Why Freelancers Should Submit Non-Paid Samples

Why Freelancers Should Submit Non-Paid Samples
Uh... that's the wrong kind of sample.
Uh... that's the wrong kind of sample.

As part of my daily routine, I browse a number of freelance job boards. WhisperJobs, Freelance Writing Jobs, and About Freelance Writing’s CraigsList Group are a few of my favorites. Yeah, I realize I just shot myself in the foot by opening the door for even more competition on those, but they all deserve a shout-out.

Anyways, I generally have a pretty standard pitch letter I use, along with my resume and writing samples. I go through the job listings and quickly apply, altering the pitch slightly as needed. But sometimes, a posting will ask for a specific writing sample. And that’s where things get tricky.

Samples requests can be both a huge red flag or your biggest supporter if you’re a freelance writer. Sure, sending in previously published writing samples is no biggie. I actually prefer when postings ask for that, because no matter how I present myself in a pitch letter, I can let my actual writing truly speak for myself.

No, it’s when a job posting (or a follow up email after you’ve submitted your application) asks for a new, sample write-up that things get interesting. If someone asks for a paragraph describing your favorite restaurant, that’s no biggie. Take the 10 minutes to whip up your best work and send it in. But if someone asks for a 500 word sample on a specific topic of their choosing, should you take the time to do it?

It’s a Matter of Trust

What if they take your sample and just publish it, with no intention of ever hiring you? They could be scamming writers left and write just to obtain free content. Or they could be legit, but what if you spend significant time writing up a sample, only to get rejected. Was that time wasted?

Occasionally (It’s only happened to me once), a company will rock. Someone will ask for a very specific sample, but they will offer to pay you for your sample. Obviously, that one’s a no brainer, unless they’re only offering you $5 for the work.

So short of getting paid, is it worth it for freelance writers to go that extra mile and spend that extra time whipping up samples?

Is it Really Worth It?

My answer is basically, “Yes, but it depends.” If a job sounds like something you want to go after, then I think it’s worth taking the time out to show the employer what you can specifically do for them. It also lets you know if this is the kind of job you think you’d be comfortable doing. If you’re not really that into it or find that the particular sample they want written is over your head, then chances are the job itself isn’t really right for you. So don’t look at it simply to see if your writing is a good fit for the company, but if the company is a good fit for your writing. (Yes, very Zen, I know.)

Writing up samples also gives you an edge. Chances are that a lot more writers apply to jobs that don’t request samples. Taking the time to write and submit one will put you in a much smaller pool of clients. It increases your chances of getting the job.

One other benefit of writing a sample? You get to write. I’m a firm believer that writers need to write every day. Whether it’s a full-fledged feature or a simple blog post, we need to write. So writing a sample is just more great practice all around. Even if you never hear back from the company, you took time to write and possibly learned a thing or three.

“This one time, in Freelancer Camp…”

In my personal experience, I’ve had great success and lots of failures with samples I submitted. One job posting initially sounded kind of boring (writing descriptions for a new start-up floral company), but I pitched it anyways. I heard back, meaning I made the first round of cuts. They were interested but wanted me to take a writing test. This was not just a simple 300 word sample. Uh uh. They sent me five photographs of elegant floral arrangements and wanted me to write up to 150 words for each arrangement, as well as give each one a name. There were no further instructions at all, as they wanted to see what kind of voice and tone I could come up with. I must’ve spent a few hours on that one, made it through another round, but ultimately didn’t get the job.

Was I annoyed? Yes. Did I want the job? Absolutely? Did I do a good job? Heck, I think so, but clearly someone was better. I jumped through flaming hoops for these guys and ended up not getting the gig. But I learned something. I don’t know much about flowers (roses are red, right?), but I was able to write some really entertaining and eloquent text describing them. My wife actually made it a point to tell me that she never knew I could write like that, because I’m usually all jokey and full of comic book references. (Did you see The Avengers yet, by the way? Truly awesome!) So despite not getting the job, working on this particular sample let me flex some writing muscles I never even knew I had.

On the flip side, I’ve also written some samples that immediately won me a gig. I was in talks with someone from Mighty Deals about writing content for their site. My background isn’t really strong in design or programming skills but I knew I could handle writing about them. They asked for a sample, and I quickly turned one around, which proved I was able to handle the project. Not only did that get me the initial writing gig, but it’s led to loads more work with them. All because I gave a free sample at the beginning.

Taking tests, answering detailed questions or submitting fresh samples to a prospective employer are all part of the freelance game. If a job posting seems like it’d be a great gig for you, then take the time to really think your answers through and apply. If you think it’s just not worth all the hassle, then it probably isn’t. Your best bet is to simply use your best judgment and be aware that it won’t always work out to your benefit. But when it does, it can pay you back in spades.