How to Build Your Portfolio From Scratch

An excellent collection of writing samples is critical to winning good freelance writing clients. But if you’re just getting started in your copywriting career, you may be stuck in a Catch-22. You need the samples to get the jobs, but you need the jobs to get the samples.

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Dun duh duh dun dun DUHN! This article is here to save the day! Here are 7 ways to build your portfolio from scratch, as well as what you need to know about managing and displaying your shiny new portfolio.

One: Write for a Non-Profit.

Many non-profits produce content of various sorts throughout the year, including newsletters, blog posts, press releases, and social media posts. Find a non-profit in your area that you believe in and ask whether they can use your volunteer help in writing content. You’ll get the warm fuzzy of helping out a good cause, and you’ll get published clips you can put in your portfolio. Some will be more open to your help than others, so keep trying until you find one that’s a good match for you.

Two: Write Guest Posts.

Many marketing agencies and marketing blogs occasionally publish guest posts. Find a few blogs you admire, and ask if you can contribute something in exchange for the exposure. Many will gladly consider your work. If they end up publishing it, then you’ll have a published clip. If they do not publish it, hang on to it anyway. You can submit it elsewhere, and it counts as a portfolio item even if it’s never published.

Three: Help a Friend with Their Business.

As a general rule, never ever write for for-profit businesses for free. There are predatory companies out there that want to make money off your free labor. However, if you’ve got a friend who’s getting a small business off the ground, or puttering along with self-employment of any sort, the odds are that they need writing. Maybe they’re launching a new website, maybe they want to blog once a month, maybe they need an ad for their local paper. Find out what they need and offer to write something, or several somethings. Just be sure you’re clear that the offer is limited in scope, so they don’t expect you to write for them for free forever. You don’t want to brew misunderstandings with your friends!

Four: Help a Friend’s Friend with Their Business.

This one comes with a big caveat. Generally speaking, there will be no need to go outside your friend circle and/or non-profits to offer free writing. However, if you are trying to break into a particular niche, you may need an opportunity to write inside that niche, and someone you know may know someone who needs a little writing work. To avoid supporting predators with your work, stick with referrals from people you know and trust.

Five: Write for Local Publications.

Most areas have a variety of local publications that cater to regional needs. Business magazines, local newspapers, arts publications, style and fashion and home magazines, and on and on. Take some time to browse your local bookstores, library, and news stands to see what’s on offer. Some of these publications will work with freelance writers. Look inside the publication for information about submissions. If the publication doesn’t say whether it accepts freelance submissions, be bold and contact the editor or publisher and ask. If they’re open to it, ask them for a copy of their writer’s guidelines. Then follow their process and write for them. You may surprise yourself with how often you can be published in this way, and even if you don’t get published… the work you write still goes in your portfolio. Most local publications won’t pay much, if at all, but if they publish you, it’ll look fabulous on your record.

Six: Write for Trade Publications.

Most industries also have publications that cater to them. If you’re wanting to focus on a niche, find out what publications serve that niche. Follow the same steps as for local publications, and see what happens.

Seven: “Fake” Your Samples.

Hold up. I’m not suggesting you cheat or lie. That would be counterproductive and anyway, what good is your queendom if you’ve lost your soul? I am going to suggest that it’s fine to write ad copy, blog entries, white papers, or whatever you need in your portfolio for a “fake” client, and present it as your work. It IS your work as long as you’ve written it yourself. If the client asks, you will be honest and say that the client is a “sample” client, and the piece was written as an example of what you can do. Because you are also honest about where you are in your career journey (just getting started, or ramping up), prospective clients will understand this. They really just want to see that you can do the work. As you gain clients and therefore “real” work, you’ll replace the samples with live work that you’ve done for real clients.

How to Display Your Portfolio

New writers often ask me how to present and display their portfolio. In the old days, I carried a cloth bound literal portfolio around with me to prospect meetings. This is totally unnecessary today! Most prospects will want to see your work in digital format, and have very little interest in hard copies. Often, you will simply email them samples, especially early on when your portfolio is small and easy to manage.

Here’s what you need to do to manage & display your portfolio.

One: Maintain It

In order to make your portfolio available to clients, you must first be able to access it yourself! This may seem like a small detail early on, but as your portfolio grows and you have more items to choose from, it can get cumbersome. Keep track of what you are producing by recording it somewhere, somehow. Your method will change over time. Because I have several ongoing and dozens of repeat clients and nearly twenty years of archival samples, my portfolio would be impossible to maintain in a document, and challenging to maintain even in a folder. Instead, I have folders with archived client documents, where I can sort through and find specific samples as desired; and I have bookmarks for all of my current clients, meaning I can quickly find things I’ve produced recently. Early on, however, you probably want to maintain a simple file that lists everything you’ve currently got available, or a folder that contains copies of it. Some of your portfolio will eventually take the form of live links. You can put these inside the draft document, or maintain a separate list. You can also use Linkedin as a method of tracking the portfolio items that you want to actively display.

Two: Display It On Your Profile

LinkedIn provides a couple of handy ways to showcase your portfolio. You can add “media” under your job description, and/or you can list items under “Publications” and “Projects.” Or all of the above. The algorithms and interface for the platform are constantly changing, so I can’t suggest one as better than the other. Just keep it updated periodically with new work, and remove older pieces that you are no longer as proud of (you will get better and better, and want to make sure you’re showcasing your best work!).

Three: Send It By Email

When prospects request samples of your work, it’s simple to provide it by email. I always ask them first, “What kinds of samples would you like to see?” and offer to share different forms (blogs, white papers, etc.). I also try to provide them with samples that are specific to their industry, where possible. Of course, I lean preferentially toward sharing things that are award-winning and/or have my byline on them, but the main thing is to share things that they will find useful, relevant, and helpful in understanding how I can help them. You can either attach documents or provide links inside the email, or both. In general, and with some exceptions, links to material that is live on a third party website are preferable to attachments.

Four: Maintain a “Working With Me” Document

I have a three-page document that I send to new prospects early in our conversations. It simplifies our interactions, answers all of their main questions about what it’s like to work with me, and provides links to some of my award-winning work, as well as articles published in prestigious magazines. It also lets them know that more samples of work in specific types and industries are available on request. Don’t stress about creating this document immediately, but put it in your back pocket as something to work on once you have a few clients and a better sense of what working with you is in fact like.

If you’d like to see the “working with me” document I send to clients with samples of my work, get in touch with me here or on LinkedIn and I’ll send it to you for free. Or just get in touch because you want to. I’d love to hear from you.

Fen Druadìn Head
Fen Druadìn Head is an award-winning freelance writer and coach. Her work can be found all over the internet in publications as diverse as Redshift Magazine and Grit. Fen's fiction is represented by Ethan Ellenberg.