Your Writing Portfolio: Stop Making It So Hard

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An alternate headline for this post could’ve been “Why Most Freelance Writing Portfolios Suck.” Because they do.

Take a gander at freelance writer forums and you’ll notice a lot of advice about how to put together a writing portfolio. Often, that involves a physical binder showcasing printed copies of your work.

Don’t do that.

As you can tell, I have pretty strong feelings about it.

Let me take you to a meeting I had a few months ago with Daniel, the owner of a local marketing firm. I contacted Daniel via LinkedIn, pointing out we shared a few mutual acquaintances, and making myself available for freelance work. He didn’t need a writer at the moment, but invited me to stop by his office for a chat.

I came to the meeting with a notepad and a pen. Nothing else. We talked about his agency and how his needs aligned with my strengths. At the end of our time together, Daniel said:

“Hey, send me a work sample or two. Just the stuff you’re most proud of.”

Then, he added:

“I hate it when writers send me a bunch of writing samples. I don’t have time for that.”

I chuckled because, (1) I’d heard this before, and (2) I’ve been in his shoes.

Years earlier, while working as a brand manager, I occasionally interviewed candidates for marketing communications jobs. I groaned each time someone walked in with a fat binder and insisted on walking me through every page.

Let me tell ya, it’s impossible to digest and make judgments on so much content in the midst of a job discussion. The best I could do was jump around the material, gazing at headlines and sentences in a random fashion, then zone out the rest. My eyes glazed over in a hurry.

So what’s the alternative?

Here’s how I’ve approached it. I do link to work samples on my website, but don’t email those to prospects until they ask for it.

You see, the purpose of your first interaction with a prospect is to build rapport, learn their needs, and tease them with what you can deliver if you think you’re a good match.

You’re just inviting a conversation and creating interest. Don’t expect to close the sale with your first email or phone call. (It may happen, but it’s a turnoff if you push for it.)

During that initial conversation, I take on the role of a consultant, asking questions to uncover my prospect’s problems. If I can make their problem go away with compelling content, the prospect will naturally ask for samples. After the meeting, I’ll point them to my online samples, or link to just 3-5 pieces that are most relevant to their needs.

Copywriter Steve Slaunwhite follows a similar rationale. After observing the same dynamic I described above (where decision-makers only read random lines of a portfolio and ignored the rest), Steve adopted what he calls a “Portfolio One Sheet.”

In that sheet, Steve describes the project, its goal, his role, and a couple of excerpts. (Naturally, the strongest parts.)

What if you’re brand-spanking new and don’t have writing samples yet?

Make some up. Seriously. You can write for an imaginary business, family member, or a cause that’s important to you.

Even better: Write your own materials — a helpful guide, checklist or other valuable resource for your target prospects.

Did you write something in a past job, volunteer gig or writing course that you’re proud of? Give it a nice edit and add it to your portfolio until you have more professional samples.

None of this is shady, nor uncommon. It’s how you get started. The point is to prove you can write in a way that’s compelling and persuasive.

No excuses left. 

With the approach I described above, you don’t need a lengthy, bulky portfolio.

Often, a couple of samples will suffice for someone to determine whether your writing lines up with their standards and needs.

(On that note, I suspect many prospects make up their minds about your skills before they even get to your Work Samples page, based on how you wrote your Home, About, and other relevant sections of your website.)

If you’ve been stressing over a writing portfolio, don’t. We’ve just removed that excuse and the pressure that followed it.

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