12 Tips for Writing Strong Contracts

September 29, 2015


In the past couple of months, I've seriously stepped up my freelance game. After bidding on dozens of contracts, I secured quite a few side gigs.


While some extra cash is nice, the most valuable thing I earned was experience. After working with all sorts of people, I discovered better ways to operate and ran into problems that I never knew COULD exist.   


In hopes of helping out some others who are new to freelance work and creating contracts, here are my top tips for newbies.


1. Include deadlines for all stages of work

- When I made my initial contracts, I only included the final deadline that all artwork would be delivered to the client. However, there are multiple stages that occur before final artwork is delivered and your client will appreciate the clarity (and you'll also be able to keep yourself to a strict schedule). Some of the stages you could consider stating deadlines for: 

  • Client sends specific requests

  • Illustrator makes rough sketches (usually thumbnails) and sends to client

  • Client sends revisions

  • Illustrator makes revisions and sends to client

  • Client approves 

  • Illustrator makes exact sketches and sends to client

  • Client sends revisions

  • Illustrator makes revisions and sends to client

  • Client approves 

  • Client makes final illustrations and sends to client

  • Client approves

2. Include deadlines for the client

- Make sure to state that the client needs to deliver requests, revisions, and approvals by specific dates. If they are late and have no deadlines, then it will fall on you to work faster to meet the deadlines specified for artwork in the contract. 


3. State consequences of deadlines not met

- If the client fails to meet any deadlines stated in the contract, specifically state the consequences. Consequences could include all deadlines being pushed back one week, a fee, etc. This will reinforce that your time is valuable and the client will work harder to respond in a timely manner.


4. State deadlines for payment, regardless of postponements

- If the client doesn't submit something you need in time, resulting in deadlines being pushed back, this could significantly delay when you get paid. For one of my projects, I payment was delayed two months because the client responded slowly. You don't want this to happen just because a client suddenly gets busy. 


5. Include a deposit requirement 

- Require the client to pay a deposit (I typically require 1/3rd). This will make sure they are serious and ensure you don't do work without getting paid in the end.


6. Require payment at staggered intervals

- If you only require a deposit and payment at the end of the project, you may not receive money for months. Furthermore, you put yourself at risk that the individual may not pay at the end (which could be a significant amount of money). It is better to require partial payment (say at 50% completion or when final sketches are finished).


7. If payment is a flat fee, include number of revisions allowed

- Payment for freelance work is typically a flat fee for all artwork or an hourly rate. If you are doing a flat fee, make sure you state how many revisions are allowed at EACH stage. I cannot tell you how many hours I lost by doing 3rd, 4th, and 5th revisions for artwork that I was only receiving a pre-determined amount of money.


8. Include a "Change of Concept" clause

- If the client changes their initial concept (i.e. they change what they want for the illustrations), you need a clause that states how this affects the deadline and includes a fee. Clients are good people, but they often don't understand how changes affect the amount of time you pour into creating artwork. A change clause will protect you if someone is fickle with their ideas. 


9. Consider hourly payment if additional work is needed

- If additional revisions, illustrations, or changes are needed (outside of what was stated in contract), I suggest charging an hourly rate. You cannot foresee how long changes will take, so it's far safer to charge for your time.


10. DO NOT underbid just to get a contract

- As a newbie, I was so excited to get new work that I underbid on projects. DO NOT DO THIS. I paid dearly with my time. Furthermore, if a client is only willing to pay very little for your work, it is a warning sign that they do not value your time or skill. Furthermore, it is a sign that they will try to squeeze everything they possibly can out of you. I understand there are good people who don't have much money to spend. There are other options than being underpaid - you can request a royalty, you can extend payment for six months, etc. Get creative - but don't undervalue your time!


11. If something feels off about a client, RUN!

- When you are in the bidding/contract stage, pay attention to how the client communicates. If something feels off or they are difficult to communicate with, RUN! It will only get worse when you are working on the project. 


12. Ensure the client's requests are solidified before you begin the project

- I committed to illustrate a book for an author who was unsure about multiple aspects of the book - the size of the book, the manuscript, the layout style, etc. The author changed his mind multiple times after I had worked on the illustrations, which required me to start over multiple times. Make sure that client's requests are set in stone before you begin work (the change clause should also protect you against unforeseen changes). 


I never dreamed I would need to be this specific in contracts. I worked with dream clients before in which none of the above suggestions were needed. However, I also worked with clients who took advantage of my lax contracts.


When I work with a client, I want a positive relationship. Here are three extra tips to ensure a happy client-illustrator relationship  

  • State your hours of availability: Let your clients know when you're available to respond to emails/phone calls during the week. They will appreciate the clarity and this helps you protect your free time.

  • State when you'll be working on a project. When you let a client know what days and time you'll be working on their project that week, it gives them appropriate expectations and protects the time you aren't working on their project.

  • Email postponed deadlines. If deadlines are not met by the client, this will result in other deadlines being postponed. Make sure to email them and state the new deadlines. They should understand this from the contract, but you want to be especially clear by emailing them a reminder.

When you work with a client, you may not need any of these special considerations for a contract. However,  you can never know in advance the potential problems you may or may not run into. By adding these things into your contract, you protect yourself and ensure your client has a clear understanding of your expectations. 

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