How to Lose a $7,000 Freelance Writing Gig Without Even Trying

I thought I'd kick off my new series here on All Freelance Writing with an awesome story about something that happened to me this week. I started my week by losing a $7,000 finance course writing gig. Yay me!

Why am I happy? Well, because I have to be or otherwise it would mean I did something wrong. Okay, kidding. I'm happy because, from the way this transpired, I think I was saved from a gig that would not have gone well. Or not...who knows.

The Dish

Okay, so this all started on Elance. Huh? Elance? You can get high paying gigs on Elance? Ummm....yeah...but you have to know how--and I'm not going to get into that until next week.

On Elance one morning I found this posting to rewrite a series 7 study manual into something people could learn from and enjoy. The pay was $400 per chapter and would have amounted to $6,800 total. I bid for the gig and was one of the people the company decided would be a good fit. So they sent me a message with a copy of the manual and asked me to do a 3-5 page rewrite for them so they could see what I would do and compare it to the other writer's revisions.

Say what?

I responded to the hiring...guy...and told him that I'd be happy to send additional samples if he needed to see them and gave him links to some more stuff I'd written that I thought fit the tone of what he wanted. He responded back that my samples and resume were all well and good, but they'd be making their decision based on these custom-written samples of 3-5 pages. Here was my response:

I'll have to respectfully decline. Thank you for the consideration and good luck with your choice.

I'm not going to share his response with you because I don't think that it's appropriate, but I will tell you it involved this: ?????

Now, I could have assumed he had peanut butter in his question mark key so it got stuck and that's why there were all kinds of question marks in his response, but instead I assumed that he was curious about my decision to pull myself out of the running. So I responded to ???? with:

It isn't practical for a writer to give every prospective client a free sample. It is cost prohibitive, supplies the potential client with free content that the writer would normally get paid for, and should not be necessary when samples and recommendations are available. It's like commissioning an artist to paint a portrait--you would not ask for a free portrait so you could compare multiple artists. You would examine their prior work and make a decision. The same goes with builders, financial advisors (a few commission-free trades just to test them out and compare their instincts?), house painters, landscapers, etc.

Asking for a free sample that will take hours to complete shows a disrespect for the writer's professional experience, time and talent. If you were really blown away by a writer's samples and experience, you would have the respect necessary to hire based on that. Since that is not the case, I would guess you haven't found the right writer yet and I will just take myself out of the running while thanking you for your consideration.

You should know that at this point I no longer wanted the gig. It's not like I don't understand where he is coming from--I mean, crappy writers abound. People who say they can do something, when they aren't actually sure they can, crop up in spades and writers are a quarter a dozen--so I really do get where he is coming from. But wanting the gig and needing the gig are two different things. I don't want to work with someone who is going to ask for THREE TO FIVE PAGES OF FREE WORK. You know, if the guy had asked for a page I wouldn't have been so hard on him--although I still would have explained my objections.

He responded that he felt I was wrong, that they had been overwhelmed with responses, had narrowed it down to just four of us and that I was the only writer who had a problem submitting the unpaid sample work--which must mean that I'm wrong...right? He also said that they show a "glimpse" of this course to prospective students before they sign up and that offering this "glimpse" at the course before they buy had increased their business exponentially. Um...really? Wow, I guess that's exactly the same as this situation...oh...wait a minute....:

I don't really want to belabor the point, but a free glimpse at the course is not taking time (and therefore money) out of your pocket with each viewer and is standard procedure for a course like this. If the prospective students don't like the "glimpse" they move on. You have your content to sell to other students and it took no additional time out of your billable hours to show the sample to your prospective students. I provide the same free glimpse at my work and worthiness through existing samples, not newly developed, custom content.

Best of luck with your choice and the manual, it is nice to know that I made it to the final four.

The Lesson?

Oh...well...there is no lesson. Some of you will read this and think, "Yeah--right on girl!" Others will read this and think, "Oh my, who does she think she is? So cocky that one...harumpf." And still others will think, "I read all this and she didn't talk about crack whores one single time? What a waste."

The lesson is, there is no lesson. It's your business, you do what you need to do. Seriously, if my cats were starving or in need of cosmetic surgery, I probably would have just done the samples and tried to get the gig. But my cats are beautiful and don't need surgery and my table runneth over so I made the business decision to do what I thought was right.


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Yolander Prinzel is the profit monster behind the Profitable Freelancer website. She has written for a number of publications and websites such as American Express,, Advisor Today, Money Smart Radio and the International Travel Insurance Journal (ITIJ). Her book, Specialty Ghostwriting: A New Way to Look at an Old Career, is currently available on Amazon.

35 thoughts on “How to Lose a $7,000 Freelance Writing Gig Without Even Trying”

  1. Never understood why this practice still goes on – perhaps because there are writers willing to do the work on spec.

    Unbelievable. (Well, actually – believable.) You did the right thing; congrats.

  2. Sometimes I generate generic sample newsletters with a prospects branding on it so they will have an idea of what the finished newsletter will look like. It takes all of five minutes.

    The question that popped into my mind while reading this post was Did the guy specify which 3-5 pages? Because it seems likely that he submitted different sections to each of the writers and probably ended up with a completed chapter, thereby saving himself $400.

    It’s sad that folks need work so badly he thought this was okay. You’ll make up the $7000 with clients who respect you!

  3. Unfortunately as long as some writers are so desperate for gigs that they allow themselves to be taken advantage of, some clients will think that’s an appropriate way to treat professionals. Those types of writers and clients are a perfect match for each other though, so I say “let them have each other.” There are plenty of clients who will respect you and your time.

  4. I had a very similar experience recently. I was in the running for for a job to write press releases and related marketing content for a company and was among the final three or four under consideration for the job. This was after complying with requests for my resume, cover letter and writing samples. Then the owner came back and said he was asking all of the candidates to revise and rewrite one of the company’s web pages so that he could make a final decision.
    Now I really needed this job — a recent lay off, returning to freelancing, you know the the drill — and I actually started work on the web page request. But then I stopped because alarm bells were jangling. I told the guy that I would have to pass on the job because I don’t work for free (except in special circumstances involving startups or charitable organizations).
    He did not understand: He explained he simply needed this to make a final decision and the other candidates had agreed.
    I wished him luck.

  5. I will say that I didn’t get the feeling he was scamming. You know how some of these automatically scream, “scam!”–well this one didn’t. It did scream, “inexperienced client!” which could mean a lot of time training the client, which may or may not be worth it to you. I don’t even think he meant it to be disrespectful, but the fact that he couldn’t see where it might be (even if he still disagreed) made me not want to work for him.

  6. Hi Andy,

    I agree wholeheartedly, and have done the same myself! Far too many don’t realize how much time and energy is spent on working on various projects.

    The problem is that, as you mention, writers are a quarter a dozen (haha, least more than a dime!) and many, many new writers ARE willing to work for free, or for such a small rate of pay that my time would be better spent napping. Ever see getafreelancer going rates? Talk about scary!

    I wouldn’t be surprised if this ‘client’ was giving each writer different sections, and for free, would have a totally rewritten piece of work. Whether or not it would be cohesive and flow correctly, may be another issue; but many people (especially overseas) don’t seem to have much discernment in that arena.

    All of my freelance and copywriting works comes from established clients and referrals, so there’s little need for me to ever ‘search’ for work or even advertise (which is very nice).

    Good call, and the same one I would have made.

  7. Yay, Yo. You absolutely made the right decision.

    It’s absurd to spend your precious time working on spec for someone who could well turn out to be a tire-kicker.

    If clients want customized samples, it’s only fair they pay for them. I’ve done this with agency collateral projects where the client was upfront about vetting me and other writers. We wrote samples–but negotiated pricing.

  8. Wow. It never ceases to amaze me what potential clients will ask for. Usually it’s, “give us a discount on this project because it will lead to a lot more projects…” And, of course, those “projects” never come to be.

    Nothing can beat experience for recognizing clients you don’t want to deal with!

    While he said the other 3 writers didn’t have a problem with the free sample idea, I am sure he hasn’t gotten them yet. He’ll probably get it from one of them and it will be terrible. The other two just will stop responding…

  9. Perfect timing. This last week I have had to turn down three jobs because they all wanted me to write the first chapter as a sample or write for a week to see if I fit. All had stated that they loved the samples I sent yet now they wanted me to work for free. I was starting to think I was the one with the problem for not being prepared to, so thanks for the reminder.

  10. Yo, talk about kicking it off with a bang! My what a good headline that is, yeesh.

    I feel very proud (arrogant?) to say that I would have done this exactly the same way, and, hell, I need that money. If I belittle myself, the value of my time, my business I set myself up for long-term failure. Barring life or death peril need o’cash I’m going to put my time–since it is not an unlimited resource and is a powerful asset–in to finding someone that will work with my in a professional relationship and not ask me to steal money from my business.

    You go Yo! Oh, and wait a second–Elance? I signed up and started on my profile but I didn’t start bidding on work. I thought it was quite possible the amount of time it would take to search for projects and to apply to / bid on them could be applied to building my platform. If I do a couple of projects (that pay me MY rates) on Elance, will prospective clients be able to contact me about work? I’m thinking in the networking in the webmaster forum but not applying for their low-paying gigs sort of way.

    I’m really looking forward to your AFW series. How do I land one of those? Ha ha. Just better and better things from you too.

    Here’s to you finding a gig for $14,000 that comes from your platform and your sterling samples. I knew the finance niche wasn’t right for me when you became a specialist…it was something I considered and received gigs in, but I know that you’re more marketable and more capable a financial writer. I just stick to writing authority ebooks for the self-employed professional. You know and love your stuff like no one else and that shows in the samples which should have sold that guy. I agree with Dava–I think that guy was probably not hiring a writer at all but getting all of his content for free.

    Looking forward to more…especially on Elance. I’m intrigued.

  11. It’s not a scam, he just has the same business advisor as the Underpants Gnomes in South Park:

    Step 1: Steal underpants
    Step 2: ?????
    Step 3: Profit!!!

    (By the way, the imagery of “peanut butter stuck in his question mark key” wins the Internetz this week.)

  12. Jake, it’s not appropriate to leave your business plan in the comments section of Jenn’s blog. Also, step 2 should probably be to wash them.

  13. As so many others have already said, I would certainly have done the same thing. That would be like going to the Apple Store and asking for an iPod Shuffle for free so that I could see if I liked it well enough to buy an iPod Touch or something. Crazy!

    And anybody who would comply is devaluing not only themselves and their work but their client as well.

  14. Yolander –

    Wherever you are, you must have heard me cheering on your behalf!

    Last night I made a presentation to a Women in Communications group and one of my points was, “No was invented for a reason.”

    You’re to be congratulated on saying ‘no’ and for handling it some diplomatically.

  15. Dear Applicant,
    Congratulations! You are one of the top 20 writers out of several thousand to apply for our $10,000 contact to rewrite our 100-page manual. Please submit a sample rewrite of the enclosed 5 pages (pages 35-39) so that we may better evaluate your writing. As with all submissions, we will own all rights to submitted work. We look forward to your sample.

    PS: We know most writers are not good at math, but if you are, please ignore the face that 20 writers times 5 pages each equals the entirety of our 100-page manual. It’s just a coincidence.

  16. Richard, if a Nigerian prince having trouble moving his $800b inheritance out of Nigeria is involved, then I am so in! See you on Judge Judy!

    Thanks everyone for all the comments, it is nice to see that most of us are on the same page 🙂

  17. I am thinking that now I’m going to try this tactic to get out of paying all my bills for the next month. Mortgage? I want to try the house for a while – see if I like it. Same with the car and the cable. And I’ll be eating out A LOT – for free of course, but if I like it, I’ll come back next week.

  18. You go, Girl! I am with you and everyone here. Just what made this acceptable? I understand for that kind of pay you want to be sure of what you are getting but there are better ways to do it. I have a client where I write continuing education courses for insurance–I know exciting, huh? 🙂 Anyway, I thought he had a good method. He had us send what we had written after the first week. He paid for the work but it gave him an idea of the quality before anyone got too far along. Now, almost a year later, he is one of my best clients!

    Love the great work you do, Jenn. Glad to know you have the respect for your skills!

  19. I’m a freelance wannabe still stuck working as a legal secretary. This whole “write us a free sample” thing reminds me of a really lame legal secretary job ad I saw recently. First time in 18 years I’ve ever seen such a thing: A solo practitioner attorney gave a whole laundry list of very specific skills the secretary should have, and then announced that the “interview” would consist of the candidate’s coming to his office and working for 2 hours at $10 per hour — which is 1/3 to 1/2 the going hourly rate for legal secretaries in this market. I couldn’t help thinking this guy must think that, with unemployment being what it is, he could get away with paying $10 per hour, with no benefits, for secretarial services for a good long time.

    By the way, Yolander, I think I’d have done the same as you, only I *would* need the money.

  20. @Cathy – While I’m fortunate and that’s true, I just want to make sure there’s no confusion. I didn’t write this post. It was from Yolander Prinzel, kicking off her new Friday series here. 🙂

  21. This happens to me from time to time. It’s a variant (as other comments have said) on the ‘give us a discount and you may get more work in future’. Also, I have had a few clients who have asked for so much upfront consultancy that any money I might have made on the actual writing was swamped by the time spent handholding the client. (The worst, a £300 email newsletter, required several conference calls and a four-hour round trip to a two-hour meeting. Complete waste of time.)

    But with the ‘free pitching’ you have to take a strong line. It’s like a going to a lawyer and asking them to do you a free pre-nup and if you like it you’ll hire them to do the contract for your next job. No self-respecting company would dream of doing something like that they don’t blush when it comes to asking writers to do it.

    From the client’s perspective, you could argue that a writer with the time available to do extensive free pitching isn’t busy enough to be good. A good writer should be fully booked up and plenty busy. In fact, it can help to create this illusion even if it isn’t actually true.

    One possible counter-offer is to offer a series of milestones with the right to cancel at each stage. This reduces the client’s risk and gives them a chance to evaluate the quality of your work without asking you to work for free. This is quite easy to do on Elance and I think it is fair to both parties.

  22. I totally agree with you. This is a very popular scam: to brake work into smaller pieces and get contestants for the job to do it for fee. I doubt he had many volunteers or he wouldn’t keep trying to scam you.

  23. Maybe I am. Or maybe I’m not. Is it true? Absolutely not, assuming that it was true to begin with. Which it certainly is. Or is it? The answer is no.

  24. You did the right thing. By the way, eLance forbids clients requesting work for free or providers supplying work for free. Any clients who requests free work can be reported to eLance (I have done this many times and the client’s listings were removed.) Also, if eLance finds a provider supplying work for free that provider can be banned from eLance – so this is something you can mention to a potential client who aks for free work.

  25. I like how you remained professional about it. You politely declined and stated your reasons instead of calling them out as scammers and using colorful language to let them know where they can put their offer, which is what most of us would be tempted to do. Way to go!

  26. Right on – That’s the right thing to do and it’s very cathartic for me to see someone else standing up in an articulate way. I grow so weary of providing writing samples for each application I send out and become even more insulted (and mystified) when they include a clause in the writer’s agreement stating that they retain the rights to all of your samples for free. It’s a wholly unnecessary clause to put in if you don’t intend to rip someone off.

    And you are right, it’s totally not the same as giving someone a “sneak preview.” If anything, the writing samples in your portfolio are a “glimpse.”

    Thanks for sharing – I love hearing this kind of story.

  27. I had to take my hands off my keyboard and give you a round of applause, Yolander. Way to go. You were upfront and professional and you did the right thing. Thanks, on behalf of all professional writers everywhere!

  28. Very nicely handled, only you gave a much longer response than I would have. But we all have to learn that also. I did a lot of work on a SEO project I was hoping to get, just to show the guy that I could do it. When he asked about a second website I said I’d have to be paid for it first, and that ended that for him. Shame, but I wish I’d picked up on that for the first site. Oh well, never again.

  29. You are the bomb. Keep swinging!

    I totally refuse to write custom samples for anyone, for any reason unless I am being compensated for it. Ever. I did it one time at the beginning of my career, got burned, and have never done it again. I think it is bad business.


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