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What to Do When Asked to Write a Free Test Article

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Should you write a free test article if a client asks? First off, asking for unpaid work is considered to be rather rude in the writing world (or any line of work, really). Some clients either don’t know this or don’t care, which means they will still ask.

As a writer, you should never feel obligated to write a free test article. In fact, a lot of people will advise you to avoid doing it if you can. The main reason for this is that it can tarnish your reputation, as professional writers know what their work is worth (not nothing, that’s for sure!). There are some occasions, though, where it might be a smart thing to do. Knowing what those occasions are will help you make the right decision.

When you’re asked to write a free test article, the hardest thing is not saying “no,” but knowing how to say “no.” If you handle it right, you can turn your potential client into a loyal one who you can work with for years to come.

Why You Should Avoid Writing a Free Test Article

Writing a free article might seem like a quick-win but it can have a lasting impact on you and your relationship with that client. Here are five top reasons to avoid writing a free test article:

1. You’re Worth More

First and foremost, your time as a professional writer is valuable! The best writers have a clear idea of what their writing is worth (and of course, they do their utmost to make sure the quality is high).

If you agree to provide a free test article, it can make you look inexperienced or unprofessional. This could leave you in a relationship with a client where they continually fail to treat you with the respect you deserve. It might also hold you back in your career by setting a precedent for future relationships or agreements.

an alarm clock and some coins showing that when you write a free article, you're not earning money for your time
Image by Nattanan Kanchanaprat from Pixabay

2. You Don’t Know if It Will Pay Off

Perhaps the biggest risk with writing for free is that there’s no guarantee it will turn into anything more. A potential client can claim that if you pass their test you’ll be given regular, well-paying writing jobs, but often this doesn’t happen. Or you write a few test articles for a few weeks, then it peters out. The client might be asking lots of writers for trial pieces, and you might never get any feedback, let alone be offered paid work.

Sure, it’s great to think positive, but you also need to be realistic – sometimes there are no guarantees. The only way to avoid feeling like you’ve been taken for a ride is to make sure you get paid for your time.

3. It’s Always Better to Work with Like-Minded People

Most clients asking for free samples are working primarily with entry-level writers. Is that your crowd? If not, you may want to find a client looking for your expertise level and work quality. You want to work with people who value your attention to detail and quality, and who you know think in the same way you do when it comes to getting things right. The phrase “you get what you pay for” can reflect on the person doing the paying, too.

4. Starting off on the Wrong Foot Will Set a Negative Tone

If a client asks for a free sample and you say “no,” they should be willing to compromise with a rate that’s a bit lower. If they aren’t, this might be a sign that they are also going to prove picky and uncooperative in the future. This is the kind of stress you want to avoid.

Think carefully about whether you really want to write for someone like this long-term. Getting your relationship off to a good start is essential as it will shape the whole partnership for months or even years to come.

5. It’s Better to Save Your Time for Paying Clients

As good writers gain experience and knowledge, they become even better. Soon, your work can be quite valuable and sought-after. This is when you want to save your time for clients who pay a decent rate rather than waste it on potential, risky clients.

Remember, asking for the rate you deserve and making the most of your time is a key part of advancing your writing career.

When Is It OK to Write a Free Test Article?

In most cases, you’re better off not agreeing to write a free test article. However, there are some scenarios where it might be a good idea. If you really weigh the pros and cons and you see an obvious benefit, you might choose to write a free article if:

1. You’re Just Getting Started

Are you still getting started in your writing career, or maybe experiencing a bit of a dry spell? To help get you through this, you may have to accept some less-than-ideal terms, like a lower rate or an unpaid trial of your work, just for a short period. If it will land you a regular client or two, it may pay off in the end.

The important thing here is to make sure that your free sample really showcases the quality of your work, so that you’re sure writing for free will give you a good return.

A long road with the word "start". At the start of your writing career you may want to write a free test article.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

2. You Don’t Have Any Sample Work Yet

It’s also common for new writers to not have any samples of their work, or not enough. So doing a bit of free work might give you the portfolio you need to then help you get the jobs you want. Just make sure that what you are writing (for free) will serve your own purpose as well, i.e., that you’ll be writing about a topic you want to specialize in, and you’re writing about it in a way and style that you’d be happy to keep on delivering.

3. It Will Lead to a High-Paying (Real) Job

If you spot a job that is exceptionally high-paying, writing an unpaid test article might be worth it. Once you have been applying for jobs for a while, especially on freelance writer platforms, you’ll start to notice the jobs with a drastic difference in pay. These jobs are sure to be competitive!

If you think you have a pretty good chance of getting the job, and competition is fierce, this might be one of the times where carrying out a free writing test would make sense.

But the first thing you should do here is to make sure the job is real. Often, especially on public job boards, there are scam postings that will ask for free trial work or even an automated phone or Skype interview. Beware of these postings! Research that job well, find the company’s website, google the job title and description. See if there are any reports of people who have been duped into giving out personal information. And before agreeing to anything, ask the interviewer more in-depth questions about the position.

There’s truth to the old adage, “if it sounds too good to be true,” so in short, just be safe!

4. You Love the Topic

Maybe your dream writing gig is to write about pet life and health, but you’ve had a hard time finding writing jobs specific to that niche. When you finally do come across a post that is pet-related, you’ll probably be more inclined to agree to an initial piece of free work to secure the job and add a fitting piece to your portfolio. Or if you’re branching out into a new niche where jobs are limited, you might be happy to get as much experience as you can.

Having taken your own situation into account, if you do decide to write a free test article, then before you agree to anything, make sure you are truly writing a sample article and not a full-length article.

Sample articles, ideally, should be around 300 words, or something not far off that you feel is a reasonable length of (free) writing to showcase your work. Think about the amount of time you’ll be investing in order to deliver a good piece, and agree on a length before you start. Otherwise, you’ll quickly end up putting hours into something that may not give you anything in return. A sample should be quality – but quick – work.

How to Decline an Invitation to Write a Free Test Article

Whatever stage of your writing career you’re at, it’s likely that at some point you’ll come across someone asking you to write a free test article. So that you’re not put on the spot and end up saying “yes,” it’s smart to have an already thought-out answer up your sleeve.

There are tactful ways to say you’re not interested or don’t agree with the request. When declining an invitation to write a free test article, it’s a good idea to provide an explanation over a straight “no.” It will help the client understand the writer’s side of things, and might even make them reconsider asking for free work going forward.

A couple of reasons you could use are:

  • It’s not common practice to do free work – in this, or any, profession. Politely explain that they wouldn’t ask a lawyer or an electrician (or whatever service provider example you want to use!) to do the job for free, so why is it ok to ask someone in the creative industry? You’re willing to provide samples of past work. You should even refer them to previous customer reviews if you have them – whether on your website or your freelancer profile on Upwork or another platform.
  • Writing is your career, not a hobby. It doesn’t make sense for you to spend a significant amount of time crafting a publishable piece that you won’t be compensated for. The time you spend on your business needs to be lucrative.
a tree carving that says "just say no," to remind you that you have the final say as a writer
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

In terms of how you say “no,” always keep it:

  • Calm
  • Professional
  • Objective
  • Well-structured
  • Brief

If the client is respectful, they should agree without argument. Or at least respect your point of view. There are then two recommended approaches to help move things forward:

Offer to Show Some Samples of Past Work

If they’re looking for a sample of your writing, send them links to some of your published work. If you don’t have anything published that you can share, then send them an old, unpublished piece in a Word doc if you have to. Just make sure it’s good! Also, make sure the writing sample is relevant to the job you’re applying for and that it’s not copyright material or something the client you wrote it for would not want you to share.

The best move is to include a few samples. If you don’t have anything specific to the job you’re applying for, then choose some samples to illustrate your tone range and the variety of topics you have experience with to show that you can take adapt to different needs and styles.

Suggest a Lower (but Fair) Rate

Let the client know that while you don’t accept invitations to do free work, you may be willing to write one trial article at a reduced rate to get started. Be clear right off the bat though that if they like your work and want to hire you for more, you would charge your regular rate for any future articles.

What Should You Charge for a Test Article?

What to charge for a test article depends on a few key factors, like word count, hours put into it, complexity (whether or not it includes keyword research and basic SEO, for example), and so on. When it comes to calculating article cost, some writers go by cent-per-word, but many prefer hourly. This is something you and your potential client will need to discuss.

Additionally, is the rate covering just the sample article, or revisions, as well? No one wants to get roped into work they did not strictly agree to. However, some clients assume revisions are just part of the deal. While this may be the case for the usual work, not everyone wants to put that much work into a test article.

If you do decide to write a free test article, make sure you have really thought about it and considered the long-term implications. Or if you’re sticking to your guns, then explain your reasoning and offer an alternative approach.

Then, the choice is in the hands of the client. Either you can move forward together with a rate that is agreeable or they can go elsewhere. No matter what approach you take, make sure that what you do write is worth your while.

Tell us what you think. Have you had an experience where a potential client asked for free work? Did you do it? And was it beneficial? We’d love to hear your stories and any advice you might have in the comments below!

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