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Writing for Free, On Spec, and Legit Samples – What’s the Difference?

writing for freeWriting for free is something, as a general rule, I don’t do – except of course when I do.

After all,  I’m a professional with excellent credits and like others need and deserve to be paid what I’m worth. Yet I spent part of this weekend writing quite a bit for free.

In other words my real answer to the question should you or I ever be writing for free is a great big “it depends.”

Maybe I should have a category of “it depends” because so much of the writing game is like that – no certain or standard answers despite what we experts sometimes seem to say.

About this writing for free weekend

Friday I found a job listed that truly excited me. It seems like something I not only could do well, but thoroughly enjoy as well. He asked applicants to read a sample of the kind of thing he wants, watch a couple of short videos, tell him if we wanted the gig and to quote a price for doing something similar with a draft document. I was way to tired to take that on Friday evening, so I started on Saturday morning.

The only way I know how to estimate a price, particularly of something I haven’t done before, is to actually time myself doing some of it. So I did just that. First I spent maybe an hour + reading and rereading/watching the material he had linked to.

Then I turned on Toggl and began to tackle the draft. I reordered the document, did light editing on the first couple of pages, added one item I thought fit and after careful proof reading submitted my application. I included a price based on about three hours of actual editing and writing work which is what my timing showed me it would take to do the draft document from scratch.

Was that writing for free or on spec?

Great question. I wrote it hoping to get the gig, so in that sense I wrote on speculation. Not too difference than writing an article on speculation for a magazine. I truly felt spending the better part of a weekend day on this was worth my while. I loved the material. I learned from the material. I liked this guy’s style. It was a gamble I was willing to make. I considered what I sent him a legitimate sample of my understanding of what he wanted.

As creatives I think it makes total sense to take the occasional risk like this.

When is sample writing for free not legitimate?

You can’t always tell when a prospective client asks for a sample if it’s really because they want to evaluate your writing or if they are scamming for free content. There are those scams out there. I’d be highly surprised if this were one of them. Far too much thought had gone into his posting it seems to me.

I think I judge based on the tone of the request, the length of the sample or number of samples they want. If they want one short sample and their topic is quite different from anything I’m already showing samples of, I may go for it. This one fit my personal bill – your mileage will vary.

Red flags for me are asking for more than one free sample, no explanation of why they think they need one, and anything about the ad or the person that just feels sleazy to me.

Yes, I’m making a judgement based on my experience and intuition and if I’m wrong, so be it.

Other reasons why writing for free may make sense

Mostly I don’t recommend you and others do much writing for free is because it can become a trap. If you write for free for one friend, another may expect the same treatment, etc.

Besides, most writers need to get in the habit of charging for their work. And many need to learn how to charge more.

On the other hand, not everyone writes well. We can be of huge service to the people and groups we love by helping them with their writing. Take me, for example. For several years I’ve drafted the annual fundraising letter for the zen Buddhist community where I live; this year I missed the email asking me to do it and someone else took over! There’s a lesson there too isn’t there? I was able to help with editing and my contribution was valued.

Writing for free can be a marvelous gift – use it wisely.

Write well and often,

Anne Wayman, freelance writer

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