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Allena Tapia

Please, Stop With the Samples

By January 30, 2011

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So, my husband dutifully did our budget projections for 2011, and the wicked heating bill forced me to look for a short term client for whom I could work from now-ish to, say, May (this is in addition to my teaching, which I am LOVING, btw!). So I pounded the pavement, going first to my contacts and past clients, and shaking their branches. I got a few things out of them, but we're really hoping for an ongoing thing, just for a little while.

So, I hit the freelance writing job boards. I applied to a very narrow smattering of postings, solely focusing on those in one of my niche fields, that looked like they offered a quality hourly wage. Over the course of about two weeks, I found approximately 20 that fit that bill and had potential. Of those 20 applications, 4 "chose" me for ongoing consideration. But this is where I run into a problem: their processes for choosing the final candidates are just TIME-CONSUMING! I simply don't have time to give so much to people who aren't paying. I EVEN WANT TO! I mean, I've got to the point where I don't even care about the whole free sample thing anymore, I just need the work! But caring or not, there are paying clients in line first, and they're getting the attention. So much for all that time I spent searching and applying. Sigh.

January 31, 2011 at 3:06 pm
(1) Kate says:

Very frustrating, I agree! I think of it this way…when you interview for a “regular job,” they look at your resume, maybe some unrelated work samples and interview you to talk about the job. Then, they hire you. They don’t ask you to come in for a week and do the job free-of-pay to see if it’s a fit. Why should writing be different? I think if you’re a newbie with little to no writing experience, a sample request is appropriate. But, if you have a broad range of samples and a complete website, you can respectfully decline the request and see what happens. They may just want to hire you even more since you are busy and in demand! It is a risk, but if it goes your way, it might just be worthwhile. And, if we all band together, maybe we can make samples a thing of the past!

January 31, 2011 at 7:58 pm
(2) Shelley says:

I have an entire website filled with diverse writing samples. I DO NOT give samples out because providing them has NEVER resulted in my securing a position.

I wish that more freelancers would decline from this practice–it is not needed because writers have writing samples to provide. That’s the reason for putting together a portfolio.

Most employers know that they are taking a risk when they hire a new employee. For the most part, the interview and a reference check is all they require. Writers seem to be prey for this kind of nonsense. I don’t ask my dentist to fill a cavity for a free sample or ask my plumber for a free trial run so why should employer get free samples of my writing?

Writers–we are professionals and should demand to be treated like 99% of all employees in this country–hiring is a risk. If companies don’t want to take the risk they should do the writing themselves!

January 31, 2011 at 8:43 pm
(3) JSwindell says:

I had a LinkedIn discussion on this recently. The bidding company I work with sometimes urges their employees to not take on ANY work without the client being charged. If a writer submits a “paid” sample and they get stiffed, what ground do they really have to stand on?

On the other hand, the client should use a writer’s portfolio to get a sense of the style. If it’s for a different job, the writer can only get so far inside the clients’ head.

I had a contributor once submit a work that was about as exciting as a stale loaf of bread. Because there was a history, I gave her a break (payment) and edited with a slight warning on how to approach the next job.

January 31, 2011 at 10:34 pm
(4) Martha Roden says:


All I can say is that most companies hiring free-lance, contract, or full-time employees have their own hiring processes and timelines for making hiring decisions.

I usually have a set of samples ready for the asking, along with an example cover letter and resume that I can tweak. Once I send the resume and cover letter, and get a request for samples, I send them.

When the recipients of my material seem interested, terrific! If I am juggling several potential clients and know I need to land a project within X days or weeks, I let the possible clients know my schedule. If their decision-making process is too long, I continue to pursue the other clients with the shorter decision-making process.

In rare occasions, I may revisit the “slow-pokes” at a later date when I have a longer lead time for a new project.

Over the years, I have learned that some companies simply have unrealistic expectations about how long people are willing to wait before they find out whether they are hired or not. No one can afford to sit around and wait, with no money coming in, for more than a month! I also know that folks who work in those companies would never put up with waiting so long about a decision if it affected their paychecks!


February 1, 2011 at 8:19 am
(5) Lisa says:

I agree. I’ll maybe shoot over a few ideas or one of my clips but I’m not writing new material for a “test” or anything. I’ve been freelancing for 8 years and have plenty of client testimonials so why should I expend my time and energy creating something new when I may not get hired or paid? No thank you, sister!

February 2, 2011 at 5:25 pm
(6) Don Tepper says:

I’m an editor for a monthly 4-color, 80,000 circulation magazine. We pay anywhere from 70 cents-$1.00 per word for 1,500-2,500 word articles. And I’d never even think of asking a freelancer to write a sample, or an article on spec.

I hire both by posting on Elance and from freelancers who’ve somehow heard of us (or in some cases been referred to us) and contact me. I do ask for some sort of resume and references. I also describe in detail the types of articles we run (and usually post them or e-mail them to the writers) and ask for published samples that most closely match what we run.

If the freelancer hasn’t written anything similar (or if the submitted samples are poor), end of consideration. If the freelancer does have some good published samples I’ll try to look for an upcoming, relatively easy, article that matches the freelancer’s strengths. Some are better at financial-type articles. Others are better at human interest, for instance.

The one risk of doing that–and it’s probably the reason some editors want a custom-written sample–is that it’s impossible for an editor to know how much of the submitted sample is the work of the freelancer and how much is the work of the editor. And I should know; I won a publications contest last year in the category of “Best Rewrite.” The freelancer had done a lot of work on the article, but the submitted piece wasn’t publishable. After I finished with it, it was pretty good. And (for better or worse) I expect she uses it as a sample when contacting other editors.

February 2, 2011 at 5:29 pm
(7) Don Tepper says:

An additional comment (had to shorten my previous one to stay under the character limit):

As for the issue of a lag between selection of a writer and an assignment–that happens. It takes a lot of effort for me to put together an assignment, suggested contacts, and so on. And editors often are involved in a dozen different projects.

Just today, for instance, I was involved in an effort to figure out why a video embed in our digital edition wasn’t working . . . multiple e-mails to select a cover design for our April issue . . . going through a hundred or so e-mails looking for small items for our April and May issues . . . talking on the phone to several different contributors . . . meeting with my boss on coverage of an upcoming convention . . . finalizing details for a series of podcasts based on articles in our magazine . . . doing final edits to a couple of articles in our March issue . . . talking with another editor about a new series we’re considering . . . doing the paperwork to pay two freelancers for articles they’ve submitted . . . and more.

So I haven’t gotten back to a freelancer (a good one I like using) who e-mailed yesterday asking whether I had his next assignment ready. Hey, it happens.

February 2, 2011 at 10:36 pm
(8) maisolmedia says:

Job posts requesting spec work and writing samples often do not mention which party will hold the copyright to the “test copy.” Many companies receive free copy from hungry writers.

February 2, 2011 at 10:38 pm
(9) Jennifer L says:

I once put together an elaborate spread of “samples” for a potential client. Then he wanted more. And then he told me I’d have to wait because I was competing with several other people for the gig.

I had had enough. I told him that I was withdrawing from the “competition.” I write because I love to write, but I also do it to make money, and that particular avenue wasn’t achieving either one of those goals!

So would I ever provide a sample again? Yes, I would. But the circumstances would have to be much different.

February 6, 2011 at 12:02 am
(10) Rod says:

Like Allena, I’m a Guide here at About.com. This is possibly one of the best freelance online gigs you can find. About.com is owned by the New York Times Company and it always pays on time. The compensation is fair and freelancers here have a lot of editorial control.

About.com asks for a writing sample. Indeed, the entire hiring process is several weeks long and competitive. There are always at least a couple of freelancers vying for any opening. The process includes producing content and creating website navigation (for Guides, the process may be different for Contributing Writers).

However, About.com is very clear that if you do not get the job, all content you created is yours, period. If you do get chosen, you get paid for that time. It’s not free work. If you’re looking for a good-paying, professional writing gig, click on the link at the bottom of any of our pages.

And don’t be afraid of the process.

February 15, 2011 at 2:12 am
(11) Dale says:

If you do provide samples, you should make it clear you retain all rights unless the work is paid for. Yes it may be necessary to provide a sample when you’re starting your career, but if you have a portfolio that should be good enough. A sample should prove your writing ability and isn’t a template for the client to copy.

February 16, 2011 at 10:47 am
(12) Harry Husted says:

I was told by a writer once that when a client wants you to write for free, or wishes to see a sample, and then disappears, what usually happens is the client is a cheapskate. He wants everything for free. He believes in his mind that writers are nothing and that it is not a profession.

Stay away from people like that. Only go with clients who are willing to pay good money for your work and time. I do. I have a few ongoing clients because I refuse to accept low paying jobs. When I refuse those jobs, the clients think I must be that good not to go after such low pay.

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