How to create a copywriting contract

by Gill Fernley

How to create a copywriting contract

You’re a creative person, and you chose a copywriting career because writing and creating new copy is what you want to do. If creativity is your superpower, chances are you don’t really want to spend any time thinking about boring things like accounts and contracts.

However, the fact is, unless you create copy as a hobby, you are running a business, and with that comes the responsibility to have everything in place from a legal point of view.

You’re probably asking yourself, ‘Do I even need a copywriting contract?’ After all, you’ve already agreed with your new client what you’re doing for them and what you’ll charge, so why do you need a contract?

4 reasons you need a copywriting contract

1. First and foremost, a written contract that’s signed by you and your client is what you will rely on if something goes wrong. If the worst happens, you’ve got back up in court. Your client signed your contract, and they agreed to your terms, and that’s strong evidence in your favour.

2. If there are any disputes over work, your contract clearly establishes what the agreed scope of work was, and helps prevent scope creep. It gives you a clear point of reference to decide whether to throw in that extra bit of work your client wants for goodwill; or to firmly point out what was initially agreed, and say that you can accommodate the extra work for X additional amount.

3. A good contract helps stop the whole back and forth of what to do or what to say if your client has a problem or a disagreement with you. What was agreed is there in black and white, and what to do about that particular situation is right there, too. Does the client want a refund for some reason, for example? Instead of getting worked up about what to say or whether you should offer a refund, you can simply look at what the contract says your refund policy is and go from there.

4. A contract establishes boundaries for both of you. Ever had one of those clients that calls you several times a day and after hours to ‘just check up on how it’s going’? Your contract should lay out when and how updates will be communicated, and what your availability is.

Basically, your contract is protection for both of you so you both know exactly where you stand and what to expect. And it can take the heat and frustration out of a situation if there’s a problem on either side. Instead of having an argument, you can simply point calmly to the appropriate section of the contract, and there’s the answer.

What should be in a copywriting contract?

This isn’t an ultimate or exhaustive list of everything that should be in a contract, because your contract should be particular to the way you run your business, and what you want. It’s not simply about legal protection. It’s about writing down what’s acceptable to you, and how you want to work with your clients.

Also, we’re not solicitors or crystal ball gazers, and we couldn’t possibly know every situation that you might want to include for your specific circumstances.

Having said that, here are the basics:

• Your payment terms – how much the project is in total, when your invoices will be sent, i.e., if you’ve agreed an upfront payment; will your invoice be sent as soon as you finish the work, or on approval; are there staged invoice payments along the way? How will you get paid?

You could also include what will happen if your invoice is not paid on time, including late payment fees and possible further action.

And if you need further advice on that, here’s an excellent article from Carol Tice of Make a Living Writing on how to deal with a client who doesn’t pay on time. Note that she also emphasises that you do need a contract!

• The length and type of the project, and the deadline for delivery.

• When updates will be given to your client, and how communication will be done, whether by email, telephone, or online app, such as Zoom. When your office hours are and when you’re available to talk.

• How many drafts will you do? How many sets of edits will you do? How will you handle input and suggestions?

• Does copyright transfer from you to your client, and when does that happen?

• What happens if the client isn’t satisfied with your work, or decides they no longer need it when you’ve already started. This happens sometimes on magazines, where they’ve been planning a feature, but have made a decision for some reason that they are no longer running it. If you’ve already done the work, there should be room in your contract for a ‘kill fee’ so you still get paid. If you’ve done part of the work and they cancel, you should also get paid for what you’ve done up to that point.

• What happens if something happens to you part way through the work – accident, sickness, family emergency, etc. Will you give a refund in full, a partial refund, or offer an alternative such as credit towards their next project?

• What do you do if the client is very difficult to work with, or asks you to do something you aren’t comfortable with, and you want to cancel the contract?

There’s a lot more you could put in, and as we said, you need to consider your individual business needs, but if you have answers to everything above, you’ll be well on your way.

How to create a copywriting contract

Before you agree to work with a client, you should receive a comprehensive brief from them, covering what they want, what their goals are for the copy, and when they need it by. From this, you should be able to copy and paste a lot of the information you need to include in your contract. Here’s an article from Copify’s blog on how to create the perfect brief. While the blog does approach it from the point of view of a client, reading through it will also give you an idea of the type of information you can expect and will need.

You have several options when creating a contract:

• You could hire a solicitor to write one that’s specific to you and your company. It can be expensive, but you will get something completely individual to your business, with the security of knowing it’s been done by a professional, and you are covered.

• You could buy a ready-done pack of legal documents that you can amend to suit from someone like Ash Ambirge or Lisa Fraley.

Lisa Fraley is an attorney in the US and has written all the legal documents you might need for your business.

Ash Ambirge is an amazing woman who runs a business encouraging women to get out there and take the world by storm. That’s not quite how she puts it, which you’ll see when you click through (language warning!) but her business savvy and excellent advice are hard to beat.

She is firm on the subject of whether you need acontract and has also written a brilliant bundle of legal documents you can buy to use in your business. Get on her mailing list to find out more about the kit.

While you’ll probably still need a solicitor to go through and make sure the templates have everything you need for UK law, it will cost you less than starting from scratch.

• Finally, you could download the free template from ProCopywriter, written by John McGarvey, and change your details.

While you’re there, take a look at their other resources, such as brief templates and project trackers.

What sort of language to use

People tend to think of contracts as being scary things, stuffed full of impenetrable legalese and many-syllabled words, but they don’t have to be. A plain English contract is very often appreciated by your clients, and can even reflect your brand.

If you look at the ProCopywriter contract template mentioned above, you’ll see it’s extremely easy to read, and there’s even some humour in there, but it still covers all the major points that it needs to cover.

Ash Ambirge even takes it further and uses every bit of her personality in her contracts and terms & conditions. It’s part of her brand. While you might not like the language, it’s hard to argue that it’s bland or boring.

Think about how you can do that with your contracts and other legal documents, so not only will you get documents that cover you and your business legally, but you could even enhance your brand, and show your potential customers your personality, and what it’s like to work with you.

* Please note, we’re not solicitors, and nothing in this article is intended to be taken as legal advice.

Main image credit: Jessica Spengler
Image credits: perzonseo.comKyle @SuburbanDollar.comAllen Allen

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Gill Fernley

The director of her own copywriting firm, Gill writes B2B and B2C content for SMEs and digital marketing agencies. She has a background in performing arts and writes conversational, direct sales copy for businesses on a range of topics. She’s also a keen writer of chick lit.