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Contract or Freelance Writer: What's The Difference?

Shaun Connell
March 31, 2022

When you're looking to hire a writer to handle your writing for you, there are a lot of decisions to make. Are they writing blog posts? Product pages? About pages, homepage content, service pages, social media, PPC ad copy? All of the above?

An often-overlooked choice is how you hire the writer. You have three options, in general:

  • Employee.
  • Contractor.
  • Freelancer.

We're leaving employees out of today's discussion since it's so different from the other two – and something you're more likely to be familiar with. Many writers won't want to work as employees, though it depends on the writer. The W-2 relationship generally puts time constraints on the writer, and many prefer the flexibility of a freelancing position instead.

Instead, let's take a closer look at contracting and freelancing. These two terms are often used interchangeably, but are they the same?

Let's discuss.

What Exactly is a Freelancer?

First up, let's start with freelancers.

Freelance Writer

Solution Freelancers are free agents; they're writers whose services are for hire. You want a blog post written, and you reach out to a freelancer, so you strike a deal. You may pay an advance – more common with large projects like eBooks rather than individual blog posts or site copy – and, when the finished product is turned in, you pay the total amount that both parties agreed to before the project.

Freelancers are often used for irregular, short-term projects because they have a lot of freedom and independence from you and your organization.

Being a freelancer gives a writer a lot more freedom and flexibility than being a contractor. However, it also puts a lot more administrative burden on them, from paperwork to client management that would be handled in other ways as a contractor.

What Exactly is a Contractor?

There's a lot of overlap here with freelancers for many reasons.

What is a Contractor

Solution A contractor is very similar to a freelancer, with one key difference: a freelancer is typically employed by a contracting agency or vendor. They may also be a freelancer working for a vendor, or they may be an employee of a service provider, or they may be an independent contractor working for themselves.

Contractors tend to be more commonly found for regular, recurring, or long-term projects. The agency they work for will often handle most paperwork and payment processing and acts as a middleman between you and the writer.

For a writer, being a contractor often means being a freelancer for an agency working with various clients rather than working with those clients directly. It offloads some of the administrative burden (unless you're an independent contractor) and gives you more reliable work, allowing the contracting agency to take some of the money charged for the projects.

The Primary Differences Between Freelancers and Contractors

Directly comparing freelancers and contractors can be tricky. Even the writers may use the terms interchangeably and may not use the appropriate word for their situation. For another, the two kinds of contractors (agency and independent) are different, and independent contractors are much more like freelancers than contractors.

Difference Between Freelancer and Contractor

So, let's look into the specific differences between these three situations across various axes.

1. How the Writer is Paid

Money makes the world go-'round, and how money exchanges hands is a critical difference between freelancers and contractors.

For freelancers, you generally work directly with them. You define a project, one of you offers a contract for the other to sign, and a deal is struck. Depending on the scope and duration of the project, you might pay an advance, or you might pay for phases along the way. For example, if you're hiring a freelancer to write an eBook for you, you might pay for each chapter and the final payment for the finished product.

For independent contractors, it works pretty much the same. The only difference is, instead of working with the freelancer directly, you're working with them under the guise of an LLC. The freelancer has their limited liability company, so it's this entity that signs and manages the paperwork. In practice, it's all the same from your end.

Writer Payment

Contractors are often working with or hiring a company or agency instead. You work with an account manager or representative, and they help set the terms, the pay rates, and the pricing.

Often, you have more stable expenses with a contracting and agency relationship. You might pay a monthly fee to access services, pay an advance and pay a completion fee, or whatever other payment scheme the agency has. The difference is, the writer is paid according to what their agency offers – often a per-project, on-completion rate – rather than whatever fee you're paying. There's a disconnect there.

With freelancing and independent contractors, 100% of the money you give the writer goes to the writer. With a contracting agency, you pay the agency, they keep some of it, and pass the rest to the writers who complete your projects. And, of course, the agency takes their cut with a contracting relationship.

2. Duration and Scope of the Project

There are no hard and fast rules about what kinds of projects should be handled by freelancers versus what is better handled by contractors. However, in general, freelancers are often more erratic and less reliable.

Duration and Scope

That's not to say freelancers can't be dedicated – quite the opposite – but it does mean that you may have more competition with a freelancer.

  • Freelancers often take on short-term, small-scale projects. You hire a freelancer to write a blog post, develop a landing page, write 50 product pages, or work with you on a single eBook.
  • With contractors, you're more likely to hire them for an ongoing relationship. One eBook a month, weekly blog posts, or something of the sort.

Freelancers need to make their money by working with various clients (that's you) and will chase the projects that work out best for them. For some freelancers, that means ricocheting between high-paying clients and never sticking with one for very long. For others, they might prefer stability. Still, others will take on more work than they can handle and may burn out; they can be highly reliable for a short time and then disappear entirely.

You can develop an ongoing relationship with a contracting agency, but the work you get might come from different writers on the back end. Since you never work directly with the writers, you might not know. On the other hand, contractors are more likely to be agencies with their rosters and standards. This situation is especially true if the agency has a central standards document and style guide to encourage all of their writers to produce similar work.

3. Who You Work With / Presence of a Middleman

Who do you work with, and who do you want to work with? This question can be an important one to ask yourself.

  • With a freelancer, you're working directly with the freelancer. You need to communicate with them, work with them on revisions and changes to the overall style, etc. Sometimes, this is fine. Other times, you might find the freelancer difficult. It can be hard to communicate with someone who doesn't think in the same terms you do. It's important to give freelance writers a paid test to determine if they'll be a good fit for your project.
  • With an independent contractor, it's the same as a freelancer. Since the independent contractor manages their LLC, they are their account rep.

Contracting an agency is different. You may talk to their CEO or owner or with a dedicated account representative, sales manager, or lead editor. That person then communicates with the writer or writers working on your content - this can mean anything from adding lines to a general account brief to talking with a dedicated writer who writes all of your content, depending on how the agency works.

Presence of a Middleman

Contracting with a vendor means working with an intermediary, which means two things. First, it means the writer isn't paid as much, so they don't have as much investment to comply with all of your minor editing requests. Second, there will always be a middle translation between you and the writer. If you have a request and the middleman misinterprets it, the writer might follow the instructions to the letter but still get it wrong.

It's all a matter of communication, of course.

4. Administrative Burden

Being a freelancer and an independent contractor are nearly identical from the writer's end. The writer still needs to handle everything from managing contracts and deadlines to client communication, payment record keeping, and more. All client communication and revision requests need to go through the same person.

Administrative Burden

With an agency, they may have multiple people handling different aspects of the process. For example, the writer might write; someone else can take charge of the graphics, do keyword research and metadata, upload the articles to the website, and edit the content. You, as the client, get the same finished product at the end. It just differs on who and how many people handle it.

You also might be working with different people to manage the contract and finance side of things. The person you talk to about editing requests may differ from those you speak to about contract terms or payments.

5. Control Over the Writer

One of the most significant differences between the roles above is how much control you have over your writer.

With a contractor, you may be able to stipulate specific requirements. Though it's more common in other roles, like IT support, help desk, or training, you may be able to request or require that your writer actually spend time in your office, attend meetings, meet people and work with them over Zoom or Slack, and so on.

You can make those requests with a freelancer, but they don't have to follow them. You set deadlines and requirements for what is delivered to you, and you have no say over what path, timing, or tools are used to get there. That's part of the legal definition of being a freelancer: you cannot impose limits or requirements on how freelancers spend their time, where and when they do their work, or even what tools they use, in general.

Control Over The Writer

Many writers prefer the flexibility to work whenever they want, wherever they want. That's why writing is so often a freelancing gig.

Note: Be very careful with this because it's the one element of the relationship that can have actual legal repercussions. If you start trying to impose work hours or time management on a freelancer, the freelancer can ignore them. If you try to force the issue, labor laws and employment rights organizations can penalize you for it.

If you're going to treat your freelancer as an employee, you need to provide the benefits of being an employee. That means healthcare coverage, retirement funds, different contract terms, and more. In extreme cases, this can lead to a transition from 1099 to W-2. Of course, the writer may decide you're too much of a burden and ghost you. Or, prepare a labor violations lawsuit if the numerical values are high enough and the location has specific laws against it. You have to be careful, and the lines between a contractor and an employee are often blurred and abused.

Which Should You Hire?

Of course, the biggest question you have to consider is whether you should hire a freelancer, an independent contractor, or a contracting agency.

Which Should You Hire

There's no single correct answer here:

  • A good freelancer can be an excellent resource, but there are plenty of mediocre freelancers. Hiring a freelancer gives you the benefit of more directly working with your writer. However, freelancers are often inconsistent and might drop you for a more valuable client if one comes along.
  • Independent contractors are freelancers who are more likely to be established and reliable – many freelancers won't go through the effort of establishing an LLC and contract process until they've proven themselves – but they don't offer many benefits over a freelancer.
  • Hiring an agency gets you more value but will likely be more expensive, slower to respond to feedback, and could be less consistent if they assign multiple writers to your content.

The choice is yours; we're just here to present the details for you to decide.

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Written By:
Shaun Connell
Shaun Connell has spent his entire career either working as a freelance writer or hiring freelance writers for his many successful publications. Shaun has learned the exact tricks of the trade to hire the perfect writer for almost any niche.

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