Why a Copywriter Needs Terms and Conditions

Like many freelancers, I started copywriting by working for friends and then friends of friends. Payment was often in kind and jobs were arranged through a quick phone call. As my reputation and experience grew, I started to receive commissions from strangers – some individuals, some companies.  I didn’t have much of a system for dealing with them. In each case I worked out what I would charge, explained that the fee included two rounds of editing, kept my fingers crossed that they would pay promptly.  Everything seemed peachy.

Then a client agreed to my quote, accepted the first draft, said they loved it . . . and went quiet.  After two weeks, I asked if anything was wrong with the work?  No, not at all, it was spot-on, they had just decided not to use it.  I was lucky, they were a decent company and paid me the full amount (and I still work with them). However, what would I have done if they hadn’t been fair?  The possibility of a client not using the work they commissioned had never crossed my mind – and I hadn’t thought about charging for unfinished work.

I needed some rules to cover me if this happened again, so I drafted my own copywriting terms and conditions. It was a struggle to keep them to a sensible length as one scenario after another crossed my mind, demanding to be covered. There I was, a communication professional, expecting people to plough through 7 pages of legalese before I’d write a single word!  Eventually, I slashed them to 3 sides of close print, and had them checked for glaring holes.

I think they do what I need, and it is a relief to have them there.  They set out what I expect from the clients and, just as importantly, what clients can expect from me. They protect us both.  I think they also emphasise that The Word Hen is a professional business.

Lots of copywriters don’t have any terms and conditions.  Certainly, the cost can be off-putting. Some colleagues have told me of bills for a couple of thousand pounds.  It doesn’t have to be this expensive. You can write most of them yourself, and then ask a solicitor to finish them off; or there are some online freelancer contracts that may be worth a look.

Exactly what you include will depend on you, of course, but I suggest you cover at least these five areas:

  1. When does the job start?What constitutes a formal commission?  In my case, it is the email saying explicitly that the client wants me to go ahead with the work.  If that doesn’t arrive naturally as part of the pre-job chat, then I ask for it. From that moment, we are in a business agreement.
  2. What about the money?You are not doing this for love. It’s a business transaction and you expect to be paid. When?  Do you want a deposit?  How much, and under what circumstances is it refundable?  How do you want to be paid and what will you do about late payments?
  3. What are the deadlines and when does the job end?How long do you have to write, and how long does the client have to comment? How long are you prepared to let a job drag on? Set it out clearly at the start. As part of the price, how many rounds of editing are included, and for how long?  Will you be happy to edit the same piece of text next year for no extra charge?
  4. Who owns the work?Who owns the copyright to your copy?  If you write for a blog and the client later includes it in a book – should you receive a cut of that income?  Are you allowed to link to or quote your own writing once you have given it to the client?  Suppose the client gives you some half-written copy to work on – do you have permission to use it, or is an irate writer going to be on your tail?
  5. What if something goes wrong?What will you do if the client cancels, changes their mind, or asks for a lot more than first agreed?  What if you are ill or your internet goes down?  Suppose the client wants to edit (badly) what you have written, or rejects what you have produced?  How about if they won’t answer your calls?  Suppose you make an error, or the client supplies inaccurate information?  None of these situations are impossible, so set out what you would do before they happen.

I hope I haven’t scared you: may every client be a dream, but it makes sense to have back up.  A professional set of Terms and Conditions gives certainty to both sides and reduces the likelihood of legal disputes. They also enhance your professional image and help you give consistent customer service. When you think about it, they are a vital part of your business.

This post originally appeared in a guest slot over on The Copywriting Apprentice.