Free Samples and Writing on Spec: Should You?

free samples spec writing

Many freelance writers aren’t a fan of writing on spec. That is, to create an assigned article for a potential freelance writing client or publication without the promise of acceptance. This usually happens when a publication doesn’t want to commit to a new writer without giving him or her an audition first.

When you encounter a freelance writing job ad looking for a specially prepared (and possibly unpaid) sample, that’s almost the same thing as writing on spec.  I call these requests “special samples.” Special samples are writing requests beyond the clips that are submitted with the initial query or application.

Questions to Ask a Potential Client Who Wants Free Writing Samples

Most potential clients request clips and writing samples to get a feel for your writing. They want to be sure your voice and tone fit their own, and, also, they want to be sure you know the subject matter. In most cases, published clips will do just fine. For some clients, this isn’t enough; they want writers to complete an assignment before they agree to hire them. This is when we run into problems, especially if the client wants to keep all special samples without paying for them.

[bctt tweet=”Ask your clients questions before you write samples. Here is a quick guide.” username=”freelancewj”]

Before creating new samples at a potential client’s request ask him the following:

  • Why do you need new samples when I already showed you several examples of my writing?
  • How much will you pay for me to write this sample?
  • Who owns my writing sample?
  • What will you do with my sample if I’m not hired?

Many potential clients are actually very well-intentioned—they only want to be sure you can handle the material. However, there are other clients who are looking for free content.  Asking questions will prevent you from helping to stock someone else’s website without seeing anything in return.

There have been occasions where I’ve written on spec:

  •’s Prep program is a two-week audition where potential Guides create content for their Guide Site.  Several writers apply and build sites at the same time, but only one writer is chosen for the job. Those who don’t make the cut are left with nothing to show for their hard work. Fortunately for me, it paid off and I landed the gig. If I didn’t I probably would have used all of the content for my blog.
  • One regular client asked me if I would try tackling a particular topic. The gig was lucrative but I never wrote about that particular subject before. Rather than lose this client to someone else, I wrote the piece on spec. I also got the gig.

Providing free samples or articles on spec is never a sure thing. While most freelance writers shy away from clients requesting free samples, there have been occasions where it’s turned out well for the writer. If you’re going to write a free sample, make sure you’re compensated, especially if the potential client will use the sample.

If you’re not compensated and it’s only to be used as an “audition,” make sure your client knows he doesn’t own any rights to the content, he may not publish it without your consent, and it is yours to do with what you wish. If the client wants all rights to a sample even if you don’t get the gig, run. This is only someone looking for free goods.

Writers Work - Get Paid to Write

Every day writers ask if they should submit free samples. My answer is always to consider the source and ask the right questions. I’m not a fan of writing on spec, but I did have success with it a couple of times, and I know other writers with similar stories.

Just keep in mind you may not receive any form of payment for your work, and the potential client may very well end up keeping your samples to use as he wishes. While there are differences between writing on spec and turning in free samples, the outcome can be the same. Lots of work for nothing.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever submitted a free sample? Would you write on spec?

[First published in 2010; updated October 2022]


21 responses
  1. Stefanie Avatar

    While I try not make it a habit of writing on spec or giving away free samples, I have done it with mixed results. One site wanted two short articles as samples. I wrote them, submitted them, and never heard from the person again. I have no idea what they did, or didn’t do, with the pieces I submitted.

    After that, I told myself I wouldn’t submit freebies again, but when a gaming website I applied for emailed me asking for two samples, I agreed. This particular website has been around for a long time and is well-known among gaming journalists, so I feel that this time taking a chance writing samples has a very good chance of turning into a paying gig.

    I guess it all depends on who’s asking for the samples and how much you trust them.
    .-= Stefanie´s last blog ..Return to Rapture! =-.

  2. Phil Avatar

    First rule I made when I went on my own…no writing on spec. Has served me well. I’ll go one further, writers should seek a kill fee if something gets “spiked,” which is more likely to happen as pubs cut pages.

  3. AuroraGG Avatar

    Even for legit clients (where you feel the request is not a hoax to get free content) I would not submit a spec unless compensated for it.

    I think that if you are in discussion with the client and you have provided a portfolio with samples and clips for them to consider, that really should be enough.

    If they have all this information and still insist on a spec, perhaps you need to look at your portfolio/resume again and make sure you are presenting the right information and a good variety of exemplary samples.
    .-= AuroraGG´s last blog ..A Guide to Storage Networking =-.

  4. cristy Avatar

    I had question, what sites or freelance gigs do you recommend for a beginner to try out for? I am fairly new at freelancing and I’m trying to look for a couple of places “to get my feet wet”. Any suggestions?

  5. Meryl K Evans Avatar

    It depends on the situation. Like Stefanie said — if a site has been around a long time and has a good rep — I’m willing and I did, which led to the gig. I also recently wrote a sample for a new client. I had previously worked with the guy who asked me for the sample when he worked for a different company. It was a different writing style than when we originally worked together. And I’m working with him.

    But if someone emails me out of the blue and I am not familiar with their site — I won’t agree. One asked me for title / topic ideas — that I can handle. Some of us have a big enough portfolio that referring them to the right kind of articles should be enough.
    .-= Meryl K Evans´s last blog ..Top 25 Books for Writers and Writing-related Topics =-.

  6. Carson Brackney Avatar

    I can understand carving out exceptions to the no freebies rule. I’ve done it before to land jobs and I’ve written guest posts on a few blogs free of charge just for the sake of exposure/links/etc.

    I haven’t written any sample articles in order to score a gig for a while, but the last time I did it, I tried something new. I published the articles on pages of a WP blog set up on a subdomain of my site. I installed a WP plug-in that prevents copying/pasting and activated it. The potential client could see and read the work, but if they were out to nab freebies, they’d be forced to retype the suckers by hand. Not a foolproof defense, but most freebie-seeking thieves aren’t really interested in doing that much work. I figured that if they didn’t want ’em or didn’t like ’em, I’d just sell them elsewhere or otherwise re-purpose them.
    .-= Carson Brackney´s last blog ..The Lawrence of Arabia Guide to Online Freelance Writing Success =-.

  7. T.W. Anderson Avatar

    When you are looking at building an addition on your home, you don’t ask the general contractor to come to your home and build your son a tree-fort in the back yard in his spare time so you can see a “sample” of his work. You check his resume, you call and verify his credentials, and if you like what you see you hire him.

    I do not work on spec. Ever. I have a resume. It’s there for a reason. Asking someone to work on spec is asking them to work for free. It’s not only unethical, it’s unprofessional, and it means you didn’t take the time to read their resume, not to mention take the time to call and verify their credentials.

    If a potential client cannot take the time to verify my credentials, they are not worth my time to work for. I take pride in my work. When someone asks for my resume, I fully expect them to verify the information on it is accurate. I will not work for free. Period.

    1. C. Avatar

      well said, TW Anderson: unethical and unprofessional.

      The more of us who refuse to provide “samples”, the less likely people are to think it’s acceptable to ask for them.

  8. C. Avatar

    I’ll write on spec for a well-established client if I know they aren’t the type to drag things out and play games.

    This past week, I responded to a freelance opportunity, and even after seeing my heavily stocked portfolio (with very well respected clients) and a resume with years of experience, they demanded I write them a sample. I figured the company was legit, but politely and diplomatically explained that my portfolio and resume should suffice. The lady became incredibly rude and demanding. Needless to say, if my past doesn’t make someone confident in my skills and ability, then I’m not interested in working with them.

    Someone places just don’t seem to get the consequences of providing custom “samples”.

  9. Dean Rieck Avatar

    NO. Never. No how. If you’re just starting out and have no reputation and no samples of past work, maybe writing for free is justified. But when you have both experience and samples, there is no reason to write for free.

    There are two reasons a client would ask for free work. 1. They don’t want to pay you anyway. 2. They have no clue what good writing is, which is why they can’t make a decision based on your samples.

    You don’t want these clients. Tell them no. If they keep asking, tell them hell no. Every writer who writes for free hurts every other writer by setting unrealistic expectations and creating an unprofessional image.

    Ask yourself: What other professional (doctor, lawyer, accountant) would work for nothing?

  10. T.W. Anderson Avatar

    On a total side note, I used the above contractor example with a woman this morning who asked me for a sample after I had already provided a resume + 4 published pieces + the testimonials section on my website.

    Her reply?

    “Thanks for the lengthy reply, but it sounds like you’re overqualified for the work we’re looking to do. We employ over 50 writers on a freelance basis, and you’re the first one who has ever asked for a contract or refused to write a (paid) sample. We do appreciate your initial interest, good luck with your writing.”

    I almost choked on my drink at the “overqualified” and “first writer who has ever asked for a contract or refused to write a sample”.

    Any company who refuses to sign a contract is flat-out looking to scam. Contracts protect BOTH parties. Anyone who refuses to sign one is nowhere near professional.
    .-= T.W. Anderson´s last blog ..Content Writing Experiment Conclusion =-.

    1. T.W. Anderson Avatar

      Furthermore, I shudder to think at the type of individuals they have working for them if the 50 writers in question are operating without a contract. That’s professional suicide.
      .-= T.W. Anderson´s last blog ..Content Writing Experiment Conclusion =-.

  11. Orville Avatar

    I think this is a tough question because we are all not Margaret Atwood or Toni Morrison. I am currently writing some articles for free because for me the importance is getting published. Of course, I want to be paid for my writing but I also realize that getting published by professional publications consistently is very important as well.

  12. Elizabeth Young Avatar

    Being an aspiring writer myself, as well as writing for two film blogs both my own, one of which totally devoted to the adult film industry, I’m not against writing something on spec especially if it’s for a topic I know about. However, I would let the prospective client know my guide rules if I don’t the job but they want to ‘test drive’ me. I would indeed tell them, that if I don’t get the gig, they are not allowed to use any of my material without my expressed consent, that I own all exclusive rights to it and it belongs to me to use as I see fit, including but not limited to using it for another job or publishing myself.
    In general, writing on spec is a bit tricky and one should proceed with caution but as long as you are upfront with the client about what you want and expect as well as the client, it shouldn’t be a bad thing. Oh, and always get any kind of agreement in writing is always a good idea. That way everything is above board and there can be no misunderstandings.
    .-= Elizabeth Young´s last blog ..Eva (2005)~Gasper Noe =-.

  13. AVeditor Avatar

    Think of this from the editor’s perspective. You are likely unknown and you ask him for work. He gets these requests multiple times a day. You have clips. Great. But here’s the thing–someone else has already edited your clips. And he doesn’t have time to make you a good writer.

    I’ve heard the plumber, roofer, contractor argument before. But it doesn’t work. It would be like the roofer doing the work and then having another roofer go in to make the work better. How much work did that second roofer do? You’ll never know.

    So yes, you may have made a living not writing on spec, but consider that editors are also very busy and don’t have time to imagine how much editing it took to get your piece ready for publication.

  14. Melissa Avatar

    I am new to freelancing and was interested in applying for a job with However, when I researched the site, to make sure it is legite, a lot of my searches came up with “ scams”. Many people said, that even after the initial “training period,” when they were selected to be a writer, they were paid pennies for a lot of work. I was wondering if you could share your experiences with, and would recommend this site to a new freelancer? Thank you!

  15. Jim Osterman Avatar

    98% of the time I will not write on spec unless there is some compensation. It doesn’t have to be my normal fee because I wouldn’t take a spec writing assignment that required the time a real-world assignment would.

    If we do not place a value on our services — why should a potential client?

  16. Issa Avatar

    Time and again. Many writers feel a little bit queasy when writing for free. You cannot blame then, specially when many have been scammed over and over. I love the questions you listed here. I think only a hen sat its way to success and if a spec work is that thin line between success and failure, you can go ahead and take that one chance to success. It’s like investing only that you’re doing it with labor, not with money.

  17. Kristen Hicks Avatar

    I’m glad to find this thread as I just got a response from a job ad I replied to asking that I complete a fairly thorough assignment to be considered for the job, with no mention of pay for the time spent on it. With paying jobs and personal writing projects to juggle, the request came off as pretty unreasonable to me. I’d sent writing samples already and offered to do some writing for them at a low cost as a chance to “try me out” in our earlier correspondence and wasn’t sure how common and/or legitimate this type of request was in the world of freelance copywriters.

    I’m glad to hear some others verify my sense that working for free for the opportunity to be considered is neither a good business proposition nor a reasonable use of my time, in most cases.

  18. kat Avatar

    It’s been years since I’ve been asked to write on spec but just recently an organization–a reputable one but, clearly, one without experience hiring writers–requested I complete a writing assignment that required research. In their mind, I’m sure they thought it was a completely reasonable request to set up an “audition” of sorts for the handful of freelancers they had interviewed and among whom they couldn’t make up their minds. They probably felt they were behaving properly by agreeing upfront to pay each writer $150 for his/her manuscript. They also wanted the piece fairly quickly.
    I declined. With a fair amount of time-sensitive work on my plate, I wouldn’t have been able to carve out the time to do the assignment justice. What’s more, good writing takes time. I estimated I’d need to allow 8-10 hours to do the piece. Imagine spending that kind of time on the piece, only to be hired. Why should I assume the client would suddenly be willing to pay my hourly rate going forward (BTW it was the rate I quoted them during the interview when they asked)? After all, I completed that first story in a couple of days and was willing to take $150 as payment.

  19. Margaux Avatar

    I recently met a magazine publisher randomly when I was riding a train and he read my blog later. He found me on Facebook and told me that he thought my blog was “impressive” and he asked if I wanted to do some freelance work. He sent me a link to his magazine and several experienced people have said that he’s legit and that I should pursue the opportunity. I am not an experienced writer but I’m interning for a newspaper and have published a couple articles. I also maintain a blog that has been recently set up. I have never done any freelance work. I told him that I am interested in the offer and that I’d like to here more details such as payrate and deadline. In my position, is it reasonable to ask about payrate given that he’s seen my work and was interested?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.