Should You Write a Free Sample to Get a Freelance Gig? - Make a Living Writing

Should You Write a Free Sample to Get a Freelance Gig?

Editor | 50 Comments

Writing tests are often scams - but you can also get great gigs if you're careful.

I hate writing tests.

I’ve been professionally writing since 2009. Since then, I’ve taken a half-dozen or so tests for various gigs, providing a sample of my writing — and never landed the job.

Even worse, after every failed attempt, I’ve been left with a bitter taste in my mouth, griping about the wasted time.

So last November, when a marketing company requested I take a writing test that required I write a free sample for them, I was hesitant. But it turned out to be one of the best things I ever did. Here’s what happened:

Something to gain

Most of my writing experience is in video scripting. Although this is my true passion as a writer, I’ve realized it’s difficult to create a successful freelance career that revolves solely around video clients.

If I wanted to reach the next level of success, income, and stability as a freelancer, I needed to expand my skill set. Copywriting was the top skill I was interested in adding, and the job I discovered was for just that.

I did have a little copywriting experience and three writing samples to show for it — homepage copy, a commercial script for a website, and copy I’d written to promote an e-book. Not exactly an all-star portfolio, but it was enough to apply for the position.

To my surprise, I heard back within a matter of hours. And that’s when I was hit with a bombshell.

The test from hell

When I opened the email to see I was shortlisted for the position, I was instantly excited … and then quickly brought back down to Earth when I saw the dreaded words: writing test.

This was no one-page test like the ones I’d previously taken, either. This was a four-step process, which included writing:

  • One blog post
  • Homepage copy, including a banner headline and About Us section
  • Completing a proofreading test
  • Submitting 3 additional samples from my portfolio

My immediate reaction was to say no. I didn’t want to risk failure — and the feelings of frustration and resentment that follow.

But this was a chance to develop a valuable skill I desperately wanted. It was hard to pass up. So I decided to do what I always do when faced with a tough decision that pertains to writing — ask more experienced writers for advice.

That evening, I posted in the Freelance Writers Den, explaining my situation and asked if this type of writing test was normal. We all know many shady websites ask for free writing samples, only to use them without permission or payment, and without extending any paid job offer.

To my surprise, almost every single writer who responded said they’d taken a writing test for a staff job. Den Mother Carol had even took a writing test and a personality test for one staff job! So I was persuaded.

I spent four or five hours taking the test. Several emails and an interview later, I landed the job.

Was it worth it?

After eight months as a full-time copywriter, I know I made the right choice.

I’ve gotten the copywriting experience I wanted, and I’ve become a better writer. My writing is more clear and fluid, and I’ve nearly doubled my speed.

So to all other writers out there who can’t bear the thought of taking an unpaid writing test, I urge you to think about the bigger picture. When it’s for a major gig, consider the value of the experience you’ll gain if you successfully pass the test and get the job.

For me, the chance to develop a lucrative skill I can use for decades to come is worth a few hours and risk of frustration.

Ever written a free sample? Tell us how that worked out in the comments below.

John Weiler is a full-time copywriter based in Bangkok, Thailand. He is also the author of Backpack Abroad Now.

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50 comments on “Should You Write a Free Sample to Get a Freelance Gig?

  1. Onyeka Onianwa on

    And I thought I was the only one who hated writing tests! It made me feel as though I couldn’t write well enough. After struggling with writer’s block during an impromptu writing test, I told myself I’ll never do that again. Needless to say, I did not get the job. I’ve been doing some freelance writing offline so recently, I decided to take my skill online. I’m working on landing my first (online) writing gig. Frankly, these stories and experiences I’ve read from comments above are scary. But they are great lessons I have learned here. Carol’s blog is indeed a fantastic resource for me. Thanks for sharing, John and everyone else who commented.

    • John Weiler on

      You are definitely not alone, Onyeka!

      Keep pushing forward landing the writing gigs. It can take some effort, but if you’re persistent and experiment with different tactics to land clients you will find a way. Learn as much as you can from Carol and this community. They’ve been invaluably helpful for me. Good luck!

  2. Sheha Sidek on

    I had to do a one-page proof-reading / editing job today. Took me several hours to read through their requirements and guidelines(they had a long, long list!) and complete a sample for their review. I’m happy to say I got the job, and it looks to be a long term appointment too. 🙂

  3. John Weiler on

    Hi Laura,

    I don’t mind the proofreading tests as much myself. But even though I’m writing thousands of words a day everyday I still have to look grammar rules up from time to time (including the who vs whom as well). It’s crazy I still find myself misspelling some words like restaurant, maintenance, and handful of others all the time. Though I think this may be more common than we think, as I’ve talked with my writer friends who share similar issues when it comes to some words and rules.

  4. Laurie Stone on

    I guess my blog would be my writing test, but let’s face it. I’d do anything to get a job. My least favorite of these tests are proof-reading. Even as an English major and long-time writer, whom vs. who can still throw me. I still have to look these things up. That would be my weak spot. Gulp.

  5. Theodore Nwangene on

    This is such a wonderful experience John.

    I thought I’m the only one that has had such experience before. I’ve also written so many of such tests before but unfortunately, it never landed me the job.

    At a point, I was thinking maybe they didn’t found my writing good enough but at the other hand, I assumed that maybe they’re just using tricks to get free articles and because of that, I’ve always been skeptical to accepting such test.

    However, after your post, I think I’ll have to reconsider my stand.

    Thanks for sharing

    • Irene Ross on

      Theodore–A lot of times it is a trick to get free articles or market intelligence so just use your gut. If there’s no company listing–run! That’s a clue because you can’t research the company–and that means it’s probably a 3rd party or some other thing that isn’t legit. Most times if they want something, a legit outlet WILL pay–for the writing sample and/or training to be sure you write in their style. Of course, sometimes there just isn’t enough information to sway you one way or another–in that case, it comes down to “how much do I want this gig–is it worth taking a chance?” BTW, I only answered “yes” to that question once!

    • John Weiler on

      Theodore, it can definitely be painful to write for free so many times and not got the gig. I’m sure I would have passed up on it if it wasn’t for the motivation from the people in the Den, and my girlfriend as well.

      Glad you liked the post!

  6. Ramona on

    As a web designer I AM NOT WILLING to do any tests. I have portfolios, you can see my work. If it comes to get a writing gig though, I might not be as stubborn, especially since I am new to all this. After more than a decade of web design I have nothing else to prove, but, when it comes to writing, I could accept testing, especially if it would allow me access to a well paid job.

    • John Weiler on

      Hi Ramona. I think that’s what it really comes down to. If you have a lot to gain from getting the gig – and you think you have a good shot at getting it – then it’s worth doing the test.

  7. Kayla on

    I’ve never had to take a writing test yet, but I have done some free guest posts so people could see if my writing style fit well with their audiences. Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

  8. Williesha Morris on

    My efforts have been mixed – one time it was a legitimate organization (but they bailed when I wanted higher rates after several months) and the second was a straight up scam.

    I think it depends on the quality of the organization. I recently applied for a writing position (as an employee, so much different) and it required a WordPress/editing test, video application, written application and interviews. I didn’t get the job, but I am on that site’s radar.

    • John Weiler on

      Hi Williesha, from my experience, I get the impression that the longer the gig, the more arduous and annoying the writing test is. A video application sounds pretty unusual to me though! Never been asked to do that for a writing gig.

  9. Junvi Ola on

    Great post! I love hearing of other writer’s experience in the freelance space.

    My first travel PR job (that later led to my freelance travel copywriting career) required a writing test. They asked that I write a mock press release and wanted it done in person at their office. Luckily, I had a full-time job at that time and was able to convince them to allow me to take the test home since I couldn’t be out of the office too long. Truthfully, I didn’t want the PR director and manager looking over my shoulder as I wrote. Plus, the added stress of being timed would have guaranteed writers block for sure!

    Fast forward four years later, with plenty of high-paying freelance travel copywriting gigs under my belt. I was approached by the SEO team of one of the world’s largest hotel brands. They said they found me online, liked my portfolio, then said they’d love to work with me. Turns out they wanted THREE writing tests despite my 15+ hotel writing samples on my portfolio! I balked instantly and said my schedule was already full of paying clients. They pushed and said the entire management team liked my style, but just wanted to see if I could write within their brand parameters. I caved in and offered one writing test as I was positive that I was exactly what they wanted. My mistake was that I waited until AFTER I turned in the writing test to discuss what their pay would be if I were to be hired for the freelance work. Turns out they wanted to pay me $75 per Web page or $500 for an entire 15-page hotel Website! I politely declined and said I command a lot more for that same amount of work. Lesson learned!

    • John Weiler on

      Wow, thanks for sharing the story as well, Junvi. Obviously, you wouldn’t think that one of the world’s largest hotel brands wouldn’t pay well. Just goes to show you never know. This is certainly something I will keep in mind in the future.

      • Carol Tice on

        I’ve actually picked up on this — there are apparently some agencies that do a lot of web work for hotels, at crap rates. Not the first time I’ve heard that. REALLY makes me angry — like hotels don’t have money??? Come on.

        • Junvi Ola on

          I know, right?! I’ve been learning slowly which hotel marketing agencies are not worth having a conversation with, and which ones are. But, that doesn’t stop me from being completely repulsed when an agency or a hotel asks me to write for pennies. It feels good to walk away from cheapskates like that.

      • Junvi Ola on

        Yes, it initially left a sour taste in my mouth to learn such a large brand was paying this low for Website copy. But, I reminded myself that not all hotel companies are this cheap and that I was going to save my skills for a company that was willing to invest in quality.

  10. Rachel on

    Perhaps it’s the industry you write for, but in the B2B space, where one tends to charge higher-level, professional rate fees (e.g., a case study for $750-$1200), I’ve never had or heard of an instance where a prospect asked the freelance writer to take a writing test.

    In fact, in my own freelancing, I’ve never been asked to do so.

    Now, I will say that, for an in-house, full-time position I applied to, I was asked to take a writing test. I did it because, at the time, I *really* wanted the role…

    But I would be hard-pressed to take another, unless, again, it was a role I was really, really wanting…and, even then, I might propose a different solution (see end of this reply)…

    I oppose the use of writing tests…

    One, I’ve taken SATs, ACTs, GMATs and more…I’ve gotten my BA and MBA from good schools…I’ve worked professionally for many years and have a portfolio of work…haven’t I paid my dues when it comes to tests?

    Now, as a professional adult, I want you to be able to look at my work and make an adult-level judgment whether I can do the job based on that….not based on my ability to take a test well. (Maybe this is just bringing back all of those bad feelings I had toward standardized tests, which, I know, differ from a writing test, but still…)

    Second, work for free? Sorry, I haven’t won the lottery yet. If I were hiring a designer to create a logo for me, I would never say to the 3-4 designers I’m considering, “I want each of you to design a free logo for me and then I’ll decide who I’m going to use.”

    I wouldn’t ask that – and, most likely, the designer wouldn’t do it. And good. He/she shouldn’t.

    At some point, you have to be able to look at someone’s portfolio (and talk to him/her, of course!) and make the judgment whether the person’s skills transfer over to your project.

    A better solution to the writing test?

    Firstly, if there’s going to be a test at all, it should be reserved for full-time, in-house positions only (not freelance work). And…

    Do one paid project together…if the company hires you, the fee they would have paid you gets deducted from your first year salary. If the company doesn’t hire you? You get paid for the “writing test” you did.

    And dignity remains in place for all parties.

    Reserve this “single paid project test” for only the 1-2-3 candidates that make it to the final round…so, as a company, you don’t expend too much money…

    Anyhow, those are my two cents (or maybe a few more)!

    • Carol Tice on

      I’m with you — I think my portfolio contains my writing ‘samples’ and should be adequate for you to decide if you want to hire me. Unless it’s for a very big gig.

      • Jaszy on

        Hello Carol, maybe it’s because I’m new to the world of writing but I agree with you, it seems to me that a writer’s portfolio should be proof enough of their writing ability and style.

    • John on

      Thanks for the words of wisdom, Rachel. I personally know I’ll be very reluctant to take writing tests in the future. However, I really like your alternative solution to a writing test! I’ll have to potentially use that as a negotiating tactic if I’m ever in this situation again.

      • Rachel on

        Thanks, John! I’m glad you liked my alternative solution…to be honest, I haven’t actually tried it yet…it’s just an idea. So, if the situation ever called for it, it would be interesting to see if even I have the courage to try it!

        So often, I think we think we have to give in to what an employer wants versus having the courage to stand up for ourselves…

        I wonder if anyone else has ever tried anything different when it comes to these requests…and, again, I think any writing test should be reserved for a full-time, in-house position…(so, that’s the scenario I’m referring to here…)

        • John Weiler on

          Hi Rachel,

          I completely agree that I think it’s so easy for people to just give into what an employer wants – especially for young people. Personally, I’ve been the type of person to just say yes to whatever the employers asks. But as I’ve gotten older, more experienced and smarter, I’ve gained more of the courage to stand up for myself and ask for what I want.

          The negotiation book “Getting to Yes” has helped me a lot and, oddly enough, I think copywriting has actually helped me in the negotiation process and standing up for myself.

          Anyway, getting a bit off topic, but the point is I think it’s important to stand up for what you want. And the more you learn how to persuade others in a way that makes sense for both the employer and freelance writer certainly helps!

  11. Daryl on

    Funny enough, pretty much all of my freelance writing tests have been paid…even the crappy content mills usually gave me a quick $5 for my test sample.

    I think what Irene says is true – you usually have a gut feeling as to whether or not it’s legitimate. If you’ve researched the company (which you should have) and they seem legit then possibly it makes sense, but if those red flags start going up it may be better to take a pass on it.

    • Carol Tice on

      Exactly — they should at least offer to pay if used. And if you can’t research the company because it’s a blind ad — run. You should be able to eyeball the opportunity to see if it’s worth the risk of your time to do a sample for them.

      People should also know that sometimes you can get hired without providing that sample. I had one very heavy-hitting M&A firm ask me to do a sample, and I told them there were plenty on my site. They hired me anyway!

    • John on

      Daryl, I have never been paid for one of my writing tests! I feel like I’ve been missing out. Well, that is good to know for future reference.

      I will say, however, that I recently was offered to take a very well paid writing test a few months back. I ended up not doing it though because of time constraints. And it was also not a skill I had developed yet, so it would have taken me a long time to complete the work to my satisfaction.

      And Carol, it’s funny that you mention that you got the gig by mentioning you have plenty of samples on your site. I actually considered doing that with the writing test for my current job. I have a feeling though I wouldn’t have gotten the gig if I had done that, as I had so few copy samples.

      • Carol Tice on

        I don’t think that approach will work for a full-time job situation — they have so much invested in that hire, and they really need to see if you can write THEIR way.

  12. Irene Ross on

    Almost every freelance gig has asked me to take a writing test. I hate it but, for the most part, I do it, because many times you can’t go any further in the hiring process without completing it. However, unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to take a test, never hear from them again–nor do they answer your calls–and then, lo’ and behold’–you see your copy up somewhere. I think it really comes down to this: Ask yourself how much you want the gig. In a few instances, I just never did the test, because too many of my flags went up; it can look like someone is fishing for market intelligence. It didn’t make much difference to me if I didn’t get the gig, so I didn’t do it. In one case, it also looked like a fishing expedition for market intelligence, but I wanted the gig so I decided to go ahead–and, unfortunately, I wasn’t wrong. It was, indeed, a fishing expedition, but I just shrugged my shoulders.

    • Carol Tice on

      Irene, that’s really the point of this post — you shouldn’t take a writing test or provide a free sample for most freelance jobs. As you’ve found, it’s a scam. They just rip off your test posts and run them.

      I’d stop shrugging your shoulders, and make sure there’s enough on the line — ideally, a full-time position — before submitting to future writing ‘tests.’ Legit clients rarely ask for that from freelancers.

      • Irene Ross on

        Carol, thanks for your comment. By the way, just before I saw your comment, someone asked me for a writing sample and I just walked away. It was a no-brainer that it was only a fishing expedition. I don’t make it a habit to shrug my shoulders, and one of the reasons I did it that one time is because there could have been enough on the line; there just wasn’t enough “evidence” either way. Now that I think of it, though, someone did ask for a “Paid Writing Sample”–and they did pay immediately upon receipt–not to mention I got a really good writing gig out of it.

    • John on

      Hi Irene, that’s a shame to hear about the “fishing expedition.” As far as I know, none of my free samples have been published without my consent, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t. Sounds like a frustrating situation though.

      It has certainly always been frustrating for me just simply writing the samples and never hearing back, which is why I was reluctant to complete the test for my current job. In fact, I don’t think I would have even done it if I hadn’t consulted the other writers in the Den. It was really their advice and experience that pushed me to go ahead and give it a try.

      Always good to talk with other writers about these issues.

  13. Katherine Swarts on

    I know what you mean about hating writing tests, John. I’ve been proofreading my own work with 99% accuracy for 30 years, but I completely flunked the only proofreading test I ever took (after 20 years of writing experience) because I knew so little about “official” standards for proofing marks. And I’ve looked in a Chicago Manual of Style maybe six times in my life.

    • John on

      Hi Katherine,

      Thanks for the comment. That’s wild what you say about flunking your proofreading test after 20 years. Personally though, I’ve never even cracked the Chicago Manual of Style myself. All the grammar I’ve ever learned was from schooling and a very thorough reading of “English Grammar for Dummies” a few years back – which was actually really helpful!

      • Carol Tice on

        I think I’ve looked at Chicago maybe once! AP Style is what I know. 😉

        I had “How to Not Write Bad” author Ben Yagoda as a Freelance Writers Den guest at one point, and I thought his book was a great primer for improving your grammar.

        • Ravi M. on

          I’m not a native English man. May because of this reason, I always surprise if anybody, who comes from native English place, tells about flunking grammar in writing.

          I know my English is definitely not bad if it is not great as native writers.

          My secret is “English Grammar for Dummies”: It’s really excellent one for all who wanted to consummate the writing.

          Additionally, thank you Carol for letting us to know about Ben’s book.

          • Ravi on

            Hi John Weiler and Carol Tice,
            I read Ben Yagoda’s book “How to not write bad” (thank you Carol for suggesting me this book).

            In “English Grammar for Dummies”, the author suggested to not use the punctuation “comma” after is, was, are. (Except they were written as words as I used in this line.) But I found many writers using “comma” after them including Carol Tice and Ben Yagoda.

            What’s your comment on this?

          • Carol Tice on

            Ravi, remember that blogging more resembles copywriting than journalism — and in copywriting we can break the grammar rules (as long as we know them well enough to be able to push the boundaries successfully). I’d recommend reading print magazines rather than blogs if you’re looking to improve your grammar.

    • Irene Ross on

      I always thought the Chicago Manual of Style was mainly for text books and other academic writings, so I don’t think I’ve even looked at that as much as 6 times.

      AP Style is what I know, too.

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