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

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!

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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.

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