Writers on Retainer: A Possible Model for Freelance Writing

The following are thoughts about a business model for freelance writing services. If you are bored by such, this is not the blog post you are looking for. If you are a freelance writer considering business models, feel free to read on. If you are a business owner who regularly hires writers for “Contract” assignments, then you may find what follows amusing, at least.

 I recently (read: “this morning”) received final approval on a freelance piece I’ve been working on for a while. It always feels good to finish a project and revel in the mental stretch that follows. I love that feeling.

This is not the first bit of freelance writing I’ve done. Far from it, but this is the first freelance piece after a few years of corporate writing. I’m not looking to jump ship or leave my employer, I just wanted to help a friend and the company he works for and cleared the freelance work with my company’s HR and legal departments. No competition? No problem. I was able to help a friend out and learn a new style of writing and work on my portfolio and do absurd amounts of research into a topic I had never really given a second thought. If all of that sounds like your idea of Hell, then you’re probably not a writer. If what I just described sounds just shy of Heaven on Earth, then you’re probably a writer.

This foray into freelancing got me to thinking about the model currently used by businesses that either (a) do not want to hire on full time writers or (b) do not have the budget to hire full time writers. I still get e-mail updates from various job web sites about writing jobs in my field and I glance at them before going contentedly about the work I have. I like to know that being a writer is still valued. What I’ve noticed is that the jobs are often “Contract” positions, or just project-based employment. Sometimes the position is “Contract-to-Hire,” but the split is not something I’ve bothered to do any statistical analysis on.

“So what?”

So, I see a problem with the current freelance model.

I can understand the business case for not hiring on a full time writer or a whole stable of them. A company might not have enough writing on a day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year basis to actually need writers full time. Another company might have the volume, but not the budget to hire on writers full time. Good writers can be pricey; bad writers even more so. Another might be introducing a new product or service and is not yet certain that the market will adopt the new — there is doubt about whether or not there is market share enough to warrant a dedicated writer.

That is where my understanding ends, however. Having worked for the same company for a while now, I can see the benefits of having a writer or writers on staff. There is no need to get writers “up to speed” on the product or company or voice used in publications or word processing software used or style manual adhered to or any other such thing. The writers work for the company and know all of those things and can fill in what gaps exist fairly quickly. Moreover, writers — in my experience — are often the memory of the company, archiving data that others think trivial. Months or years later, that archived information becomes of vital importance. There are compelling advantages to having full time writers on staff. None of the foregoing really impacts the current freelance model except to say that neither freelancers nor staff writers are without flaws with regard to the company. I do not want to make a case for hiring freelancers or for hiring staff writers. I want to make a case for rethinking how freelancers are contracted.

The current model is to hire a freelancer for a project. That’s it. Once the project is complete, the company lets the writer go along her merry way because she has fulfilled her end of the contract. She gets paid. The company gets documentation. Everyone is happy.

But they don’t stay that way.

Eventually, documentation needs to be updated. If a product is successful, more documentation may be required. It is entirely possible that a company may be able to return to the writer who did stellar work on their last batch of documents. Perhaps she meshed well with the company and really “got” what the company is about and why their product is so worthwhile. Perhaps she even expressed a willingness to work with the company again should they have further need of documentation. She may even have hoped the company would return for more documents at a future time. All of this may be true, but she has bills to pay and may be fulfilling another contract when the company wants to engage her services. What this means for the company is extra expense. The company must now pay for a freelance writer who is unfamiliar with the product and the voice used in documentation and who to contact regarding what in the process of clarifying the “data dump” so commonly involved in this sort of thing. Maybe the company is okay with that. Maybe companies want something better.

I submit that there are certain services that we engage for indefinite periods of time. The foremost example of this is companies engaging legal counsel in the form of a retainer. I do not want to draw a parallel between writing and legal counsel. For one thing, I’m a writer and would not take kindly to being compared with a lawyer. I imagine lawyers would feel cheapened or demeaned by the comparison to writers. It is not similarity of professional level that I want to call attention to but similarity of corporate need. A corporation only seeks legal counsel when it is needed. Likewise, writing services are only sought out by companies hiring for contract work when the need is present. When the need is gone, neither lawyers nor writers are seen on the premises (unless they’re customers). In order to secure the services of an attorney who is already familiar with the business and what sorts of liability they’re open to and what sorts of codes they must comply with, the company will pay a retainer. Would not the same be practicable in the case of writers?

The details would need to be worked out by brighter minds than my own, but I suspect that keeping writers on retainer benefits both parties. The model I have in mind would be something like what follows.

  1. Company A hires Writer 1 for Contract work.
  2. Company A is impressed with Writer 1’s work.
  3. Since Company A lacks the budget for a full time writer, Company A offers to keep Writer 1 on retainer.
  4. Company A and Writer 1 estimate the amount of monthly work Company A will require and agree to a retainer amount equal to that level of work per month. Example: An estimate of two days’ work means that Writer 1 is paid monthly for two days’ work whether Company A uses that time or not. Whether or not time accrues depends on the agreement between Writer 1 and Company A.
  5. Steps 1-4 above may be repeated for Company A – ∞ until Writer 1’s available time reaches 0.
  • The result is that Company A has a writer whose work they trust and who is familiar with the company and product, etc. available for an agreed-upon amount of time every month.
  • If Company A requires more time, Writer 1 and Company A can renegotiate the amount of time paid for by the retainer, assuming that Writer 1 has that amount of time available.
  • Writer 1 benefits by having a predictable income stream from any/all companies keeping her on retainer.

For all I know, this is being done already, but the “Contract” job opportunities seem to indicate otherwise. There are other concerns to address — healthcare benefits, retirement plans, etc. — but, as stated earlier, the details would need to be worked out by minds brighter than my own (which does not appreciably diminish the field of contenders). I simply found myself thinking that retaining the services of a writer whose work is superior would be as desirable for companies hiring for Contract work — like start-ups, young companies, companies with budget constraints, companies with small documentation needs — as it would be for the writers with whom those companies contract.

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