How do I not get screwed on freelance editing work?
May 22, 2013 9:40 AM   Subscribe

My question is in regards to making sure I get paid for my work. I'll be billing private individuals as opposed to companies and thus am concerned there will be less incentive for them to pay for services rendered.

After having done some copy editing for pay as kind of a favor for an acquaintance, I now have the chance to do some work for people that are strangers. For now, the work is copy editing and proofing theses and dissertations for grad students. Thus, I'll be dealing with individuals as opposed to companies and businesses.

I charge by the hour and typically bill after completing the job and calculating the hours. I am afraid clients might not pay after I deliver the goods. Do I need a contract? Can I ask for some money up front as kind of a good faith gesture? I prefer charging by the hour instead of charging a lump sum because I feel like it is more fair to me as well as to my often cash strapped clients. I also think it is fair to let the client review the work before paying in full. This is all intended as side income that I don't want to report, so I would rather avoid official channels.

Also, is paypal the best option for collecting payments? I'd like to give my clients the most options for payment methods as I know paying in cash is often a hardship for grad students.
Anything else I should be thinking about?
posted by Dr. Lurker to Work & Money (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Do I need a contract?


You might consider working on retainer and charge an up-front cost from which your hourly services are deducted, and then settle the remaining balance after the work is completed.

Grab a Square reader and let them pay by debit/credit.
posted by phunniemee at 9:45 AM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

You need to be asking for, ideally, half in advance. (This can be based on an estimate and you could call it a retainer or deposit.) At the very least bill in thirds: first third up-front, second chunk upon delivery of initial draft, final chunk upon delivery of final draft.
posted by kindall at 9:46 AM on May 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Ask to be paid half up front, half when the job is done. I can't recommend charging by the hour in the case of writing and editing. Charge by the project.

Fundamentally, though, you really need to determine if grad students are an appropriate target market. There is the risk that they can't pay, and there is also the reality that they don't have a lot of money to start with.

I wouldn't give up on it, but surely there must be less risky and relatively more lucrative customers out there. You need to get paid, you need to eat. Those are the primary, basic considerations for doing work. If your clients can't provide you with that, find someone else.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:48 AM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Send them a boilerplate contract at first contact with a Net 30 payment limit and substantial late fees (25% of amount owed is a good number). Make sure the contract also states that you retain all rights to the edited document until payment is remitted in full.

Then ask for 25-50% of the total amount upfront as a retainer before beginning work. After that, if it's a longer project, invoice every two weeks (though the retainer comes off the front end.

Be ruthless about enforcing the late fee and right retention clauses of the contract.
posted by 256 at 9:51 AM on May 22, 2013

In my freelance days I asked for a 'reading fee', basically a retainer, applicable against the full amount. I sent the bill after they've reviewed the edit, so I do put a lot of faith in my clients.

Also, I always gave an estimate of the number of hours, and promised to inform if I was on track to exceed the estimate by x hours.

In my experience, though, individuals are far better about paying fully and on time than companies. I did get my editing jobs only through word of mouth, so everyone I worked with came with social strings attached.

In the UK, bank transfer is the easier way to pay, I wouldn't know about the US. Of course, I wasn't doing this under the table.
posted by tavegyl at 9:58 AM on May 22, 2013

I charge by the hour and typically bill after completing the job and calculating the hours.

This means that neither you nor your customers know what the cost will be, making it hard for you to get cash in advance and easy for them to underestimate how much they'll need to cough up. What about charging by initial page or word count?
posted by jon1270 at 10:15 AM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

To refine some of the payment schedule advice above:

50% up front, 40% on substantial completion, remainder on delivery of final work.

Also put a kill fee in the contract, along the lines of all fees paid so far, plus 50% of the remainder.

Get all communications relating to changes, revisions, the project scope and timeline in writing.

Anyone who argues for a less formal arrangement is arguing for making it easier to screw you.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 10:19 AM on May 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

"I charge by the hour and typically bill after completing the job and calculating the hours."

Do you give your clients a ballpark estimate, or do they just expect to get charged whatever?

If you can't quote a job you need to set up periodic payments of hours worked, so you're never working too far ahead of what you're getting paid. The contract can stipulate payment for a certain number of hours per week until the project is finished, with the remainder due on completion. If your projects cover a span that's too short to make that practical, you must figure out a minimum and get that up front. As in, check clears before work begins.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 10:26 AM on May 22, 2013

I like a short agreement (i.e. contract), but for small jobs I think it's OK to not have one. Or just drum up something standard that you can print off every time, if you expect the work to be fairly consistent in character.

Getting some money up front is more important in weeding out the I-really-intended-to-pay-you-but types, IMO.

I usually bill by the hour also, but folks are at least going to want an estimate. With what you describe I'd at least consider a fixed quote, though. Many customers will prefer a quote, even if they have to pay a little more.

I prefer checks. PayPal takes something like 3%. But if these are mostly little jobs done without ever meeting face to face, I'd probably offer PayPal as an option.
posted by mattu at 10:31 AM on May 22, 2013

under petticoat, et al. I do give a rough time per page estimate depending on the type of editing they want. Usually, I come in under the estimate.

I think a retainer amount up front (maybe a minimum charge) would be a good option with periodic check ins with the client to make sure they are satisfied with my work/progress and also to get more money up front. Also makes sure that I get paid enough to make it worth my while to begin on a project, and that they can get as much editing as they can for their money.

I should mention this is a service I'm happy to provide for graduate students (I can empathize with their trials and tribulations), and, as I mentioned, not my chief source of income. Thus, I'm not looking to maximize profit. I just want to provide a good service for a fair price while ensuring myself enough money to make it worth doing work I find somewhat tedious.

I do think a contract would be good as well. Can anyone provide a template?
posted by Dr. Lurker at 10:43 AM on May 22, 2013

Send them a boilerplate contract at first contact with a Net 30 payment limit and substantial late fees (25% of amount owed is a good number).

There is a very good chance that the "late fee" will be deemed to be an interest rate. A late fee of 25% would, if deemed to be an interest rate, be criminal usury in my jurisdiction. That means you would forfeit the entire debt. You would need a clause providing something to the effect of "or the maximum allowed by [jurisdiction] law".

If you really want to be assured of payment, keep the final product until payment in full is received. Since you want to provide a copy before it is final, place a large stamp on every page of your draft in the middle of the text so it cannot be readily removed.

This is all intended as side income that I don't want to report, so I would rather avoid official channels.

As a lawyer, I can tell you that there is a special legal term for deciding for yourself what income you do and do not report. It is called "tax evasion". You should report your income.

posted by Tanizaki at 11:01 AM on May 22, 2013

I am not a contract lawyer. But with working with my dad, who has done freelance and wanting to do freelance myself, and working for a company and helping write the contracts, a contract should include:

-Estimate as you disused of total time (hours/pages/due date/etc) Be as specific as possible for what you have discussed - use a table or something perhaps for a nice clean layout.
-Total Cost for that Estimate
-Notice that if they change their requirements later, it could increase the total cost and will require a new contract or updated contract
(^This is when the client says "Well can you edit this too?" )
-The payment cost upfront and payment terms
-The billing terms and late fees
-The date
-And statement that by signing the document they agree to the above terms, involving billing, payments, late fees, estimates, due dates, late work etc.
-Make it clear if you have any guarantees on your work or clear any loopholes in which they could say "Well you didn't get it done in time so I want my money back"
-^That may mean you may need a clause about needing feedback from your client from certain steps, and that if they delay getting back to you, it could delay the project.
-It may also mean there is a clause that there are NO refunds. (Seems harsh but you already put the work in, and they agreed to pay you.)

Print 2 copies, have them and yourself sign and date them. They keep one. Scan a digital copy and email it to them as a reminder, and keep it for your records digitally and in a client file.

I think I covered what I would include. I'm sure others can add to it.
posted by Crystalinne at 11:04 AM on May 22, 2013

Thanks for the legal advice, I'm familiar with the risks of tax evasion and not reporting every cent of income. Nor do I have a problem with paying taxes. Should this amount to more than small change, I'll address that issue then. I'm talking about pretty small occasional jobs here.

Maybe I should call it an "agreement" rather than a "contract" as it's not something I'd likely ever pursue legally, it's more something to make sure everyone knows what they are entering into. In the end, if someone is dead set on screwing me, I'll probably have to eat it. I'm more concerned about wasting my time on work I'm not compensated for.
posted by Dr. Lurker at 11:13 AM on May 22, 2013

Should this amount to more than small change, I'll address that issue then. I'm talking about pretty small occasional jobs here.

I *think* (and do not quote me on this please check for yourself) that income under $3800 annually does not need to be reported. Which is why when your kid sets up a lemonade stand on the corner she doesn't need to worry about the tax implications.
posted by phunniemee at 11:20 AM on May 22, 2013

If you use a service like Elance, you can require the funds be put into escrow first. But you will also have to pay a fee to Elance.
posted by Dansaman at 4:53 PM on May 22, 2013

I used to do this. I would do a sample section or chapter first, to give the client a sense of what they could expect from my editing, and to give me an idea of how long the whole thing would take. (Every paper is different in this respect). I charged a set fee for that sample (I can't remember how much) and if the client wasn't punctual in paying that, they didn't get any more work out of me. The clients who paid promptly and without question for the initial work were almost always good about the larger sum later too.
posted by lollusc at 6:33 PM on May 22, 2013

I'm a freelance editor. I've issued 700 invoices over almost 5 years, around 680 of them in arrears and have had one non-payment in all that time. I charge by the word and give the price up front and state my terms and conditions and ask the client to agree to those, then would hold them to those if they defaulted. But they just don't seem to.

I would offer you more advice and my websites / blog / book info too, but I'm not really keen on supporting people in this work who don't register for their taxes (I paid little tax in my first years of working part time and freelancing part time, but that was in the UK). If your situation changes in that respect, feel free to contact me via memail for further advice.
posted by LyzzyBee at 7:38 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

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