Ask a Freelancer

Ask a Freelancer: Is It Ethical for a Company to Make Me Write a Sample on Spec?

By Nicole Dieker July 14th, 2015

I’ve been freelancing full time for a few months and recently applied to work at a digital health site. As part of the application process, they asked for five article pitches, which I sent over. Then they asked for a 600+ word sample with sources cited. I write a lot all day, and I just couldn’t fathom writing 600 words minimum for no pay. I told them as much and they thanked me, but said it was part of their interview process.

Was I wrong to balk at this? Do most people do that sort of thing for a paid-per-post job?

—Sample Seizing

The question isn’t whether most people write 600 words on spec for a prospective client. It’s whether you want that gig enough to write 600 words for free.

I’ve written sample pieces before, when I was going after jobs. When starting out as a freelancer, I wrote a sample article as part of the hiring process for my very first writing job at CrowdSource. When I was ready to start pitching publications, I nearly always sent an unsolicited sample article along with my pitch as a way to prove I could write for their audience even though I didn’t have much of a portfolio yet.

So, although I believe that writers should always be paid for published articles (and receive kill fees on contracted-but-unpublished articles), I see the logic in asking a prospective new hire to submit a 600-word sample. If a company is going to invest in a new writer long term, the bosses want to make sure the writer can handle the required work.

If you are balking at the idea of writing 600 words for free, consider that nearly all jobs require the applicant to do some kind of extra work without compensation during the hiring process. Instead of writing a 600-word article, you could be laboring over a 600-word cover letter. You could be brushing up on interview brain-teasers about square manhole covers, or honing your ability to respond to interview questions using the STAR technique.

Companies ask their job applicants to jump through these unpaid hoops in order to make sure the applicant is both capable of doing the work and likely to fit in with the company culture. A publication asking for a sample article is simply trying to find out the same information: Can you write? And will your writing fit in with the rest of the publication? And since every publisher has unique goals, existing samples can’t always answer those questions.

Some companies even ask for unpaid samples to test your passion and enthusiasm. To quote copywriting and marketing blog Writtent:

Want to find out if your prospect is passionate about writing? Ask him or her to write an unpaid sample. This isn’t foolproof, but their reaction will tell you what you need to know.

Yes, this prospective company is putting hoops in front of you on purpose. In return, you should ask yourself whether you want this job enough to jump through their hoops.

Is this ethical? Absolutely. Would you hire a babysitter without an unpaid, in-person interview? Would you pay for the services of a CPA or a therapist without an initial consultation? This is all part of the hiring process for any job, and it should be something you expect as part of your own career. I was recently approached by a new client who asked me to submit 15 article pitches on spec (which will definitely add up to 600+ words of free work), so this kind of thing happens all the time.

There are situations, however, when asking writers to write free samples is clearly unethical. I’ve heard rumors, for example, about websites that ask writers to submit samples and then publish those samples without paying—or crediting—the writers. I have never run into any those companies, but the stories turn up on writers’ forums like urban legends, and it would not surprise me if there are a few unscrupulous websites out there using this method to drive traffic.

So ask around. If you are worried that this website might be trying to steal your writing, or concerned that the request for a free sample is a red flag that this company might be a picky client, you can do some quick due diligence by visiting your favorite writers’ forum or Facebook group and asking if anyone else has any insight. And as with any job, before accepting or putting in any work, you should have an idea of the level of compensation.

If you are extra nervous about unscrupulous websites, consider sending a short follow-up email to clarify whether you own the the copyright to the sample piece and whether the company has the right to publish the piece without paying you. The way the company responds to that email—positive and reassuring, or brusque and dismissive—will tell you a lot about what it’s going to be like working for that client, and you’ll have another piece of information you can use to decide whether you really want this job.

It’s also worth noting that asking for a sample article—as opposed to asking for portfolio clips—is a strong indicator that this company expects to be working with entry-level writers. At this point in my career, for example, I would not work for a client who asked me for a 600-word sample. I have over 800 articles, written for a variety of publications, in my freelance portfolio. That should be enough sample material for any potential client.

But your client is probably hoping to grab entry-level writers who can write well but don’t yet have 800 articles to their name, and they’re using the sample article request to pick and choose the best applicants.

So, do you want to work for a company that’s hiring entry-level writers? Is this gig a step up for you or a step down? Is the pay going to be commensurate with your other clients? These are all questions to consider as you decide whether to write that spec piece for free.

Of course, at this point you’ve already decided that you don’t want to work for this company. But the next time a potential client asks you to write something on spec, you may want to consider it a little more carefully.

Nicole Dieker believes in Yog’s Law, aka “money flows toward the writer,” but understands that sometimes you have to write a spec piece to get that flow started. Have other questions for Ask a Freelancer? Send them to dieker.nicole@gmail.com.

Image by Arunas Gabalis
Tags: , , , , , ,