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Writing Samples: Should You Provide Free Work to Potential Clients?

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Writing samples are a divisive subject in the freelance community.

On the one hand, it seems logical that a potential client would want to see an example of a writer’s work before making a hiring decision. On the flip side, however, we make buying decisions every day without first sampling the product. If you’ve ever picked something up at the grocery store on a whim, you understand this phenomenon.

So, should you provide a free sample to land a lucrative contract?

In most case, I would advise against writing a sample. If a client wants to see what my work looks like, I have a large stack of clips they can peruse. Previously published clips should sufficiently demonstrate my technical knowledge, writing style, and research abilities.

And yet, exceptions to the rule apply. I will offer a sample to potential clients on occasion. Find yourself in the same shoes? If you’re debating providing a sample, answer the following questions:

1. How Much Experience Do You Have?

When I first started reaching out to would-be clients, I didn’t have a huge list of previously published pieces. I was fairly confident in my abilities, but I didn’t have the experience many clients want. If you’re just starting an online writing career, you can add a small sample to query letters, just to whet the reader’s appetite. A few short sentences will normally do the trick.

For example, I spent five years living in Europe, so I’ll often create travel-related content. When I used to see someone advertising for a writer who could create guides on European cities, I’d start my query letter with something like this:

From its charming cobblestoned streets to the fragrant boulangeries perched on every corner, Paris offers a buffet of delights to her visitors. Nestled on the banks of the Seine, the French capital exudes culture, history, and that elusive ‘je ne sais quoi’ that has captured the heart of millions…

Hello, my name is Adam Zetterlund, and I am a copywriter…

You might be surprised at how well that technique works. Right off the bat, you’re assaulting your reader with your work. Of course, your mileage may vary, and you could very well turn off some clients with this approach. If you’re not getting any bites as it is, however, what have you really got to lose? In those initial letters, I would even offer a sample of some sort. “If you’re interested in seeing more of my work, I’d be willing to discuss providing an addition sample on the subject of your choosing.” —short, simple, direct.

2. Is the Client’s Request Reasonable?

I recently worked with a fairly recognizable brand who wanted me to create several pieces of content for them. Before the contract started, however, the hiring manager asked me to “write a paragraph” so they could “get a glimpse of [my] voice.” Because the content in question was a bit particular, I decided to invest a few minutes crafting a nice sample.

I wrote a few paragraphs and received great feedback, but I’d unwittingly opened Pandora’s box.

Hi, Adam. This looks excellent so far. Can you elaborate on [redacted] (dive into descriptive detail so the reader can understand what it’s like) and remove the closing statement which is too general? Please send me a revision by EOD Friday.

Uh-oh. We had quickly veered from sample territory into full-on editorial mode. Keep in mind, the contract had yet to be signed and I hadn’t even received a verbal confirmation of our partnership. This was all still SAMPLE territory. This feedback would be wholly appropriate if we were working together on a commissioned article, but I can’t justify spending my time on a sample for a potential client, when I could be using the same time completing work for people who actually pay me.

What is your client requesting? If you’re meant to be writing 600-word blogs, a client who asks for a full blog as a “sample” is inappropriate. A “glimpse” at your work is exactly that—a glimpse, not the whole enchilada.

Remember my supermarket analogy above? Sometimes grocery chains provide little morsels of a new product to entice shoppers, and in many cases, these morsels work. (I’m looking at you, Trader Joe’s.) And yet, the supermarket doesn’t hand out a full bag of their new popcorn or an entire sausage to every person who walks by. A small bite should be enough to determine whether you want to move forward.

My final thought on writing samples is simply this: instead of wasting your time writing for free, focus on building your freelance writing resume. Network with other bloggers and try to write some guest posts you can use as clips. Build a digital portfolio that immediately establishes your authority. If and when providing a sample is mentioned, carefully weigh the questions I asked above. Use your best judgment, and don’t be afraid to turn down a request that simply doesn’t work for you. Remember, part of the joy of being a freelancer is that YOU are the boss.

How do you feel about providing free samples to clients? Do you think it’s effective? Have you been burned by writing a sample for free?