Starting out in a writing career definitely feels daunting right out of college. You’ve written some papers, edited a few more, and maybe even written something for the school paper. Then you see all of these job ads demanding 3 years of experience for entry-level jobs and it feels like you’ll never be given a chance to prove yourself. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to build a writing portfolio if you’re a humanities or liberal arts graduate.
I’ve been in that demoralizing loop, and I can tell you that building my portfolio was one of the things in my toolbox that helped me get a job. Your resume gets your foot in the door, but your portfolio sets you apart from the competition.
You should have a portfolio website too, but that comes later. This is how to collect and create your best work for employers to see.
Start with existing
If you’re looking to build a writing portfolio, then I’m willing to bet you’ve already written some material. Use it! As a fairly creative form of work, there’s always a chance someone won’t like it. Don’t worry about that at this stage—you can get feedback on that later and replace unpopular pieces with new material over time.
Collect what you’ve already written. That could include:
- Posters or flyers for a school club
- Passages from essays you’ve written in school
- Writing assignments from class (even small ones)
- Columns from a school paper
- Personal blog posts (you need a blog if you’re a writer)
- Insightful LinkedIn posts
- Short stories (for school or recreational)
Don’t worry if you only have a few items, or even zero if you’re just starting out. This is just to give yourself a sense of a “baseline,” and to pick out any gems that you might have forgotten.
Reading your material will trigger internal reactions to what you’ve written in the past, giving you an internal gut check. You’ll probably experience one of these three reactions:
- “Did I write that? Not bad!”
- “I can’t believe I wrote this. I’m embarrassed for my past self.”
- “It’s okay, but I don’t think this will cut it.”
Obviously you only want to include anything that triggers the first reaction. In my 4th year of college I re-read what I wrote in my freshman and sophomore years, and I cringed a bit… well, a lot.
And that’s okay! Cringing at what you wrote earlier in life is a sure sign that you’ve grown as a writer, which means your past work doesn’t reflect the writer you are today.
More to the point: reviewing your past work triggers thoughts on how to improve it, and other things you wrote around that time. Follow those threads to find more examples of your past work.
I don’t find myself using my academic work anymore since it’s not very relevant to my field, but it did help me to get a foot in the door with my first job. I weaned myself off of it for my as I engaged in more professional writing projects over time, which took a year or two.
The lesson? Treat your portfolio as a collection of stepping stones at this point; you can rotate samples in and out at will.
Make portfolio items on your own
You don’t need anyone’s permission to start working on a project. In fact, waiting for permission only keeps you stuck in the unemployment loop.
The best part of being a writer is that you can create something out of nothing. You don’t need to have someone pay for your work in order for that work to be “good” or “legitimate.” Write what you want to write. Write what you think will help you stand out and what counts as a sample of high-quality work.
This is one of the reasons why I advocate for writers and recent graduates to start their own blogs. You need original thoughts and you need a medium to express them. It’s also immensely helpful in understanding how to build a writing portfolio without begging for work.
Even now, I have more than a few samples of portfolio work that nobody paid me to write. I consider all of it solid work, too. These include:
- My professional portfolio blog
- My consulting brand’s blog (focused on my field)
- This entire website
So where do you start?
- Create a blog for yourself (as part of a portfolio website)
- Ask around for freelance writing gigs (I still use these!)
- Write something creative for yourself, like a short story
- Write a written response to a blog, social post, or industry trend
- Write (unofficial) ad mock-ups for a company, or improve an ad you saw
How to build a writing portfolio for specific roles
Not all writing-centric jobs are the same. Some are more formal, while others get folded into other disciplines, like marketing. This is how you tackle them.
How do I make a copywriting portfolio?
This is easier to do than you might think—you can just submit mock-ups, even if they weren’t used in anyone’s marketing campaign. Some of my best copywriting never makes it into live projects.
For example, I’ve written creative ad copy for the insurance industry even though I don’t identify as a full-fledged copywriter.
- “Thanks for not causing that accident last week. Have a low rate.”
- “Insurance: something you actually want to be over in 3 minutes.”
- “Fast drivers get telephone poles. Safe drivers get low rates.”
I just put them in a fun font and threw them into a basic design in Canva (which has an awesome free plan).
How do I build a proofreading portfolio?
You can proofread anything, and there’s a lot of poor writing out there. I had to include some examples of proofreading in my first role as a textbook writer, so I included the submissions I reviewed for a volunteer academic journal in grad school.
“But what if I’m not a journal editor?” Fair question. You still have options:
- Volunteer as a writing tutor on your campus
- Proofread one of your friends’ papers
- Submit a paper to a student journal
If you’ve already graduated, then you can get some volunteer work proofreading business communication materials. Don’t spend hours and hours of work on social posts or one-on-one emails, though (not that I thought you would, but some business owners ask for help with silly things).
Focus on these kinds of writing tasks:
- Company blog posts
- Press releases
- Technical writing
There are plenty of things you can proofread for businesses, and enough of them will be happy for the help.
Pro Tip: Ask to help out with small businesses at your local chamber of commerce or business improvement association. They provide free resources for the kinds of businesses that are usually in need of some extra help that you can provide. In addition to having their own help centers, schools and chambers of commerce are often affiliated with incubators and shared working spaces—the perfect places to find companies in need of help.
How do I build a digital marketing portfolio?
It depends on the specialty you want to pursue in digital marketing, but if you’re not sure yet then include a little bit of everything. Staples include:
- Blog posts (including ghost-written posts for clients)
- Landing pages (for ad campaigns)
- Search ads
- Website copy
- Email /newsletter copy
Don’t fret if you only have writing samples for 2 or 3 of those items. Most people starting out in digital marketing only get the chance to write a few blogs before getting their first job.
Once you have a sample for one type of media that makes you proud (e.g. a blog post), then focus your portfolio-building efforts on trying out a new one. Email copy and website copy will be some of the most common things you write in digital marketing, making them good areas of focus.
Where do I start with online portfolios?
Collect your “offline” portfolio before trying to make a website. There’s no point in having a website if you have nothing to publish! Then you can focus on building your actual online portfolio.
Pro Tip: I’d strongly recommend making your own portfolio website to impress hiring managers. After 9 months of unemployment, I landed my next job out of 200 applicants in part because of my website. If you’re serious about making an online portfolio then this is something you need in your toolbox, hands down.
There are free portfolio platforms out there too, but they’re pretty limited and look less professional than your own website. If you just need something in a pinch, check out these two platforms:
Use your entry-level portfolio as a springboard
The most important part of building a writing portfolio is not perfection. It’ll never be perfect. Just make it excellent instead.
Remember that your writing portfolio is an evolving, living thing. You might only be proud of 1 or 2 pieces of work right now, and that’s just fine at first. Everyone starts there.
Use your best pieces to earn your way to new assignments, then replace your low-tier portfolio items every time you complete a better one.
Do not let yourself get hung up on competing with other writers, established copywriters, or “full stack digital marketers.” You will get there, but it happens one project at a time.
That’s all you really need to know how to build a writing portfolio. Stick the process and you’ll have it in the bag.