Do You Get Paid Upfront for Your Freelance Writing Work?

Chris Bibey wrote a great post recently about upfront payments for freelance writers. I commented there with some of my own views, and I wanted to share those comments here and get some of your thoughts on how you bill freelance writing projects.

I charge all of my new clients in full up front. Most of my repeat clients also pay up front, even for large contracts. It’s not common for me to make exceptions (oddly, only twice now I’ve been stiffed by a client, and in both cases they were long-term clients and not new ones, so I don’t really break them down in that way).

The only times where I don’t charge up front are generally where I either forget (it happens especially with repeat clients where I just get the details and start working, in which case I just send the invoice afterwards), or where it’s such a large project that I offer to break it down into two or three payments (but that would probably never happen for a contract under $1k or maybe even 2k depending on how well I knew the client).

I look at it this way - you pay for a new car up front; you pay for a new computer up front; you pay for your business flights up front; you can pay for your content or copy up front as well. While things are different with magazines, you know that before you choose to get into that area. With other freelancing, your rates and payment terms are completely your own to determine.

There’s nothing wrong with choosing to negotiate case-by-case, but no writer should ever feel pressured to do that (and frankly, it simplifies the admin side of things a lot when you’re a bit more consistent).

For me, specifically, my work can rarely be reused. You can’t get your time back once you’ve invested it into a project. Your client can file Paypal disputes, credit card disputes, etc. so they have options to protect themselves that you don’t. I can’t re-use a press release if a client doesn’t pay me for it. I can’t simply re-use marketing copy I wrote that’s specific to their website. If they want my time, they generally pay for it up front.

Other things to consider are:

  1. Your own experience - if you’ve spent years building up a reputation, you have far more flexibility in how you choose to bill your clients.
  2. The demand for your time - if you have the luxury of being able to be choosy in the work you take on, you also have the ability to keep stricter payment policies (because if someone doesn’t agree to them, you can turn down the project and take on another).

What do you think of billing clients in full upfront? How about billing just partially upfront? If you don't bill upfront, why not? Do you think your views would change if you were doing a different type of writing than you are (such as company-specific copy instead of general content that could be sold or used elsewhere)?

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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5 thoughts on “Do You Get Paid Upfront for Your Freelance Writing Work?”

  1. Thursday – I hear what you’re saying. I remember dealing with accounts payable as summer work during college for a few years, and had similar experiences. The difference, though, is that products don’t work the same way as services. In many cases where we were talking about services, they paid monthly retainers to keep people on-call for various types of projects. Those types of payments are very often up front (running my PR firm it was done the same way), so it shouldn’t be a shock to any company to be invoiced up front for service-oriented work. It’s perfectly fine to charge in any way that you’re comfortable though – as the post mentioned, there are definitely certain situations where you’ll have more flexibility in how, and when, you charge.

    Kimberly – That’s precisely the issue. In the U.S. at least, service hours (which as you put it “ARE money”) are not treated the same as product sales. If someone steals your products, or buys on credit and never pays, you have a certain value of loss. You don’t have the luxury to claim losses of actual money just for time invested. That’s an over-simplification, but essentially if someone screws you out of payment, not only can you not get that time back to bill out other work, but you also may not be able to claim any kind of loss for it. Honestly, I think a lot of writers are so caught up in getting from one gig to the next that they really don’t protect their most valuable asset – their time.

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  2. As long as I’ve worked with a client before and I’m reasonably confident that I won’t have much trouble getting paid, I’m comfortable getting invoiced. (Otherwise I might request half upfront or a deposit.)

    Part of that grows out of my work in the business world: the companies that I worked for did not actually pay up front for supplies and significant amounts of work. Instead, they received invoices which then were processed through an Accounts Payable office of some sort.

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  3. Right now I charge a 50% mandatory, non-refundable downpayment. on any project $100 and over (anything $100 or under must be paid in full upfront). I did start asking a client who habitually paid late to start paying upfront once. I’ve often wondered if clients would be willing to do this – there are so many writers out there who do the work first and then request payment. That’s dicey to me since my billiable hours ARE money. Chasing balances due is no fun at all. Maybe I should revisit the possibility of collecting full payments upfront…

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  4. I view my freelance writing business in the same light as something like a car mechanic, lawyer, accountant, or other professional service business. For many projects, they may require a deposit up front of varying value. When you bring your car in for servicing, they don’t charge you the full amount up front. The same with if you hire an accountant to do your taxes (generally). You may keep them on a retainer though.

    I can certainly appreciate your reasons for charging up front though. For any bigger projects, I always require a deposit. I’m fine with post-payment from repeat clients or ones with whom I already have a relationship.

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  5. That brings up one of the issues I mentioned in the post. A mechanic, for example, can hold your car “hostage” if you don’t pay them. (It happened to someone I know a few years back, because he needed a lot of work, and then something else happened and he wasn’t able to afford to pay – they ended up keeping the car, suing him, winning, and then auctioning the car off to pay off part of the debt). Those writing content also have that luxury – they can sell content to another webmaster / site owner, use it for article marketing, or publish it on a site of their own. Certain other types of writing (including most of what I do personally), don’t work that way unfortunately.

    I used to feel the same as you regarding regulars. That’s why I was so shocked when the only two to ever ditch out on paying were two of my regulars that I had relatively long relationships with. For me, newer clients actually usually pay faster, because they’re looking to build that relationship. However, I know every writer’s situation is different, and they’re going to charge accordingly, as they should. For example, I have to imagine on the lower-paid end of Web content writing that there’s a far bigger risk of a writer not getting paid, having Paypal disputes or chargebacks filed, etc. (just from the complaints I personally see and hear about while moderating a forum with a large marketplace for that kind of work).

    I think the real take-away here is that writers need to look at their situations carefully. They need to determine what kind of value their time really has to them, and how much risk they’re taking on with potentially losing that time given their current payment policies – whether or not their type of work offers any recourse if a client pulls out or doesn’t pay, and then they simply need to decide what the “right” system is for them.

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