The first step to establishing yourself as any kind of writer is to write and, hopefully, publish something. Whether you know it or not, the next step, after you’ve been published, should be to create a portfolio to “show off” your work.
Both fiction and nonfiction writers can use this guide to create an online writing portfolio to showcase their work to potential employers, clients, agents, etc.
Gathering writing samples
Before you can build an online writing portfolio, you need to have a collection of writing samples to put in that portfolio. That requires writing – a lot of writing – and the more professional those writings are, the more “impressive” and credible your writing will be.
Fiction writers probably have it the easiest, in terms of getting experience. Agents, editors and publishers expect that not everyone will have previously published work, so you can get away with writing and including samples you’ve developed on your own time. For example, an agent will obviously expect that your manuscript has existed only on your hard drive. You can also use places like Wattpad to post excerpts of your long-form fiction or short story samples, which is sort of like publishing your work. It’s like YouTube: anyone can publish whatever they want. That can make you more comfortable getting your work out there.
Freelancers and the like have it a little tougher. If you have never published anything before, your barrier to entry is much, much higher, even for just getting more writing experience. Magazines and online publishers usually want you to have some kind of educational background whether you’ve written pieces before or not. You can get your name out there by applying to write on sites like Lifehack, where you write whatever you want several times per month and they decide whether or not to publish it.
The earlier you start gathering samples, the better. In college, I started writing for a newspaper, and used a writing sample from that job to apply for a magazine writing internship. Those samples – hundreds of them – eventually led to other internships and writing gigs, until I graduated and people started paying me to write for them.
Where to put them
Some potential employers and clients will still ask you to submit Word documents attached to an email as part of an application or proposal, but more and more I’m seeing people move away from that (finally). Every single client I have ever signed with has been a result of my online portfolio. People need a link – a place where, with one click, they can have access to all of the things you have ever published online, whether “professionally” or not.
Fiction writers can use a Wattpad profile, or something as simple as a free WordPress site to host PDFs of all the fiction pieces they want to showcase. If you have pieces of fiction writing published online and can link to those, definitely do so (do NOT republish them on your own blog, unless the publication gives you permission to do so). If your fiction is published in an anthology, journal or magazine that isn’t publicly accessible online, you can, bibliography style, mention in your portfolio what it is, when and where it was published. Be mindful of dates, though. I have some fiction published in a magazine from about eight years ago, but I’m probably not going to mention that in a query or proposal or put it in a portfolio.
Nonfiction writing is similar. I have a free WordPress domain that serves as my online portfolio. I include a link to that portfolio in every relevant cover letter and freelancing proposal. It’s just a page of links that take visitors to every relevant thing I’ve published. This allows people to pick and choose what they want to look at and allows me to showcase a variety of different styles and genres of writing. Only once have I created a hard-copy portfolio to take with me to an interview, and the hiring manager didn’t even look at it. They want simplicity and options. The more work you can link to, the better.
How to showcase what you can do
I will not show you my portfolio, because it needs updating. What I haven’t done yet, that I am going to advise you to do now, is separate out sections of my portfolio for different kinds of writing, if that applies to you. Giving people a long list of publications can be impressive, but it can also be overwhelming and kind of annoying, if they’re looking for something specific and don’t know how to find it.
In my case, I would need to create a portfolio “tab” that only showcases my health writing. You have to keep it relevant to what you are applying for/proposing/who you are pitching to. They might look at your portfolio if you include it in an email, but they might not. Always assume they will. Even if they don’t, the fact that you have put together your publishing accomplishments into one link, at least from my perspective, is a pretty smart move.
Obviously, you will want to make your best and most recent work a priority. In terms of publishing online, I wouldn’t suggest including anything much older than a few years, unless it’s still relevant, like an essay you wrote on a topic that’s still widely covered in many outlets today. You want to showcase the absolute best of what you can do, and you’re always going to be growing as a writer, the more you write. The more recent your samples, the better they are most likely to represent your current skill level.
Do employers/editors/publishers/clients really care?
Yes. If you are applying for any kind of writing job, or you are pitching or proposing to write for someone else in any capacity, you need to show off your work. Resumes and cover letters show where you have worked and the skills you’ve developed, but any kind of editorial position needs to know you can apply those skills and experience.
This is why writers cannot get paid to do work unless they have experience. This is why I am always telling you to write even when you don’t like it, when you don’t feel like it, when you feel bad about yourself, when you’re busy, when you’re tired, always, no matter what. Fiction, nonfiction, it doesn’t matter. If you aren’t able to prove you can write, you’re not going to get hired, or published, or contracted. Prove you can write, and you’ll get to write more. When it comes down to it, it’s not so complicated.
An online portfolio is worth spending time and effort to develop. The more writing samples you have, the more important a portfolio becomes. Yes, people can Google you, but that’s a lot of typing and clicking. One link is all it takes.
If you have any questions about anything I talked about above, feel free to leave them down in the comments. I’ll get to work on fixing up my portfolio if you promise to get started on yours. :)
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.