Show me the money: Invoicing tips from the Born Freelancer

Gather a bunch of freelance writers together and it’s almost always the number-one topic of conversation. The general public may expect us to be dissecting esoteric topics like the influence of Faustian legend on contemporary media, but for most of us it’s: “Got any new tips for getting paid faster?”

Several posts ago Story Board highlighted the advice of Mike Monteiro about freelancers getting paid. The highlights extracted from it all seemed solid, practical words of advice. Now let’s move on to the last step in the process. You’ve negotiated, you’ve been contracted, you’ve signed, and you’ve delivered. What’s left?


An informal survey of a few of my fellow Canadian freelancers reveals that many still use no special invoicing software. They just make up their own template using a standard word-processing program and employ a standard filing system. Their attitude: why complicate your life if you don’t have to?

Among those who do use special apps, Freshbooks gets high praise. It’s a Toronto-based company. Their website is free to use if you have a modest number of clients. It tracks who owes you, how much they owe, when you email them, and when payments arrives. Sounds good to me! A quick Google search reveals a whole host of online invoicing options.

Sometimes I work only with invoices. The conditions of use and payment are listed in detail on each invoice. Other times I have had letters of understanding exchanged (a contract in all but name) and use more basic invoices per assignment. When I’ve had full-fledged contracts I have sometimes still submitted invoices and other times not. It all depends on the corporate culture of the organization. And they all believe theirs is the best, even though it may make no sense to anyone else. It’s up to you to learn it and use it to your best advantage.

My own invoice template is simple and to the point. It usually contains:

Some employers require some kind of numerical reference on your invoices. Failure to provide such a number—even a totally made up number (from your POV)—can significantly impede the flow of cash from them to you. And we don’t want to give them any excuses, do we?

One of my worst offenders (so far) was a certain national broadcaster. Despite an iron-clad contract it took them eleven and a half months to pay up. In fact, I was just on the verge of creating a one-year anniversary card and sending it off to them when they ruined my fun by finally paying up. Spoilsports! A later investigation revealed that my payment had got lost in their bureaucracy because I initially failed to provide an invoice tracking number. Well, that was one of their excuses.

A number of my fellow freelancers still submit hard-copy invoices. This surprised me, but a hard copy invoice still gets more attention in some institutional organizations than email. This seems especially true in the academic publishing world.

But what happens when your “payment due within 30 days” printed at the bottom of every invoice fails to move people to action? My informal forum suggests always using tact and diplomacy before bringing out the bigger guns (legal and/or more confrontational methods). How typically Canadian! But there is method to this “madness”—it helps to guarantee additional work in future. And, for most of us, a steady revenue stream is more important than retribution for a single delayed payment. This is business and you can’t turn it into an emotional issue.

Stamping “PAST DUE” in bright red ink on second and third hard-copy notices serves one freelancer well. She bought the stamp in a dollar store a decade ago and still uses it. Old fashioned? Yup, but it’s hard to argue with her successful results.

And yes, you may have to resort to using “second” and “third” notices. Freelancers often do. But don’t take it personally. Large organizations today systemically treat smaller organizations or individuals as poorly as they can. Why? Because They Can.

To fight against this as best I can I always try to know who it is at the other end. It’s easier for large and impersonal organizations—or even smaller and seemingly more personalized ones—to shuffle you off from one person to another if you don’t know with whom you should be dealing. Sometimes freelancers get assigned to whoever’s around like lost puppies at a pound. Get a name and title up front. Get their email and phone number. Establish some kind of a working rapport. Thank them when things are going well. Don’t assume automatically they are monsters trying to screw you. (Okay, there are some of those around too, and I will talk about dealing with them in a future post.) I’ve found being polite and professional—as well as persistent—has almost always paid off for me. Point being—if you establish a rapport using a combination of emails and phone calls during the good times it will be easier to broach difficulties in the rougher times.

One freelancer I know gets a good response by adding handwritten notes to her hard-copy invoices. The reason is to stand out from the anonymous pile of invoices sitting on someone’s desk. If you’re sending an electronic invoice, try adding some kind of personable covering note. Wouldn’t you want to read it before a bunch of impersonal invoices? I know I would.

When all else fails, don’t hesitate go to the top. But only as a last resort—waste it at your peril. Contacting the president of a company should be reserved for situations that have gone on too long and need immediate resolution. I have always been amazed at what going to the top man or woman will achieve in the short term. I usually send an email but it is always, always backed up by a hard copy of the same letter sent via registered mail. I have almost always got what I was due and usually with a greater sense of appreciation for my work from the organization in question. The lesson—folks at the top are there for a reason. The long-term implications can go either way. Either you will be respected more in future by those further down the organizational food chain and paid more promptly in future, or you will have put their noses permanently out of joint for bypassing them entirely.

But I always recall the wise advice of an older professional freelancer who once asked me, “So what are they going to do—not pay you?” when I complained about not getting paid but was hesitant about complaining too loudly. “They’re already doing that to you,” he said. “You’ve got nothing more to fear from them.”

He was right.

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer will share personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

Posted on August 25, 2011 at 10:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , ,

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments via RSS

  1. Written by Arie Uittebogaard
    on August 26, 2011 at 3:39 am
    Reply · Permalink

    Of course, going for the “last resort” may be a bit difficult when the CEO of the company you worked for is located on the other end of the world. I once did a translation piece for a company in Belgium and wasn’t paid because I had no European whatever-number. Of course they told me I needed one after the work was done. Nice.

  2. Written by editor
    on August 26, 2011 at 10:49 am
    Reply · Permalink

    Thanks for your comment, Arie. I’m going to share it on Twitter.

Subscribe to comments via RSS

Leave a Reply