12 Ways to Build Your Freelance Writing Portfolio from Scratch
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A modified version of this article first appeared in The Working Writer, a weekly newsletter for helping writers forge their own paths to sustainable and profitable writing careers.
We can all recall the frustrating conundrum we faced when we first attempted to enter the workforce. Job postings would often specify workers with experience. How do you get work if you don’t have work experience, and how do you get work experience if you can’t get work?
If you’re just starting out as a freelance writer, you might feel like you’re faced with a similar catch-22. It feels daunting. But the truth is, if you have decent writing ability combined with plenty of good ideas or a lot of things to say on certain topics, it’s not that hard to break in.
I was in junior college when I successfully pitched my first article (you’ll hear more about that next week). I had not a lick of professional writing experience. Heck, we didn’t even have blogs back then. My only experience up to that point was writing for my high school newspaper. None of that prevented the magazine I pitched from being interested in my idea.
Even so, it does help to have writing samples that can demonstrate your skills to prospective editors or clients. So here are a dozen ways you can start TODAY to build a body of work and add samples to your writing portfolio.
Create Your Own Content
I touched on a lot of these in my letter about opening your own doors, but they bear repeating.
1. Start a blog. You may be way ahead of me on this step, but your own blog can be a source of perfectly good writing samples that can help you break into paying markets or impress prospective writing clients. A blog has the added advantage of acting as a content marketing strategy that can attract potential clients to your website.
Many professional writers have gotten work through their blogs. The key is to focus on a topic or topics that are actually interesting to the type of people or publications you want to write for. So if you have a blog but it’s basically a public journal of your life, that’s probably not going to cut it. You’ll need to rethink your content and start using your blog to present a professional face to the world.
2. Post articles on Medium. Medium has a few advantages over your own blog. For starters, it provides access to a wider audience that can significantly broaden your reach. Also, Medium provides an optional built-in monetization program. This will narrow your reach to paying subscribers, but it can be a way to build passive income while building your portfolio.
Another advantage is that many respectable and popular publications are hosted on Medium. You could submit your work to some of them, giving you a wider audience than if you simply posted to your own profile, and also filling your portfolio with pieces that someone besides yourself found worthy of publication.
You don’t have to choose between blogging or writing for Medium — you can do both. Medium makes it easy to import articles from your blog, so if you’ve got some well-written blog posts for which you’d like a wider audience, you can copy them over in a matter of minutes.
3. Post articles on LinkedIn. If your writing is more business-centric, or if you want to break into writing for corporate clients, publishing on LinkedIn can be a great way to get eyes on your writing and build samples. You can publish articles on the network, or you can also simply post links to your own blog posts, as well as to Medium articles and other content you write, in your feed to be seen by your network.
4. Self-publish a book. This might sound daunting, but really, writing a nonfiction ebook can be done in a matter of weeks, and as long as it’s informative, it doesn’t need to be very long — anywhere from 15 to 30 thousand words is acceptable for a nonfiction ebook. If you know enough about a topic to come up with that many words on it, you can put out an ebook that will establish you as an expert on that topic while proving your writing chops as well as your ability to handle large projects. Best yet, once the book is published, it becomes a passive income stream. My book, Self-Publishing for the Broke Author, walks you step-by-step through the self-publishing process and teaches you how to produce a professional book on a shoestring.
Stop Waiting Until You Have Time to Start Writing
Recently a friend asked me for some advice. He had been thinking about writing a book and wanted to know if I thought…
Volunteer to Write Content for Others
1. Guest post on other blogs. Normally, I believe writers should get paid for their work. But when you’re starting out, and also from a marketing standpoint, a well-placed guest post on a high-profile blog or website that includes a byline and writer bio can be a highly effective way to expand your reach and drive potential clients to your website while at the same time creating respectable pieces for your portfolio.
A couple of caveats — one, I would caution that this should be your idea, and you should be the one to approach and offer to write a guest post. Be extremely wary of companies or publications that solicit unpaid writers with the promise of “exposure.” These often want to exploit hopeful new writers and also often don’t actually have the traffic to back up their promises. Do your research.
The other caveat is to do your research to make sure the blog or online publication you want to target actually accepts guest posts, and if so, to carefully follow their guest post submission guidelines. Always be professional and respectful — don’t come at them with the attitude that you’re doing them a favor by writing for free.
2. Volunteer your services to charities, churches or non-profits. It’s not hard to find a church or charitable organization that would be happy to have a skilled writer handling their website content, brochure copy and other promotional materials in exchange for portfolio pieces and testimonials. Just be careful to set a limit on how much work you can provide, so you don’t find yourself stuck in an unpaid full time job.
3. Write for friends and family. Got any friends or relatives starting a business or trying to become influencers? Offer to help them with content in exchange for testimonials, LinkedIn endorsements and portfolio pieces. Again, you want to be sure to set clear boundaries up front — preferably in writing — so no one ends up feeling taken advantage of.
4. Barter your services. This isn’t strictly volunteering, since you’re getting paid in a way, but you can offer to barter with new and upcoming businesses that have products or services that you would find useful. Maybe offer to write website copy for a new web designer in exchange for help setting up your own professional website, or offer your services to a new restaurant that’s opening up in town in exchange for a few free meals. You get the idea.
Earn Money While Building Your Portfolio
1. Submit blog posts to sites that pay for your work. Free guest posting isn’t your only option. Plenty of blogs and websites out there are happy to pay at least a small fee for submitted content. Be sure to follow their guidelines when submitting your work.
Here are links to several lists of online publications that pay $30 and up for blog posts and articles:
2. Look for work on freelance job sites. Finding work on freelancing sites like Upwork Guru and People Per Hour isn’t ideal, and it’s not sustainable for the long run. These are job bidding sites, and it can be hard to get decent-paying work when competing with writers in countries with an extremely low cost of living who are able to work for incredibly low rates. But many hirers who post there are willing to pay a premium for writers for whom English is their first language, so it can be a good place to break in, if you’re willing to work for sub-optimal rates and if you’re persistent.
3. Post your services on Fiverr.com. Again, this isn’t ideal or sustainable long-term, because people typically go to Fiverr in search of cheap labor. But it can be a great way to gather professional samples for your portfolio while earning a little extra money. This is actually how I managed to break out of content mill jail and diversify my portfolio, which led to much higher-paying work. Another perk of Fiverr is that buyers who are happy with your work often leave glowing reviews which you can copy over to the testimonials section of your professional website.
4. Write for content mills like Media Shower. This is definitely not a route I recommend if you can help it. But, this type of writing can help you pay the bills while providing professional samples and training you to turn assignments around very quickly. Plus, it was an article I wrote for the now-defunct Demand Studios that landed me my first steady, high-paying marketing content gig. So I would feel remiss in not at least mentioning it as an option, if all else fails. But it’s definitely a last resort.
Welp, there you have it: twelve ways to start building your writing portfolio and attracting potential clients, several of which will help line your bank account to boot.
Jean Marie Bauhaus is a freelance writer and the author of multiple novels, both indie and traditionally published. She is also the author of Self-Publishing for the Broke Author. She runs The Working Writer, a weekly newsletter (and soon-to-be podcast) about growing and managing a full-time writing career. Learn more about Jean and her work at her website, and make her day by following her on Twitter.