line edit will include one thorough proofreading for grammar, sentence structure, and coherence. The line edit will not include notes or revisions related to character or plot development. Services will be billed at $2 per page, with 50% due at the beginning of the project.

Once the 50% deposit has been paid, I will begin work on your manuscript. I will have the revisions completed by XXXX, and I will return the hard copy to you in person.

Thank you for your business. I look forward to working with you.

Be very clear in your letter of agreement about what your work entails, and what it doesn’t entail. Be specific. You also need to be clear about when payment is due so that you can hold clients accountable.

One of the other lessons to be learned from my friend’s case study is that if you agree to work a set number of hours per month for a client, you need to be specific about when those hours will be completed. My friend often received e-mails and phone calls from the client late in the evening, or on the weekend. She felt that she had to respond to the client immediately. As a result, she felt stressed out all summer, and had to put other projects on hold because she felt obligated to cater to this client.

If you are conducting on-going support for a client, be specific about your turnaround time. I don’t work on the weekends, and I don’t answer business calls in the evening. Period. Giving a client two business days to respond to a request is more than adequate. And setting a firm boundary about when you are available for the client is the only way that you can ensure that you have a good work-life balance. Put it all in writing. And then stick to your guns when a client tries to push back. If they continue to persist, send them an e-mail stating what your rate is for working evenings and weekends. Don’t just tell them on the phone. By e-mailing the client, you have everything in writing, including their response. And clients will ultimately respect you more when you are firm about your rates.

You are the only one who can ensure that you get paid what you’re worth. And it all comes down to putting everything in writing. If you want more examples of letters of agreement, check out My So-Called Freelance Life, by Michelle Goodman. She has excellent letters of agreement that you can reference.

Are you a freelancer who has experienced similar clients? Have you had to learn the hard way that a letter of agreement is the best way to protect yourself from an abusive client? What’s your advice for protecting your bottom line?