Contracts 101 (And How to Spot a Bad Client!)

ContractsNote: I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice; however, these are a few of the things you may come across when selling your writing…

Anyone who’s seen an after-school special is probably familiar with the term “the first one’s free.” That’s a good business tactic if you’re selling highly addictive drugs (except for it being illegal and morally sketchy, that is); but, unfortunately, writing isn’t addictive. No, not even if it’s really good writing.

To put it simply: If you give your client a freebie, they’re going to keep expecting more freebies.

To break it down even more for you: If you work for free, you will never make any money.

Now, you’re probably looking at that last sentence and thinking “no duh,” but don’t be fooled! This is an easier trap to fall into than you might think!

Don’t Fall for These 3 Traps!

Here are three of the traps you might fall into if you aren’t careful. When looking for jobs, beware of clients who ask you to…

…Work “on spec.”

This means that they won’t pay you unless they decide to use what you wrote. That might not sound too bad, but keep in mind that they might not use your writing until months (or even years!) later. Or maybe even not at all.  Is that a chance you’re willing to take? (Note: If you do decide to take on an “on spec” project, be sure you ask for a “kill fee” in your contract — that way, if they decide not to use your writing, you’ll still get paid at least a little money). 

…Write “for exposure.”

This is something that new writers are especially susceptible to. People out there know that new or under-confident writers feel that they have to “pay their dues” (you don’t) and they’ll take advantage of you to get some free writing. But as Linda Formichelli once said:

“People die from exposure. In other words, don’t let tightwad editors talk you into writing for free for ‘the exposure.’ You get better exposure from paying mags, anyway.”

…Send them some “samples.”

Sure, sometimes clients will legitimately want to see samples of your writing (in which case you can break out your portfolio!), but most of the time this is a scam. In fact, many so-called “clients” cruising for samples (I see this a lot on CraigsList) are just looking for free writing that they can sell later. The nerve!

Get a Contract

Always, always, always have a contract. Get in writing — somewhere — the terms under which you’ll be working. Do NOT work without some sort of written agreement.


  • Accept an oral contract (over the phone or otherwise)
  • Accept a handshake as a contract
  • Accept a contract over an instant message or in a chat room

If your client doesn’t agree to entering into a contract with you, then they’re probably shifty and not worth working for anyway.

A good, smart, client will know that a contract protects them as much as it protects you. It makes sure you will be paid, but it also makes sure that they will get their finished product.

Or, as copywriter Carol Tice put it:

“My experience is that clients are far less likely to flake on you when you’ve got something in writing with their signature on it.”

Truer words were never spoken.

And, the fact is, you’ll be less likely to flake on the client if they have your signature.

Contracts are a win-win!

Just make sure your contract terms are well-defined. Projects that aren’t clearly written out from the get-go have a tendency to get out of control.

Clients can also get out of control if you’re not aware of some key red flags

redflagWhat Makes a Bad Client “Bad?”

There are two types of “bad” client:

One: A “client” who isn’t a client at all.

This so-called client is either a scam from the get-go, or is someone who runs off without paying (negating any real “client” status they may have obtained).

Two: A client who’s more trouble than they’re ultimately worth.

Even if this client does end up paying…it’s not enough to cover the costs for all the extra work and/or headaches they’ve put you through to get it.

The 16 red flags I’ve outlined below are designed to help you recognize these two types of trouble clients before you get roped into working with them. There are probably other red flags that I’m missing (feel free to mention them in the comments section!), but these are the ones I’ve dealt with personally.

I learned the hard way, but you don’t have to.

16 Red Flags to Watch Out for When Scoping Out Potential Clients

1. The client asks for “samples.”

Very rarely is this legitimate. Most “potential clients” who ask for free samples are just suckering you into doing free work. (And some will even resell the articles you’ve written!) 

2. They ask you to work “on spec.” 

This means that they won’t pay you unless they decide to use what you wrote. That might not sound too bad, but keep in mind that they might not use your writing until months (or even years!) later. Or not at all.

3. They refuse to sign your contract.

I’ve said this in articles, I’ve said this in videos, I said it earlier on this very page, and I’ll tell you this in person if we ever meet: Never EVER work without a contract! Any client who wants you to work without a contract is bad news. To quote The Doctor, “Basically, run.”

4. They won’t pay your advance.

Always get at least some of your money up front. Personally, I like to get the entire payment up front, but, if that’s not feasible, I insist on being paid at least 50% in advance. If a client is willing to pay the first 50%, they’re usually good for the last 50% after the project is finished.

5. They ask you for a consultation…and it goes on FOREVER and leads to nothing.

I offer free mini-consultations, but I always make sure they’re just that: Mini. If someone asks you for a “consultation” and they talk to you at length with no sign of hiring you–they’re probably not goingto hire you. They’re just after the free advice.

6. They ask for too much personal info.

It sounds weird, but some “clients” are actually people running a phishing scam. Clients don’t need to know every last detail about you. And there’s a lot they probably shouldn’t know.

7. They want YOU to pay THEM for work.

Sounds ridiculous, right? But it’s an easier trap to fall into than you may think. There are some legitimate job boards that require you to pay a fee to use them (The Freelance Writers Den or some of LinkedIn’s premium features), but most of the time this is going to be someone trying to sucker you. Always double-check the source.

8. They’re never satisfied.

This could just be a jerk client who’s trying to exert power over you just to get their “money’s worth” out of you… But if a client keeps asking for rewrites to the point that the project has morphed into something entirely new, then they’re probably trying to get double the work out of you for half the pay.

9. They’re a “start-up” that’s going to “hit it big” and they “promise” that they’ll give you a “percentage of the profits.” 

This breed of potential client might offer you stock in their company, a percentage of the profits, joint ownership of their business, or something equally fantastic “once they really get things rolling.” Uh-huh. Be polite to this person in case they actually do succeed–but say “no” until they actually have the money to pay you what you’re worth.

10. They want you to write for “exposure.”

As Linda Formichelli recently said in one of her Morning Motivation e-mails: “People die from exposure!” So true. Nix this gig.

11. They want to rush everything.

This person is probably used to paying people by the hour. So they figure if they make you rush through everything they won’t have to pay you as much. Bottom line? People who are always in a rush don’t understand that good work takes time–and costs money.

12. Their e-mail is poorly written.

This one is a fine line and you’ll need to go with your gut. Often people who need to hire writers aren’t the best writers themselves… But if it seems like they barely understand what writing is, then they’re probably not someone you want to work with. It’s harder to explain your value to someone who doesn’t know what it is you’re selling.

I will sometimes take on projects from people who have sent me atrociously-written e-mails, but only if the person is a total sweetie-pie, I love the proposed project, and I have a lot of extra time on my hands to handle the additional communicative back-and-forth that’s likely to ensue. These projects have been some of the most time-consuming (and therefore money-wasting) gigs I’ve accepted. The person has to be really special for me to get on board.

Also, many poorly written e-mails are from spammers. So there’s that…

13. They’re mean/disrespectful to you right off the bat.

You don’t need to take that crap.

14. There’s no info about the “client” anywhere.

If they’re a legitimate business, they should have something about them either online or offline that checks out. A website, a LinkedIn profile, a phone number in the Yellow Pages…SOMETHING.

But, like #12, this is something you’ll have to use your gut instincts on. Some people really dohave a low profile and/or are so new that they don’t have any information up yet. If your intuition is telling you that this is a great project–go for it. But I highly suggest you ask them to pay in full up front, just in case!

15. They avoid communication.

If they’re doing this to you before you even start working with them, then they’re only going to get worse once money is involved.

16. They say the work they have for you is “easy.”

If they think it’s easy, then they’re going to expect you to do it on the cheap. It’s a sign they don’t respect – or fully understand – what it is you do. And, hey, if it’s so “easy” then they can do it themselves!

When in doubt? Say “no.”

And, if you do end up getting ripped off… Don’t feel too bad. It happens to every freelancer at some point in their careers.

Important Note: They’re Not ALL Bad!

Writing this post made me a bit grumpy because I had to remember all the times I was mistreated or otherwise suckered. But, you know what? Not all clients are bad!

When you get a great client: Treat ‘em right!


Great clients are precious gems.

Thank them. Check in with them from time to time (not begging for work–just to say “hi!”). Follow-up on the projects you’ve done for them and offer further advice.

Great clients are great people and they deserve to be treated as such. They didn’t have to choose you–there are plenty of writers out there!–but they did and you should be properly grateful.

Without clients, you wouldn’t be a business. Writing would be merely a hobby.

Good or bad, you need clients. So it’s in your best interests to keep the good ones pleased! (You may even make a few friends!).

Don’t be a diva. And know when you’ve got it good. :)