October 30, 2020

The risks of freelance writing (and how to prevent them)

Written by Martin Baxter

Ever since I was young, I dreamed of being a writer. I wrote crude stories, full of Americanisms stolen from my favourite films, with plots plagiarized from Enid Blyton. I wrote twee poems with clunky rhyming schemes. I even once wrote a polemic on why I shouldn’t have to share a bedroom with my sister (sorry sis!). So it is, I must admit, still a bit of a thrill to make my living by being a freelance writer. 

It’s an incredibly rewarding career, and it comes with some great perks. I set my own hours, and I’m my own boss (I was never that good at taking orders anyway). I use my creativity and research skills every day. I feel proud when something I wrote gets published. 

But it’s also fair to say that this isn’t a job without risk. Okay, so I’m not balancing up a scaffold or flying a giant hunk of metal at 38,000 feet. But that doesn’t mean I’m free of occupational hazards. And I’m not talking about paper cuts. In this blog, I outline some of the main risks that freelance writers face and suggest some strategies for negating those risks. 

Defamation 

Defamation, or “libel” when it’s in writing, is the biggie for people working with words for a living. This is the one you do a whole module on in journalism school. Why? Because it’s probably the most serious mistake a writer can make. Defamation (in UK law) is when a statement is published that causes or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of another named or identifiable individual. Defamation claims have been increasing in number year on year in the UK, so it is a real risk for anyone publishing words for a living. If a piece of your writing causes harm to another person’s character or finances, you might be open to a claim for defamation – whether you intended it or not. 

Reduce your risk: 

  • fact-check all your work 
  • make sure all information that you use is verified from at least two sources, or you have hard evidence (truth is an absolute defence, but the burden of proof is on the defendant) 
  • hold up-to-date professional indemnity insurance, which will protect you financially if you have unintentionally committed libel. 

Public liability 

As someone who works mostly from home, I never really gave much thought to public liability insurance. I had it, because many of my contracts stipulated that I needed it, but I didn’t really see the point. Then one rainy afternoon last winter, I went to work in a cafe, a rare treat while my kids were off with their grandparents. As I sat replying to emails, I saw a gentleman carrying a coffee trip over someone else’s laptop cable. Then it hit me – that could have been my laptop cable. And if that man was injured – that would be my fault. So I no longer begrudge paying for that part of my freelancer insurance package – because you just never know. 

Reduce your risk: 

  • have risk assessments prepared for all your usual working environments and set-ups – just because there’s only you, that’s no reason not to take safety seriously! 
  • hold public liability cover from a reputable insurer – a level of around a £1million is the minimum, but you may want more if you work out-and-about or with the public a lot. 

Plagiarism  

I’ve stopped borrowing plots from the Famous Five, I promise. But as writers, we read so much. Every day I read thousands of tweets, tens of news articles, a few pages (if I’m lucky) of a novel. Could I guarantee that one of those thoughts, one of those turns of phrase, doesn’t sneak into my next blog? Or might something I produce end up being accidentally very similar to someone else’s work? If something I write and then hand to a client is accused of being plagiarised, my client is going to be very unimpressed, and may try to claim damages back from me. Claims don’t always happen right away either – sometimes they can take years to emerge. 

Reduce your risk: 

  • keep a record of all the sources you’ve used for research, and reference them where appropriate 
  • use a plagiarism checker before submitting work 
  • professional indemnity insurance will protect you in the event of an accidental breach of copyright. 

Dingy are leading the way in providing fairer, more flexible insurance for freelancers. Their package includes the two most important types of business insurance described above – professional indemnity and public liability – as well as the added bonus of business equipment cover (because what if that coffee had ended up spilling straight onto my keyboard?). But more than that, they are actively championing the rights of freelancers and striving to operate in a transparent and ethical way.  

That’s why they’re teaming up with Freelancers Union. Freelancers Union is a US-based organisation that champions self-employed workers through advocacy, education and services. They’re even the people behind the ground-breaking “Freelance Isn’t Free” law in New York, which makes sure that freelancers get paid fairly and on time. By partnering together, we’re going to give our members access to their fantastic resources and widen the global pool of organisations advocating for the rights of freelancers. We hope that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship…wait, hang on, I’m worried that I might have plagiarised that line from somewhere… 

About Martin Baxter

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