Why I no longer provide prospective employers with free writing samples: A manifesto

Last week, I spent an afternoon composing the last piece of writing I will ever give away for free.

This was a tryout for an editorial position at an organization—call it Company X—for which I’d frankly love to work. Company X seemed equally interested in me: I’d had a sparkling phone chat with human resources. I was a strong candidate. The job sounded fabulous.

Then came the “next step” I have come to dread: Could I whip up a writing sample? Nothing too taxing. Just a trial version of the sort of work I’d be doing for Company X, were they to hire me.

I should have said no right then. This would be my fourth such unpaid tryout in the past several months. If all went as expected, I would dutifully compose my writing sample, send it in on deadline and then never again hear from Company X. By now I was so familiar with this drill that I already had a rule: No free tryouts for jobs I don’t really, really want.

But I really, really wanted this one.

I sent in the sample. And guess what? I have not heard back from Company X.

So I’m declaring publicly: I will no longer provide any prospective employer with free writing. If this takes me out of the running for every job in creation, so be it.

I can already imagine the criticism: How hard can it be to bang out a writing sample? You don’t expect a business to hire you without being absolutely certain you can do the job, do you?

My answers are: It is hard. And, yes, I do.

Writing takes time. Depending on the complexity of a story and how many other assignments I’m juggling at any given moment, I can spend weeks reporting a long-form article. This investigative piece for the Columbia Journalism Review took two weeks to finish. This front-page story in the Wall Street Journal took over two months. I happened to be on deadline for both the week Company X asked for a writing sample—which they wanted back right away.

Now, in Company X’s defense, what they were asking for didn’t seem like a lot: Just a few paragraphs’ worth of news. But writing isn’t just typing. It isn’t even just “creating.” It’s reading the company’s other articles to determine the style and tone they prefer. It’s analyzing their format and matching it. It’s studying their website. It’s researching the topic. Then, finally, comes the writing. Then the editing. Then the double- and triple-checking to be sure every name is spelled correctly, every fact is accurate, and every hyperlink works.

Company X’s free sample took four hours. Not a lot, right? Actually, in a week in which we ran out of food because I didn’t have time to go grocery shopping, it was four hours I could have put to excellent use. The time really adds up when you include the other free samples I’ve done recently. Two, for major national magazines, took a good 15 hours each. By the third I’d wised up; that one cost me 10 hours. All together, that’s one week in which I worked entirely for free. How many doctors, lawyers, bankers, shoe-repairers, plumbers or carpenters are expected to do that?

Which brings me to the second argument. Let’s say you want custom bookshelves for your house. You hire a cabinetmaker based on references, a personal interview, and examples of his past work. You do not ask him to build you a prototype bookshelf for free to make sure he’s up to the job. You especially do not do this and then change your mind, or change the job description, or lose the budget for the bookshelves and not give him the courtesy of an explanation and payment for his time.

So here’s my counterproposal to your request for a writing sample: Check out my resume. Read some of my past work. Read this blog. Call my references.

Then, if you think I can do the job, hire me.

If it turns out I can’t, fire me.

Or hire me for a week or two as a freelancer. If things work out, great. If not, we part amicably.

If you absolutely need a writing sample or story ideas, that’s fine, too. Let’s settle on a fee that’s fair to both of us. If you like one or two of the ideas I give you, feel free to use them, even if you don’t hire me. You paid for them, so they’re yours. Everybody wins.

Freelance writers, job-hunters, and cabinetmakers: I urge you to stand with me.

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