Quick Tips for Reading Contracts


 Everyone knows it’s important to have a contract if you’re selling your art or doing a commission for a client. But just having a contract isn’t enough. You need to read it (and understand it) if it’s actually going to be helpful.

Reading contracts can be difficult, though, not to mention boring. Here are a few tips for navigating legal documents so they’re easier to understand:

  • Make a (plain English) checklist.

Before you dig into the contract write out what you think the deal is. Don’t get caught up in using “legal” sounding language. Use plain English to describe what you think they’ll do for you, what you’re agreeing to do for them, how much everything will cost, and any other details you think are important parts of your agreement. Use what you come up with as a checklist as you read the contract. When you find language that matches up with your understanding, mark it off and jot down any notes about how it’s different from what you had. If there are terms that were on your list but don’t show up in the contract, be sure to ask about them before you sign the contract.

  • Read out of order.

Contracts can be boring to read, even for lawyers. If you’re faced with a particularly dull or dense contract, read the paragraphs out of order. Focus just on understanding what each particular paragraph or section means and don’t worry about the rest of it for now. Skipping around the contract can make it less dull and easier to digest.

  • Print it out and mark it up.

Large blocks of dull text are even more challenging on screen. Do yourself a favor and print out the contract. Read it with a pen in hand (I like red pens, but follow your color bliss) and make notes in the margins about the contract and what you think it means. Star, check, underline and circle language that’s important or that you have questions about. Engage with the language physically, and it’ll be easier to pay attention all the way through.


Katie Lane is an attorney and negotiation coach in Portland, Oregon, helping artists and freelancers protect their rights and get paid fairly for the work they do. You can read her blog at WorkMadeForHire.net and follow her on Twitter: @_katie_lane.