Archive for February, 2012

How to Collect Past Due Payments

One of the most common questions I receive as freelance committee chair is how to collect payments from clients. Since I started freelancing in 2003, I’ve only had to take two clients through the collection process to receive my money. I attribute my success rate to two key factors – screening clients carefully and putting terms in writing.

Screening clients – I’d love to say that I’m so business savvy that I immediately sense a bad deal, or a deadbeat, when I see one, but that’s not the case. I have been burned a time or two, so I know what to look for and, of course, basic common sense applies. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

For example, an ad asking you to write a 2,000 word article about the Occupy movement “for consideration” sends up several red flags. First, the ad doesn’t provide much detail. Many ads are vague, so you’ll want to do further research to see if the advertiser is legitimate. Also, the topic is too broad. It should be specific to a media organization’s audience. An article on the Occupy movement for the Wall Street Journal would be completely different than one written for Seattle Business.

The biggest red flag is the statement that the article is “for consideration.” In other words, if the client doesn’t like your work, he doesn’t pay you. Some articles, like humor columns, are written “on spec” because humor is subjective. An assignment like this, however, presumes a certain amount of research, detail, sourcing and fact checking. Unless you are desperate for work or need the clip, I wouldn’t take the assignment without a written agreement or a “kill fee.” If you are interested in this assignment, research it carefully to see if the risk is worth taking.

What if an editor or small business client approaches you by phone? How do you screen the client then? For me, I can tell within the first five minutes of a call, sometimes sooner, if I will mesh with the client. If we talk easily with each other and the editor or client answers my questions thoroughly and professionally, we might be a good fit. If, however, the prospective client and I seem to have different styles or don’t agree on a particular approach for an assignment, I am cautious about taking on the project because I don’t want to waste my time or hers. She will appreciate the fact that I turned it down rather than having to fight her on every word or comma.

Put it in writing – For most freelance journalism work, the editor or publisher will have a contract for you to sign, including the agreed upon assignment, due date, pay rate, terms and rights. When the client does not provide a contract, however, I recommend that you present your own business agreement for both parties to sign. It can be a simple one or two-page agreement that simply states what the two parties are agreeing to in terms of the assignment, the rate of pay, when payment is expected and any other relevant terms such as confidentiality or republishing. Of course, a contract or agreement does not guarantee that you’ll get paid, but you’ll have the facts on your side if you have to take the client to collection.

Collecting past due payments – Let’s say that you’ve taken on an assignment, turned it in on time and to the editor’s satisfaction. It has even been published, but you have not been paid as promised. I’d wait until the payment is at least 10 days late to contact the editor about nonpayment. Then I’d send a friendly reminder by email with a “return receipt” from your email program. If you are not paid within 30 days of the agreed upon date, I’d send another email to the editor asking for an explanation why the payment has not been made. Depending on what he tells me, I will forward a copy of the email to the publisher or accounting staff, knowing that I will probably not be asked to write for the media organization again.

At 45 days past due, I’d send a collection letter via postal mail demanding payment, including a copy of the contract or business agreement. I’d explain that the work was completed in good faith and that payment needs to be made within 15 days or the account will be turned over to a collection agency. This usually prompts a payment. If it doesn’t though, be prepared to follow through.

Contact a local collection agency to find out what documentation you’ll need and what rates they’ll charge you for their work. Sometimes it is a flat fee, and sometimes it is a percentage of what they collect. I prefer the flat fee and, as long as it is permitted in the state where I am doing business, I pass that fee along to the client (this is stated in my business agreement) along with applicable late fees.

I’ve had to do this twice, once with a national publication and once with a wedding planner for whom I wrote web copy. In both cases, I contracted a collection agency and was finally paid. But this is not a fun part of freelancing, so do what you can to avoid putting yourself in this position by screening your clients and putting your terms in writing. It is worth the investment of your time on the front end to save your back end – and bottom line.

Next week:  How to create a business agreement

Dana Neuts is a full-time freelance writer based in the Seattle area. In addition to writing for publications like South Sound magazine and The Seattle Times, she is the owner and publisher of several hyperlocal community sites including She is the regional director for SPJ’s Region 10 and the chairman of the SPJ freelance committee.

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Dress for Success

Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg told me one of the best stories I’ve ever heard about being “ready-to-go.”

Shortly after 9 a.m. on the spring Wednesday morning of April 19, 1995, Bragg got a call from the New York Times, his employer at the time. How fast could he be on a plane to Oklahoma City, his editor asked, to cover the aftermath of the smoldering ruins of the Murrah Federal Building, which had been blown up a few minutes earlier?

Bragg dropped everything and drove to the Atlanta airport, where he caught a flight almost immediately — back when you could still buy a ticket and walk right onto a plane. He was in Oklahoma City for one of the biggest stories of his career, bringing his wondrous way with words to describe the terrible human tragedy.

The point is that Bragg had a plan to be able to do such a thing. He grabbed what he could in a couple of minutes and planned to buy anything he forgot after he got to Oklahoma City.

He wasn’t freelancing at that time, but his story brings up the point of being a full-time freelancer who is ready to go when needed.

I’m a firm believer that you can wear sweat pants and a T-shirt while you’re writing in your home office or writing spot. But you need to be able to drop what you’re doing, have clean, professional clothes you can change into at a moment’s notice and enough gas in your car to get you at least an hour’s drive away.

And I shouldn’t have to say this, but you need to be well enough groomed while wearing aforesaid sweat pants and T-shirt to not have to get in the shower and do everything, like wash hair, shave, do makeup — you get the picture.

Even better, you’re ahead on your current assignments, so you have the ability to drop everything for a rush job or a breaking news story.

It’s a frame of mind. You’re ready for that call, e-mail or text.

And I firmly believe readiness translates to being more businesslike on telephone interviews and treating yourself more like a business.

Probably my best example was about a year ago, when I got a call from an editor at Agence France Presse, an international wire service based in Paris.

How fast could I be at the federal court building in Oklahoma City to cover a hearing for AFP on a lawsuit regarding Sharia Law? And even though I live about 20 miles from that building, I was able to change quickly, get there in about 45 minutes and I got the AFP story moved to the wire minutes after a decision was announced. My work clothes were cleaned and pressed (so was I for that matter,) my car had gas in it and my laptop was charged. It helped that I already knew my way around the federal court building, but I would have been fine regardless. I have no problem getting help from anyone who looks remotely helpful, including the friendly guards up front, who usually know where the action is.

I subscribe to the FlyLady e-newsletter that focuses on how to have a clean, uncluttered house and that definitely translates to having a more focused mind. Here’s her Flying Lesson on why she wants her followers to get completely dressed in the morning including lace-up shoes:

“Since starting this group, I have continually harped on putting your shoes on your feet each morning. I want you to do this, and you are not the exception to the rule. Here is why.

“Several years ago, I worked for a direct sales cosmetics company. One main rule for that company was that you could not make a single phone call in the morning unless you were totally dressed, and I mean really dressed! All the way to dress shoes. The reason behind this duty was that you act differently when you have clothes and shoes on.You are more professional. The customer can tell when you don’t feel good about the way you look, even when you think you do. So if getting dressed makes that big of an impression on someone that can’t even see you, what is going to happen to those that can see you? Mainly yourself.

“Putting shoes on your feet that lace up are better than slip-ons or sandals, because they are harder to take off. Instead of kicking your shoes off for a quick snooze on the couch, you actually have to go through a bit more trouble to get them off. Maybe in that short instant you will realize that there is something more that you can do. With shoes on those feet of yours, your mind says, “OK, it’s time to go to work.” You have no excuse for not taking the trash out or putting that box of give-away stuff into the car. You are literally ready for anything. Believe me, when you get that call from school that your child needs you or that dear friend calls up and says that she needs to talk … you are ready! Including shoes.”

Her complete Flying Lesson on the subject is here. The other tip — if you need help excavating your office or workspace, check out the rest of the FlyLady site.

And when you get that call to cover breaking news or do a rush project … you’ll be ready to go.

Carol Cole-Frowe is a freelance journalist, who splits her time between Oklahoma and Texas. Her website is

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