You think you have a great lead on a new client. The job matches perfectly with your experience, and they’re offering long-term work. You haven’t had to negotiate your rates with them. In many ways, they sound like the model client.
The initial discussions are going well, and you’re already drafting up a contract.
Until you get the email that every freelance writer dreads.
“Before we go ahead, we’d like you to complete this 500-word unpaid sample article”
It’s a tough situation, isn’t it?
On one hand, you’ve got a client who’s promising long-term work, and you’re excited about the project. You know you can write 500 words in an hour.
However, doing the required research and drafting would take a lot longer. After all, you pride yourself on your work.
And there’s nothing to stop the client from using your hard work without you ever seeing a penny.
For me, this is a huge red flag.
If a client asks me to write a sample for them for free, it immediately tells me three things about them:
- They don’t respect my time or skills.
- They don’t trust me.
- They’re probably going to be a nightmare to work with.
The vast majority of the time, the client wants you to write something fully custom for them. This tells me that they don’t trust that I can bring my skills to the table. They probably haven’t looked at my portfolio or read my testimonies or if they have, they don’t care.
It also immediately throws up warning signs that their job offer is fake.
One of the first clients I pitched outright told me that they wanted an unpaid sample article to publish on their blog — and they’d use that to ‘interview’ me.
There’s nothing to stop clients who ask for unpaid samples from ghosting you the minute you submit your work. And if, by some miracle they stick around, you’ve just shown them how they’re allowed to treat you.
Unpaid samples only ever benefit the client.
Yes, that includes if you’re in desperate need of portfolio pieces.
Even if they do come through with paid work, unpaid samples open the door for them to low-ball you from the get-go.
After all, you’ve just handed them content for free — so from the client’s perspective, you’ll be ecstatic at just being paid.
If you need work for your portfolio, please do yourself a favour and write it yourself. Don’t let potentially malicious clients take advantage of your lack of experience.
Unpaid samples don’t even represent your best work.
You don’t have access to the information you’ll need to make your work representative of what you’ll deliver to the client if they pay you.
These unpaid trials are a huge waste of time, both for the client and for you. It leaves the client with a false sense of who you are and your skills. Through no fault of your own, the client will have formed an impression of your work based on something that doesn’t even represent your work.
It’s an exploitative practice.
Clients know they can dangle the promise of long-term work over our heads to get what they want from us.
We don’t have a stable income, so the promise of regular work and pay will draw us straight into their grasp and — they hope — make us more pliable.
Clients know (or think they know) that they hold all the cards in this situation. They have the work, the money, and the ability to influence our reputations. They know that, because they’re a new lead, they can get you to work for free because you don’t want that job offer to be snatched away.
Instead of the client-freelancer relationship being a partnership, as it should be, it becomes yet another employer-employee relationship — but without the pay and stability. And I’ll bet that many of us became freelancers to avoid being in that situation again.
So, what can you do if a client asks for an unpaid sample?
Ask for payment.
It’s not uncommon to come across job offers that specify that freelancers will be expected to complete a trial. I always ask straight away what their budget is for this trial. Immediately, I want to show new leads that I expect to be paid fairly for my time.
If they’ve already asked you to deliver an unpaid sample, ignore the word ‘unpaid’ and negotiate. I like to ask to be paid in a way that makes the client think they’re getting a good deal, usually by saying something like:
“For 500 words my standard rate is x, which includes drafting and research. However, I’m willing to offer a discounted rate of y so you can get a measure of my skills before we go further”
I used this tactic for the client who asked for an unpaid sample that they could publish on their blog. They never responded to me again — so I knew I dodged a bullet there.
While you could say no outright, newer freelancers like myself don’t necessarily have that luxury. Asking for payment is a solid middle ground where you’re showing the client you expect to be paid for your time, but you won’t necessarily lose a good lead immediately.
Some clients may only ask for an unpaid sample because it’s the ‘done thing’, so by explaining your perspective, you might change some minds. Who knows?
Ask what they’re looking for.
If a client is asking for an unpaid sample, they might not be confident that your portfolio reflects what they’re asking from you. So, in return, ask them if there’s anything specific that they’re looking to find out from this trial.
Once you’ve found out what they’re looking for, you can then direct them to a specific piece in your portfolio that demonstrates the skills or experience they’re after. This way, you’re fulfilling their need to see a specific example of work from you — without you having to write anything custom for them.
If they reply to your questions with non-answers or reiterate that they need you to complete the unpaid work, then that’s another red flag.
The simplest option is to just tell them you don’t write samples for free. If you’re using a freelancing platform like UpWork, clients asking for free work should be against their Terms of Service, so you can report them.
Try not to burn bridges, though, unless you have a bad gut feeling about the client. Some clients might not know why asking for unpaid samples isn’t good practice. That’s why saying no outright should be the last resort if the client checks out otherwise.
Personally, I’m of the opinion that any client that asks for unpaid samples isn’t worth working with, but you may not be in a position to turn away potential work.
If the work sounds good and the client otherwise isn’t giving you any red flags, you can always explain your position. Instead of just saying no, politely, but firmly, state your policies on unpaid custom samples.
You could highlight how long it would take you to write the sample:
“I’ve estimated how long it will take me to write this custom sample for you, and it would take me over x hours to complete the work to a standard we would both be satisfied with. If I were to invoice you for the work completed, it would cost y. This would result in a substantial loss of time and income for me if I were to agree to writing this sample”
Or, you could ask them what they’re looking for you to prove:
“This sample looks like it is indended to test my skills in x area, is that correct? If so, this sample in my portfolio is a great example of these skills, and the client left me a glowing review that I hope will put your mind at ease over my experience”
You’re not directly saying no — but you’re keeping the conversation going.
Freelancers: Please respect your time and skills and refuse to work for free. If you need portfolio pieces, write them for you. If more of us refuse to write unpaid samples, the less we’ll get asked to write them.
Clients: Read our portfolios. If there’s a skill you’re after that you don’t think is represented, talk to us. Offer to pay fairly for samples and respect our time, skills, and experience.
We’re not machines. We have bills to pay, mouths to feed, and lives to live. Asking for us to complete work for free is disrespectful to our entire profession and the skills we’ve worked so hard to build.