Here it is…the post every freelance writer everywhere has talked about. Whether or not a client should ask for a writing sample before hiring — and whether or not the writer should go ahead and submit one. Opinions of all sorts ride along both sides of the fence: from “Absolutely not” to “Only if they're a new writer” to “it's no different from asking to smell a spritz of perfume as a sample” and even “How else will a client know whether or not that writer can do the job?”
And after reading through hundreds of sites that all seem to say it's perfectly okay — even normal — to ask for a writing sample, I've decided it's about time I go ahead and put in my own two cents.
No. It's not okay.
To Ask for a Writing Sample is not the Same as Asking to Sniff Perfume
Nor is it like picking up a free sample of that frozen sausages from the nice lady at the grocery store, not by a long shot. you see, sampling a product requires no further work to be done. The perfume has already been designed, manufactured, bottled, and chances are the bottle you're spritzing to see if you like it was bought specifically for that purpose. You would not approach Macy's and say “I just don't know if I should buy my perfume from you or not — tell you what, can you create a fragrance for me and I'll see if I like it before I make up my mind?”
Asking for a writing sample is asking for a new piece of work to be created — whether you're asking for one page or fifty pages — doesn't matter. You're asking for a writer to sit down and work for free, all in hopes you might be willing to pay for work later.
Ask to see Existing Works Instead
Obviously, if you're looking to hire a writer, you want to make sure you hire someone who knows and understands how to write what you need. It wouldn't do you any good at all to hire a writer only to find out that writer couldn't spell his or her way out of a plastic cup. I know how much this industry has boomed, and not all booms have been positive. But, now, here's the ticket: most freelance writers already have writing available for you to view without the need for a whole new sample to be written. Whether they have a website, a blog, a book, or some other articles they've written elsewhere — most of us have samples ready for you to view.
So, rather than ask for a writing sample, ask to see where you can find things they've already written. It doesn't have to be an exact match to what you're hoping they can write for you. You're just looking for their writing ability — that should be discernible no matter what they send you to read.
Should You Submit a Writing Sample if Asked?
I don't think clients should ask for a writing sample, but I know they're going to. If you're a freelance writer and someone asks you to submit a writing sample before hiring you, should you do so? My answer to this can be nothing more than to say “I wouldn't do it.” But obviously, I can't speak for you. You need to develop your own set of policies regarding whether or not you will write these dreaded samples for inquiring clients. Here are some things to consider:
- There are clients who will use that writing sample and still not hire you. In fact, there are clients who are able to post entire blogs by asking multiple writers for “samples” and not hiring any of them after the samples have been submitted.
- Writing that sample takes you away from other activities and duties, such as working on your blog, your marketing, or other clients.
- By submitting to writing a sample, you may give the impression you don't believe you are good enough for the job, as if you need to prove it.
- Because most experienced writers will always decline a request for a writing sample, choosing to submit one may unintentionally mark you as an amateur.
Yes, there are some times when you will want to consider going ahead and writing that sample:
- If the job in question is for a staff position (rather than a freelancing position), then submitting that sample or taking that writing test may be worth the effort. In the very least, there's little chance they would be using your sample, since they are looking for an employee.
- If you will still own the rights to the sample once it's been submitted.
- If the client is willing to pay you for the sample.
Other Ways you Can Offer a Writing Sample
The first freelance job will be the hardest one to get, and most of the time that has nothing to do with your writing ability and everything to do with being able to sell or market yourself. I can't count how many times I've seen new freelance writers submit a proposal to a project and try to “explain” their lack of experience by admitting they're new to freelance or that they don't have any professional writing experience (freelance or otherwise). The key is to start working on your writing samples even before you submit your first project bid. Write a blog, submit guest posts to other blogs, write a collection of short stories — anything you can so when that first client inevitably asks to see a sample of your writing, you have something ready to show.
There is no strict black and white answer when it comes to the idea of a writing sample. For the majority of the jobs available, a new, separate writing sample is probably not necessary — and if you have samples of your writing available to send then those should work just fine. For larger jobs, submitting a writing test may be reasonable. I recommend establishing set parameters for yourself and your freelance business, and establishing a policy. Then make sure you stick with that policy. I myself use this blog as well as a few short stories I've written that I send along with any project bid, and will consider writing a paid sample depending on how busy I am at the time and the details of the sample being requested.