Unpaid Writing Test: A Learning Experience For A Freelance Writer

A new writing gig

I was already working as a freelance writer then, but I was looking for another writing gig to supplement my income. My partner, who was undergoing a virtual assistant training program, told me that one of his fellow trainees worked as a writer for an Australian company, and they were looking for fresh additions to their team.

For this blog post, let’s call her Helen. I sent Helen a copy of my résumé, and then she scheduled a Skype chat. So far, so good.

The writing test

The first red flag was when Helen called me early in the morning without scheduling it beforehand. The second red flag came soon after; she informed me that they had a rush project with a deadline of a little over 24 hours. I wasn’t officially a part of the team yet, but I guess Helen trusted me enough to assign me an actual project instead of having me write on a test topic.

I am sorry to say that I was so timid by then that I agreed to do it even when my mind was telling me not to. It wasn’t Helen’s fault; she did say that I was free to refuse.

The topic was no walk in the park, either; I had to write 1,500 words on lawyers and human rights activism. I’ve experienced writing on subjects I knew next to nothing about, but certainly not on such a tight schedule.

Surprisingly, I was able to accomplish the task right in the nick of time. My completed article had around 1,600 words and 13 references. Phew!

After the writing test

Helen told me from the outset that she would pay me for the article one week later. That was fine with me back then since my partner knew her and saw her during their training sessions, but now I know better.

A couple of days after submitting the article, I informed Helen that I wished to withdraw my application from their company. Of course, I still expected payment for the finished article.

Four days after the supposed day of payment, the only email I got from her was a quick update — they were still waiting for the client’s feedback. After that, nothing.

Valuable lessons for a freelance writer

I know what you’re gonna say. I was a silly goose for not following up on the payment! Oh, believe me, I know. I’ve beat myself up many times over this experience. That’s why I’m writing about it now in the hopes that no one will make the same mistakes. Here are the lessons I learned:

Set boundaries and enforce them

My time is valuable and I’m not an employee. Therefore, all calls need to be scheduled beforehand. Also, I wasn’t part of the team yet so there was no reason to be on call around the clock. I shouldn’t have answered the call.

Also, if I’m not comfortable with a task, I should politely refuse instead of accepting just to be nice and polite and then complaining about it afterwards to anyone who would listen.

Know your worth and charge accordingly

Yes, yes, you’ve heard “know your worth” in freelancing circles so many times it’s become trite. However, there’s an excellent reason seasoned freelancers always say it — you need to stand up for yourself and value your work so other people would value it, too.

At the time, I had over one year of experience in writing so I had the right to charge more. AUD$20 for 1,500 words on a topic that was out of my niche simply wasn’t enough.

Most importantly, if you’re a freelance writer, ALWAYS ask for upfront payment. At the very least, make sure you get 50% of the agreed-upon sum before proceeding. Besides refusing a rush project, I should’ve asked for 50% of my fee, submitted 50% of the article before the deadline, and waited for the rest of the payment before turning in the finished work. If potential clients aren’t comfortable with this, then it’s a no go.

Don’t hesitate to follow up on payment

I understand that it might seem distasteful to chase payment, which is why a lot of freelance writers (and freelancers in other niches) require 100% payment before even starting anything. For now, though, I’m fine with 50% upfront for writing projects and payment after one week for administrative tasks.

This means it’s likely I will have to follow up on payment now and then. Instead of passively waiting for the client, though, I should send them a reminder once the deadline is up. I did the work, so I deserve to be paid.

I can resend the invoice or just shoot them a quick email to ask if they’ve seen the invoice. Luckily, I came across this freebie called Million-Dollar Email Templates from AppSumo. It has a template for asking for payment from past clients — which I hope I don’t have to use!

Changes I’ve implemented

This experience with Helen and another encounter with a potential client who was quite confusing to talk to persuaded me to take a little time to create a Google Form for writing clients. I ask for as much detail as possible so that if it’s still necessary to hop on a call, we can go straight to the point.

The form can also screen out clients who don’t wish to pay at least 50% of the agreed-upon fee at the start since it clearly states that I won’t work with them.

In addition, it lays out my revision policy. If you’re a freelance writer (or a designer), you know that sometimes, revisions can be a nightmare. Having guidelines in place will make that process easier for you and your client.

Besides the Google Form, another change I implemented was setting my own rate instead of accepting whatever the client thinks my work is worth.

Putting it down to experience

The splendid thing about making mistakes is that sometimes, it’s much more effective than vicarious learning. I’ve read of freelance writers getting stiffed out of payment many times before, but it wasn’t until it actually happened to me that I took action.

So while I’m still annoyed that I didn’t set boundaries, the unpaid writing test still wasn’t a fruitless experience. Now I have a better idea of how to handle writing clients!

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