Don’t Give Away Writing to Win Work By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Generally, periodical editors will assign writing projects after reading your query and a few tear sheets. But winning other kinds of writing work is different. Writing web copy as a subcontractor for a web design firm, or marketing materials for a small business, or an advertorial for a local company are all examples of scenarios where you may not be writing for someone accustomed to hiring a professional.

People using the Internet to hire a writer often feel reluctant paying a stranger in a remote location for work, but you should not have to submit something on spec that you cannot possibly sell elsewhere. What’s a writer to do?

In my 11 years of freelance writing, I have encountered this situation many times, and have developed a few strategies for helping bridge that gap of unfamiliarity between myself and potential clients.

Include your contact information and tell them you welcome a phone call whenever you respond to an ad. Oftentimes, speaking on the phone will convince them you’re genuine and it helps you understand the project better.

Prove your credentials by referencing similar work you’ve completed, and sending links or files. Provide references from satisfied clients or editors. Include their contact information.

Break up the project. Offer to write a portion of the project for a small, up-front fee, and give them the option to continue or part ways depending upon their satisfaction. This proposition is fair to both parties involved.

Situations to Avoid

– Do not write on speculation since these kinds of projects cannot be sold to anyone else. (I don’t even like writing magazine articles on spec when it IS possible to sell them to another publication.) Plus, if your client is unscrupulous, he could simply not pay and use your work anyway and you may never know it. Or, he could tweak it slightly and claim he wrote it.

– Do not participate in a competition where you and a few hundred other writers complete the project and the best one gets picked as the “winner.” This is a sneaky form of writing on spec and dishonest people can steal more writing from unsuspecting writers through this type of trickery. Who knows where all of this pilfered writing will end up?

– Never pay a reading fee to win a job. If you submitted a resume or application to a 9 to 5 job, would you pay a fee? Why is writing any different?

– Do not write for anyone without a contract or at least something in writing. Lay out the basic terms of what they expect in the text (word count/number of pages with spacing, content and scope of the work, and number and type of resources used), when it is due, how many revisions you will do before charging additional fees (and how extensive the revisions will be) and when and what you will be paid. You don’t have to approach clients like a beggar groveling for scraps. Simply send them the terms before you begin working on the project and state that their emailed response to this contract represents their agreement to the terms.

– Never write for ridiculously low fees or no fees. I have seen ads for content mills that pay fractions of pennies per word or take writer’s work with no fee and promise “exposure” or “another item for your portfolio.” Writing for less than minimum wage devalues your service and that of all freelance writers. Why pay a decent rate for work when they can get it for a pittance?

“Paying” writers with exposure or portfolio-building experience makes no sense since one can assume the organization pays other bills with actual money.

You need money to pay bills. The phone company doesn’t care if you have a small or huge writing portfolio. They want money and so should you.

If you have completed no-pay writing projects, and want to build your portfolio, bid on projects that overlap your area of expertise, such as writing an employee manual for a company since you worked in human resources. Or, pen a technical manual that builds upon your experience in network management. These clients will see your expertise as a big plus and will likely overlook your lack of writing experience.

Deborah Jeanne Sergeant writes for Writer’s Weekly occasionally. She has completed more than 3,000 paid writing projects. Visit her online at or