A young freelance writer posted advice on LinkedIn with which I strongly disagreed. She suggested that “freshers” (meaning those new to the profession) build their portfolios in the following manner:

  1. Write sample articles for free. DON’T. Some potential clients ask for free work to demonstrate the writer’s worthiness for hire. As a general rule, I advocate against that. First, many of those potential and unscrupulous clients use that tactic to acquire content without paying for it. Second, doing this devalues the work and the profession. Third, how many professions grant free work in exchange for the opportunity to be considered for hire? When was the last time a contractor offered to tile the bathroom floor for free in order to be hired to tile the kitchen floor? Or does your mechanic offer a free oil change or engine tune-up so you’ll hire him to flush the transmission or fix those squeaky breaks? Does your physician offer a free check-up so he’ll get your business when you’re sick? Of course not.
  2. Create a fake portfolio. DON’T. By this, the individual suggests the new freelancer rewrite advertisements and other marketing collateral produced by companies for which he or she would like to work and post those ersatz projects in his or her portfolio. It’s an interesting idea, although I don’t know how effective it would be. Honestly, it seems fraudulent, too. After all, you can’t say “I did this for that company” when the company didn’t hire you to do it.
  3. Start a blog. DO. Blogging serves multiple purposes. First, it shows off your writing. Does it engage? Is it well written? Does it display your command of language and grammatical conventions? Second, it can showcase your in-depth knowledge of a particular subject or your ability to tackle an array of topics. Third, it demonstrates continued productivity, especially if you post on a regular and routine basis. Fourth, it helps to expand your network, particularly if someone reads your blog entry and shares it to his or her own social media network.

Better–or at least less deceptive–tactics than the first two above for a new freelance writer to build his or her portfolio are as follows.

  1. Contribute to other blogs. You may even wish to reciprocate with the blog’s owner. Contributing content to other blogs gives the writer “publishing credit” for having his or her content posted (published) on another site. Make sure you get the byline for your own work when doing this.
  2. If you’re a member of a professional, trade, or charitable association, then submit articles to that organization’s member newsletter or magazine. In this way, you’ll share your knowledge, expertise, and insights with colleagues and have publishing credits.
  3. Write stories and essays and post them on your website for free download or distribute them to your social media network(s). Many authors do this with the first book in a series. That free first book is considered a loss leader, given away with the intent that readers will enjoy it enough to purchase the rest of the books in the series. For freelancers, a similar idea may be to post short stories or articles as a gift to readers. When submitting proposals for freelance gigs, these stories help build the freelancer’s portfolio with creative demonstrations of writing expertise.

Terminology matters. Giving a potential client a free article shows nothing more than a writer is willing to work for free. This begins a race to the bottom when it comes to negotiating pay. However, giving an article as a gift carries an entirely different connotation. A gift has value. It represents a generous donation of time and skill.

As for those potential clients out there looking to hire a freelance writer, please don’t ask for writers to compose original content without compensation. Not only is that unprofessional, it’s exploitive and bad business. Refer to the writer’s portfolio where he or she will showcase his or her best work. Open those writing samples and determine whether that writer’s skill meets your needs. Then go from there.

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