The question of writing for little or no money comes up quite frequently in discussions on websites that cater to freelance writers.
True story–My brother-in-law is an ER doctor. The first time he put a cast on a broken arm by himself it came out a little sub-optimum. The boy being casted apparently noticed something because he asked my brother-in-law “Is this the first time that you’ve done this?” Take home lesson-Nobody wants to be like the boy with the broken arm and feel that you are learning your profession on their problem.
Why do I tell you this little story? Clients come to you with a problem and want to believe that they can trust you to solve their problem. The best way to prove to a prospective client that they can sleep soundly knowing that you are doing a good job on their project is to show them your portfolio. When I go to visit a client they often ask to see samples of my work, and I have a samples page on my website. As a project manager I never work with a writer unless they have a writing sample to show me.
The question becomes then, how can I build up a portfolio if no one will hire me because I don’t have a portfolio? There are several ways to do this without feeling exploited:
1) Take a technical writing course. Any self-respecting course requires you to complete at least one manual as part of the course requirements.
2) Volunteer to write for a non-profit organization. It will make you feel good and beef up your porfolio.
3) Do a project for a new struggling magazine or on-line publication. You won’t feel exploited because they’re probably not making any money at this stage either and you may get good exposure.
4) Approach an outsourcing company and offer to work on a project for free, on condition that you can use the resulting document in your portfolio, and they will provide you with a recommendation (if they are happy with your work). This is a good way to build up experience and a portfolio. As a project manager I had someone approach me with such an offer. He had completed a course in technical writing and was not working. I worked with him on a project that I was doing and after a period of close supervision he was soon working mostly independently. Instead of sitting at home doing nothing he gained experience and we ended working with him on several paying projects.
When you are starting your freelance career your emphasis should not be on money but rather on building your portfolio. You are making an investment that can pay off many times over. Just remember you have a lot to offer and building up your portfolio is the best way to show a prospective client that you are the one to go with.