Your Portfolio: Stop Making it So Hard (Guest Post)

by Peter Bowerman on November 5, 2015

PB Note: A provocative post from Indianapolis-based commercial freelancer Andrea Emerson. I don’t agree with all her points in all situations, but it’s a solid and well-reasoned piece. And to me, it just underscores, yet again, that there’s no “One Right Way” to run your copywriting business. Takes a healthy level of confidence to take this stance right out of the gate, but her “read” on clients, and what they don’t like, is solid. Thanks, Andrea!


An alternate headline for this post could’ve been “Why Most Freelance Writer Portfolios Suck.” Because they do.

Take a gander at freelance writer forums and you’ll notice a lot of advice about how to put together a writing portfolio. Often, that involves a physical binder showcasing printed copies of your work.

Don’t do that.

I never have, never will. As you can guess, I have pretty strong feelings about it.

Let me take you to a meeting I had a few months ago with Daniel, the owner of a local marketing firm. I contacted Daniel via LinkedIn, pointing out we shared a few mutual acquaintances, and making myself available for freelance commercial work. He didn’t have a need for a new copywriter at the moment, but invited me to stop by his office for a chat since, you know, all marketing agencies have an insatiable need for content.

I came to the meeting with a notepad and a pen. Nothing else. We talked about the needs of his agency and how those needs aligned with my forté and background. At the end of our time together, Daniel said:

“Hey, send me a work sample or two. Just the stuff you’re most proud of.”

Then, he added:

“I hate it when writers send me a bunch of writing samples. I don’t have time for that.”

I chuckled because, (1) I’d heard this before, and (2) I could SO relate.

Years earlier, while working in the corporate world, I occasionally interviewed candidates for marketing communications jobs. I hated — HATED — when someone walked in with a fat binder and insisted on walking me through every page.

First of all, it’s impossible to mentally digest and make judgments on so much content during a job discussion. The best I could do was to jump around the material, gazing at headlines and sentences in a random fashion, then zone out the rest. My eyes glazed over in a hurry.

So what’s the alternative?

Here’s how I’ve approached it. I did link to work samples on my website, but never shared those links with prospects until they asked for it.

You see, the purpose of your first or second interaction with prospects is just to tease them — to create interest and start a conversation. Don’t expect to close the sale with your first email or phone call. (In fact, don’t even try. It may happen, but it’s a huge turnoff if you push for it.)

If interested, the prospect would naturally talk about his/her needs, then ask me for samples. Armed with what I’ve learned about them, I’d email just 3-5 select samples that were relevant to what they were looking for.

Eventually, I also deleted most of the samples on my website. I had started with 10-15 samples and one day I thought, “What prospect in his right mind is going to read 15 samples? Wouldn’t it be smarter if I limited their choices to just my favorite work?” So I shaved that list down to a handful and bulked up on testimonials instead.

Copywriter Steve Slaunwhite follows a similar rationale. After observing the same dynamic I described above (where hiring managers only read random lines of a portfolio and ignored the rest), Steve adopted what he calls a “Portfolio One Sheet.”

In that sheet, Steve describes the project, its goal, the extent of his role, and showcases just a couple of excerpts. (Naturally, the strongest parts.)

What if you’re brand-spanking new and don’t have writing samples yet?

Make some up. Seriously. You can write for an imaginary business, write for a family member, choose a worthy cause or local business and offer to rewrite their brochure, landing page, sales letter, email promo — whatever. You can also take something you’ve written at a past job or writing course, give it a nice edit and you’re good to go.

This isn’t shady, and it isn’t uncommon. It’s how you get started. The point is to prove you can write. No one cares if you got paid for it.

Pressure’s off. No excuses left.

With the approach I described above (which, by the way, never failed me once), you don’t need a lengthy, bulky portfolio. A couple of samples should be enough for someone to determine whether your writing lines up with their standards and needs.

If you’ve been stressing over a writing portfolio, don’t. We’ve just removed that excuse and the pressure that followed it. (You’re welcome.)

What’s worked for you in the past?

What portfolio challenges, dilemmas or hang-ups give you heart palpitations or hinder your interactions with prospects?

If applying any advice from this post, what will that be?

If not, why not?

AndreaEmersonPicAndrea Emerson is an Indianapolis-based copywriter & freelancing coach. She blogs about what it takes to build a profitable freelance business here.

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.


So, I’m in the midst of renovating my townhome in Atlanta. The kitchen is done, and the upstairs bedrooms and baths are next.

The guy I’m working with was incredibly hard to nail down. He first came by to discuss the kitchen in mid-November of last year, but it wasn’t till mid-March that he finally got started. He doesn’t always return calls promptly, and his smiling “don’t-worry-it’ll-all-be-okay” responses—in broken English—to requests for specificity on time and expense were, at the outset, borderline maddening.

And, there’s no one else I want working on my house.

I’ll happily deal with the delays, the occasional radio silence and the vague, happy-face answers. Why?

Well, for starters, he’s just done an amazing job so far. The quality of his work is outstanding. Moreover, he’s got a naturally creative mind—always coming up with great ideas for this or that space—and if there’s multiple ways of doing something, he’ll always suggest the least expensive one, yet still get great results. And all that wasn’t reason enough to love him, he’s amazingly reasonable, to boot.

(By the way, if you live in the Atlanta area, no, sorry, you can’t have his name. Not till I’m done with him, anyway… :-)

All the above is great, and definitely a “best-of-all-worlds” combination one virtually never finds, but it was something else that really cemented my attachment to him…

He’s committed to delivering a superior product—even if it means more work for him (understand: he worked on a fixed labor cost, not by the hour). An example…

I brought him two samples of backsplash subway tile—one a rustic travertine, one of tinted glass. I asked him which he thought would be best. He looked at them both, looked at me, and holding up the glass tile, said, “This one would be a lot easier for me, but this one (holding up the travertine) is the one you want to go. It’s harder to work with this material, but you’ll be much happier with the outcome.”

There were plenty of other similar little examples, where his desire to have me be happy—no, scratch that, thrilled—with the outcome, trumped any clock-watching on his part.

Bottom line, he’s spoiled me terribly, and even though, as I write this, the delays in getting started on Phase 2 are giving me déjà vu, it doesn’t matter. I’ll wait.

Of course, I try to never miss opportunities to map the experiences I have in one part of my life onto the others. This guy is a living example of how to build rabidly loyal clients.

What might it do for our commercial freelancing businesses if we shifted our focus from clock-watching and making sure we didn’t get taken advantage of by clients, to looking for ways to make sure our clients are thrilled with the work we do for them?

Sure, all we have is our time, and we can’t give away the farm, but assuming we’re earning a healthy wage, and have factored into our quotes some time for “hiccups,” what could cultivating a “service” mindset do for our practices?

In addition to ensuring our work plate always stayed full, and our fees stopped being questioned, what might it do for our spirits, our souls? Because, I’m telling, this guy is a happy man. Full of joy, goodwill and sunshine. Just the kind of person people love to work with.

Have you run across people—outside of our profession—similar to my friend above, who inspired you to raise the bar on your commercial writing offering?

Have you adopted a “service” attitude in your practice, and if so, can you share specific examples of its impact on your client relationships?

And if you have developed that mindset, how do you balance it against the need to earn a fair wage?

And if you haven’t adopted that mindset yet, has this piece given you some ideas, or affirmed some feelings you’ve already had about how to run your copywriting business?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.


Here’s How My First “Well-Fed Wednesday” Went (that “Six-Hours-of-Open-Phone-Calling” Thing…)

September 16, 2015

So, as you might know, I did a pretty cool and fun thing a few Wednesdays ago—my first Well-Fed Wednesday “open-call-free-for-all.” If you missed it, here’s a recap… Calling it an “energy experiment,” and modeling it after a similar exercise I’d read about (by a master coach), I opened my phone for six hours (10-1, […]

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Got Some Examples of Clever Wordplay Like This?

August 25, 2015

Okay, a lighter subject, given that it’s still summer—for a few more weeks anyway—and I’m not feeling so serious today… And that’s probably because I just back from vacation not long ago. Escaped to the blessed cool of New England for a few weeks—a nice respite from Atlanta’s “95’s” dog days (i.e., both the average […]

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Want More Work? Get Out And Ask For It (Guest Post)

July 9, 2015

Cool guest post from Brett Stone, who sent me this last fall, when she was still a commercial freelancer (and commercial real-estate investor). She’s since moved into some new and exciting directions, leveraging her past experience and teaching women how to raise their wealth consciousness and create more of what they want in their lives. […]

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What Do You Say to a Prospect Who Asks for This?

May 21, 2015

I recently got an email from one of my sidecar-coaching clients—and a budding commercial writer. He’d made contact with an interested prospect who then sent him the following email: I’d like to get a quote for a first project with you – to try you out. If the first one goes well, we feel there’d […]

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