Cash On The Barrelhead, Getting Paid

Writing is not easy under the best of situations and it can be especially challenging if you write for a living.

Working writers who are freelance or own their own business must pay attention to all the issues that writers deal with: creativity, distractions, quality, and quantity of their writing. In addition, they must run the business they own. Self-employed, or freelance, a writer who is on their own must be a jack-of-all-trades, combining business administration with their creative work.

Juggling it all can be overwhelming and is often the cause of a business failure. A writer may be great at their craft but not so much as a business manager. Fortunately, the business administration part can be learned and honed through education and experience.

One of the most challenging aspects of working for yourself is getting paid for your work. Some people write on speculation: writing a piece, article, ad, or even a book and then selling it or the rights to the works. Others will have a client who is interested in paying the writer to write for them. The client wants a product written to satisfy their needs and the writer wishes to be compensated for their work.

Once our writing is finished and has been submitted to the client, we expect to be paid for our work. Most of the time this process progresses smoothly, but sometimes it does not. Not only is it frustrating to struggle to be paid, it can also be catastrophic for you, your family, and your business. There are many reasons and causes for non-payment so let’s talk about how to lessen the possibility of that happening to you.

A primary cause of conflict is the lack of clarity and understanding of the agreement or contract, verbal or written, between you and your client. The relationship between you and your client must be made clear and to do that it is best to use a written agreement. You will describe what you intend to produce and provide and your client states what he requires and expects.

The financial agreement must be explicit. Is there a retainer or deposit required before work is commenced? Are there progress payments to be made based on increments of work produced? How is payment to be made? Is there a warranty on your work or refund if not satisfied? Will you require additional compensation for changes in the scope of work initially agreed upon? Will your work be reviewed by anyone other than your client, such as their client, prior to you being paid? What is the timeline for the project and when is the due date for your work?

This is where all the bases need to be covered for it is here that you will find support if you need to pursue collection. A warning: if it isn’t in writing, it is hard to prevail in a dispute. Be sure that any terms are agreeable to both parties prior to starting work.

Your writing project is flowing nicely, just about to be completed. Now is the time to contact your client and establish arrangements to submit the work and be paid. I find it helps to send an invoice in advance of submission so that the client can prepare payment. If you have been submitting drafts as you wrote and the client has been making corrections and edits, there probably won’t be much delay in getting paid upon submission.

If the client needs to review your work before payment, be sure to set a definite time period for that to take place, in writing if possible. This is why I like to receive a retainer or deposit prior to starting work. Yes, this can be difficult for beginning writers, but it doesn’t hurt to ask for one. If you don’t value your time and talent, your client might not either. I am comfortable if a new client wants to withhold a portion of my fee until final acceptance, but I want to know it in advance and the amount must be reasonable.

Once you have established clients and have built your business, it is easier to negotiate financial terms that favor you. The main thing here is to avoid working for free unless it is your intention to donate your writing talent and creativity.

There are times when things go wrong in any business and when they do, it is often financial. You have worked long and hard, producing a written product that meets your client’s requirements and you are satisfied that it fulfills your part of the agreement. Unfortunately, your client has not paid you according to the terms of your agreement. Your finances are stretched and anxiety is setting in. A plan of action to resolve this situation is needed and it is needed now.

Time is of the essence and the quicker you attend to this matter the more likely it is that you will be paid. Contact your client immediately by phone and request a firm date for them to pay you. If your phone calls are not answered, send an e-mail or letter, with a copy of the original agreement and a copy of your invoice. In your message, gently, but firmly, ask for a commitment to pay you. Keep a copy and written record of this correspondence as well as a log of calls made and, if any, responses from your client.

In my more than fifty years of business experience, I have found that once a client sees that you are professional, prepared, and intent on being paid, the matter can be settled promptly. If I haven’t heard from the client in three days, I make contact again, this time with a stronger message, in the form of a collection letter.

There are many examples on the internet that can be adapted to your specific needs. The important thing is that your client is given notice that you are serious and will proceed with collection efforts until payment is made and the matter is resolved. I find that many payment issues are resolved at this point. The squeaky wheel really does get the grease.

Your client may have cash flow problems of their own. You might want to offer to make a compromise settlement and accept a portion of what is owed to you as payment in full.

As a last resort, a small claims court may be able to help you get paid. Yes, this is a serious step to take and it may destroy a friendly relationship with the client, so consider it carefully. You must decide if you value your client’s feelings more than you do your livelihood. Often, a collection letter stating that you may ask a court to settle the matter of payment is enough to prompt settlement from your client.

To paraphrase a saying that I have heard over the years, “Treat your writing as a hobby and it will pay you as a hobby. Treat it as a business and it will pay you as a business.”

Following a few guidelines will help keep your writing business enjoyable and not a burden.

Note: This article was written for and published by Working Writer Newsletter. The article appears as edited for the newsletter. More information about the newsletter can be found at


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