Here’s a common lament I hear from freelance writers:
“I don’t have any writing samples! What should I do to get clips for my portfolio?”
Well, wait just a minute there. Because often, when I ask more questions, I find out you’ve got clips.
You just don’t think you have any.
For instance, take this writer’s question to me:
“I’ve worked full-time as a writer/editor/SEO specialist in India. Then I got married, moved to the U.S., got a second MA degree, and then stayed home as a full-time mother for 18 months.
“Now, it’s time to get back on the writing wagon again. Could you please suggest a few freelance writing websites (even free ones will do for the time being) that I could start building my portfolio with?” — Best, Medha.
Are you forgetting something?
When writers take a hiatus from writing, they sometimes get amnesia.
You forget you already have perfectly good writing samples. In your head, everything you had in your portfolio previously is no longer any good, because a little time has passed.
You’re ready to start over working for free or pennies, just to get a few clips.
But in many cases, you don’t have to do that. You have plenty of samples already, and should focus on pitching great-paying clients. Don’t start over again at the bottom rung of the freelance ladder!
What types of clips might you be overlooking? Here are seven types of overlooked clips I often turn up:
1. Staff writing
Many writers seem to believe only articles or copy written freelance can be counted in their freelance writing portfolio. Not true!
In fact, having been a staff writer is a huge plus — that conveys a lot of professionalism, if you’ve earned your living as a writer. Same if you did a lot of writing as part of your job as an analyst, administrative assistant, or anything else.
Did you write something in collaboration with a team? Use it, and simply note it was a group project you contributed to.
The one caveat here is if you have a nondisclosure agreement with your previous employer, or all their marketing materials are under virtual or real lock and key.
Note for future reference: Retain copies of everything you write, to avoid that issue.
Even if your company has a policy that they own materials you wrote during your tenure, ask them if you could link to them in your portfolio, just for purposes of seeking clients. They may well agree — after all, it’s an inbound link for them that could help their rankings on search.
Most copywriting carries no byline. There’s nowhere to put your name on brochures, annual reports, direct mail, or Web landing pages.
But it doesn’t matter. You still wrote it, and it can still be part of your portfolio.
Remember: If you can’t claim anything that lacks your byline, then no copywriters would have portfolios, ever. You can see that’s wrong.
The trick with using copywriting in your portfolio is to get a testimonial from your client, to put next to your samples. That makes the connection for prospects that you are definitely the author on these pieces.
If you’re ghosting a CEO’s blog or their e-book, the same rules apply as with copywriting. If you’re sworn to total secrecy with a nondisclosure agreement, maybe you can’t claim it.
Otherwise, just ask if you can link to it, and get a testimonial.
One other way to note ghostwriting is to do a chart with type of client and type of project, just to anonymously note the types of clients you use. I know a prominent ghostwriter who usually writes under NDAs, who does that.
Her clincher? Be sure to write a few things under your own byline as well, so you can daylight some writing samples and prospects can see your style.
4. Part-time writing
Some writers think freelance assignments they did on the side, while they still held a full-time job, can’t go into their portfolio.
“I have 10 years of experience,” one writer told me sadly, “but it wasn’t full time.”
Good news! The only person who cares about your job status is you. Prospects just want to read your clips, like your writing, and hire you.
I have never in 15+ years of freelancing had a prospect ask me if I wrote an article while on staff, writing part-time, or writing freelance. Like Eeyore says, “Nobody cares.”
5. Reprints & recaptures
Many mill writers I’ve mentored think they have no clips, because most of their writing appeared on a cheesy mill platform with a crummy reputation.
But sometimes, those mills resell the better pieces they get to better sites. For instance, for a while Demand Studios was placing some travel pieces with USA Today.
You may not want to put your eHow or Ezines pieces in your portfolio, because of the poor reputation of these platforms. But do a little Google searching and see if they’ve turned up elsewhere.
Another common complaint I hear is that writers have a ton of great clips with a now-defunct publication or business. If that’s you, see if you can find a copy again on Wayback Machine, which takes snapshots of the Internet constantly.
For instance, a Google search I once did for a great article I’d written for a shuttered city business magazine turned up a copy living on a local CPA association’s website.
Daily newspapers are considered part of the historical record — their ‘morgue’ of editions probably lives on somewhere. If you’ve written for a daily that ceased publication, check with the buyer if they got bought, or your local history museum.
6. Volunteer writing
For some reason, many freelance writers think if they did a gig pro bono, then it’s not a clip.
In fact, the issue of pay is entirely separate from the issue of whether you wrote it. And the next client need never know you weren’t paid on that last gig. If it’s good writing, use it. Ideally, get the client to promise they won’t tell any referrals they send you that you did them a solid.
I find volunteer gigs tend to slip writers’ minds — we forget we’ve done them. Review your good works and see if you’ve got a sample in there.
7. College writing
For some of us, college-newspaper or internship clips would be going waaaay back. For others, it’s not all that long ago. If you have nothing else, consider using your clips from this time period, especially if you wrote something you’re proud of.
I hope this list stimulates writers’ brains to think about what they might be able to include in their portfolios. I bet you’ve got more than you think.
What’s in your portfolio? Tell us about your first clips and how you got them.