14 January 2011

Freelance Writing: How to Protect Yourself and Your Work

Cheryl Santa Maria is a freelance writer, knitter and avid daydreamer.  She lives in Toronto with a cat named AJ and she will write for food and/or shoes.  Her areas of expertise are indie music, popular culture, freelance writing, and business. Cheryl's musings can be found all over the web - currently, she is an active contributor to six separate websites.  To keep up with Cheryl and her daily ramblings, visit her blog at http://www.peoplearepeople.wordpress.com


I think freelancing is the best job in the world. You get to set your own hours, every day is different, and you’re constantly building your network. Unfortunately there are many clients who refuse to pay their writers a living wage (or even pay them at all), work is commonly stolen via plagiarism and/or edited beyond recognition, and seemingly “trustworthy” and “reputable” clients can turn out to be nothing more than a headache.
Nothing is perfect, I guess, but freelancing becomes a heck of a lot easier once you learn how to protect yourself and your work.
Here are some ways to avoid being taken advantage of:
1. Having a contract doesn’t hurt. This is especially true if you’re entering into a paid gig. Set a time line for when you expect to be paid, outline the authorship rights (I personally won’t take a job that forces me to give up ownership), and make sure that expected deadlines are clearly stated.
If you’re working for free (or, as the craigslist ads like to put it, for “exposure”) it doesn’t hurt to get a publication guarantee in writing. You don’t need a contract for this; an email confirmation is fine. I recently completed a job for a client on a very strict deadline. After staying up all night I was told that there was “no room” in the newspaper for my articles. The client told me “not to be discouraged” and that they’d send me another assignment which they would try to squeeze in next time.
I now have three writing samples that I can’t shop around because they are time-sensitive and tailored to that client. Even when you’re working for free, time is money. If somebody asks you to write for them, make sure they will publish you. Luckily I didn’t waste too much time on that project but the situation was still rather annoying. Oh well. Live and learn, I guess.
From now on, I’m going to get some guarantees in writing. Click here to read a great article on why every freelance writer should have a contract.
2. Research your client.
  • Does your client have a website?
  • Is the client easily accessible?
  • Is the publication/business professional and reliable?
  • Can you communicate openly with your client?
  • Are goals/outcomes clearly stated?
Ask yourself these questions before taking on a job.  And it doesn’t hurt to do a little research on your prospective clients. We freelancers tend to rely on message boards like Craigslist and kijiji for work but remember: ANYONE can post an ad on a message board. Don’t blindly send your work off to just any one. If a business doesn’t look legit, refuses to answer your questions, or requires YOU to pay any kind of  fee, run the other way. It’s a scam, my friend. A scam!!
3. Protect your work.
One way you can avoid having your work plagiarised is to keep copies of everything. I once read a great article on this topic (unfortunately I can’t find it, but I’ll link it here as soon as I can). It suggested copying yourself on every email you send to clients and clearly state the nature of the work you will be doing for them in the correspondence. When sending a file of your original work, make sure to keep an unopened copy of that email in your inbox. This will serve as proof in your favour should an authorship issue arise. Click here and here to read more about protecting your work.
You’ll also need to protect your work from being taken out of context or being edited beyond recognition. I recently submitted articles to a website and I was horrified when I read them online. The site editor decided to change the grammatical structure of my work, making it look elementary and unprofessional. I know I don’t have the greatest grammar in the world but I take pains to make sure my writing is accurate. It irked me to see my hard work published with commas where there shouldn’t be commas and with fragmented sentences. Shoddy editing looks bad on me even if I’m not responsible for it. Making sure you are in charge of any necessary revisions helps you maintain your high standard.
So there you go, my friends.  Follow these steps and you'll be able to sleep soundly at night, knowing that your work hasn't fallen into the wrong hands. 
Happy writing and good luck.

(this article was originally published on Peevish Penman in Fall of 2009)


  1. I love, love, love these tips. I'll be keeping these tips in mind when I go about my freelancing. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. How do you submit an unopened email as evidence in court? I heard you could mail a copy of an idea to yourself.

  3. I'm not sure about that. It sounds interesting, but I suspect it is actually unnecessary in terms of writing. There are better ways to show that a work originated with you.

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