Sometimes, a long contract really seems like too much. Perhaps it would be a hassle for such a small project, or you may know the client socially and want to avoid the perception that he or she might not honor your agreement.

So should you just work without a contract and hope the client upholds his or her end of the bargain? Never!

If you don’t feel comfortable presenting the client with a 10-page contract for a two-week project, don’t. Instead, in addition to your standard long contract for long projects, you should have an alternative—either a short contract or a letter of agreement. After all, many simple projects don’t require all of the guarantees necessary in a longer project.

If you’ve read my earlier series on clauses to include in every contract, you already know what you should include in your standard longer contract. In this article, I’ll point out the salient points to include in an agreement you want to pare down to just the basics.

Letter or short contract?
When a short contract is appropriate, it generally serves to summarize what you and the client have already agreed upon. You can present this agreement in either of two forms:

  • A short contract (one or two pages), including only the most basic terms.
  • A letter that sets out the terms in plain language; this more informal option is useful when a long contract might put off the client.

Whenever possible, draw up the letter or short contract yourself. Doing it yourself ensures that it protects your interests and that it gets done in a timely manner. Once completed, you present two copies to the client, you both sign them, and—voila—you now each have a legally binding agreement.

Always include these in any abbreviated agreement
No matter how you word a shorter agreement, it should always cover the following points:

  • Scope of services or product. Clearly spell out what you will do for the client, including any specifications and conditions. Emphasize the final result, not how you will perform the work. If the description of the service or product you will provide is very long, you might want to attach it on a separate piece of paper in order to keep your agreement short. This also allows you to use the attachment to get a little more technical and specific without undermining the point of creating a less formal agreement.
  • The date on which the project will be completed (be sure you can meet this date).
  • What and how the client will pay you for the project. Will it be per project or per hour, and how much?
  • When the client will pay you for the project. Will you be paid half up front and half upon completion? Do you need to submit any additional paperwork to be paid? How many days after completing the project will you paid?

What you’re leaving out
These are the essentials. Under certain conditions, or if you have particular concerns about a client, you might also want to note some of the following information in your agreement, many of which are standard clauses in longer contracts:

  • The procedure for dealing with revisions (for example, you may want to limit how many revisions you will make before charging additional fees)
  • A late fee if the client doesn’t pay on time
  • If applicable, who will pay for expenses such as travel
  • Who will provide certain materials or equipment
  • Avenues of resolution in the event of a dispute with the client (mediation, arbitration, or litigation, and who will be responsible for legal fees)
  • Who owns the work you create (especially important in projects of a creative nature)
  • Right of assignment—the rights of either or both you and the client to assign your duties to someone else
  • A statement of your status as an independent contractor

Even if a contract is too much, always sign something
Use your best judgment as to whether you need to use a long contract with all the standard clauses. Presenting a long, formal contract for a very small project might make a client think you’ll be difficult to work with. However, if you feel that you need to spell things out with any particular client, you can add to the list of clauses I’ve discussed here. Or, if you feel uncomfortable with certain aspects of the job, present your standard long contract if you think it will better protect your interests.

No matter how short the project, always be sure that you sign some sort of agreement. Unless you’re willing to risk throwing away your work and effort on the project, a short agreement—no matter how informal—is always better than none at all. Don’t start any work until you and the client have both signed the agreement.

Meredith Little has worn many hats under the broad term of freelance writer, including technical writer, documentation specialist, trainer, business analyst, photographer, and travel writer.

Do you take on many short-term contracts? How do they work out? Give us your thoughts by posting a comment below. If you have an article suggestion, send us a note.