How to Build a Killer Writing Portfolio

Freelance writers need portfolios of their writing. They are necessary for getting work and for establishing your status as a working, professional technician of prose.

The ideal set-up is to have and maintain a portfolio online. This can be on your own website, a professional networking site, or even a blog you establish just to post your work in the form of a portfolio.

The important thing is to have a collection that you use expressly for that purpose, not a site on which you just happened to have posted a few pieces a while ago, and not a bunch of links you e-mail potential clients. The portfolio must be created, designed, manicured, and maintained specifically for the sort of freelance work you’re seeking.

And the sooner you engineer it, the better. When you begin seeking a number of freelance assignments, have your portfolio stocked, adding and deleting as your professional life progresses.

The overarching concept guiding the building of a portfolio is to think of it as one cohesive piece. Many of the concepts below are components of this.

Diversity is Key

Cohesive does not mean limited or homogeneous. In fact, thinking of the portfolio as one entity is what will guide you to proper selections. Just as you’d be careful not to have stories that repeat motifs or plots in a short story collection, the portfolio needs to be composed of pieces that complement one another rather than forming repetition.

I’ve found that one reason potential clients want to see a variety of work is that they may have a range of potential projects for you. Or, the work may have many components, ranging from sales letters to tweets. Writers often believe that mastering your tone means being able to write in any genre one is likely to encounter in the business writing world, but that notion doesn’t play very well with potential clients – not without evidence.

The second reason to have as diverse a portfolio as possible is that clients often want to see a sample of writing that matches the genre for which they are hiring—business blog post, entertainment-oriented blog post, white paper, powerpoint presentation, erotic fiction, short informative article, etc. As you begin, you may not have a variety of these, but it doesn’t take long to amass one or two high-quality examples of pieces that demonstrate a particular skill, voice, or style.

Select Only the Best

Think of your portfolio items as jewels under a glass case. Place them in with tweezers. Diversity is important, but it doesn’t equate to a profusion. Eight or nine pieces will probably suffice, and you may include a note that offers further examples upon request.

Keeping the number down not only maintains quality, but increases the chances of a potential employer looking at the best of the best. It also shows that you know how to curate a cohesive collection rather than heaving a lot of material out there hoping that some of it does the trick.

Professional Work Begets Professional Work

As much as possible, select pieces that you’ve sold, that have been published, whether on the web or elsewhere. In some cases, this work will be accompanied by comments from readers or will show some indication of having made an impact. It also may look very good on the well-designed page on which it appears. Don’t worry if you don’t have a by-line—I’ve never run into a doubt that the work was really mine.

You should get permission from the site that posted your work when applicable. I would recommend actually posting the full text of the article on your portfolio instead of presenting a garden of links. However, if the client for a previously-published piece doesn’t offer permission, you’ll have to link. Otherwise, that work will have to be passed along as an attachment.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with unpublished work, including poems, novel excerpts, etc. These can show skills like conciseness, as in a perfectly sculpted poem; creativity for jobs like writing slogans or advertising-related work; the ability to write “colorful, engaging” prose that departs from formal business writing. Just try to, as your career progresses, plug in as many pieces as possible that have been commissioned, paid for, and published by real employers.

A Word Of Explanation

The person looking at your portfolio might be seeing a lot of work when making a hiring decision. She has a lot of material to hack through. As I mentioned above, employers want to see something similar to what they are hiring for. You can’t always have a piece that nearly matches, but the purpose of the piece, or elements or traits of the audience might match even if content does not. So if you annotate your work with a quick blurb on its intent, some of the employer’s specifications or goals for the piece, etc., you make it more likely the potential employer will understand this.

Also, in addition to notes you’ve created on the portfolio itself, don’t be shy about adding concise explanations, qualifiers, disclaimers, etc. that may become necessary due to the traits of a project for which you’re applying. Mentioning the circumstances behind the writing of a piece can help you assure the potential client that discrepancies between your sample and what they are looking for were caused by the requirements of the previous job rather than your personal choices. This allows the employer to know you understand his or her assignment and understand how it might differ from something you’ve done before.

Finally, don’t forget your portfolio. Always prune it and update it with your best work. When you get a note from a client praising something you’ve done, make a trip to your portfolio to deposit a new gem.

Jeff Maehre is a fiction writer and freelance copywriter. His fiction has appeared in Story, The Northwest Review, Cutbank, and Phoebe; he often blogs and writes other copy about social media.


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