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How to Rock Your Freelance Portfolio When You Have Zero Experience

What should you put in your freelance writing portfolio when you've got nothing to show?

Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

Let me start this by telling you that my entire "so-called career" was shaped by the oddly adequate relationship I have with the people I work with. I never had to show my portfolio to a stranger inside some cold and distant office that took me three hours of insane traffic to reach for a chance to ghost write an op-ed for an adult magazine that nobody actually reads. I also never had to have drinks with the editors at some night club to talk about a feature I thought had a decent chance to be featured on the front page of a newspaper.

But now that I’m working on building a digital presence online, I'm practically a newbie again. Constantly learning new skills, but without lines after lines in my resume section to back up all my newly acquired knowledge. It almost feels like I have zero experience.

What's a digital portfolio?

Before actually building that portfolio, you need to decide on where your works are going to live on the web. If you've got a personal website, fine. You can simply add a portfolio page and include the URL in your resume.

If you're still thinking about starting your own website, you'll have the option to code your own portfolio page or use a website builder that already has a built-in portfolio feature.

Be aware that many freelance platforms now come with a CV+ portfolio format. Potential clients input their requirements for the project and the algorithm will try to come up with the most suitable matches from the platform's roster of remote workers.

That's why it is very important that you fill your online portfolio with as much relevant information as possible to increase your chances of being matched.

What to Focus On

As a freelance writer, your portfolio is probably more important than your full-time experience. Clients are not going to be concerned about your career, just what you can do for them. You can talk about yourself when they finally invite you to a party or a holiday dinner with the team.

The fact that you are new or just beginning on this path should not stop you from building a stellar portfolio. Don't get too occupied with the fact that you have nothing to show yet. Instead, you can focus on these other portfolio items.

1. Must-Haves: The Basic Elements

Your goal with the portfolio should be to introduce yourself, to summarize your experience and skills, and to help your audience get in touch with you. There’s no doubt that you will be judged based on any design element you choose for your digital portfolio, so choose wisely. Utilize the tools and resources made available online to make it digital.

1. A well-crafted bio: Introduce (or reintroduce) yourself to your audience. Make sure that your introduction is memorable and interesting enough for them to act upon.

2. Social media handles: Include links to your social media accounts, but present these links in a way that will make them feel like they want to engage with you. One possibility is to include a few lines about how they could interact with you, for example, on Twitter.

3. Resume: A ready-to-download resume is the best you can do. You need to prepare the downloadable file in PDF. But if you're not yet comfortable with the idea of having strangers download your information online, use a different method. Add a link to request for a CV or a form they can fill from your webpage.

4. Career highlights: Instead of a full resume, a timeline of your career is also acceptable. You could include your milestones, such as "started your first full-time work," "sold your first book," "went on your first business trip," etc.

5. Contact info: Don't just tell them to contact you. Tell them when they should contact you and how you expect to be approached.

2. The Portfolio: Your "Big" Works

Photo by Raw Pixel on Unsplash

Of course your portfolio is not complete without the works you have done. But this is where writers with zero or minimal experience have close to nothing to show. I mean, you probably could list all the links you have for all the pieces you wrote for the content mills, but they should certainly be your best work. There’s no point in overcrowding your portfolio with links to mediocre articles.

Here are some other things you should include instead:

1. "Spec" clips: If you have zero work available, why not create a digital mock-up for your dream client? Select any company you would like to work with and write as if you were already working with those clients. If you can't think of any dream company, just think up an imaginary publication and write your best piece for them. Label these works "Spec" clips.

You can go the hardcore way and code these works into existence. Or you can use online tools to create these writings on the spec:

  • PlaceIt, Canva: Free and paid design templates to showcase your outstanding copy.
  • Carrd: Create a made up site for your dream client and fill in the page with your writing. You'll even be able to share the links to these pages.

If you have a personal website, the best way to create writings on the spec is through your blog posts. Create a few posts in the desired niche you want to be working in, and then include the links to these posts on your portfolio.

2. Explanation of your work: Most writers don’t do enough of this, including yours truly. Whenever possible, you should definitely explain the work you did for a piece. Elaborate on the type of work you did for the team, the challenges of working on that piece, and how you overcame these challenges.

This is particularly useful to explain a project, such as a book project, translation work, your collaboration with the audio/video team, etc. The point is your work should not have to speak for itself. As the creator, you have the chance to say something about them and you need to take that opportunity whenever you can.

3. Your writing clips (if you have them): Samples of your writing are usually presented in the form of clips. You cut and paste the writing and lay them out on a binder, like working on a collage. When you go meet a client, you'll show them the clipping.

But since we're talking digital, you can forget all about the fancy binders. Your clips live on a webpage now, so here's how you do it:

  • List out your published works. Include the name of the publication, the title of your piece, the date the piece was originally published, and a direct link to the piece.

Or show off your digital skill:

  • Create a cut-and-paste digital clip effect for your work. Find your article online and create screen grabs, and then using Adobe (or a free editing software like Gimp) you can lay them out however you want.

Now what if you do not have your pieces published anywhere at all? Isn't there any reputable places online that would accept your samples?

4. If you don't have them, create! There are many reputable publishing platforms online where you can write and publish your samples. The first on your list should be your own blog or your website. But if for any reason you are unable to publish on your own digital home, you should check out the publishing platforms of your favorite social media channels.

These are good places to start:

  1. LinkedIn Pulse: From your LinkedIn account, select the “write an article” option.
  2. Medium: From your Medium account, select “new story” to write your article.
  3. Facebook Notes: From your Facebook account, select “More” and choose “Notes.”

These platforms that are made for creatives also offer a place to publish your works:

  1. Ello: For artists who work with all mediums, including writing, to sell and share their art works.
  2. Stampsy: Where you can tell a story with visual content.
  3. Goodreads: Go to “community” tab and select “creative writing.” where you can post any story you want under “my writing.”
  4. Steemit: A place to blog and get rewarded for your content through up-voting and curation.
  5. We Heart It: This photo sharing social networking platform recently added an option to write articles.

3. Nice-to-Haves: Your Contributions

Your contributions to the industry or the company you worked for can generally be included in your career highlights and/or your resume. Evaluate what you have done and make a note for each of your job roles to include the tasks you carried out. Any achievements should also be listed.

Here are a few other items you could include:

  • Speaking engagements
  • Certifications
  • Podcasts
  • Presentations
  • Books
  • Translation works

4. Always include these whenever possible.

These are more advanced technical work that you perform in order to manage yourself as a freelancer in your industry. These are optional, but are advisable. Including these elements in your portfolio will ensure that your credentials are more effectively highlighted than the rest of the pack:

1. Your Personal Brand

Did you do a SWOT analysis for your personal brand? Did you design your own blog and prepared the copy yourself? Present your personal brand project as you would any other commercial project. Include the tagline you worked on, your brand identity guide, your website design, the whole package.

2. Class Projects or Course Assignments

Any work assignment you completed for a course, whether online or in real life, should definitely go into your portfolio if they are your best works. Don’t let the fact that a certain type or work was created during class prevent you from building your portfolio. Just be sure you lay out the work in a presentable way, and make sure that you remove any confidential information first.

3. Proof: Social Media Work

Include screen grabs of any significant work you did for whatever project you were in charge of, whether they are student groups, community roles, or volunteer work. If possible, always provide the analytics.

4. Research

Again, any research you produce during a course assignment or a class project is perfectly valid to be included in your portfolio, especially if they are your best works. This would include any analysis, audits, or exploratory research you did for a project, including your own personal branding project.

5. Posts from Your Blog and Website

The fact that you maintain a blog or develop a website alone is not enough. You need to show that your content are of high quality and adhere to the standards.

5. To-Do: More Items to Include

Continue building your digital portfolio even if you’ve already found the job of your dream. There’s always more things you can add to it. Who knows what opportunities might find you through that single portfolio page? Here are some more ideas of what to include in your portfolio:

1. Guest posts: Pitch your ideas to a reputable online publication or website that you see as a great fit for your topics of expertise.

2. Pinterest board: You should get creative and categorize your online writing samples in your Pinterest board. Not only will this help you evaluate your writing journey, you will also be able to link to these boards when you are pitching for writing jobs.

3. Facebook page: Another option is to create a Facebook page to host all your online writings, or a select few of them. You can reach more people and build an audience for your writings, and attract new opportunities along the way. If you want to help other writers build a stellar portfolio, you can also create a Facebook group for writers.

4. Dream works: If you’ve always had the desire to work on projects beyond the scope of your current niche or changing the course of your writing career, you should probably follow that passion. Write as if you are already working on that dream project or for that dream client. Whether you’re interested in game writer works, writing copy for product packaging, company profile, radio script, TV ad, greeting cards, comic storyboards, or UX writing, you can create your work samples on the spec.

5. Non-profit works: You might want to approach non-profits within your areas of interest and offer to write for them. Just because they are non-profits does not mean that you should work for free. Propose a mutually beneficial agreement where for a project they would get a discount and be featured on your blog with a testimonial. If you have a dream non-profit work in your mind, create the works on the spec and then pitch your service to the company.

6. Press kit: Show the press you mean business. Think about what qualities of yourself you would want published. A press release is necessary when you are just releasing your work—a book, or maybe a website launch. It should include your author bio, some information about your book, a sample of your work, and promotional images of yourself.

7. Translations and interpretations of your works: The final frontier. Not just to have professional, localized, beta-tested translations of your finest works, but beyond that. If you have works that have been converted across media, into videos, podcasts, presentations, or adapted into short stores, poetry, ad copies, etc., you should definitely make sure that your proudest works get in front of the audience you are trying to reach.

Always Tweaking

Although experience is of great importance to your career, when it comes to freelance work the portfolio gets most of the attention. So don’t shy away from it. Never let your portfolio page be a dead link.

Make sure that everything is in place; check for broken links or grammar mistakes; ask for testimonials from each and every work you do. Always be tweaking and improving. The deciding factor will probably vary, as there are so many things involved in the hiring process, but even with zero experience, you can still rock that portfolio project and land that dream work.

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