Freelance Writer Directory

Should you Provide a Free Sample to Potential Clients?

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on April 16, 2012 in Freelance Writing Business
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Last week, I was faced with a somewhat common situation. After sending out a few cold emails, I got two responses. One client hired me on the spot, based largely on the samples that I provided. However, the other company wanted to see more of what I could do for them. They asked if I could provide a free sample, based on their particular needs, within 24 hours.

This is something that you should expect from time to time as you get involved with cold emails and cold calls. Simply put, some companies will trust that you can help while others will be a bit more skeptical – especially since they have never talked to you in the past.

My advice is as follows: there is nothing wrong with providing a free sample to a potential client as long as you feel that it could turn into a paid gig. Unfortunately, there are people out there who collect as many free samples as they can from as many writers as they can find. When everything is said and done, they did not pay a dime yet have plenty of unique content.

Over time, you will become skilled at separating the pretenders from those who are truly interested in hiring you if you provide a high quality sample.

If you are going to add cold emails and cold calling to your marketing strategy, expect some people to request a targeted sample. This may not be something you want to do, but if that is what it takes to land the gig so be it!

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Chris is a full-time freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He specializes in web content, sales copy, and many other forms of writing. Chris has two books in print, as well as hundreds of articles in local and nationwide publications.

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16 Comments

  1. Brie Wallace April 16, 2012 Reply

    I’ve actually written in the terms on my site that I don’t provide free “test” assignments. I wonder if I should take that down since, as you suggest, I might come across a client worth working for that wants one.

    Thoughts?

  2. Corinne April 16, 2012 Reply

    This seems to be a touchy subject for me. I find that there are many people that request a specific sample or test article. Often times, these clients dont even pay that much. However, there is always going to be that one that does. It’s really hard to know.

  3. Amandah April 16, 2012 Reply

    I think it depends on a freelance writer’s experience, and as you mentioned, if a potential client turns into a paying one.

    A ‘new’ freelance writer may want to provide a ‘free’ sample based on the client’s needs. This is a good way to build and add to one’s writing portfolio.

    A writer, who’s trying to break into a ‘new niche’ such as white papers, may want to provide a free sample to a potential client. But a freelance writer who’s been writing for 10+ years may decline the ‘free’ sample.

    It’s a personal decision.

    • Brie Wallace April 16, 2012 Reply

      Thanks for the answer, Amandah. I think I should take that line off of my website and handle it one a case-by-case basis for now. :)

  4. Jodi Kaplan April 16, 2012 Reply

    Heck, no!

    Provide relevant examples of previous work, yes. Work for free (for a client who may be sending the same pitch to hundreds of other writers), no. The company’s employees don’t work for free, why should you? I think there’s even a post on this blog saying that very thing.

    The only exception would be if you want to say help out a favorite non-profit (in that case, ask for referrals and/or recommendations) – particularly if you’re just starting out.

  5. Peter Bowerman April 17, 2012 Reply

    I agree with several of you. My more-or-less default position is with Jodi. Don’t work for free. If you have a decent number of samples on your site that do a good job of showcasing your skills across a healthy project range, then there’s not a reason in the world for you to provide samples for free. That sets a bad precedent right from the start with a new client: you as fire hydrant and them as dog.

    And while I have no stats to back this up, I’d strongly assert that an exceptionally high percentage of those looking for a free sample aren’t sincerely unsure whether to hire you and need more evidence; they’re mooches using that as an excuse because they know it works on X% of writers.

    In what other field is that asked? Would you ask a plumber to fix your leaky sink for free and if that goes well, you’d use him to replumb your bath? Would you go to a nice restaurant and ask for a free appetizer, after which you’d decide whether you wanted to continue with the rest of the meal? You hear it more in our field, because writers have historically been slow to own their value, and historically fast to bend over backwards and forwards to please a prospect.

    All that said, if, as a few have mentioned, you are new, and trying to build a book, or are experienced but want to break into a new specialty for which you don’t have enough samples, I think it’s fine to offer to do a sample for free (or better yet, for a reduced rate). In those cases, there’s a good strategic reason for doing it, a reason that originates from you, not the client.

    At the end of the day though, our businesses are our own, and as such, we can do whatever we want when we want. I’d only caution those who are offering freebies (when, arguably, they don’t have to), to follow the Las Vegas Rule: don’t spend anything (time, resources) you’re not willing to lose. Because chances are good if you do free work on their terms, you will lose it.

    One man’s opinion…;)

    PB

  6. Anne Wayman April 17, 2012 Reply

    The only time I provide a sample is occasionally when negotiating to ghostwrite a book and then I do it for myself as much as for the client. Three or four pages can either confirm I can get their voice right or show me that I don’t want to work for that client. Otherwise, no free stuff.

  7. Allena April 17, 2012 Reply

    Man, I’m about to squash my normal policy and do a sample for a client who is a household name, and who I have tried to get in with before…. Sigh. I’m not thrilled, but…

  8. Amandah April 18, 2012 Reply

    Working for free

    When I worked in ‘corporate America,” I knew some employees took work home with them for various reasons. These were not ‘high management level’ employees. They weren’t paid for the time they worked at home. Technically, they were working for free.

    Free samples

    As I mentioned above, it’s a personal decision. My rule of thumb is to provide a link to my writer website which has plenty of writing samples. I will provide writing for the non-profit organizations I support. It’s my way of giving back in addition to making a donation.

    Another way to get around the ‘free’ sample is to create writing samples. As I mentioned, if a writer is trying to break into the ‘white paper’ niche, there’s nothing wrong with writing a white paper and using it as a sample. This is how I got my first writing client, a travel company, in 2008. I wrote a travel article about my 2007 solo trip to Edinburgh, Scotland and submitted it as a writing sample. I was hired as the blogger. It worked for me … it could work for new writers too!

    Write on…

  9. MicroSourcing April 19, 2012 Reply

    Unfortunately, some potential clients are unethical to the point of using applicants’ samples without pay. Some writers don’t get paid for any article that the client uses when they quit halfway through a commitment.

  10. Lori April 19, 2012 Reply

    I won’t give free samples. I’ve been doing this too long to have to “try out” again. Even if I were starting out, I wouldn’t.

    If they’re legitimate, they should offer to pay for or agree to pay for that sample. Fifty bucks for a short sample isn’t going to tax them too much. If they’re going about their search properly, they should have asked only a few writers for samples, so the cost wouldn’t be prohibitive to them.

    Come to think of it, it’s also a great way to see how organized they are.

  11. GSwriting April 22, 2012 Reply

    This is really a tough subject to tackle.

    As a writer you should have samples on your website as well as a professional portfolio that showcases all of your relevant work.

    BUT…

    If it’s a quick and easy sample in a niche that you’re really interested in writing for and you’re not extremely busy at that moment …

    I’d personally just write it and see what happens.

    You could show the potential client how you always OVER DELIVER and go above and beyond.

    In all fairness though…I can’t remember when blindly answering an ad that requested a free sample landed me a gig. (Or at least a very profitable one)

    So my 2c is to trust your gut.

    The worst case scenario is you’ve got another piece to add to your portfolio

    OR

    You just provided free unique content to some scumbag that’s trying to take advantage of hard working writers.

  12. Jorge May 1, 2012 Reply

    Peter, you nailed it and I hope that, especially new writers, will heed your words.

    There isn’t a reason in the world to give away your work to a potential client. None. You devalue your own work as well as that of other writers.

    When I am asked for a sample I send a polite reply saying I’m happy to write their “test article” for the reduced rate of xx dollars.

  13. This is truly terrible advice.

    If someone wants a sample of your work they can hire you on a one-time freelance basis and pay for your time. If they refuse, then their investment (and interest level) in the freelancer is probably not very significant.

    Why are freelancers alone expected to bear the burden of a client’s willingness to go on a fishing trip? Too often, clients won’t narrow their candidates due to indecision, and freelancers working on spec only feed that dynamic.

    If you wish to be considered a largely undifferentiated, valueless commodity, then work for free all you want.

    The rest of us — who have heard “there’s lots more work where this came from” for decades — will concentrate on the clients who value what we provide, and don’t expect us to do it for free any more than they expect an auto repair shop to do the first tune up for free just to see if they know how.

  14. Khairie May 3, 2012 Reply

    I recently discovered that a sample I wrote for a potential client (who paid pennies for it) in April 2010 was actually published in October 2010 with someone else credited for it.

    I’m very upset about this but I don’t know what to do about it :(

    Has anyone dealt with this sort of situation before? Advice would be greatly appreciated :(

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