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Freelance Writing: What to Do If You Haven't Been Paid Yet

Use a demand letter to save the day when you’re long overdue on being paid.

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It started as a dream assignment: One of your favorite publications jumped at your pitch for an article. You wrote a great piece, delivered it early and were thrilled to see it appear in print. But as the weeks went by, the dream became a nightmare: Despite endless promises to the contrary, your payment never materialized.

—By Debbie Swanson

Nonpayment for work isn’t an everyday thing in freelance writing, but it’s undoubtedly part of the life, with publications keeping cashflow tight, and clerical errors possible at any point in the paper trail. Knowing how to react can help you quickly claim your due.

First, confirm that you understood the payment terms in your contract, says Milton C. Toby, chair of the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ Contracts & Conflicts Committee. Payment on publication—in which the check goes out when the article prints—versus payment on acceptance involve very different timelines. So study the language in your contract.

[Freelance Writing: 10 Ways to Satisfy Editors & Land More Assignments]

Once you’ve verified that payment is indeed late, contact your editor and resubmit your invoice with a new deadline (and, of course, keep a record of all your dealings regarding the issue). If you receive no response, follow up again. If the money remains delinquent after repeated attempts, it’s time to move up the chain of command with a demand letter: a missive detailing the problem and declaring your intention to pursue it to its rightful conclusion.

Because the demand letter delivers a “pay-me-or-else” punch, you must be prepared to sever ties with the publication if it comes to that. Remember, “Nonpayment is a good reason to burn a bridge,” says Alexandra Cantor Owens, executive director of the ASJA. “Does a plumber continue working for free?”

If you’re out of options, here’s a sample demand letter to help you retrieve your funds.

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