As freelance writers, we’re constantly trying to attract new work. The most important tool we have to get the kind of work we’re looking for is our portfolio – examples of the kinds of writing we’ve already had published. Everyone from editors to publishers want to see examples of a writer’s work and where they’ve been published with before they start getting serious, and that used to mean collecting copies of every newspaper, magazine, newsletter, or journal you’d been published in. What editors usually received were stacks of photocopied papers and more-or-less legible newspaper clippings.
Not to say it was fun for the freelancer, who laboriously cut each of those pieces out and tried to create ways of presenting the pieces without looking like a sloppy beginner.
Everything we do as writers should be professional. It goes back to the whole idea of first impressions, and the fact that we don’t usually get the chance to make a second one if our first is a nightmare. We want to present our most professional side to a prospective editor or publisher, be organized and thorough.
Since a lot of what freelance writers create is now available online, being professional is a bit easier. And it’s less time-intensive to get our works together. The real question is this: how do you take a collection of writing credits and turn it into something that makes sense to anyone else? It’s not an easy question, but it’s one that every portfolio attempts to answer.
Before You Begin
I’ve never had much patience. I’m one of those people who blindly jump in, find that I have no footing, and wallows around in the deep end before learning to swim. Patience is a virtue that I struggle with and constantly try to improve on.
Don’t dive headfirst into your writing portfolio. Trust me. You’ll wind up with something messy and be frustrated with the experience.
So. Before you begin, gather your materials. You’ll want to pick up a package of report folders – the kind that don’t require you to poke holes in your paper – as well as some color ink for your printer and some quality paper. It shouldn’t be anything “special”, but make sure it’s a bit heavier than your standard copy paper. The copy paper you normally get for your printer is 20 weight, so aim for 30 weight paper which is the same weight as what is used in most professional journals.
Then, start gathering examples of your work. If you’ve had writing published in print, pull together all those clippings and tear sheets and scan them into your computer. Make sure you use quality, color settings when you scan so that the piece is represented in its full glory. Once those are ready, start going through your links. You can bookmark or save the pages your work appears on, but don’t print just yet.
Decide on a Digital Format
Since most of us do a good portion of our writing online, many freelance writers decide to make their writing portfolio available in a digital format. A totally recommended idea, but don’t forget to do a print version of your portfolio as well.
Beyond the basic decision to include both digital and printed versions of your portfolio, you’ll need to decide what sort of digital format(s) you want to make your work available in. Here’s what other professional writers have done:
1. One Example: Many writers choose to provide one stellar example of each kind of writing they have done, and include it as an article on their website or blog.
2. Samples: Especially for writers with print publication experience, providing samples of their work in PDF or Word documents is a great alternative. Some writers have made these samples easily viewable from their website or blog, while others state that they will provide samples upon request.
3. Lists: If you either have just a few examples that you want to share, or are happy to create a full website that breaks down into categories and sections, this option makes the most sense to a lot of writers. Providing links or documents to every piece of writing they’ve done, these writers provide potential customers what they need.
It can be a weighty decision, because building your portfolio is a labor-intensive effort that you won’t want to repeat for several months … if that.
For most freelance writers, the best option is a sort of compromise between what others have done. Take the time to pull together your favorite mixture of scanned print pieces and saved online ones, and create two or three PDF documents from them that showcase your work. Doing this gives you a document that’s perfect for including in your submissions to traditional print publishers, and doesn’t require you to have a website of your own. If you have one, though, you can easily link to the documents and they’re ready-to-go in a format that almost every web browser can access.
Your Printed Portfolio
Working out your digital portfolio before you get to the print one works in many ways. For one, it makes you really focus on the quality of your work, and the quality of the scans you’ve created. For another, it gives you a really good idea of what you’ve done (refreshers are always a good thing) so that you can categorize your work better.
When you’re ready to start putting together your printed portfolio, you’ll have most of your work done in the previous two steps.
First, print two copies of every piece you’ve scanned or saved from the Internet. Most professionals in the area of writer’s portfolios recommend printing copies of any article you’ve had published in the last 3 years. Make sure that each one prints out well and in color so that photographs show off well.
If your printed copy doesn’t include the name and date of the publication, make sure to type these on the bottom of each copy.
As you start pulling together all the printed copies for your portfolio, don’t be picky. Include everything you’ve done, not just your best examples. You never know when an article you wrote in a topic you weren’t sure about turns into the very piece you need to query a specific publisher with. The more types of work you an assemble, the stronger your portfolio becomes.
Once everything’s printed, put one copy in a folder that is your personal reference. The other copy goes into a separate folder that can actually be used for querying with.
When you’re ready to query an editor or publisher, you can now reference your personal portfolio folder and choose a variety of pieces that are tailored to the interests of that editor. Then, just slip those pieces out of the other folder and combine the copies with your resume and query letter.
A nice portfolio is a temptation. It lures many editors to at least skim through the work you’ve had published, and can go a long way towards securing an acceptance letter and contract. What you’ve actually had published says so much more about your writing than your resume and cover letter ever could.