Free is good. There’s ‘free as a bird’, ‘free to do what you wanna’ and ‘I’m free next Thursday’.

Then there’s the other kinds of free. ‘Can you just bang out a sample paragraph or two’, ‘we’ve asked two other writers to pitch their ideas too’ and the classic, ‘if you rewrote the home page, that would give us a better idea if you’re right for the job’.

When someone asks you to ‘just throw half a day at it’ gratis, what does that say about the value of what you do?

Free copy tests, tone of voice samplers and creative pitches are the norm, but I’m saying “ain’t not no more they’re not”.

If you want copywriting for free, go to one of those content mills. They’re almost free in the first place, so a gentle nudge and they might even pay you for the honour of cracking your brief.

The cost of working for free.

Writing for free affects more than a writer’s bottom line; the cost to everyone else in the industry is massive. When we beaver away, churning out ideas and copy for nothing, the knock-on of reduced fees is inevitable.

If I was a client and knew that I could get highly skilled and experienced creatives to give up the goods for nothing, surely I could persuade them to shave a bit off their day rates once they’d got the gig.

Working for free damages your bank account, the creative industry and more insidiously, your self-esteem.

But it’s only half a day of your time. Half a day that could lead to a ton of work, so what’s the harm? No, it’s never just half a day; believe me.

If you think this is sounding like the writing of someone who’s been bitten, you’d be right. So, it’s confession time.

6 months ago, I responded to a public brief on a well-known freelance jobs board.

The following is an embarrassing account of the knotty mess I allowed myself to get in by doing ‘just half a day’ for free. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

A sorry tale of working for nowt.

After responding to the initial request with a CV and relevant links, I got the following message:

Hi Jonathan,

First off, thank you for your interest – you have a strong profile and we’d be interested primarily in copywriting but art direction will also need a say in the web build and getting that integrated is likely a better option.

Sample copy:
Having now shortlisted a few possible candidates to write the web copy, we’d like you to put together a short brand story/narrative to demonstrate your suitability for the project. Nothing too long, just 150-200 words or so – using the existing Evil Corp site copy as a basis (www.weareevil.con)

This is to give us a better idea about:

• How well you understand what we do
• What sort of messaging and tone of voice you’d look to carry through in the web copy, should we enga

ge you
• And also, how well you’re able to use our (rather verbose!) web copy and transform it into something more concise – as this will be key to the project


If you’re still interested in being considered for the project, please do come back to me to confirm. If possible, we’d like copy back to review by the end of this week. If that’s an issue, please let me know.

Best, Evil Jeff

It all sounded perfectly logical to my naïve little mind, so I responded with:

Hi Evil Jeff,

Thanks for getting back to me.

I’d love to get involved with your project, so I’m very happy to be shortlisted.

This is only the second time I’ve ever been asked to do a copy test in 30+ years as a writer, but don’t worry, I’m still definitely up for it.

I have a couple of other projects on, but I will juggle things to make sure I have the time to do it justice.

Before I start, may I be so bold as to ask a few questions:

How many other candidates will I be in the gladiator’s ring with?

Why are you unhappy with your current web copy?


Hope you don’t mind my forwardness, but before jumping in to writing, it makes sense to get a slightly better idea of the pro


If you can let me know your thoughts on the above today, then I’ll make sure I get a draft copy piece back to you by end of play Friday.

All the best


When I heard nothing back, surely I should’ve smelled a rat, but oh no, on with gullible’s travels…

Hi Evil Jeff,

Sent a message the other day hoping to get a bit more info, but didn’t hear back.

Decided to plough ahead anyway, as your deadline was looming.

I’ve no idea if I’ve pushed the copy approach too far (or not far enough), but just went with my gut instinct. I would usually get to this stage after a consultation period to agree tone of voice and messaging etc. So, a lot of this is based on my own assumptions.


Look forward to receiving your feedback.

All the best


Reading this back now, I feel like a prize idiot. Anyway, onwards and downwards…

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks for the copy – I must have missed your earlier mail – apologies (there have been a whole heap into my inbox from XXXXXXX). We are assessing this week on way forwards and will hopefully have an answer by the end of the week for you.


Evil Jeff

Evil House
T: + 44 (0) 666 666 666
E: evil.jeff@weareevil.con

Hooray, he’d responded and now I even had his email address. Any cynicism subsided and I waited. And waited. Nothing.

So I sent an email:

Hi Evil Jeff,

Hope all’s well and you’ve managed to sift through the XXXXXXX web copy responses ok.

You said that you had hoped to get back in touch by the end of last week, so thought it high time I give you a shout.

Is there any decision yet? I have two other web projects bubbling now, so it would be great to know either way.

I’ve attached my response again, just in case, and if you have any questions please do let me know.

All the best


Nothing. So I picked up the phone and was told that they’d relay a message to Evil Jeff and he’d get back to me soon. Another week went by, so I called again only to be told by Devious Terry that Evil Jeff had left the company and the project had been put on hold. However, I should re-send the copy to him and he’d be back in touch:

Hi Devious Terry,

Thanks for bringing me up to date earlier regarding the situation with your new website.

I’ve attached the brand narrative copy test document I worked on in October. Of course, I am using my initiative on this and may have jumped to a few hasty conclusions, but with the information I had to hand, I think it works well.

You can find out more about me and my work at the web address below.


Hope to hear back soon.

All the best


The next day I received an email and we were back on track:

Thank you for your email Jonathan.

We are having an internal meeting to discuss next steps later this week / early next week, so I will be in touch when I know more.

Kind regards

Devious Terry

I heard nothing, so decided to call again. The work I’d done was good and I’d put so much energy in so far, I didn’t want to drop it. Three calls later, I was assured that there was nothing to worry about, it was just taking longer to review things than anticipated. So I waited and waited. After a couple of months, I sent another email:

Hi Devious Terry,

Last time we spoke you were drowning in work. Nice predicament to be in, but hopefully you’re swimming now.

Just so’s you know, I’m off to India at the end of next month and won’t be checking emails, social media or myself in a mirror for a while.

If you need to get hold of me before 25th Feb, you know where I am.

After that, I’ll be somewhere in the Himalayas until 17th March.

Then, once my head’s caught up with the rest of me, I’ll be back to my usual creative tricks.

Either way, if you could let me know whether your brand/web project is still likely to go ahead and if you had any thoughts on my proposal, it would be much appreciated.



I came back from India and of course had nothing waiting in my inbox from Evil Corp. Then, like a very sad dog with a dusty old bone, I sent this email a couple of weeks ago:

Hi Devious Terry,

We spoke and exchanged emails in December.

You were going to get back to me regarding the possibility of writing copy for your new website.

I had done a copy test way back in October, but had not received any feedback (attached again as a reminder).

As it is so late in the day, I’m assuming the project has either been cancelled or the work has been placed elsewhere.

Either way, if you could bring me up to speed that would be much appreciated.

All the best


Guess what, I’ve still heard nothing.

Still, at least I’d only thrown half a day at it (yeah, keep telling yourself that Jonathan).

So remember, you are a freelancer. This means you’re free to work for who you want, you’re free to say no and free to do proper paid work. You’re also free to give your skills and experience away to carrot-dangling corporates, but I don’t recommend it.

Read more first-hand accounts from Freelancers:

About the Author

Jonathan Wilcock is a senior freelance Copywriter: /