The lie that is “free writing sample”

online resumeImagine the following scenario:

It’s been six months or so since your last dental checkup, and it’s time to get your teeth cleaned. Your old dentist is out of town, or maybe you’ve moved into a new town, so you decide to use a new dentist. You either find them online, through a recommendation from someone you know, or you find them in the local newspaper, a magazine, the phone book (does anyone still use these) or some other method. The point is, you are going to a new dentist, someone you’ve never gone to before.

You schedule an appointment over the phone or by email. When you walk into their office it’s no different than any other dentist office you’ve ever been in. Certifications are on the wall, there are staff working behind the counter, a couple of assistants and several people in the waiting room. You sit down and you proceed to flip through the stack of magazines or browse the Internet on your chosen mobile device or tablet. Eventually your name is called and you are led back to the waiting room where you sit down in the chair.

As the assistant asks you some basic questions and preps you for your eventual exam/checkup/cleaning, you answer honestly. Eventually the dentist makes his way in and settles in to do his/her thing…but before they get started you quickly pop your head up to say, “Actually, doc, before we go any further I need you to go ahead and clean my teeth/perform this checkup for free, because I need to see if you are really as qualified as you claim you are.”

Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeech. The car skids to a sudden stop, black marks stretching across the pavement. The dentist pulls down his mask, looks you dead in the eye and asks, “Are you joking?”

Let’s be honest here: the above scenario would never happen. You will never in a hundred years find a dentist who is willing to give you a free teeth cleaning or a checkup for free while you inspect their work to see if they are “qualified” or not. Similarly, you will never find a mechanic who is willing to change the oil in your car for free or fix a flat tire for free or a plumber who is going to fix the leak underneath your sink for free, just so you can “see if their work is of good enough quality or not”.

The reality is that when you are working with professionals you are bound by a certain code of conduct that relates to trust in the credentials and qualifications of an individual. If you need to verify they are who they say they are, you simply look at their past client list to determine. A dentist, for example, has his own office, certifications on his wall, a staff of professionals working underneath him and you can easily check to see by reading his credentials that he is experienced as a dentist. A mechanic is the same thing: he has a body shop, credentials on the wall, past clients you can check with. As does a plumber, a lawyer or any other type of professional.

None of these professionals would ever work for free just so a client could inspect their work. And neither should you as a writer.

Your website/blog/Facebook/Twitter/etc. serve as your office. This is your dentist office, your body shop, your platform for clients to get to know you and see that you are a professional. Your resume and published clips are your credentials. They are the same thing as a dentist’s credentials up on the wall, or a mechanic’s or a lawyer’s or any other professional. This is how potential clients get to know you and determine whether or not you are a professional copywriter / writer / content writer / editor / etc.

You do not, under any circumstances, give out free samples of your work just so a client can “see if you are qualified”. Every time I have a potential client ask me for a written sample, I laugh. Literally. And then I send them a brief reply that I appreciate the candor, and if they could please get back to me the following day after they’ve asked their dentist to clean their teeth for free or their mechanic to change the oil for free in their car while they watched to “see if they were qualified”, because I’d love to know what their dentist and mechanics said when asked to provide free samples of their work.

That’s what your resume, website and previously published material are there for, so that clients can see your qualifications and determine if you are the right fit for their particular project and/or company. Bottom line is that if someone is asking you to write an unpaid sample just to “see if you are qualified or not”, they are not a professional company/individual, and are thus not worth working for in the first place.

One of the number one mistakes I see rookies make all the time, and it’s something I cover in all of my consultations and mentorships, is giving out free samples. You should never, ever, not in a hundred years, give out a free writing sample. Understandably in the beginning when you are first getting started as a writer you might need to do some pro-bono work in the form of an internship to get some credentials under your belt, but there is a big difference between an official internship with a high-profile company and just handing out free samples.

Free samples are manipulative and a complete, bold-faced lie. They only reason they exist is to get something for nothing. They are a way for clients and companies to get free, never-before-published material that they can either then publish freely with their own name attached or they can quickly repurpose/rewrite and slap up on their website. Any company or client who is asking you for a free writing sample is not a professional, nor can they be trusted. You should put that email directly into the spam box and move on to the next client.

It’s also about respect. If you have a website, a resume, a list of published material and a potential client or company is asking you to write them something for free, they obviously don’t respect you. If they did, your resume, website, published credentials and beyond would be sufficient proof that you are a qualified professional and deserving of equal respect in the work environment. Someone asking you for free samples is someone who doesn’t respect your talent or the time you have put in to building up your reputation as a writer.

The bottom line is that anyone asking for free writing samples isn’t worth wasting your time on.

Just as much as you will never find a dentist in the world who is willing to clean teeth for free just so a new visitor can “inspect their work”, nor will you ever find a mechanic willing to change the oil in a car for free just so a new client can “inspect their work”, you should never be giving out free writing samples of your own work just so a potential client can “inspect your work”. If they can’t tell you are a qualified writer based upon your website, resume and previously published material, they can shove off. 

 

T.W. Anderson is the founder of Complete Writing Solutions, and is a freelance writer specializing in travel writing, website content, interior design and home improvement, green-related topics, as well as anything else potential clients need him to be.

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Posted in Freelance Writing 101, Freelance Writing Resources, Freelance Writing Tips
10 comments on “The lie that is “free writing sample”
  1. Alan says:

    While I would love to write a thousand words I could not say it better than you have.

    Never write for free should be the mantra of all freelance writers.

    Thanks for a great article.

  2. Cheers, Alan.

    I hadn’t written on this in quite some time (several years), but I was shocked when a friend of mine recently showed me how even some of the most prominent job ads at places like Media Bistro are chock-full of supposedly reputable companies asking for free writing samples.

    As I said in the article, your dentist wouldn’t clean your teeth for free just so you can “check his work”, and no professional client/customer/company will ever ask you to do so either.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. Bobbie says:

    I have to agree. As a freelance writer, I do not give a way free samples -ever. I have over 200 samples in my portfolio, not to mention the ones I don’t list, if that isn’t enough for a client to make a judgement call about my work they must not need a writer as bad as they think they do.

    I think every writer should read this. That being said, I passed the link along.

  4. Missy says:

    I enjoyed this article. I feel the same way about free samples. I don’t mind doing paid samples, but I simply don’t have time to write for free. I have samples for several different styles and types of work that I am happy to provide if a potential client needs them.

  5. @Bobbie.

    Thanks for passing it along.

    Indeed. Most writers beyond the intern stage will have at least a website, blog and half a dozen to a dozen published samples that are more than sufficient, when combined with a resume and verifiable references, to provide a potential client/customer with all they need in terms of samples.

  6. @Missy.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Having specific samples set aside is one way to go, for sure. The website/blog/resume are always the first things a potential client should be looking at, and beyond that they can start checking the provided links that go to published material.

    Something else I didn’t cover in this article was clients/customers who don’t even bother to check your resume even when they ask for one…I’ll be covering that in the next post.

  7. Lucy Smith says:

    Totally agree. I’ve done samples, but it’s always been a couple of paid blog posts or articles to make sure we’re all thinking the same way. The only work I’d ever do for free is returning a favour for a family member or helping out a charity I believe in, both of which I’ve done.

    I’ve heard that much of the time, the ‘free sample’ is actually the piece of work. Ask 10 people to write two small blog posts or something, and you’ve got several weeks’ worth of posts for free. Cunning, but below the belt.

  8. Aislin says:

    Bookmarked! You may get a lot of hits for this because anytime I come across yet another (and there are several even though I have a plethora of published work, a portfolio, an extensive list of references, and a website) “client” that asks for a free sample, I will simply direct him/her to this website. Thank you! Great job!

  9. @Lucy

    Long time no see :)

    You aren’t wrong; most of the time the “free sample” is absolutely the work that the person/client/company is looking to get taken care of, and even though they might eventually hire someone to do the actual work, in the meantime they can rack up several week’s (or month’s) worth of posts for free. Completely below the belt and absolutely low-brow.

    The only samples I’ve ever given have been previously published pieces OR when a client has paid me to write an original sample. I have absolutely no problem writing an original sample for a client if they pay for it. It’s the “free original piece” that is the telling lie :)

  10. @Aislin

    Thanks for the comment, and thanks for mentioning that, LOL.

    I actually have a word document that I’ve had written up for years (mentioned in another comment) that I use when clients ask me for a free original sample to “check the quality of my work”. It basically tells them to ask their mechanic to change their oil for free the next time they go in, and then let me know what he says. I also request that the next time they want to add on to their home, they ask the contractor to build a garage add-on for free while they watch so they can “check the quality of his work”, and then let me know how that works out for them.

    I’ve since incorporated the dentist and plumber into the draft as well…but I absolutely do have a pre-saved draft on file and the moment I get a random client asking me for a free writing sample, I fire that baby back and go on about my business.

    I’ve only ever gotten two replies and both times it’s been from those who had the actual stones to draft a reply along the lines of “free original samples are industry standard”, which is absolute and total malarkey. They are only standard for bottom-feeders, not for professional clients/companies who pay well and respect the writers/contractors they work with.

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