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This Belongs in the Freelance Advice Hall of Shame

Read Time: 3 min

I saw a post in my feed reader this morning, and it left me shaking my head. It's a contender for the "Freelance Advice Hall of Shame" for sure. Really, that should exist.

I'm not going to bother linking to it here. I want nothing to do with promoting its nonsense. But I do want to warn newer writers away from this kind of lousy freelance advice.

The basic advice? Being asked to write custom samples without pay is A-OK, and if you really want the gig you should basically just suck it up and do it.

No. It's not. But let me dissect some of the issues here.

The post immediately starts off by confusing free unpaid samples with spec work.

A spec piece is one you write, and then the client decides whether or not they'll publish it (and pay for it). But that's not what the question asked. The person writing in asked about unpaid custom samples to be considered for what sounds like an ongoing gig. That's totally different. In many cases the client doesn't actually use, or buy, the "sample." It's solely for making a hiring decision, and in this case the client referred to it as simply a part of their interview process.

Beyond that, freelancers, remember this important point: You are not a potential employee. You are a business owner. Act like one. And insist on being treated like one.

You should have a portfolio available for prospects (even if you haven't taken on a paying gig yet -- so the post author's argument that this only applies to entry-level writers is moot; you should always have samples).

If clients can't make a hiring decision based on your past work, either you've very poorly targeted your market based on your experience, or they're completely inept and not prepared to work with freelance professionals yet. They're basically starting off the relationship by "interviewing" you as if you're going to be their employee (a totally different ballgame, with major legal lines between the two).

The article goes on to equate free custom writing samples with free initial consultations and interviews, like meeting with a babysitter before hiring them or hiring a CPA only after a free consultation.

Um, no. What we're talking about would be more akin to asking that babysitter to watch your kids for free for one night in the hopes that you'd hire them after the fact. Or, it would be like asking that CPA to do your taxes for free this year with the expectation that you'd hire them moving forward. Both of those situations would be completely ridiculous -- just like asking a writer to do the work they're generally paid for for free because you're too incompetent to judge the value of their work based on past samples, testimonials, and / or case studies.

By all means, give prospects a free consultation. But it should be just that -- a consultation. You know, they discuss their needs, and you share some ideas and explain what you can do for them so they can gauge your general level of competence and see if you feel like a good fit. That's appropriate. Free custom writing is not.

And then it goes on to share this asinine quote from another copywriting site telling buyers they should test the passion of a writer by asking for free custom samples, finding out what you need to know from their reaction.

I don't even know where to begin with this one. I can only assume it was a joke. But you're damn right their reaction will tell you what you need to know -- whether they're a professional with self-respect or some doormat you can happily walk all over with your ludicrous demands. I'll tell you what. Ask me to write free custom samples because you don't know how to hire freelancers, and I'll ask you for a "sample" payment to prove your checks are going to clear.

Writers. Please be careful about where you get your professional advice. And please be even more careful about the clients you choose to work with. There are plenty of great clients out there who will respect you and the work you do.

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6 thoughts on “This Belongs in the Freelance Advice Hall of Shame”

  1. I highly doubt it was a joke. I’ve seen similar posts around the Internet, and it frustrates the hell out of me.

    Here’s the thing — if they want to test my abilities, at this stage in my career, they’re going to pay for it. A stipend is fine, but it has to be in line with the requirements for the sample. I’m not writing a 2K-word sample for fifty bucks, for example. I will write a quick blog post for that amount, but only if I get their written agreement to the terms (email is usually fine).

    You make a great point about the portfolio, Jenn. It’s not hard to write your own press release, create your own advertisement, email blast, newsletter, etc. It’s work that will pay off later, and it’s work that you benefit from.

    Reply
  2. I just completed an unpaid tryout for a fairly well-known and respected blog. I was asked to submit a pitch, which was vetted by a group of editors. If they liked it, they would buy it, I was told. I did a 1,300-word assignment using two interviews and several Internet sources. It reflected my pitch. Then I was asked to rework it, with a new angle. I was also told to lose the recipes I had included, even though I had promised recipes in my pitch, which was vetted.

    I didn’t feel great about the unpaid part of the tryout. But I’ve done lots of short tests or assignments for full-time employment at newspapers, and have been hired as a result. This was a chance to expand my horizons beyond print. I was prepared to take a chance, within reason. I wasn’t prepared to go through another round of writing and potential revisions with no guarantee of payment. It was like they were prolonging the audition.

    I also did not see why they would vet an article and then change the rules, so to speak. Jennifer’s take makes complete sense, though. It didn’t really matter what my article was like because they would reject it anyway; it was just part of the hiring process. Meantime, the time taken to rework the story would have cut my pay rate for it in half.

    Long story short, I told them I had invested enough time in the process and couldn’t afford to work without pay any longer. Now I am trying to find a market for my “audition” story. The blog would have paid me 15 cents a word for what was published, not submitted. Using that, I was able to negotiate a raise from one of my other clients. Best of all, I am working on a new assignment, a paid one, for a good editor.

    This experience has taught me that I need to be a lot more savvy about the business end of writing and not give out freebies.
    Shout out to Jennifer. This thread convinced me to get an account here.

    Sharon

    Reply
  3. Sharon,

    I’m sorry you ran into one of these incompetent types. I promise, most freelance clients don’t behave that way. I think you made the right call in knowing what your limits were and stepping back. With any luck you’ll find a better home for that article.

    There are situations when unpaid writing makes sense — namely if you’re choosing to volunteer for a cause you’re passionate about (but that’s done outside of business time) or writing that’s marketing for your business (such as guest posts — not on writing blogs, but on blogs where your ideal clients hang out, and including a solid call to action).

    I understand it’s difficult for writers to differentiate paid writing from marketing writing sometimes. And it does contribute to the issue of uneducated prospects who think this kind of behavior is the norm. I wish I knew what the long-term solution was, but I don’t. So for the time being, the best we can do is respect our own time and talent and do exactly what you did — know when to walk away.

    Reply
  4. Thanks for your encouraging words, Jennifer. This particular company was started by at least one person with a journalism background, and the writing gig was advertised on journalismjobs.com. You’d think they would be a bit more professional.

    Anyway, I threw myself into my latest assignment, and am very happy with the results.

    Sharon

    Reply

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