Ink-Dipped Advice: The Myth of the Worthwhile Unpaid Sample

 

If you cruise the job boards and read listings, one way you can cull the worthwhile jobs from the non-worthwhile jobs is their approach to samples.

Professionals ask for samples from your previous work. They might ask that it’s on topic; or they might just want a general sample for voice and style. But they are smart enough, respectful of skill, and capable of reading a sample and seeing if the writer’s style, tone, and craft are compatible.

Companies lower down the scale, who tend to put quantity over quality, will often demand an unpaid sample on a topic they assign. I’ve seen this in web content jobs, and, disturbingly, in some of the corporate script-writing jobs.

Sometimes, they are clear in the ad, and you can just move on without bothering to pitch. But some companies wait until you pitch and then demand you write a “sample” per their specifications as a “test” without pay.

This is different than a company that requests a standard editing or writing test that it wants for all applicants – although the top companies who do that also pay you for your time.

Freshly minted freelancers (and many fresh authors, scriptwriters, etc.) worry that if they submit material, it will be stolen. The only place that’s likely is in the land of the Unpaid Sample.

Note that this is different than an agent or an editor requesting sample chapters of your completed novel. That IS legitimate. Legitimate agents and editors don’t need or want to steal anything from eager authors.

The Scam Samplers give you parameters and demand that you write a complete article (or script) with sources, embedded links, et al – for nothing. In other words, they have a pool of unpaid writers. They then tell those who submitted that they’re “going in a different direction” or “the position has been filled.” The company vanished. The unpaid work then turns up, under a different company name, and a different byline.

I remember, several years ago, someone in a freelance group in which I participated, brought up such an ad. This guy was angry because he’d answered the ad, submitted the sample, and was told he didn’t get the job. A week later, the company’s website was gone. Three weeks later, he came across a new website for a similar company – and his work was up there, verbatim, under a different byline for a different company. He posted on the loop. Nearly two dozen other freelancers had submitted to the same company. All of them were told that they hadn’t gotten the job. ALL of their work was up on this website. Unattributed. Unpaid.

I’d seen the job. I’d pitched. But as soon as they asked for an article written specifically to them for their specs – I sent them a response with how much it would cost.

I charge for such samples. I charge a lower rate, but I charge. And I expect 50% in advance, and 50% paid on receipt of the sample.

When I got a nasty email in response, I told them no.

Something similar happened a few months ago, when I pitched to a company to write 3 minute corporate videos for their product. I hadn’t written for that type of product, but I’d written enough corporate videos that reflected the various company’s visions and products with a sense of humor that I felt good about the submission. I’d used several as samples for other jobs – and landed those jobs. I knew the samples stood up.

The “producer” got back to me and said they loved my scripts. Now, they wanted me to participate in a TWO HOUR Skype session with the client, and then write a spec script for the product itself to see if I could “get” their tone. Then we would start talking contract. Because, of course, in spite of the rate listed in the ad (which was near the top of my range), that might change (go lower) during contract negotiations.

I spent two and a half decades working production in theatre, film, and television. Any professional director or producer can read a similar script excerpt or sample and know if the writer “gets” the tone. There are also specific Guild rates for all of this type of work, including working on a script that is later rejected.

I sent them a rate for that amount of work.

I got an immediate email stating no, no, no, they weren’t PAYING for this work. There were many strong candidates and this was part of the competition to see who would get the job.

I wished them well and withdrew from consideration.

This led to a barrage of nasty emails over 36 hours berating me for my unprofessionalism and that I should be grateful for the opportunity. To waste two hours of my time on SKYPE and write a complete script for free. Not grateful when someone tries to scam me.

I forwarded them all to my lawyer and had him deal with it.

These are the jobs that aren’t worth a freelancer’s time and effort. You won’t be paid; you won’t have anything worthwhile to add to your portfolio.

A legitimate, professional company has personnel who can read, comprehend, and project whether or not a particular writer’s style is right for their vision. I do script coverage for several small production companies and individual directors. That’s the job – discernment of art, craft, and style. If they want a project-specific sample, they are willing to negotiate a sample rate.

If either side decides it’s not the right fit, you part with cordiality.

Everyone’s time and skills are respected, and properly compensated.

Anything else is not worth the time, energy or frustration. Let the scammers eat themselves.

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