Do you need a contract with your writer?

contractNo matter how well you know and like your writer, some kind of written agreement is always a good idea. It makes expectations clear and protects everyone involved.

Some designers create separate contracts for each job, while others ask for a broader agreement spelling out the terms of the working relationship. Many use both, defining the relationship in one general contract, then detailing the specifics of each job in separate agreements on an as-needed basis. It’s a good idea to consult an attorney when creating the template for your standard contract or letter of agreement.

At a minimum, your agreement with your writer should include:

  • A list of deliverables the writer is being engaged to prepare for any specific job.
  • The project schedule, including all key deadlines.
  • Terms of the writer’s compensation, including any payments that will be made in advance or upon reaching certain stages (for example, upon submission of the first draft).
  • How many rounds of revisions are covered by the compensation (typically 2–3), and how additional compensation will be handled if the project exceeds this scope.
  • What information, if any, the writer is expected to keep confidential.
  • Who owns the work. Most jobs are “work for hire,” in which the client retains all rights to the finished product. Another item that should be stated explicitly is whether or not the writer may use the finished product as a sample of their work for his or her own self-promotion.
  • Length of the agreement.
  • How disputes are to be resolved. For example, some contracts state that disputes should be handled in arbitration rather than via a lawsuit.

Your contract might also include:

  • Details on communication with clients. Can the writer contact clients directly? Do they need to go through you or some other representative of your business? Is it okay to have direct communication as long as you are CCed on any messages?
  • A non-compete clause, specifying a reasonable amount of time during which your writer may not work with a direct competitor. This period is usually stated in terms of the end of your working relationship, such as a period of 6 months after you stop working together.

  Who pays the writer?

who-pays-the-writerSome designers prefer to work with writers as subcontractors so they can provide a single-source solution to their clients. Others simply introduce the client and the writer to one another, then step aside to allow them to make a separate financial arrangement.

My design clients tend to use these two payment models about equally. While each has its merits, you’ll probably find that your business model will make one approach more logical than the other.

Here are a few questions to consider:

Do you want to be the one-stop manager of a virtual team?

If your design business positions itself as a “one-stop shop” or serves clients who value your ability to make things as easy for them as possible, give serious consideration to working with the writer as a subcontractor. You’ll be taking on a bit more responsibility, but you’ll also have more creative control.

Do you want to mark up the writer’s rate?

Your introduction provides a service to both of the other parties. The writer gets a gig that probably wouldn’t have come his or her way without you. The client doesn’t have to go hunting for a writer or pay someone internal to create the copy. Both of these conveniences have a value, and there’s nothing wrong with adding 10–15% to the writer’s cost to compensate you for your efforts. It’s a lot easier to do that if you’re managing the whole relationship.

Are you willing to take on extra paperwork and responsibility?

Subcontracting your writing talent makes you the one who’s ultimately accountable to the client for both deadlines and the quality of the writer’s work. It also makes you a middleman for the writer’s paycheck, and experienced writers typically expect to get a portion of their fee in advance. If you’re managing the relationship you’ll want to make sure that the writer’s up-front cost is built into the advance you receive from the client.

Ultimately, the decision comes down to what you want most: creative control or freedom from responsibility. Subcontracting gives you more control along with more obligations, while a separate arrangement provides less of each.

  Should your writer be a specialist?

Expert-iconWhen I studied journalism in college, I spent less time than you might expect learning the craft of writing itself. That’s not to say the training wasn’t rigorous. Professors in the department were known for handing out automatic “F” grades if a person’s name was misspelled. One was even nicknamed “Conan the Grammarian.” And there was zero tolerance for late homework to drive home the lesson that deadlines matter.

What I always found most interesting, however, was the amount of time I was required to spend outside the journalism department.

Two significant segments of the program were elective-driven. The first was designed to give students a general background in a variety of disciplines, such as political science, economics, psychology, sociology, and history. We also had to complete one or two concentrated areas of specialization, which could be just about anything we chose.

Our advisors and instructors regularly reinforced the message implied by this structure: writing skills aren’t enough. Successful writers typically come to the table with something more, and when it comes to finding work, there are better opportunities for those who choose to go narrow rather than wide.

From a client’s perspective this means you may need to do a bit of homework to find the writer who best fits your project. Writers are a diverse lot whose backgrounds and interests shape the topics they know well and the type of work they seek out. Some are generalists who crave variety and take on a wide range of projects. Others are focused on a specific vertical market, type of work, or area of expertise.

So which type of writer is best for you?

The Generalist

Generalists are typically people who begin their careers with an interest in writing. They often have degrees in journalism, English, or marketing. Generalists are great if you have a lot of production work, a project that crosses multiple disciplines, or want the kind of fresh perspective that an untrained outsider can bring to your business.

A good generalist has the ability to grasp new concepts quickly and identify where your expertise overlaps the needs and desires of your audience. Even if your product or service relies on complex expertise, a generalist can be a great asset to your team if your target market doesn’t share the same background.

In many cases a generalist will have lower rates, though this may not mean they’ll be the least expensive option. And while there are plenty of exceptions, a fair number of generalists are still in the early stages of their writing careers, taking on whatever types of work they can find to fill the pipeline.

There are many diamonds in the rough to be found among generalists, especially those who come to you by referral. If your product or service requires specialized knowledge, however, it may require more time, effort, and cost to work with one.

The Specialist

Many specialist writers are former generalists who have chosen to focus on one or more areas of expertise. This can be the result of personal interest or chance. I’ve done both: I specialize in technology because I find it compelling, and in finance because I happened to pick up a lot of financial gigs early in my career.

Another type of specialist is the expert who has branched out into writing. One of the most successful copywriters I know is a former chemical engineer. He’s built a thriving career writing technical white papers and taking a scientific approach to marketing.

Like any high-quality product, a specialist is going to cost a little more—but it’s often worth it.

To begin with, a specialist is often a better value because you don’t have as much training to do. This is particularly valuable if you work in a field like healthcare, technology, or finance where critical concepts can’t always be explained in one or two phone calls. If you’re also marketing to expert readers, you may need a specialist out of the gate.

A good specialist stays up to date on current trends in your industry, and may bring expert insights that can enhance your project. The longer a specialist has focused on your field, the greater this perspective is likely to be.

The Best of Both Worlds

A great specialist gives you the best of the generalist’s skill set too: bringing a solid foundation in expert knowledge to the table without loosing touch with humanity. A writer like this is worth paying a little extra for, because you’ll make your investment back in saved time and superior response from your buyers.

Whichever option you choose, your writer should be able to communicate in language that generates response from your target audience—which may or may not be your preferred strain of gobbledygook.

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