One bit of advice I see commonly given to new Web writers (or any type of writers) is that they have to either do free projects for normally-paying clients or take on work at ridiculously low rates (like $5.00 per article) when they're new just to build a portfolio or get references.
That's a load of garbage.
If you're really cut out to be a freelance Web writer (where portfolios come more into play than full-time employment), you're going to spend time building credentials and properly targeting your market long before you actually start offering services. When you finally get to that point, there's no good reason for you to not already have at least a handful of portfolio pieces showcasing your Web writing abilities within your niche or specialty form of writing.
Is Non-Paying Work Ever OK?
Am I saying you should never do non-paying work, when building your portfolio (or after)? No. What I am saying is that you should never take on a non-paying freelance Web writing gig solely for portfolio pieces. It should be paying you in other ways - and I mean more than saying "well this person might give me a referral."
Why doesn't it matter that the person receiving the free content might refer you to others? Because people do ask what their friends or colleagues paid, and if you're going to charge $100 per post, but they know you did a piece for their friend for free, you've now set yourself up to be low-balled in your referral base - not smart.
When is a non-paying gig worthwhile? When you're getting more out of it than you're losing by not charging. That might be a marketing benefit, exposure, or some kind of contribution to your image. We'll look more at that below with specific ways to build a writing portfolio with no paid experience under your belt.
Ways to Build Portfolio Pieces with No Experience
- Blogs and Content Sites - If your specialty is Web content writing in the personal finance niche, an excellent way to start building a portfolio is to launch your own blog on personal finance. This not only lets you showcase your best work (you can send a link to the blog or specific articles to prospective clients), but can also serve as an income stream through advertising (and I'll tell you from experience that if you keep working at it, your blogs can earn you decent money).
- Article Marketing - This is one of those situations where it's not a bad idea to write for free. The key is getting the most marketing value out of your articles written for this purpose. For example, many writers submit articles to large article directories. I'd suggest against it. They lend little credibility. Instead, send free articles to niche article sites or even to blogs in your specialty area that may accept them as a guest post. For example, if I want to get more exposure in a specific business niche, I may write a free article for Work.com because they carry more credibility with a built-in business audience than article directories do. Again, you can link prospective clients to these articles. Since most are non-exclusive though, if you do go with an article directory instead of targeted options, I would suggest forgetting the link, and instead publishing it directly to your own portfolio site.
- Write for Non-Profits - This is one other area where I'd say it's OK to write for free (or simply at a discount) early on. What does this offer you that free articles for a profit-based client can't? It's an image-builder. Non-profit involvement is often a good PR move. And let's face it - what looks better? A reference from a branch of a large and respectable non-profit agency, or a reference from a random webmaster no one has heard of, wanting free or $5 articles? Take a wild guess. If it doesn't lend something to your credibility or image, don't do it for free. Even then, exposure is overrated, and even big-name clients don't always translate into other work quickly, if at all. If you do volunteer to write for a non-profit, make it a non-profit you would have volunteered for anyway because you care about the mission or cause. And do that work outside of working hours. The portfolio piece is a perk, but volunteer work isn't your business. Use your working hours for other marketing instead.
- Write Mock Pieces - This is my least favorite option for portfolio-building if you have no actual experience. To put it simply, you create a "fake" piece. This doesn't really work for articles (there's no such thing as a "fake" article really). It works well for marketing copy and similar things though. For example, if you plan to write business plans, you may want to write a fake one for a non-existent company similar to those in your target market. The benefit here is that you can later use them as a template to speed up the process on future projects, and you'll have more creative freedom. In addition to using mock pieces when you're new, they can work well if you can't share full actual samples (again using the business plan as an example - clients won't want you sharing their private business and financial data enclosed in them with other prospective clients).
- Write Your Own Marketing Materials - The writing you do to promote your own business can also be used as early portfolio pieces. Those could be brochures, press releases, blog posts, feature articles, guest posts on other blogs, case studies of your earliest client projects, and anything else you plan to write for clients that you can write for yourself first.
Using the Sale to Build Your Portfolio
Here's something else to consider - run a sale. This can work when you're new, or more experienced. Let's cover sales for the new, inexperienced writers here.
The key is this: Don't go around saying something like, "since I'm new, I'm going to write articles for a while at $25.00 per article, and then raise my rates later."
Instead, try something like this (again based on relatively low rates for easy example purposes): "My regular rate is $50.00 per 500-word article. I'm currently offering a 50% discount on first orders from new clients only."
Why is the second route better, using the numbers in the examples?
- You're not emphasizing your "fault" (in this case that you're new) - you're going to let the quality or your credentials in the niche or specialty speak for themselves.
- You're putting a limit on the low rates up front (only first orders, and only for new clients).
- People like discounts. Saving $25.00 on an article can be even more attractive than paying only $25.00 for one if you "sell it" well with your marketing copy in your sales announcement.
- You're not immediately starting off by trying to compete with lower-tier writers (once you start feeling like you have to compete with them, you may always view them as your competition - they're not). What's worse is that trying to compete with them, even temporarily, can permanently put you in the same league as those lower-quality writers in the eyes of your target clients. Once you create a certain image with buyers, it can be very difficult to break out of it.
- You're letting prospective clients know up front that you place a certain value on your work (your regular rates). This helps to ensure that you'll attract clients willing to pay those rates if they continue with you past that first order.
- If you've taken the time to properly set your writing rates to begin with (again to get those regular fees), you'll know how many lower-rate clients you can afford to take on and still get by. Most Web writers who simply start off very low because they're told they should don't honestly know what they need to begin with - they're trying to market solely on price rather than running a responsible business (and that's what being a freelance Web writer essentially is).
Start Building Your Portfolio
Now that you have a few ideas to get you started on portfolio pieces, get to work on building a portfolio that will attract clients, increase your credibility, and demonstrate what you feel your writing is really worth.
I'd love to see how other writers are keeping their portfolios online (for those with public portfolios). If you would like to leave a link to yours, please feel free to do so in the comments. You can see an example of the simple portfolio format I use at ProBusinessWriter.com.