Give them a word and they'll take a page

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Make no mistake: your writing is worth money. But should you ever work for free?

As much as it’s a milestone, you probably can’t remember the exact moment you first got a positive response from an application. But rest assured, at some point you do finally reach the stage where your applications start to elicit pingbacks from actual, interested human beings instead of firm rejections or radio silence.

However, the response might be something along these lines:


Thanks for your recent application. I would like to advance you to the pre-interview stage. Due to the huge volume of applications, I would like you to undertake a small set of tasks…

If you’re in the early days of your copywriting career, this might seem like a golden opportunity for you to prove what you’re capable of, and sometimes it is (we’ll get to that in a minute). But be very clear about this: that potential employer is asking you for free work.

Only obeying orders

This is something I touched upon in a piece that I wrote for Infinite Beta. You might think that they’ve recognised your talent but noticed that your portfolio is a bit sparse — so they want a bit more proof of your abilities. Unfortunately, that’s seldom the case.

The reality is that the requirement for pre-employment assessments usually stems from the company’s recruitment procedures. These will have been set in ferroconcrete, often as a result of expensive advice from an HR consultancy on best practices and an inability to process the concept of ‘sunk costs’.

But forcing those applicants to jump through hoops isn’t anyone’s definition of ‘best’ — particularly when the biggest HR complaint is the lack of good candidates.

Your time, their money

Unpick this further and it starts to look more shady than incompetent. The example above was real — it was the first email response that came back after applying for a role at a UK cinema chain. The ‘small set of tasks’ equated to eight separate pieces, 250–500 words each, plus social posts. This was sent to six different candidates.

For the employer, that was a lot of free content. And even if they didn’t hire any of the candidates, it would equate to a couple of weeks’ worth of crowdsourced, free-of-charge consultancy. And with no assurances given regarding usage or IP, they’d have had a free hand to re-use the material or ideas.

At least in this case, the job actually existed; it’s far from unusual for the advertised job to be fictional, with an ‘employer’ gearing the whole process towards harvesting free IP and getting applicants to do their research for them. Adverts for these sort of roles — which are often for Eastern European fake news farms — are disturbingly common on the likes of LinkedIn.

We won’t use your stuff without permission, honest.

Earning exposure bucks

As anyone who’s spent any time on the ChoosingBeggars subreddit will know, stories of people offering exposure as payment in return for hard work are rife. But there are occasions when it’s a fair trade, and the start of your copywriting career is one of them — if the ROI is right.

One example was a writer who had worked in journalism but was looking to break into B2B copywriting. His writing was solid, but his experience and portfolio didn’t align with the industry he was trying to get into. He researched and approached a B2B agency and pitched a blog post for them, making it clear that it would be free. They liked the pitch and with no financial outlay, they were understandably happy to let him do it.

With the post as the lead item in his portfolio, he started getting responses to his applications which asked for — you guessed it — unpaid writing assessments. Which he did.

What these gave him was real-world experience of different briefs and, with the consent of the target employers, more portfolio items. Once he had three or four different pieces under his belt, the real, paid work started coming in.

Let the games commence

Depending on where you are in your career, your mileage for this approach will vary. In this example, he approached the company rather than the other way around, and that was only because he had a contact within the agency — cultivating contacts and networking never stops being a good idea.

It’s a different matter when you’ve got a metric tonne of experience, a portfolio bulging with tasty clients, and you’re still being expected to research and write a couple of thousand words before an employer will vouchsafe you their time in an interview.

There’s no single best approach at this point. You could say that you’ll be willing to invest time in the process if they’ll do the same — in other words, an interview. That’s assertive, but it’s no less bolshy than them demanding unpaid work from you.

Or you could try and turn it into paid work — suggest that you’ll do the assessment if they’ll cough up for it. This isn’t likely to fly (although it’s not unknown) and in fact, you’ll find further down the line that serious employers will offer to pay up front for an assessment.

Just say no… politely

But don’t be afraid to just walk away: never forget that employment should be a two-way process. If an employer is expecting you to work solo on an assessment while they’re off doing other work, they’re putting the grunt work onto you and making that part of it one-sided. If they’re not going to budge on that, chances are you’ve dodged a bullet. It’s hard to see that sort of start blossoming into a fruitful and enjoyable working relationship.

But — and this is understandably difficult in the face of some of the more absurd expectations ­– be polite and courteous. Even if it’s clear that it’s going nowhere at that point, don’t be afraid to connect with them on LinkedIn. People move around, and you may cross paths in the future.

Remember: attitudes can change. And if they see themselves losing enough quality candidates to their competitors, their recruitment polices might just change too. But don’t hold your breath.


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