Beginners Blues: How to Collect Samples, Testimonials, and References as a Freelancer

Beginner's Blues: How to Collect Samples, Testimonials, and References as a Freelancer by Brian S. Konradt of BSK Communications and Associates

My samples are self-selling. They gleam behind protective covers in my portfolio and snatch me business. "Wow, I really like this one," says a new client, studying one of my newsletter samples. "That's what I want. Can you do something similar for me?"

"I sure can," I tell the client. "I think we should shoot for four colors, instead of two. And thick texture paper would be better for self-mailing."

The client agrees. He also agrees to pay me $850 for the 4-page newsletter, half now and the rest when I complete the job.

"Your samples are your most persuasive tools to seal the deal," advises Mary Anne Shultz, a NY-based freelance writer who specializes in ad copy.

"At least seven out of my ten clients had asked to see some sort of samples before hiring me for the job," says freelance writer Joan Berk. "Clients want to know what you are capable of doing for them."

"Even if your new client does not ask to see samples, you must have samples," says Louie Markowitz, a freelance writer specializing in corporate newsletters. "I show every new client at least one of my samples -- a sample that is similar to what they have in mind. This helps me get constructive feedback and insight into what the client wants."

This is easy for the established freelancer to say, who has collected professional samples over the years and knows that samples sell themselves to clients.

But what about the beginning freelancer who has nothing?

According to freelance writer, Scot Card: "Don't panic. Many freelancers start at the bottom. It's where I started. And probably so will you."

As a beginning freelance writer embarking on a part-time or full-time freelancing career, you'll need to do a lot of "grunt" work in your field of specialty. Depending on your approach or what you choose, you'll be doing assignments and working on projects for little or no money, but the payoff will reward you in the long run.

Writing a brochure for a local non-profit organization or writing a press release for your church's summer events will come in handy the day you need to show your first client what you've been up to. But it doesn't just begin with freelancing to local non-profit organizations or churches. You can tap into many other outlets to collect samples while improving your experience, skills and knowledge before you begin freelancing part-time or full-time.

Your first step to get started is obvious: Take inventory of everything you have written.

Everyone has done some writing in the past: writing term and thesis papers; writing articles for your college newspaper; providing copy for a flier or brochure for an organization; helping your friends write their resumes, or your own. The list goes on.

Of course, a client won't hire you after he glosses over your high school term paper (with the bright red A at the top) or a short poem you scribbled in a birthday card. But all of your past writings can serve as a benchmark as to where you stand now. You may even possess samples hiding in your closet or lost somewhere in the massive directories of your hard drive, waiting to be reworked and re-edited for a fresh facelift.

Take inventory of all of your writing samples and evaluate them as if you are the client. What grabs your attention? What makes you squint away. Do your samples have anything in common with your specialty? Can you rewrite any of your samples for improvement? If so, redo them and use them to begin your portfolio. If not, listen closely...

Here are some ways, endorsed by established freelancers in the field, that can help you collect samples of your writing, including testimonials and references; but by no means do you have to follow them. Be creative and seek out other alternatives.

Joseph Martenello (technical writer): "I worked as a part-time stringer for my local newspaper for a year. How'd I get the job? I responded to an ad in the newspaper, even though I barely had any writing experience. Next thing I know, I was covering town meetings and local events, boring stuff. I didn't get paid much -- not enough that I could live off -- but this lead to a higher paying position writing short features for a while and freelancing for neighboring newspapers for dirt pay...I was able to collect my published articles and put them into a portfolio. Even now, six years later, I'm able to state in my sales letter that I worked as a newspaper reporter. That title has a lot of clout with clients. My clients expect short, tight copy -- the type of copy evidenced by my published newspaper clips."

Judith Corbishley (PR consultant/writer): "I started my so called 'freelancing' by catering my writing services to local organizations. You wouldn't believe the demand for freelance writing in organizations! And the reason why is that many [organizations] will not pay you, at least the non-profit ones won't. I basically immersed myself in everything I could get my hands on. I wrote press releases, developed brochures, published fliers, you name it. Gradually, my specialty -- from having to handle many writing tasks -- emerged. I fell in love with PR, and now do it full-time, supporting myself with my writing. And it all started by contacting the director of a local non-profit computer education organization. You can do the same. Check your community newspaper or local bulletin board for volunteer help. Then call up the director or contact person. Ask if they need somebody for writing. Most likely the answer will be yes! You'll be able to do the writing at home under a flexible deadline. When the time comes to produce your promotional material, you can list the organization as one of your clients. You are under no obligation to state that you've worked for free. Leave this information out. Go for it and good luck!"

Brian Konradt (copy writer/DTP publisher): "Years ago I had joined a national writers' group. I started a newsletter for the organization, out of my own expenses, and charged each member $3 for a copy. I also wrote a press release to publicize the newsletter. My press release was published in three trade magazines. I never made a profit -- in fact, I lost money on this endeavor. But I used the newsletter and the published press releases as samples. Members also mailed me testimonials about how much they loved the newsletter and how professional it looked. This was my very first professional sample that I stuck in my portfolio, and possibly, I believe, persuaded my first client to invest in my services. You can do something similar."

Michelle O'Reilly (copy writer): "Network. Meet people. You got that? My first client came as a result of my being in the right place at the right time with a stack of my bright white business cards tucked away in the fist of my hand. I had attended a marketing seminar that was held by a local business chapter. The seminar had attracted a large gathering of business professionals, entrepreneurs, and other freelancers. There was time afterwards for networking -- and that's what I did. I handed out my business cards to anyone who sounded as if they'd be interested in my writing services. And somebody was interested! A few days later I received a call from a young entrepreneur who was looking for a way to promote a new product. Was I interested in writing a brochure for him? I told him let's get started, I'm ready, with not even an idea of what I was going to charge him. I only got paid a fraction of the amount I demand now, but it helped me launch my career. Whenever there's a social gathering in your area, make sure you attend and network. Put your face in front of the crowd. Let everyone know you exist and you have these great skills as a writer. Network. Remember it. It's a great way to get clients and referrals."

Andi Lipschein (technical writer): "If you want to get yourself samples, attend a workshop. It's how I got my first professional sample: a technical manual, critiqued and corrected by the instructor, on how to operate a piece of equipment. My advice is attend as many workshops as you can in your area of specialty. They offer tremendous benefits: you increase your knowledge on the subject, you get trained by a professional, you get hands-on experience, and you walk away with professional, critiqued samples for your portfolio. Many local community colleges and high schools offer writing workshops as part of their Continuing Education series. The information and samples you obtain will last a lifetime."

Rita Clayborne (PR writer): "I interned my way to success...My experience and skills came from interning for five different public relations firms in New York for two years. I got a lot of hands-on experience -- and a lot of headaches, but I learned how to work with deadlines and how to deal with clients. I also got tremendous insight into the field, such as pricing my services competitively, how to tap into my market, and how to make a business succeed. This had a positive impact on the success of my PR business today. You can intern part-time (a couple of days out of the week), or full-time (five days out of the week). I got paid for my work as an intern, but don't always expect to get paid. Call up some PR firms in your area and speak with the person in charge. Ask if they offer an internship program; if not, ask if they'd be willing to accept you as an intern. You can locate PR firms in the Yellow Pages. Alternatively, you can contact the Cooperative Education department of your local college and ask the director to help you in your search. As an intern, you will collect many professional samples, references and contacts!"

John Palmeri (graphic designer): "When the company I worked for was planning to do a newsletter to celebrate its 30 years of service, I jumped at the opportunity. I was only a stock clerk there, but I was attending college for my bachelor's degree in Communications Arts, and I had some skills as a layout artist. My boss agreed to let me produce the newsletter, and boy, did I get excited. I didn't get paid for doing it -- although there was a bigger Christmas bonus for me -- but it helped me produce my first sample with my name on it. At that time I wasn't planning to freelance -- but that changed down the road when I wanted to make more money doing what I love most: producing newsletters. To this day, I still produce newsletters for the same company I had worked for five years ago. The difference now is I get paid top dollar to produce it, and I'm my own boss."

NOW WHAT? Once you have samples, you'll need to prepare a portfolio, plus a brochure or sales letter or web site selling your services. Your promotional material should contain testimonials for hard-hitting power. As a beginner, don't spend a lot of money advertising your services. The time will eventually come when you'll turn "pro" and you'll spend at least 25% of your earnings on promotion. For now, decide to place a small classified ad in your local newspaper, tack up fliers on the bulletin boards at your local supermarkets and libraries, or advertise your services on free job boards on the Internet. See what types of responses you get. Be persistent in your search for clients. Most of all: Don't give up! The professional is the amateur who had never quit in the first place.

When you get your first client, let the client do most of the talking. You will find that many clients will not even ask to see your samples -- so don't even bring it up. Many clients will accept you as a writer -- on your word alone -- and will work with you.

Work hard and good luck!

About The Author

© 2003 B. Konradt

Brian Konradt is webmaster of FreelanceWriting.Com (, a web site dedicated to help writers master the business and creative sides of freelance writing. Mr. Konradt was formerly principal of BSK Communications & Associates, a communications/publishing business in New Jersey, which he established in 1992.

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