2022 Writing Portfolio Trends: Why Spec Work Is Problematic

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Since the pandemic, the job market has changed as many people work remotely or in some type of hybrid position. Creative professionals that are designers, writers, videographers, and other content creators are pressed more and more to have portfolios at the ready for prospective employers. This should include successful personal blogs and social media accounts because it demonstrates knowledge of popular CMS such as WordPress and social media platforms.

If you’re looking for new career opportunities and you’re a creative professional or someone who works with content creation, there may be times when you’ll be asked to do a spec assignment. There are ethical dilemmas to a spec. But first, what is spec work?

What Is A Spec Assignment?

Spec work is when companies ask applicants to design, create, or write something as a part of the hiring process. They call it a “test” to see if you know how to do what you claim. I had to turn in an extensive writing sample for my previous job: one full website page rewrite with lots of copy, several ads including a video script, and one long direct mail. It was very extensive.

My husband, who is the chief content officer at his media company and has been working there for close to twenty years, hires writers all the time. He never ever had to do this when getting hired as a writer and editor, and he never ever puts professional writing candidates through such a rigorous exercise. But increasingly, his hiring style is no longer the norm.

Luckily, I did get the job at my former company and my content strategy along with my fresh creative copy helped the company sell for millions. But I know of plenty of individuals that had negative experiences where they were asked for specs only for companies to ghost candidates after they turned in their assignments. For junior positions, I could see why spec assignments would be requested. But, for senior roles for individuals already established, specs should not be a prerequisite. Maki Naro, a great illustrator, and artist that lives in Syracuse, New York where I went to grad school (Syracuse University) created a funny and very informative comic on why creative professionals should, SAY NO TO SPEC WORK. He believes that no one should do specs no matter what your experience level might be.

Volunteer Work Is Not The Same As Spec Work

Please keep in mind there is a difference between volunteering your time at an organization versus being asked to do an assignment with the potential full-time job opportunity as the dangling carrot before you. I volunteer my time when I read manuscripts for fellow authors at the literary agency that reps me. I enjoy providing constructive feedback when needed. As writers, it is always much harder being objective with our own work. Like many aspiring authors, I write novels on the side and also manage a day job. I believe as fellow authors, we should all try to help one another make our work shine. So, beta reads and volunteer work is given out of your own free will. That is the major difference.

Spec work is almost forced on you as an ultimatum for a job and usually tends to be prevalent with creative professionals seeking new paid career opportunities. It tends to pop up during the interview process as an additional “prove yourself” hoop you have to jump through.

Below are some pros and cons of doing a spec assignment.

Pros: The company reaps most of the benefits.

  • Brand Voice: An employer gets to evaluate whether or not they like your writing style and if you’ve managed to capture the brand voice.
  • Free Marketing Ideas: Employers get to interview a bunch of candidates and keep all of their free material without paying them. Even if they don’t use the samples, they now have a huge pool of new ideas they didn’t have before.
  • Editorial Positions: Editing tests for editorial positions are an entirely different thing and are standard practice. Candidates are given the copy with errors, and all they have to do is fix it.
  • Prove Yourself: The applicant can flex their muscles and provide an example of what they can do.

Cons: There are many negatives for prospective job seekers.

  • Unpaid, Free Ideas: Companies get FREE WORK and free creative ideas from candidates. This happens to working professionals not only in design or writing but in the tech industry as well, according to the article Tech Companies Are Getting Free Work Out of Job Applicants. Sometimes companies that ask for design or writing specs will end up hiring you. Case in point, my previous company. But more often than not, candidates get taken advantage of. BIG TIME. I asked a career coach who mentors me and works at a local career center his thoughts on spec assignments. He told me that some companies want free work. He’s an expert at this, too. Imagine a company puts out a job ad and has 20 writers doing these writing samples, he noted. That’s 20 pieces of fresh marketing copy they didn’t have to pay for. Here are two real examples of job Candidate Y’s experience. Candidate Y is a real person that chose to remain anonymous and went through the below negative experiences.
  • Candidate Y & Writing Samples For Company X: Company X wanted an uber-creative writer even though their core competencies were very dry. After five rounds of interviews, Candidate Y was asked for spec work. The company asked for one email, three banner ads, and one video script. This was for a company that had NO live website or content up at all. So, it offered zero content for Candidate Y to refer to. Well, Candidate Y proceeded with the assignment, turned it in, and guess what happened? The company ghosted the candidate. The company wanted free ideas and free work. After several weeks of not hearing back, Candidate Y followed up with an email retracting their candidacy.
  • Candidate Y & A Popular Hollywood Magazine: Candidate Y had another experience with a major Hollywood magazine. It asked for the same thing as Company X but for a social media position a few years ago. The magazine wanted Candidate Y to submit a social media strategy plan, social media posts, etc. It was excessive and consisted of over 15 pages. The magazine also demanded, not asked, that Candidate Y turn it in right away. Candidate Y did, and guess what happened? Candidate Y never heard back after following up with several emails.
  • Specs From Rejected Candidates Can Be Taken: Even the very prominent newspaper The Wall Street Journal recently published the article, What to Do When They Don’t Hire You, But Steal Your Ideas. It explained how one job seeker spent a whopping 50 hours drafting a 25-page plan for a management position. What happened? Not only did he not get the job, but he later found out that the company literally stole all of his ideas.

When To Say Yes & When To Say No

  • Say YES to editing tests: These are standard gauges of knowledge for editorial positions, and applicants aren’t coming up with original content ideas.
  • When to say YES to specs: You’ve thoroughly researched the company and it is your dream company or dream job, and you would do absolutely anything to get the position. Suppose you’re a die-hard fan of a massive and well-known company. In that case, be prepared for many high-achieving applicants competing against you. You also have to understand that spec assignments aren’t paid. Whatever hours you spend creating, designing, and writing your spec assignment, realize that you will not be compensated and you’re potentially giving away free ideas. If this is okay with you because you are willing to sacrifice a little free work for your dream company, then go for it. Just go into the process with your eyes open and know that the job is not guaranteed.
  • When to say NO to specs: If you’re a senior design, senior writer, senior content producer, or senior social media strategist. As an advanced professional in your field, you definitely may not want to spend hours of your time developing free work to prove your skills and with no guarantee of a position. I rarely agree to any sort of spec request, whether it be a writing assignment, social media strategy brainstorming assignments, etc. Extensive tests shouldn’t be required to be trusted as a good writer, good marketing strategist, or fill in your job title_______. This is true regardless of job seniority.

Keep Track Of Your Blogs, Social Media, & Specific Success Stats From Your Employers

A good thing to do is keep track of specific stats that you achieved. Did you help increase sales at your company? How much? Do you also have personal examples from your blog and social media?  Using myself as an example: I have three blogs, and while I am not active on two of them, I’ve achieved close to 3 million total views across all of them. This should tell you that I must be a decent writer and content marketer/strategist. Likewise, if you have thousands of followers on social media platforms as I do, that also shows your skill level.

  • Professional Work Success: I directed and wrote all of the content for my last employer, and the company sold for $110 million. It was largely due to my content creation, which the new company even told me, and included the ability to bolster the company on social media platforms, generate a new email strategy including ads, etc. All of this contributed to a 15% increase in product sales. Do you have similar examples of your achievements at your current or former company? Then it should be enough.
  • Education & Certifications: I have enough examples of my expertise along with my education and loads of certifications from LinkedIn and Facebook. That should be enough, or at the very least, it should count toward my professional knowledge. Candidates like me who are constantly brushing up on their skill set should be praised. This alone should garner trust in future employers that I’m the type of person that will continue to learn and evolve.
  • Professional References: References include those that have vouched for me on LinkedIn that wrote a positive review. I have references that provided positive testimonials on ZipRecruiter and also those that can be called. If you’re like me and you have plenty of education, work samples to show for, and references…then that should be plenty.

2022 Great Resignation Trend Extends Beyond Walking Away From Jobs: Candidates Looking For New Career Opportunities Don’t Always Accept Offers & Can Retract Their Candidacy!

Many prospected job seekers looking for new opportunities are told to have thick skin and that rejection is a part of the hiring process. What is not talked about as often is that candidates have a right to turn down job offers or retract their candidacy. As a matter of fact, there are several articles about the great resignation from a Harvard Business Review article about what’s driving so many workers to quit their jobs.

A recent cnet.com article notes why the great resignation is a movement that’s here to stay.

Many candidates are becoming more selective about who their next employer will be. Below are some reasons why candidates should retract their candidacy from prospective job offers:

  • Too Demanding: Unrealistic amounts of portfolio pieces after submitting lots of documents. If a company isn’t satisfied, then they’re not the right fit. Requiring too many specs is another big sign. Expecting you to write a bunch of specs so that the company can receive free work or fresh ideas without costing them a dime. If they try to ghost you after you sent in a bunch of writing samples, simply follow up with a retraction of your candidacy.
  • Toxic Personality Types: Condescension during interviews (yes, this actually does happen) and looking down at what you do have available to share. Rude, patronizing, and downright mean hiring managers. There is absolutely no reason for hiring executives to act this way to job seekers. If pushy, demanding behavior is already showing through in an interview…what will working at the company be like? It’s an indication that they may continue to disrespect your professional opinion on projects and treat you poorly. It reflects a poor company culture as well. You want a company that will lift you up, take your professional advice, include you in decisions, and have great company morale. Lack of respect and trust is the number one reason why good employees quit. How you’re treated in an interview is very telling. This includes challenging questions and demanding, unrealistic results to a company’s current problems.
  • Directionless: Lack of work ethic and integrity includes very tardy responses after interviews. Fickle behavior like constantly changing their minds, delayed responses, and lack of follow-through. Candidates should respond to hiring managers in a timely manner, be presentable and on time to the interview, and answer the questions correctly with personality. So, shouldn’t supervisors and hiring managers provide potential future employees with the same professional courtesy?
  • Impersonal & Poor Work Culture: Very cold hiring practices such as recorded, one-way interviews where you are timed and get no second chance to re-record your interview, or at least revisit a question and add more information like you can do in a live interview. Huh, that doesn’t happen…you might say. Yep, it certainly does happen. This is indicative of poor work culture, one that doesn’t value employees. If you’re asked to do a one-way interview where your interviewer is a computer screen and not a human being, the hiring manager might sell it as, “Oh, but this is the new thing.” Say no and move on. This type of practice is clearly for the employer’s benefit and a huge disadvantage to the future employee. Some of us aren’t hired actors and trained to record ourselves with perfect, timed one-take answers. Candidates aren’t robots but human beings that ought to be treated with some level of dignity.

How Aspiring Authors, Professional Content Writers, Designers, & Artists Can Revamp Their Portfolio For 2022

Paid professional writers, visual artists, and content creators with a solid portfolio and advanced degrees should be able to show their work samples and get hired based on the merit of such work samples. I recently revised my portfolio, and you can see it at: sonyoestavillo.com. I not only have work samples of all of my videos I created but blog articles from companies, social media design examples, social media copy, and examples of ads.

Here are some tips to help you revamp your portfolio if you’re a professional writer.

  • Screenshots: Take screenshots of all of your written work that is posted on a company’s website. It’s not enough to point people to websites. Why? Because many companies revise their websites, and usually this means completely doing away with all of the prior content on the site. This has happened to me several times.
  • Wayback Machine: Wayback Machine can be used when you didn’t save screenshots during the time your content was live. If you inadvertently missed the opportunity, Wayback Machine can help you search old website archives. I was able to save blogs I wrote for 310 Nutrition. However, it didn’t save all of the images contained in the blog during the archiving process. This is okay, as the most important thing is that it saved all of the text. Although, Wayback doesn’t work on all sites. Prime example, I had a bunch of news articles I wrote as a news producer for an ABC affiliate in upstate, New York that unfortunately couldn’t be retrieved.
  • Website Formatting: You need to ensure that your portfolio website is formatted for both mobile and PC viewing. This is a must in the 21st Century and specifically for 2022, when everyone is mostly on their smartphones. The great thing about Adobe Portfolio is that as you design your site, Adobe offers you the ability to view your portfolio website on the three main platforms: computer, tablet, and mobile phone.
  • Aspiring Authors: Aspiring authors who do not have a published book yet sometimes wonder what to add to their author’s website. This is especially true if said aspiring author is trying to go the traditional publishing route and doesn’t have a book trailer or a debut book deal announcement. In this case, you should definitely have a bio introducing yourself. Make sure to add anything that is interesting about you. This can include your education, awards, hobbies, successful blogs, or anything you had published, whether in college, magazines, or professional marketing copy. It’s all relevant and a part of who you are.

The Bottom Line

There are positives and negatives to saying yes to spec assignments. While specs are advantageous for companies and an opportunity to prove your skills, the decision to do so comes with a moral dilemma. What do companies do with all of the spec assignments from job candidates? If you’re okay with providing free ideas and free work, go for it. As I mentioned above, you might also really like the company and not mind doing the work as a part of passing an interview. This really is an individual decision.

You can also revamp your portfolio like I did to my portfolio and make it strong enough where there should be little question in terms of your abilities. As health still remains on all of our minds in 2022, self-care should be top priority. This should include self-respect and practicing self-love. At the end of the day, companies should want a candidate who demonstrates confidence and belief in their own skills. As some of us look for new opportunities, we need to not only know what we’re looking for in our next career move, but we need to know our own worth and always be our own advocates. After all, if we don’t advocate for ourselves or show love to ourselves, who will?


13 thoughts on “2022 Writing Portfolio Trends: Why Spec Work Is Problematic

    jennylynnangelo said:
    December 31, 2021 at 10:40 AM

    I agree with you 1000%. I found this quote on Twitter that is very fitting:

    “Like visiting several restaurants, trying the food in each one and then refusing to pay the bill.” — Erik Spiekermann on #specwork

    Liked by 2 people

      S.Z. Estavillo responded:
      December 31, 2021 at 10:41 AM

      That’s a great quote! That’s exactly what spec work is like and why there is a moral dilemma in terms of companies using such hiring practices and putting job seekers in a position where they have to do so. Luckily some of us can and should say no to spec assignments.

      Liked by 2 people

    macabeliam said:
    December 31, 2021 at 10:45 AM

    It’s a great idea to work on your portfolio and strengthen that instead. I also like the idea of keeping track of important things like previous work accomplishments. All of that goes a long way. I would not agree to spec assignments unless I’m paid for my time.

    Liked by 1 person

      S.Z. Estavillo responded:
      December 31, 2021 at 11:25 AM

      A portfolio does help and some candidates will agree to specs, however many are now starting to say no to them. They feel the same way you do.


    Stuart Danker said:
    December 31, 2021 at 3:31 PM

    This is such an important post. I’d gotten all my writing gigs by either editing a random article, or simply writing a few hundred words on the spot on a subject of my choosing. Oftentimes my portfolio does the job. But I’ve definitely heard of spec work, and while I can see the reason behind it, sometimes they’re downright preying on newer writers. Thanks for bringing up this topic!

    Liked by 1 person

      S.Z. Estavillo responded:
      December 31, 2021 at 4:31 PM

      I’ve done my share of specs in my time. But now I also feel my updated portfolio should be sufficient. Thanks for sharing your personal experience.


    Andrew said:
    January 1, 2022 at 11:05 AM

    Thank you for the great advice. I’ve been writing my blog as a hobby for over two years now, when I have free time. I would be interested in learning opportunities to earn income as a writer, but wouldn’t know where to start. Any advice on that front?

    Liked by 1 person

      S.Z. Estavillo responded:
      January 1, 2022 at 11:07 AM

      A lot of people start out doing freelance work, but it is a bit of a catch-22. You have to have work samples in order to get hired and you’re competing with other writers with portfolios that have more examples of their work. Trying freelance work and showing your blog is a good first step.

      Liked by 1 person

        Andrew said:
        January 1, 2022 at 11:09 AM

        Awesome, thanks I will try to do so:)

        Liked by 1 person

        S.Z. Estavillo responded:
        January 1, 2022 at 11:26 AM

        You can try Upworks, it’s a freelance site that helps you connect with contract positions. But you’re up against other writers that have done it for much longer. You can also look on Indeed and search for contract writing positions. Some may request you do a spec assignment because you’ll be more junior with little physical experience working with companies. But like I said in the article, there are pros and cons to spec work. You may get hired but you have to prepare yourself to not and end up doing free work for nothing. As long as you’re aware of your situation and what you’re getting yourself into. ❤️

        Liked by 1 person

    cheriewhite said:
    January 1, 2022 at 12:54 PM

    Wow! This is a very informative post, Sonyo! I had no idea about Spec work until I read this post and I’m so glad I did! As I was reading, the first thing I thought was that spec work was a sneaky way for Companies to steal ideas and sure enough, you mentioned the same. This is something I will definitely keep an eye out for and warn those I know about! Thank you so much for posting and letting me know about it! Blessings to you and have a wonderful New Year! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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