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How to Get Your First Writing Samples – a Step-by-Step Tutorial for Nurses

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I’ve often said that the biggest catch-22 nurses encounter when trying to launch a writing career is how to get work samples when nobody will hire you without work samples.


Well, there’s an easy way around this problem. I’ve talked about this before, but I don’t think I’ve been clear enough because I continue to field questions related to this topic. So today I want to walk you step-by-step through the process of volunteering your writing skills to a non-profit in exchange for receiving work samples.

Never Work for Free 

But first, a caveat: Never, ever work for free for a for-profit entity.

A great many nurses (and other novice freelancers) believe that writing for free “for exposure” or simply to obtain writing samples is a normal or accepted part of being a freelancer.

So let me be clear: It is not.

The only time I ever advise or recommend a writer work “for free” is if they’re volunteering their services to a worthy charitable organization. To me, this is no different from a CPA volunteering their accounting expertise to serve as treasurer of a non-profit or an administrative assistant volunteering their organizational skills to serve as a volunteer coordinator for a non-profit.

Except for this specific scenario – volunteering your writing skills and talent to charity – I hope you never, ever write for free. It’s not helpful for you or any other freelancer.

Here endeth the sermon.

Step-by-Step Guide to Volunteering to Write for Charity

To get your first writing samples by volunteering, you have to figure out which charity to approach, whom to send an LOI to, and other stuff. Here’s my step-by-step guide for doing it. 

1. Start with the local affiliate of a national charity. For instance, when I was starting out as a writer, I approached my local Alzheimer’s Association affiliate. What many people don’t realize is that a lot of national non-profit associations are structured sort of like franchise businesses. Often, the local branch of a national non-profit has to pay a fee to the national organization to use the branding elements, etc. And, more important for our purposes, those local branches often have to produce all their own content: newsletters, email blasts, fundraising appeals, etc. The national organization may provide them with templates and branding for all that stuff, but very often the content is produced locally. And those local affiliates don’t have the funds to keep professional writers on staff, so they may welcome your offer to volunteer your writing skills. 

2. Make sure the organization publishes content. Before you approach a charity, look around their website. Do they publish a newsletter? Member profiles? A blog? Any other type of PR materials? If so, they’re a good candidate for you to approach. If not, then don’t bother; they won’t need a writer if they don’t publish any content.

3. Approach the marketing director, PR director, communications director – anyone with a communications-type title. This is the person who will be most interested in working with a volunteer writer, not the “volunteer coordinator” or some other administrator.

4. Send your best Letter of Introduction. I’ve written a lot about LOIs, so look back through my old blog posts to find out how to craft an LOI that gets a response.

5. Be candid. It’s perfectly OK to say, “I’m a nurse who is transitioning to a career as a professional writer, and I’d like to volunteer to write some materials for your organization in order to get some clips.” You don’t have to be sneaky.

6. Set a timeframe for your volunteer participation. You honestly only need three to five work samples to confidently solicit paying work, so don’t offer to volunteer for a year or something. That would be generous of you, but also could absorb a lot of your available bandwidth for paying work. Instead of making an open-ended offer to be a volunteer writer, maybe ask if you can complete a special project for them, or volunteer for a month or two on a trial basis to see how things go. This gives you a way to exit gracefully, if you want to. Of course, if you love the charity and want to support it further, then by all means continue volunteering!

In my experience, charities usually welcome volunteer writers. But if your first choice passes on the opportunity, that’s fine, too. Just reach out to the next name on your list. This is exactly how paid writing works in the real world (some “nos,” along with some “yeses”), so this experience will give you valuable experience in handling “rejection” and continuing to persevere!

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