You’ve probably heard it before, but you need to have a contract in hand before you begin any paid project. (Yes, I know it would be lovely to have a contract in hand before beginning your novel, but until you’re Stephen King, that’s not likely to happen). Basically, beginning writing work before a contract is in your hands, means you are writing on spec. Let me tell you my current experience…

To stay professional, I won’t name the publication or the editor who is the antagonist of this story, but let’s just say it is a travel magazine from a well-respected organization. I landed a writing job with the magazine and within a week was sent a nice package with a sample magazine and well-defined contract. I signed the contract and fulfilled my part of it by turning in the assignment on time and with all the bells and whistles that were expected (photos, refs, invoice, etc.).

Upon turning in the assignment, I made a pitch for another article to the editor. We went back and forth a couple times via email discussing the fine-tuning of the article and in the end she offered me $550 for a print article and another $100 for a related online article. This was in August and she stated the article would be due in November and would be published in the January 2013 issue of the magazine. I was thrilled, as you can imagine.

This magazine expects an outline from its writers about 2 months before articles are due, so I asked the exact date the outline would be due and the expected word counts of the 2 articles. Ms. Editor emailed back saying to wait for the contract and assignment letter that would spell out everything. So, I waited for the contract to show up. By mid-September (about 2 weeks after our emails), I still hadn’t received a contract so I checked in with Ms. Editor.

No response.

To not be a pest, I waited a few days and then sent another request for the contract. Her response was she was busy with a deadline and would get back to me when she could. Okay, kind of understandable, but why not forward the message to an assistant and have him or her get the contract going?

I waited another 2 weeks and still no word or contract from Ms. Editor. It was now nearly October and I still was unsure if I needed to send in an outline, or what. I emailed again, politely asking if she could send the contract by email so I could begin work.

Her response was as if she had never accepted the article and said she was too busy to deal with anything and “I am sorry that you felt that you couldn’t market this story elsewhere.” An odd response. Why would I market the article elsewhere when she had just accepted it in August?

In my reply to this I reminded her she had accepted the article idea in August and had told me a contract was on the way and that I was merely trying to find out where the contract was. Her reply was she was “too swamped” and there was no room anywhere in the magazine for the article.

In a final email, and in an attempt to get an apology out of Ms. Editor, I again reminded her of acceptance and that she had slotted the piece in to the January 2013 issue, etc. As I was certain I never wanted to work for her again, I continued with…

“Professional courtesy would have dictated that, as soon as you knew you no longer wanted the article, you or an assistant would have sent an email stating so. You have had three chances to tell me this when I kept asking you to send a contract, but instead you ignored my requests. You could have saved both of us a little bit of time by simply telling me of your decision change in my first contract request back in September.”

My point is that when I sent the final contract request, I was beginning to plan the rough draft of the articles. I generally spend a couple weeks (not the entire time, but working here and there) writing articles, typing them and then revising them. I am still left wondering what Ms. Editor would have done if I had sent the completed article in on the due date. With her seeming inability to recall assigning the article, I believe I would have wasted those two weeks of work and been left with no pay for the time spent. This is no better than writing on spec.

This is why I urge all of you writers, especially freelancers who write for magazines, that – regardless of how seemingly professional and trustworthy a magazine or its editor may seem – you need to get a contract in hand before beginning Sentence One of your work. Most magazines have a contract template that only needs your name, the article title, due date and agreed upon payment filled in – work that would take an assistant about 15 minutes at the most. If they won’t provide a contract, type up a simple one of your own and ask the editor to electronically sign it (or sign it and send a scanned image back to you – even better). If the editor refuses any type of contract, do not work for this magazine…unless you enjoy working for free.