Aspiring writers frequently collide with a frustrating dilemma when trying to land their first freelance writing gigs:
Prospective clients want to see a portfolio and examples of your previous work. Unfortunately, you don’t have any to show! Time and again, you lose out to more experienced freelancers who have plenty of samples to offer.
How do you get work without a portfolio? And how do you build a portfolio without work?!
How can you get the skills and knowledge you need when no one hires you because you lack experience?
In this article, we address the big question: “How can I build a freelance writing portfolio with no experience?”
- How to Get Writing Examples for your Portfolio
- FIRST: Decide on a Writing Niche (AKA What You Can Write About)
- How to Build Your Portfolio
- Begin Your Own Blog
- Volunteer Your Writing services in the Community
- Submit to Open Writing Platforms
- Charge Smaller Fees To Begin With
- Pitch Amazing Ideas to Publications and Websites
- WHERE to Build your Writing Portfolio
- Three Portfolio Sites for Freelance Writers
- Summing Up
How to Get Writing Examples for your Portfolio
Luckily, there are many different ways you can create writing samples to help you win that precious first job. We’ve assembled all the effective methods in this handy guide.
So, let’s dive into some tried-and-tested ways to build an online writing portfolio from scratch.
FIRST: Decide on a Writing Niche (AKA What You Can Write About)
Most writers become specialists in writing about one or two subjects or niches. Why?
- It’s easier to write if you’re familiar with your topic.
- You can market yourself as an expert in that field.
- It’s helpful to hone your writing style in one genre before moving on to others.
Sometimes it’s easy to decide on a niche. For instance, writing about your day job can be a great way to start. Maybe you work or are trained in health, finance, tech, education, construction — the list goes on.
Whatever the niche, you’d have an excellent knowledge base to start writing for that sector.
Similarly, consider your hobbies and interests. Are you a pet lover? Photographer? Birdwatcher? Do you love traveling, or learning new languages? Do you own a fabulous collection of antiques? Again, it’s easy to write knowledgeably about something you love doing.
Help! I Don’t Know My Niche!
Sometimes it’s not apparent what your writing niche should be. Perhaps your day job isn’t relevant to a sought-after niche, or you’re starting as a new freelancer because you want a fresh start.
Don’t panic! Instead, experiment with different topics and styles.
What would you like to be good at? Now might be the perfect time to start learning about something new and write about it simultaneously.
Writing about a topic while you’re learning can be an advantage because you understand the questions and confusion other beginners have. Your writing can help to clear the way for them — and it doesn’t matter that you’re only a few steps ahead.
Content Writing vs Copy Writing: What’s the Difference?
Some writers focus on copywriting, while others prefer to write content. There’s always some overlap between the two (not helped by the fact that some of the people hiring don’t know the difference!)
Let’s keep it simple:
Content Writing is writing that informs, entertains or educates its readers in some way.
Businesses use content in blogs, magazines, podcasts, videos and newsletters to build rapport and trust with existing and potential customers.
Copy Writing is sales-driven.
Copywriters produce ads, marketing emails, sales pages, newsletters etc., all designed to sell products and services.
There’s a massive demand for content writers and copywriters online, so knowing which one you prefer can help you decide on a niche.
How to Build Your Portfolio
Begin Your Own Blog
If you want to be a content writer, a blog could be a great way to start. There’s nothing like writing blog post after blog post to build skills and stamina. And you’re going to need both if you want a freelance writing career.
Best of all, a blog could end up being a profitable project – a business in itself.
How Does Blogging Help You Find Work?
1. You’ll learn how to set up and manage a website:
As a freelance writer, clients will sometimes ask you to submit your article as a draft post on their site. So one of the first things those prospective clients ask is, “do you know your way around the backend of a website?” (Almost always, they’re referring to WordPress.)
If technology challenges you, take a free “start a blog” course – there are plenty around. Most of these will recommend you use WordPress as your content management system. Although it may seem complicated, it’s worth working through any initial confusion, because this is a valuable skill to have.
2. It builds your credibility online
Writing blog posts creates an online portfolio with links to share when prospective clients ask to see your work. You can point them straight to your best pieces.
You can share your work on social media too. That alerts your audience to new blog posts, helps to bring in new readers, and creates more links, increasing your presence online.
A WORD OF WARNING: Don’t just fill your portfolio with posts from your own blog. Clients will want to see a range of different work examples, so don’t assume that just a blog is enough.
3. Writing regular blog posts get you into the writing groove
In his book “On Writing,” Stephen King says, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
And in “Everybody Writes,” Ann Handley (marketing and writing guru) says that the difference between being good at writing or not is down to the amount of work you’re willing to put in.
So, blogging about something that fascinates you is a good idea, because you’ll be keen enough to read, research or write about it every day.
4. Blogging develops your writing style
Over time, you’ll begin to develop a unique writing style that regular readers can recognise. You can experiment with different types of content and increase your skillset. That, in turn, gives you more to offer potential new clients.
Everything you do on your blog increases your confidence. You understand that you CAN write, respond positively to challenges, and successfully build an online presence where people – including prospective clients – can view your work.
In my own writing career, starting a blog has:
- Given me an online portfolio – I still use my best blog posts as writing samples.
- Helped me network – interviewing a council employee opened opportunities to write for our local council – online and in their monthly magazine.
- Found me clients – a magazine editor hired me after she discovered my blog during a Google search.
If you’d like to start a blog, Dreamhost offers hosting, including an easy WordPress install, for as little as $2.59 per month.
Volunteer Your Writing services in the Community
While we would never advise you to write for commercial clients for free, there are plenty of offline places where you can volunteer as a writer.
Where might you offer your services in the community? Perhaps a local church, small business or charity needs help in writing a regular newsletter?
Can you attend local functions and write them up for a local magazine?
Does a local sports club need help with fundraising? That could be an excellent opportunity to learn how to write when applying for grants.
Can you help a friend write their speech for a wedding, funeral or community function?
All these opportunities are a great way to improve your skills in areas where there are many freelance opportunities. Grant writing, for example, is a specialised skill and very different from the tone you use in a newsletter. Wedding and social speeches often call for humour, while eulogies help develop sympathetic interview skills and a sensitive writing style.
Keep your best work as samples in your writing portfolio.
Submit to Open Writing Platforms
Another way to build your freelance writing portfolio with no experience is to publish articles on platforms that encourage writers to post their content for free.
Some examples are:
- Sooper Articles
- Article Alley
Medium is probably the best known of the open content platforms. It’s a vast blogging platform, and free to writers. Publish your best original pieces on Medium, and link to them when interviewing for new writing gigs.
If you get good engagement stats on your articles and plenty of reader “claps,” it proves that people read your work. That’s reassuring for someone who’s thinking of hiring you.
Sooper and Article Alley
Sooper and Article Alley are like enormous online magazines, with thousands of articles on just about any topic under the sun. Each site asks for unique work — in other words, the article can’t be published anywhere else.
Quora is a question and answer platform where you can demonstrate your knowledge and writing skills by providing valuable, well-written answers to an enormous bank of questions.
Steemit is a content-sharing platform built on a blockchain that lets users earn digital assets or STEEM tokens.
Both Quora and Steemit allow readers to upvote or downvote the content. If you find your post near the top with plenty of upvotes, it provides another potential writing sample link. Note that we wouldn’t advice filling a freelance writing portfolio with this kind of writing – but one of two particular pieces could be worth linking to.
HubPages works a little differently. It’s a revenue-sharing site where you publish your article, and HubPages automatically inserts some ads. If a reader clicks on the ad, you get a portion of any revenue that’s generated.
Charge Smaller Fees To Begin With
Sometimes you can win a job if you’re prepared to work for cheap. However, freelancers are divided on whether it’s a good practice for beginners or degrades all writers’ rates.
At HomeWorkingClub, we believe that charging cheaper rates in the early days of your career can help you get those “foot-in-the-door” jobs to gain experience. Every piece of work enables you to hone your writing skills, and helps you gradually raise your rates.
It’s important to understand that new freelance writers aren’t alone in working for peanuts when they’re starting. Ask a junior lawyer or doctor. They work horrendous hours for comparatively modest starting salaries.
One lawyer told me that he worked for little more than $10 per hour in his first job, especially when he considered his commute time.
Pitch Amazing Ideas to Publications and Websites
Pitching for writing jobs is probably the most challenging strategy of all. However, it can also be the most satisfying, and can land you with the most impressive pieces for your portfolio.
Try pitching guest posts to blogs and websites, or article ideas to magazines and newspapers. If you’re an expert in a particular field, you might pitch case studies or even white papers to industry publications.
By learning how to pitch stories, you’ll naturally grow your writing skills. It helps you know how to assess writing markets, develop new article ideas and hone your article research skills.
You could make vital editorial contacts in the industry – if they think your pitches have potential – and you may even get on the radar of a national publication. Those content clips can take pride of place in your portfolio.
You’ll find some help with pitching here, including some pitch emails that are proven to work!
Tips for Finding Places to Pitch for a Writing Job
Finding places that may be willing to accept your work is easier than you might think.
Here are some pointers:
Search on Google
Simply do this:
Head to Google and search for “niche + write for us” to bring up sites that actively accept guest posts or pitches.
For example. here are some of the sites that came up in a search for “cryptocurrency + write for us.”
Keep an Eye on Twitter and LinkedIn
Editors often put out a call on Twitter when they’re in the market for an article. Posting regularly on LinkedIn can get you noticed by business owners or marketers.
Apply to Likely Publications
Some publications routinely work with writers who have pitched them with a good angle.
Readers Digest is one magazine with countless contributors, and the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series is often on the lookout for new submissions. Another one to check out is the Tiny Buddha website.
Look for recently started magazines, too, because they’re often searching for new writers while building their readership. Or, pitch a brilliant idea to your favourite mag — you never know what will happen if you don’t try.
WHERE to Build your Writing Portfolio
A writing portfolio is a collection of your best work.
You should be able to access it quickly to send samples from your portfolio to prospective clients. However, many writers also display their portfolios online. That way, their name comes up in a search, or they can send new clients a link to the appropriate section.
So, where can you create your portfolio? The good news is there are several options. You may well make use of all or several of these options:
- Keep examples in a computer folder and attach the appropriate files to each job application or pitch.
- Build a profile on a specialized portfolio website.
- Make a portfolio page on your website.
- Feature examples of your best work on LinkedIn.
- Create a combined profile/portfolio on Upwork.
- Make a one-page online CV that includes links to your blog posts and websites that feature your work.
Many writers use portfolios to be discoverable online, and also send individual samples to target clients as needed.
Three Portfolio Sites for Freelance Writers
There are various websites intended specifically for creative people to show off their work.
Behance is the big one for artists, photographers and designers, while programmers often showcase their talents on GitHub. Writers use Contently and Clippings.me, while Cloudpeeps is for freelancers in general.
If you wish, you can create a profile on several websites to maximise your chance of businesses finding you online. However, we would only recommend doing this if you commit to keeping all of them up to date. If you think you may slack off on this, it’s best to stick to just one.
Most sites have a free version — perfect for new freelancers — and a more extensive premium/paid version for those who’ve been writing for years.
Contently has a vast network of freelancers using its site, and also functions as a talent network. This means you can actually get work through Contently, as well as using them as a portfolio site.
Clippings.me claims to be the world’s largest journalism portfolio site. It’s been around since 2011 and is very easy to use.
CloudPeeps launched in 2015 and connects freelancers with top clients in countries that allow Stripe Connect payments.
Create a Portfolio Page on your Website or Blog
Many writers highlight their work on their business or personal websites. And, while you don’t have to start with a website, you’ll probably create one at some point in your career.
If you’ve already started a blog, you can create a portfolio page and feature the link on your home page.
It’s a good idea to catalog your examples so that clients can easily see relevant samples for their job.
Creating a profile is essential on freelance bidding websites like Upwork or People Per Hour. These also double as portfolios.
Your profile includes your name, bio and a blurb where you highlight how your skills can help your clients achieve their goals, as well as examples of your best work.
Advertising your freelance writing services can be daunting when you’re new to the game.
However, take heart – because there are many ways to build a portfolio even with zero experience. And, once you have successfully landed your first few jobs, you’ll develop the confidence to carry on.
- Use your education, current line of work, hobbies and passion projects to help you choose a writing niche.
- Network to find work both on the web and offline.
- Volunteer to write for community organisations to gain experience, and get your name in front of decision-makers.
- Submit work to open platforms such as Medium and LinkedIn.
- Learn how to craft compelling pitches.
- Search online and in your network for possible publications and send out your pitches. If you are rejected, you can practice taking that common occurrence on the chin. But, if your pitch is accepted, then your real writing work begins.
- Collect examples of your best work together and create both online portfolios and a collection of files to send to prospective clients.
Finally, take a deep breath and smile. Make sure you write every day to keep growing your skills, and above all, enjoy seeing your writing portfolio steadily grow.
Lyn is the author of Culture Smart NZ (2022). A freelance writer and blogger from New Zealand, she specialises in content for lifestyle magazines, blogs, podcasts and virtual summits. You’ll find her blog on writing, farm life & talented New Zealanders at lynmcnamee.com