Freelance writing series part 8: Building a Portfolio

Article by Jess Gately

Image from Canva Free Stock Images

Your business is now pretty much set up and ready to go, but there’s one last thing you’ll normally need to attract clients—a portfolio. Just like in any business, people want to know that you can actually do what they’re asking you to do and the best way to do that is to show them evidence. Just like an artist provides examples of their paintings, or a landscaper would show photos of gardens they’ve worked on, you need to put together a portfolio of your writing to show your clients that you’ve got the skills they’re looking for.

When you first start out, it’s unlikely that you’ll have many things (if any) published professionally, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a portfolio. In this post, we’re looking at the things you need to consider when building your portfolio; what things you may include if you haven’t had any paid experience yet; and what tools you can use to help bring it all together.

Step 1: Understand what your portfolio needs to do

This may seem like a stupid question, but what do you want your portfolio to do? What is its purpose?

On a piece of paper write down the words

the goals of my portfolio are…

and then be specific about your goals. To gain publication in niche magazines writing about cars, or to get a regular column writing in ‘x’ publications about corporate structures, or to write copy for real estate agents, or to write speeches for politicians in my area. It’s okay to have more than one goal but don’t give yourself too many otherwise you may be spreading your net too wide, which risks making you look like you don’t have enough experience in any one topic.

Your next question is, who am I targeting with my portfolio? Again, be specific. Are you targeting a particular group of magazine editors, or a group of politicians, or real estate agents? You’ll notice this links pretty tightly to the above question.

With these things in mind, you now need to select pieces for your portfolio that will appeal to this audience and demonstrate your ability to write in a particular format. Try to refrain from including things in your portfolio that don’t link to your goals. Pieces that infer your interests lie outside of those goals may be counterproductive.

It can be tempting to include that high-fantasy short story you got published in an anthology last year or the op-ed you wrote on mental illness that was taken on by a major newspaper, but if you’re looking for work as a technical writer on science and technology, then an editor in that field is not going to look at your short story or op-ed with the same level of engagement. They want to see what you’ve written on science and technology.

Step 2: Find pieces for your portfolio

Let’s start by talking about writers who are writing articles and features that will have their name attached to the piece.

At this early stage, you probably don’t have a large number of published pieces. But that’s ok because you still have a body of writing that you can use! Think about uni, blog posts, or things you’ve written for your former employer (seek approval first before using these examples as there are often rules around such things). If your portfolio is looking a bit bare, then it’s time to get writing. It’s better to have an unpublished item on your portfolio than to have nothing at all. For those of you looking at the copywriting, ghostwriting, speech writing, advertorial writing, or editing routes, this could be a tad harder as the writing you do doesn’t have your name attached to it and, in some cases, telling people that you wrote a particular piece may be in breach of your contract. For you, a portfolio will mainly contain a list of clients and testimonials rather than examples of your work, so it’s important that you have a good working relationship with your clients and that you seek feedback when a job is complete.

Step 3: Build an online portfolio

Unlike the old days, where you would take clippings of your work in a big portfolio to your job interviews, these days portfolios are mostly online. You may wish to make use of a third-party website designed for creating portfolios, or you may wish to use your own personal website and have a portfolio built into it.

At the end of this section is a list of third-party websites you might like to use, but for the rest of this step we’re talking about what to consider when integrating a portfolio into your own website. So again, we come back to the staples: WordPress, Squarespace and Wix are three popular platforms for hosting a website that come with a wide range of templates and a user-friendly interface.

Remember that your website should have easy navigation and plenty of ‘white-space’. That is, the whole page doesn’t have to be filled with text or images. Reading online often means short sentences and paragraphs and lots of breaks and headings. Use clear, concise language and make sure you’ve got your contact details or a contact form somewhere. Most importantly, you shouldn’t have any SPELLING OR GRAMMAR ERRORS! I can’t reiterate this enough. You are a writer. Nothing will kill your chances more than a website with spelling and grammar errors.

If you’ve got multiple topics that you freelance in, consider using tags or grouping your ‘clippings’ into relevant fields, e.g. travel writing, health writing, clients. Alternatively, you might write in one field but with many different styles so you may categorise your posts like this: feature articles, blog posts, op-eds, news.

Remember that republishing your story on your website is not acceptable. If you want to include an article that’s been published elsewhere, you’ll either need a link to the online source or get a picture of it (if it’s in print).

If all this seems like a bit much at the moment, the following resources can be used instead to help you keep everything in one place: Clippings.me, Journo Portfolio, and Muckrack. If you don’t have a blog and/or want somewhere to post your writing somewhere that has an active reading community, you might want to join up with Medium, which can act as a portfolio until you have published work and also allows you to monetise your stories.

So that’s building your portfolio and now you’re ready to start chasing down clients. In the next post, we start looking at getting your first paid gigs.

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