Beginners in almost every field know the classic conundrum: how do you get experience when no one will give you work because you have no experience? In the writing world, it can seem like you’re trapped between a rock and a hard place. Everyone wants to see a portfolio of your work and clips of previous publications, but you don’t have either. Luckily, there are ways to get those early clips and work samples without needing previous experience. Below we’ll discuss exactly how to build a writing portfolio from scratch.
Keep your Expectations in Check
Before we get started, there’s a big debate in the writing world on whether you should ever write for free. Some writers feel that writing just “for exposure” degrades the whole profession into a group of people writing to satisfy their own egos.
Similarly, some people feel that writing for pennies might drive down the working rates for other writers.
But the fact is, if you have no experience, you need to prove yourself. And one way to do that is writing for free. You might even take on some early work that pays “chump change” but gets you some useful clips.
Through that early free and low-paid work, you’ll gain skills and experience that you can charge a higher rate for down the road. For instance, if you can show a clip that got hundreds or even thousands of page views, a client may be more willing to pay higher rates for your services. Then, as you learn how to write better pieces, you can command better rates.
Tap Your Network
The easiest way to get started as a writer is to see if anyone you know could use your writing services. For instance, someone in your family could need some posts written for their side business. A friend who’s grammatically challenged could need their newsletter for work edited. Someone could even want something more involved, like a white paper.
If you tell people you’re getting into writing professionally, you could also learn about publications you hadn’t even thought of writing for. Or someone might want a community event covered – the possibilities are endless.
Find Ways to Volunteer
Another way to get into writing is to find an organisation that could use a writer, and volunteer there. For instance, your local civic group could need a regular newsletter. Technically, the first non-fiction writing I ever produced outside of school was a newsletter for the local 4-H club while I was in middle school!
If you happen to be still in school, you might also think about getting involved in the high school or college newspaper or literary magazine. You can get clips from that experience, and if you work your way up to editor, that always looks good on a resumé. Working for these publications can sometimes mean class credit too!
You might also think about possible internships. This doubles as real-world experience. Plus, it’s typically a good way to get some highly professional clips to help you build a writing portfolio.
Post to Free Sites
Another idea is to post some of your own writing to free sites. This is a bit more controversial, since many free sites have something of a bad reputation because the barrier to entry is so low. So if you go this route, you’ll have to make sure your writing is very professional. That way, you can show prospects journalism-quality writing that just happens to be hosted on a free site. Some examples of sites that take writing for free are:
- Sooper Articles
- Article Alley
That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to posting your work for free. But it’s a way to show clips, and may even gain some regular readers and followers.
Make Your Own Blog
The problem with sites that allow you to post your free content is that if they go down or change their business model, all of your content could go out the window. It’s therefore a good idea to gain some online exposure by starting your own blog.
A key benefit of starting a blog of your own is that you have complete control over the content. You even get to choose what your domain name is (if what you want is available!) You can build a comprehensive site on a topic you’re knowledgeable about.
If you post accurate, insightful content with regularity, you could end up with your own reader base, establish yourself as an authority on your niche, and start to make money. People have also found themselves book deals and clients for paid work by doing this.
You can learn about what tools you need to start your own blog here.
Pitch Amazing Ideas to Publications and Websites
This is probably the most challenging strategy here. However, it can also be the method with the biggest payoff and most personal satisfaction.
By learning how to pitch stories, you’ll naturally grow your writing skills. Pitching stories to publications regularly will help you learn how to assess writing markets, come up with new article ideas and hone your article research/writing skills. You could also end up building key editorial contacts in the industry if they like what you pitch or think your pitches have potential.
And as you learn to pitch markets more effectively, you could end up with some clips from some nationally-recognized publications. Those are always instant content portfolio boosters.
You’ll find some help with pitching here, including some pitch emails that have been proven to work!
How to Build a Writing Portfolio Once You Have Clips
OK, now let’s look ahead to the best-case scenario: You find ways to do all sorts of amazing writing and now you have some professional clips ready to show off. What do you do with them?
The biggest concern is usually how many samples you need to have a good portfolio. Is two enough, three? 20? If you Google “how many samples in a writing portfolio” and “how many pieces in a writing portfolio,” you’ll turn up dozens of different opinions on the matter. The real answer is however many clips you have and are comfortable showing.
If you look at content writer portfolio sample sites, you’ll notice some Contently portfolio examples have dozens of clips in them – especially if the writer has been in the journalism field for a long time. But you could just have around five really good pieces to start you off – if you’re proud enough of them to show them off. Your portfolio should always represent your best work, and be relevant to the freelance writing niche you are applying within.
For further details on how to build a writing portfolio, you can go here, where you can also learn how to make a writing portfolio for a job or how to make a writing portfolio for college.
If you have any of your own tips on how to build a writing portfolio to share, feel free to tell us in the comments!
Michelle Lovrine Honeyager is a freelance writer who has written features for a number of consumer and industry print magazines, as well as stories for niche websites, digital lifestyle magazines and general news sites.