Why Freelance Writers Should Never Write Free Samples

on August 25, 2008 in Freelance Writing

I'm sure you've seen the ads for freelance writing jobs where you're asked to write and send a custom sample. Something like:

"Must include a unique sample article (at least 300 words) on paying down student loan debts, following the article format at XYZ.com. Applicants who do not submit a sample will not be considered."

Every time I see something like this I can't help but wonder what the poster was smoking.

As far as I'm concerned, there is never a good excuse for a prospective client to ask for custom samples like this, and no writer should resort to humoring this kind of behavior. Why?

  1. For starters, it reeks "scam." You'll find plenty of horror stories where people have submitted unique samples only to have them used on a site and never hear back from the "client." They assume a submission means they have the rights to the content.
  2. I don't care who you are or where you are in your writing career - you DON'T need to create custom work for free, for any reason, for the sake of getting a gig. If you're worried that your portfolio isn't appropriate to get you considered for the gig in question, you have two options: A) Find gigs you're better qualified for. There's probably a reason your portfolio doesn't suit the gig. B) Start improving your portfolio by writing "for yourself" - not doing free work for some random "client" that most people have probably never heard of (and hell, if people have heard of them, they're in a position where they should either be able to pay a writer for a sample if they want something custom, or they should know enough about hiring writers to hire based on a portfolio and not custom work to begin with). There are plenty of ways to build your portfolio even if you don't have much experience. You don't need to do free work for prospective clients.
  3. As I've already mentioned, a client can always pay for a sample if they want something custom-done. For example, they might hire you to write one article even if they really need 20 - this way everyone is protected. You don't get screwed out of your time writing free articles instead of using your time more effectively to find better work, network, etc., and the client doesn't commit to buying a large quantity of articles at your going rate until they've seen that you can do what they want. It's a win-win.

So what do you think? Remember, we're not simply talking about writing for free (there are plenty of ways to write for free "for yourself" that would be considered good marketing for example) - we're talking about writing unique, custom samples for a prospective client for the sake of maybe getting a freelance writing gig. How do you feel about those kinds of requests? Do you think they're OK? Are they an insult? Would you ever do something like that for a gig?

Thanks for sharing!
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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, and indie author. Through her company, 3 Beat Media, she operates All Indie Writers, NakedPR.com, BizAmmo.com, and numerous other blogs.

Jenn has over 15 years experience writing for others, over 11 years experience in blogging, and 9 years experience in indie e-book publishing. She is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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  1. Denise August 25, 2008 Reply

    I would never write a custom sample for free. It doesn’t make sense and it’s a bad decision business-wise. If writers are applying for a gig they already have experience in (and have existing samples to support that claim) there’s absolutely no reason why the client should expect or need custom samples.

    Anyone who asks for custom samples and refuses to pay for them screams “scam” to me. Talk about a “great” way for cheapskates to load their sites with free content!

  2. drbruce August 25, 2008 Reply

    I’m just looking around a doing some freelance writing after finishing up my first ebook. I’ve found several of these “jobs” and even at my stage of the game, I couldn’t image why I would send someone something for free, unless it was to promote my own writing. I do write an occasional free article for a fellow that is promoting my book, but that has some payback – I’ve made a number of sales on his site, and it seems that when an article of mine pops up, I get a book sale, or at least a query about the book. Yes,sounds like a scam to me too.

  3. Kecia August 26, 2008 Reply

    I have always felt that it was wrong to ask for a custom writing sample upfront, but it seems to be a popular trend among job ads. I have never applied to one of these kinds of listings, but have almost talked myself into it a time or two. As you mentioned, however, I feel like I’d be getting ripped off. If the client needed 10 articles, and at least 10 people apply for the position with a custom writing sample…Why does he need to pay anyone now??

  4. Jennifer Mattern August 26, 2008 Reply

    That’s exactly the problem Kecia – unfortunately there are some scummy “clients” out there that do this. I’ve most often see it and heard of it happening on the lower end of the pay scale, generally targeting the newer writers who start to assume that’s just “the way it works.”

  5. Edie Dykeman August 27, 2008 Reply

    I agree with the comments above. There are too many people out there scamming freelance writers, especially those just getting started in the biz. Thank you for bringing this out into the open. Hopefully, the more writers highlight this problem, then fewer newbies will get caught in this obvious scam. Thank you, Jennifer.

  6. Angela Booth August 28, 2008 Reply

    Great topic. 🙂

    There are endless writing scams. The request for a unique sample or a writing “test” is common. Scammers get away with it because writers lack confidence, and won’t stand up for themselves.

    No one, not even a totally new writer, should ever audition for a gig – your writing samples are always enough.

    A genuine buyer will only be too happy to pay for a “taste” of your writing. If he wants ten or fifty articles, he’ll be happy to pay for one or two – in advance – to see how you approach a topic, and what your style is like.

    Writing is a valuable skill; if you’re a new writer, please realize that what’s easy for you is hard for others… and charge appropriately.

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