The ‘Test Trap’: When to Say No to Unpaid Freelance Work

By Margie Zable Fisher September 30th, 2021

When Tom Sommers pitched a travel article to a major daily newspaper in his hometown of Washington, D.C., he was excited to hear back from an editor. But then he read the response more closely: “Send over the piece and I’ll look at it.”

He was taken aback. The editor hadn’t mentioned a payment rate or word count. “It was basically an unpaid writing test, with no indication of whether or not it would be considered for publication,” Sommers said. This was especially frustrating considering he’d written for much larger outlets and Fortune 500 companies in the past. He’d sent the editor clips from notable sites like National Geographic. Didn’t his published work speak for itself?

Sommers isn’t alone in this conundrum—and he’s not wrong to be wary of the “test assignment” trap. Here’s what other writers and freelancer advocates have to say about when it’s worth it to do unpaid work, and when to draw a hard line.

When to take “free” lancing literally

There are a couple reasons why people consider unpaid freelance work. Those new to the fold may think they need to build up experience and a body of work. Even seasoned freelancers occasionally consider submitting unpaid writing samples in the hopes of getting a coveted retainer or breaking into a niche beat.

But sometimes those “test assignments” can be a little, well, eyebrow-raising. In fact, some are borderline scams. Daniel Hess, a Baltimore-based filmmaker, writer, and founder of To Tony Productions, said he and his colleagues frequently receive requests to edit videos—essentially for free.

“It’s exploitative to expect someone to write for free.”

One national company specializing in wedding videos went as far as to send Hess a hard drive with footage from a client’s wedding, requesting that his team edit the project as a “test run.” When Hess asked if this was something the client would be paying for, the company said yes. “I then asked why no compensation would be given to me,” he recalled. “They simply had no real answer to that.” Later, Hess learned that another freelancer friend had actually taken up the wedding video company on their request—and had never seen a dime.

Brianna Gi, a presentation designer from San Francisco, California, said she figured out early in her freelance career that some clients would ask a handful of designers to each create a few “test slides” until they had a whole deck. Today, she says no to unpaid freelance work of any kind. “I tell potential clients that I can send the first few slides to make sure they like the direction, but only after signing a contract for the full [project].”

Writers, too, experience similar scenarios. Mark Soto, a freelance home improvement writer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was once asked to complete a test article that would be compared against three other writers’ submissions. The company said they would hire and pay the freelancer with the best entry. Soto ultimately declined the project. “If you’re good at something, you should get paid to do it—and even if you’re not, it’s exploitative to expect someone to write for free,” he said.

Building your portfolio without selling yourself short

Sarah Greesonbach, founder of the B2B Writing Institute, has strong feelings about these kinds of client requests. “Writing a free ‘test assignment’ for an agency that’s ‘testing’ ten other writers gives too much power to someone who’s making money off your time and expertise,” she said.

But, she added, there are times when a quid-pro-quo agreement makes sense. “If you’re going to work for experience or exposure, that can sometimes be a good decision,” she said—as long as freelancers make sure it’s a trade of equal value.

For example, helping a nonprofit create a case study in return for a byline or company logo on their website may be a fair trade. The organization gets quality work, and you get a chance to expand your portfolio and cover a cause about which you’re passionate. “That’s an equal exchange of power and could [lead to] a big break,” Greesonbach said.

“If you’re going to work for experience or exposure, that can sometimes be a good decision.”

Besides bartering, there are other ways of building up a portfolio, said Ant Hodges, a marketing coach. While he did a few unpaid projects to kickstart his freelance career, he quickly started feeling taken advantage of. New freelancers, he suggested, should start with small, quick jobs on gig-finding sites instead of taking on unpaid freelance work. Building up testimonials and customer feedback provides evidence of your skills to future clients.

“Don’t live in a world of desperation thinking you need to do [tons of] free work to possibly earn some money afterward,” he said.

Convincing clients to pay

Not all companies who ask freelancers to submit test assignments have a malicious motive—sometimes, they just don’t know better. Some freelancers have found creative ways to shift the conversation, ultimately landing paid gigs.

For instance, Sean Cope, a Dayton, Ohio-based digital marketing expert and founder of Elevator SEO, has found a way to convert unpaid work requests into more than $10,000 in sales.

“When a client approaches me about an unpaid opportunity, I ask them for a 30-minute discovery phone call to learn more about their goals,” he said. “Prior to the call, I conduct initial research on their website and existing content.”

Cope identifies strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for improvement. During the phone call, he reviews his findings. He doesn’t provide any concrete deliverables for free—and he proves his value in the process.

“By the end of the meeting, the potential client has actionable feedback that they can incorporate and increased confidence that I’m the right freelancer to help,” he said.

But it shouldn’t always be up to established freelancers to do that much convincing—especially when they’ve got a portfolio on display for the express purpose of showcasing their skills. Ultimately for Sommers, the editor asking to see a story draft with no mention of pay was off-putting enough to decline the assignment entirely.

“I thought about [the decision] for a few weeks,” he said. “Even though I really want to write for them, it’s a test at my expense, and I’m not comfortable with that… I’m planning to pitch the idea somewhere else and get paid.”

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Image by leremy
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