There is nothing more demoralising than pounding away at a task, delivering it in good time and then waiting to be paid – but never seeing that payment. Here are three things to put in place that, at the very least, should reduce the risk of not being paid for your efforts.

1. Know your limits

Scope: At a minimum, you should know your scope of practice. This means knowing what you can do and what you cannot do. You need to be honest with yourself about jobs that might allow you to grow and develop existing skills as you work (it’s okay to do this) and which jobs you do not have the skills or capacity to take on.

Pace: You should establish an idea of the pace at which you work. This comes with practice and experience, but it is essential to know how fast you can work or how slowly you wish to work. When you know what you can accomplish in an hour, it helps you to establish how long an entire task will take. You won’t let the client down and you won’t risk burning the candle at both ends because you underestimated what time was needed.

Rate: You have to know what you want to earn. It’s good to start with an hourly rate and rework that into a per-word rate or a project fee. Remember, professionals do not earn R60 an hour and if you want to be taken seriously and offer a professional service, your rate should reflect this. We know this is a contentious issue, but you need to be fair to the profession at the same time as being realistic about what you can and should earn.

2. Get your admin in order

Rates card: A rates card tells prospective clients what services you offer and what you charge for each service. This is a starting point for discussion and saves you having to fumble about wondering what to charge for each new request. If you have established your scope, pace and rate (see above), a rates card will be easy to compile.

Templates: It’s much easier to have a template for quotations and invoices that have all the standard must-haves, such as your details, a quotation or invoice number, the nature of the service and rate charged, a place for due date for receipt and delivery, and any specific terms of service, such as deposits or terms of payment. It’s also a good idea to include a sentence that says acceptance of the quotation is a binding agreement for delivery and payment of the service.

Contract: A contract details the nature of your services and under what terms you deliver such services (Word documents, PDFs, tracked changes, multiple reviews, etc). It contains details of the client, the agreed rate of service and date of delivery. It also includes terms of payment. A contract should be signed by you and your client before you start working. This is a binding agreement that you will deliver on what you promised and that they will pay you as agreed.

3. Communicate clearly from the start

Respond promptly: Respond to all queries about your services or requests for a quotation clearly and promptly by giving an indication of whether or not you can help. If you cannot help, refer them to someone who can. This builds your credibility for future referrals rather than you being a dead end (you can also send them to the Find an Editor page on PEG website, which has several other service offerings included in the search function). If you can help, let them know that you will prepare a formal quotation or ask them for the information you need in order to do so (I almost always have to ask for extra detail before I can offer a formal quotation).

Explain your service offering: Your job is to be clear about what you do, how you do it and when you’ll do it. It is also your job to make sure the client is clear about what they want and what they can expect from you. This needs to be clarified at the first contact and then stated in the quotation and expanded on in a contract. If you have your admin in place (see point two above), you can explain your service offering quickly.

Confirm your availability and permission to proceed: This is a two-way street as it involves the client’s approval. Clients sometimes need a quick turnaround or may underestimate the time needed to complete an edit. They may also be comparing quotations. It’s vital to make sure that the prospective client and you both understand when they can supply the draft to be edited or if the draft you have is the final draft, when they need the work returned, if you can deliver and whether you are the appointed service provider. Your services may also include a second review or multiple reviews and the timelines for this need to be clear from the outset too. Do not start a job unless you have an accepted quotation (in writing/on email) and a signed contract (in some cases, the sentence in the formal quotation about a binding agreement suffices and acceptance of the quotation serves as instruction to proceed).

Getting paid starts with you

Now that you know these three things, there should be little reason to worry about not getting paid. You can be clear on what you do, when you’ll do it and what you’ll charge. A formal quotation that is accepted begins the process of contracting and protects you from any misunderstanding about whether you are doing the work or standing in a queue of other prospective service providers while the client makes up their mind. By setting your limits and preparing your admin, there can be little confusion about what you will do and when you will be paid.

PEG members can access these resources relevant to this post on our website:

Sample contracts and quotations

Copy-editing academic texts

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The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PEG.

About Alexis Grewan

As an editor and writing consultant, Alexis Grewan values accuracy and upholds high standards of editing and writing practice. She is ethical, vigilant, disciplined and reliable. She is also a collaborator with a flexible style of communicating – a generally proactive engager on every level. Clean copy, on time, makes sense to Alexis.

About PEG

The Professional Editors’ Guild (PEG) is a non-profit company (NPC) in South Africa. Since moving to online activities in March 2020, PEG has been able to offer members across South Africa, and internationally, access to an extensive online webinar programme. Continuing professional development remains a key offering and the first PEG Accreditation Test was administered in August 2020 to benchmark excellence in the field of editing.