The Freelance Writer’s Guide to Getting Paid

Let’s face it: Many of us freelance writers are strong on the writing side of the business, not-so-strong on the business/money side. I know that once you turn in an article, you want to move on to the next writing project — not get bogged down in paperwork. But if you want to get paid, you need to invoice your clients. Here’s how to do it.

Record it. As soon as you get an assignment, record the money details on a spreadsheet. If you do it right away, you won’t forget and then have to dig through old e-mails and contracts to reconstruct the information. I used to hand-write the details in a chart I created in Microsoft Word, but now I use an Excel spreadsheet created by my writing buddy Elaine Grant that adds everything up for me. The spreadsheet includes the name of the client, the assignment, the invoice number, the due date for the check, and the amount due. I also have a column for paid invoices, so when a client send me a check, I move the amount from the “owed” column to the “paid” column. That way, I can keep track of how much I made and how much I’m still owed. I also have a “notes” column so I can note, for example, if I followed up on an overdue invoice.

Do it now. When you finish an assignment, send the invoice along with or immediately after the article. If I don’t do this, I invariably forget and the editor reminds me a month later that they never received an invoice. Eek!

Pick a system. You’ll need a numbering system for your invoices, both so that you can keep track of them and so that accounts payable departments can reference the invoice number when they pay you. Some writers use the date plus a number indicating which invoice it is; for example, the second invoice sent on June 1, 2009 would be 060109-2.

Choose a format. You can create invoices a number of different ways, and as long as your client can open and read your invoice, it doesn’t really matter which you choose. I used to just copy and paste the invoice from Word directly into the e-mail body…it wasn’t too pretty, but it worked just fine. Now, I create my invoices using a Word invoice template and attach it to the e-mail to the editor. (I think the new way looks more professional, though it probably doesn’t matter in terms of how soon I get paid.) Want an easy invoice? I found a free Excel invoice template on Searching for “free invoicing templates” on Google will also net you some good ones.

Get the details right. Your invoice should include:

  • The invoice number.
  • Your name, address, phone number, and e-mail address.
  • The name of the magazine and editor.
  • The date.
  • The purchase order number if there is one.
  • The terms of the invoice, such as Net 30. The contract you signed should spell out the terms you agreed to.
  • The title of the assignment plus any details; for example, “Article on writers’ forums, 2,000 words.”
  • The amount due for each assignment you’re invoicing for.
  • The total amount due. I just read a tip that you should bold the total amount due to make it easier for the accounts payable person to find.
  • A thank-you. My invoice says, “Thank you! It was a pleasure working with you.”

Follow up. How soon after the invoice due date you follow up is up to you, but I like to give it at least two weeks. I usually send an e-mail to my editor that says something like:

I was just going over my accounts receivable and noticed that I haven’t received a check for the article on Epic Accounting Fails; the check was due on May 1. Would you mind checking into this for me? Thanks so much!

If you follow these steps, you should have a simple system for tracking payments, sending invoices, and getting paid. I’d love to hear from other writers how they do it! [lf]

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21 comments… add one
  • I use an expanded version of a thank you on my invoices, which also serves as a plug for my business. I got the idea from one of The Well-Fed Writer’s e-newsletters.

    ~~ Thank you! Your business is much appreciated. If you should need help in the future, I provide the following services: XXXXXXXXXX. Call or e-mail today to set up a meeting to discuss how I can help your business! ~~

  • Caitlin, what a great idea!

  • Writers should also take into consideration the payment schedule of the magazine’s they are writing for. We pay our writers when the issue they wrote for gets printed…so the date changes. Just because your invoice may say “Payment due on July 1st” it doesn’t mean you will get paid then. We run our checks all at the same time. Just something to keep in mind.

  • Thank you, Mimi! In the case where a magazine pays on publication, what should writers put in the “due date” field? “On pub””

  • I use GnuCash to handle both halves of the system (keeping track of what I’m owed, and creating the invoices). It’s free software, Its invoice templates are customizable and look very professional.

    These are all great tips – especially recording the assignment right away, and always sending an invoice asap. I’ve had assignments where I thought the invoice wasn’t needed, and later on I wonder why I haven’t gotten the money! My tip there is: it’s never too late. In those cases I dig up an old email from the client, reply to it (so they remember who I am) and say “I haven’t received payment for this yet, so I thought I’d send along an invoice.” A couple of clients I thought might be deadbeats responded promptly – maybe they forgot or maybe they were just waiting on me the whole time.

    Some clients specify what information they’d like to see on the invoice, and sometimes they want my SSN. I got myself an EIN (a tax ID – you can get one immediately, online, and for free, even as a sole proprietor) and I have that on my invoice template as well. The reason for the EIN is that I wouldn’t be nearly so free about throwing my SSN around. I also keep a signed and scanned W-9 on my computer that I can email out whenever it’s requested.

  • Beth, thanks for the great advice! I’ll check out gnucash.

  • Anne

    To Mimi, who says: “Just because your invoice may say “Payment due on July 1st” it doesn’t mean you will get paid then.” Funny, doesn’t seem to work when it comes to paying my gas bill. Or my rent. Also:

  • When I first started freelancing, I simply downloaded an invoice from the free templates available through Microsoft Word. It had all the fields I needed and all I had to do was fill in the blanks. Once I got my branding in order, I customized the graphic design a little more, but those Word templates will do in a pinch!

  • Denise

    My invoice system is fine. Sadly, I’ve had to press to get paid from every media outlet for which I’ve ever written including magazine, TV, radio, and newspapers. The Los Angeles Times took over a year to pay me. AOL one owed me thousands of dollars. Magazine after magazine “lost” my invoices. It was so disheartening. More than one magazine never paid me. I invoiced promptly and properly. It’s a crime the way freelancers are treated.

  • Great straight to the point basic tips. Useful and really deserves a thumbs up!

  • Amy Dunn Williams

    Mimi – Your comment perfectly illustrates why it is that I only accept assignments from clients who agree to pay on acceptance.

    I suggest discussing not only your fee with the client in advance but also the payment date. Your contract – and you should always have one! – should include deadlines for deliverables expected from both parties.

  • Hi,
    Great to the point basic tips. I have uses an expanded version of a thank you on my invoices. I got that idea from The Well-Fed Writer’s e-newsletters. But I should check out gnucash. – Tom

  • Freelancer

    Have been published in dozens of newspapers and magazines, over the years, in addition to other professional writing jobs. Generally had good experiences, but there’s been one stinking cesspool of print: aviation.

    One thing stands out: Most AVIATION industry magaines are apparently run by chonic deadbeats, thieves, or con artists. I never had any other medium so constantly lie to me, steal my work, publish my work and fail to pay, stall for months (even nearly a year), invent the most assinine and repetitive excuses for not paying, violate contracts THEY wrote, fail to provide bylines or photo credits, even refuse to send me a copy of the magazine that my (large) article appeared in (nor even a tear sheet), and so on!

    There are a few honest magazines, in the aviation business, but not necessarily the ones you expect. The vast majority are apparently run by outright scoundrels. Other horror stories, too, but you get the picture.

    And as for the quality, honesty, journalistic integrity, and competence of editing, of story & image presentation, and such — expect to be made to look foolish. I judged for the industry’s journalism-awards program, some years ago, and was struck by the range of quality, which included some truly great journalists, by any standard. But not necessarily editors and publishers, so much.

    Only my unreasoning enthusiasm for the aerospace industry overcomes my bitterness in dealing with its wretched press. And with the industry in a severe recession, it’s gotten worse.

    I’ve not (yet) had many such problems with regular newspapers (except a couple of small-town rags), serious business periodicals (I avoid “get rich at home” magazines), nor other industries’ venues. But if you don’t want to get BURNED, stay away from aviation magazines. Sheesh!

  • Sorry to hear you were burned!

  • Anne

    Sorry you got burned. But I will say that while a lot of those things (like not paying) aren’t good, I think a byline is nice but not essential, and I also think you can’t expect everyone to send you a copy of their mag. Some will, some won’t. Some just don’t have the budget – there may be limited free copies lying around or they just don’t have time to do it. In my last job I had to ask the admin assistant to send out copies to contributors as I never had time to sort it. Just buy a copy and write it off against tax.

  • Thanks for your comment, Anne! While all the trades and custom pubs I write for send me copies of the magazine with my article, newsstand magazines typically don’t…I just have to buy a copy.

  • Anne

    Some of my mags do, some don’t – one magazine signed me up for a free postal subscription which was lovely. Of course, if you do have to buy it, it’s tax-deductible.

  • Oh, yes…I do save my receipts!

  • Just in case any of you freelance writers should have the misfortune of writing anything for the Gay&Lesbian Review (formerly of Harvard) which supposedly pays a paltry $100 – don’t expect to get it! They bought my article in February and here it is June and nada. I sent an invoice and they wrote back in great surprise addressing me as “My Child” and advising me to be patient. I’ve written now threatening them with legal action. Boy, they sure know how to alienate a promising writer!

  • I was just requested to submit my first invoice as a freelance writer. This article was very helpful to me. Thank you!

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