Tom Sommers was pleased to hear back from an editor after pitching a trip feature to a big daily newspaper in his hometown of Washington, D.C. But then he took a closer look at the response: "Send over the work, and I'll have a look at it."
He was caught off guard. The payment rate or word count had not been disclosed by the editor. Sommers described the experience as "essentially an unpaid writing test with no indication of whether or not it would be accepted for publication." This was especially aggravating because he'd previously written for much larger publications and Fortune 500 firms. He'd forwarded footage from well-known websites like National Geographic to the editor. Isn't his published work enough to vouch for him?
Sommers isn't alone in this situation, and he's right to be cautious of the "trial assignment" trap. Here's what other writers and freelancer advocates have to say about when doing unpaid labor is worth it and when it's not.
When should "free" lancing be taken literally?
People consider unpaid freelance work for a variety of reasons. Those who are new to the fold may believe they need to gain experience and produce a body of work first. Even seasoned freelancers consider submitting unpaid writing samples in the hopes of landing a lucrative retainer or landing a niche beat.
Those "test assignments" can, however, occasionally raise some eyebrows. Some of them are outright frauds. To Tony Productions' founder, Daniel Hess, a Baltimore-based director, writer, and producer, said he and his colleagues are routinely asked to edit videos for free.
One national wedding video firm even sent Hess a hard disc with footage from a client's wedding and asked that his staff edit the project as a "test run." The company answered yes when Hess questioned if this was something the client would pay for. "I then inquired as to why I would not be compensated," he recalled. "They simply didn't know how to respond to that." Hess then discovered that another freelancer colleague had taken on the wedding video company at their request—and had never received any money.
Brianna Gi, a San Francisco-based presentation designer, said she realized early on in her freelancing career that some clients would ask a group of designers to each develop a few "test slides" until they had a complete deck. She no longer accepts any unpaid freelance work. "I inform prospective clients that I can provide the first few slides to see whether they like the direction, but only after they sign a contract for the entire [project]."
Writers, too, face comparable situations. Mark Soto, a Milwaukee-based freelance home improvement writer, was once asked to produce a test essay that would be compared to three other writers' entries. The company stated that the freelancer with the best entry will be hired and paid. Soto eventually turned down the project. "If you're brilliant at something, you should get compensated for it—and even if you aren't, expecting someone to write for free is unfair," he said.
Increasing your portfolio without undervaluing yourself
The founder of the B2B Writing Institute, Sarah Greesonbach, has strong sentiments regarding these kinds of customer requests. "Writing a free 'test assignment' for an agency that is 'testing' ten other authors gives too much power to someone who is profiting from your time and expertise," she explained.
However, there are situations when a quid-pro-quo arrangement makes sense, she continued. "Working for experience or exposure can sometimes be a good move," she noted, as long as freelancers make sure the trade is of comparable worth.
Helping a nonprofit write a case study in exchange for a byline or company logo on their website, for example, would be a reasonable bargain. The organization receives high-quality work, and you have the opportunity to broaden your portfolio and cover a cause that you care about. "That's an equal power exchange," Greesonbach added, "and it might [lead to] a massive break."
There are other ways to build a portfolio besides bartering, according to Ant Hodges, a marketing expert. While he did a few unpaid assignments to get his freelance career off the ground, he quickly felt exploited. Instead of going on unpaid freelance work, he advised new freelancers to start with tiny, quick projects on gig-finding sites. Building up testimonials and consumer feedback gives future clients proof of your abilities.
Convincing the clients to pay
Not all businesses that ask freelancers to complete test assignments do so with malicious intent in mind; sometimes they simply don't know any better. Some freelancers have come up with inventive ways to change the topic, resulting in compensated work.
Sean Cope, a digital marketing specialist and founder of Elevator SEO in Dayton, Ohio, for example, has discovered a technique to turn free job requests into more than $10,000 in sales.
"Whenever a customer contacts me with an unpaid opportunity, I request a 30-minute exploratory phone conversation to understand more about their objectives," he explained. "I undertake preliminary research on their website and current content prior to the conversation."
Cope identifies a person's strengths, weaknesses, and areas for growth. During the conversation, he goes over his results. He doesn't give anything away for free, and in the process, he establishes his worth.
"By the end of the meeting, the potential customer will have actionable feedback and increased confidence that I'm the perfect freelancer to help," he said.
However, it shouldn't always be up to seasoned freelancers to persuade—especially when they have a portfolio on display for the sole purpose of displaying their abilities.
Sommers ultimately declined the project because the editor's request for a story draught with no mention of compensation was off-putting. He explained, "I thought about [the decision] for a few weeks." "Although I'd love to write for them, it'll be a test at my expense, and I'm not comfortable with that... I'm going to pitch the idea and be compensated somewhere else."