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Is Spec Work a Necessary Evil for Freelancers?

I find it interesting that there’s a strong “no spec work” mentality in the design community, but it’s still considered fair practice in the writing world.

I consider myself to be a fairly well-established freelance writer—I’ve been doing this for a few years, have worked for several respected brands and have an extensive portfolio—yet I’m still almost always asked to create new, client-specific writing samples “on spec” when I’m applying for gigs.

For the most recent job I applied to, the writing test entailed brainstorming several pitches, as well as writing two full articles, and it took me almost four hours! As someone who operates on a “time is money” philosophy, that’s a big loss of resources, especially if I don’t end up getting the position.

If you’re a freelancer, you might be trying to figure out how to handle requests for spec work or writing samples ’cause, let’s be honest, no one likes to work for free. Here’s my take on the whole situation, and spoiler alert, my conclusion probably isn’t what you want to hear.

What Is Spec Work?

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, spec work is any work completed on “a speculative basis,” meaning there’s a chance you’re not going to be paid for it. The idea behind it is clients can see if you’re a good fit for their creative needs before committing to any paid work.

You might have seen this viral YouTube video from Zulu Alpha Kilo, which is part of the “Say No to Spec” movement.

It’s pretty funny, and it definitely shows the unfair position “creatives” are put in—we work in some of the only industries where free samples are considered a given!

Can You Say No to Spec?

I’ve already admitted I do spec work, and if you asked me if a freelance writer can turn down a request for free samples, I’d say, “Sure, but only if you’re OK with not getting the job.”

The fact of the matter is freelance writing is a highly competitive field, and if you don’t want to do spec work, there’s someone equally talented who will. This is especially true in the world of digital lifestyle content—it may be a different story if you work, say, for small businesses or as a specialized copywriter.

However, from what I’ve experienced, it’s still standard practice for online publications to ask for unique writing samples as part of edit or writing tests, and if you say no, you’ll likely be disqualified from the application process.

If you really want the job, suck it up and do the spec work.

In short, it doesn’t matter how many published writing samples you have, you still might be asked to for spec work, and if you really want the job, you should suck it up and do it.

Where I Draw the Line with Spec Work

However, I do have limits when it comes to free work, and you should, too. Some of my “hard limits” include:

  • When the company asks too much: There’s a limit of how much spec work you should be asked for—enough to gauge your writing skills and no more. So when a publication asked me for FIVE complete articles on spec, I said no.
  • When I get the sense they might “steal” work: In a traditional spec work arrangement, the company will pay for any work that they decide to use. However, I’ve heard of sites publishing articles written for edit tests and not paying or hiring the writer. That’s is unethical and skeezy. If you’re getting weird vibes from a spec request, be sure to establish that you will retain full rights to anything you create unless the company decides to pay you.
  • When I don’t know the company’s rates: This is actually more of a “soft” limit, but it’s still worth noting. Personally, I don’t feel comfortable doing spec until I know my rates align with the company’s. Many freelance job postings are forthcoming about payment (which is amazing), but if rates aren’t listed, I generally make sure me and the company are on the same page before I do any free work. After all, I would be really mad if I did several hours of work, only to be offered $20 per article.

Overall, spec work, free samples, and writing and edit tests are a weird topic for me. I don’t quite know how I feel about them, and my friends all have different opinions, too. However, the bottom line is I still often feel the need to comply to spec requests, and I don’t foresee that changing any time soon.

I would love to hear from other creatives about this! Do you do spec work? Are there certain circumstances where you will or won’t? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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