Beware the "writing sample"

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I love — absolutely love — when I respond to a dodgy-looking job posting from some anonymous “Web marketing company” trolling for writers, and I get an email requesting the same information that they could have gotten off my Web site and/or attached resume. Oh, and of course they have the audacity to demand a “500-600 word sample article” about some broad subject that cannot have been published elsewhere, either online or in print. They claim that they have too many people applying for the position, so in order to winnow out the “legitimate” writers from the wanna-bes, they decided to ask everyone to submit a brand-spankin’ new article made just to their specs.

In other words, out of, say, 200 applicants, they could conceivably get 200 articles written for free, without having to hire a single one of them.

Yeah. Clever boys.

Why do I bother responding to these posts anyway? Well, many of them are actually written fairly persuasively, with enough detail to make you think that it’s a real site. Indeed, it may actually be a real site, but it may also be an article directory that’s run by some guy in his basement in Norway. It’s difficult to tell sometimes, although I stay away from job postings (especially those on Craigslist) that don’t at least include details on types of articles requested, word count, deadlines, and payment. If it simply says: I need a really good writer to submit lots of blog posts. Email with sample clips and payment requirements, well, I generally don’t waste my time on it. I’ve had some luck with getting one-off assignments from these vague posts, but generally they’re not worth my time or effort chasing them down. It takes me an average of about 5 minutes to put together an electronic package that includes my resume and an introductory letter that links to my Web site and online portfolio, but multiply that by even just 10 job postings, and I could spend an entire hour just sending out applications that end up in someone’s Junk Mail box.

No, thank you.

So lately I’ve been limiting my applications to 2-3 a day, with each intro letter tailored to the individual job posting. That doesn’t include traditional query letters to established publications and sites, of course, which can take more than a few hours each, depending on the complexity of the subject I’m proposing to write about. Even with that relatively limited output, I still get the occasional request for a comprehensive “writing sample,” but unless I get more detail and the sample is short and doesn’t require much research (if any), I generally decline with a note basically saying that I don’t write for free.

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