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!


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.

12 replies
  1. Katherine Swarts
    Katherine Swarts says:

    I like any advice that takes some of the clutter out of life! My own site has links to about a half dozen articles relevant to my current niche. Note that lots of articles on a website (especially if they’re linked to prominent business names) is good for SEO, so you may want a more thorough portfolio online if you count on a percentage of your clients finding you–but once the portfolio gets bigger than 10 or so articles, group them by categories, don’t just use a long chronological or alphabetical list.

  2. Andrea Emerson
    Andrea Emerson says:

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Katherine! I’m a fan of experimentation and finding what works for you. I’ve started categorizing my work samples as well, to keep my online portfolio looking clean and easy for prospects to consume.

    All the best to you!


  3. Star Lawrence
    Star Lawrence says:

    I don’t do much corporate writing anymore–am developing some cartoon projects. But I made my living for 35 years as a reporter and corporate writer. Both. My webpage is still up–it’s on here–no samples. When I responded in email, I picked one or two samples and attached them–always making sure they related to what the prospect wanted. When I went in person, I had a very unusual red plastic briefcase–people loved it and seemingly could not wait for me to open it. It contained a lot of brochures of all sizes and all types of organizations. I would open a few and I had a line of patter–“I write sales not art, but I always liked this and it also sold out their conference”–the brochure was for a building assn and had the type set in columns like skyscrapers. Another one had a voice chip in it touting the group. I would say, “This one won’t quit talking…” The presentation was about 5 mins and the takeaway was these were expensive pieces, known groups, etc. I would never expect a prospect to read a whole piece. In fact, I would ask the prospect–have you collected any pieces you like or even ones you don’t like so much? Often they had. I remember one long-time client–he loved the color orange–every piece was orange and white…What a funny business.

  4. Star Lawrence
    Star Lawrence says:

    Thankx, Andrea. I still have that briefcase…I credit it with my survival all those yrs. One time, a woman in a store came up to me and whispered, “Do you have a phone in there?” I whispered back: “No.”

  5. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Good stuff, everyone! Wanted to see what people were saying before weighing in.

    As noted in my intro, I absolutely agree that clients don’t want to see your whole portfolio (or even a good-sized chunk of it). And yes, it’s a funny thing… Knowing that this is true, I’ve nonetheless, in days past, found myself in situations where I was showing more pieces than I KNEW the client wanted to see. Few of us are immune from the desire to show off a bit. It was almost like an out-of-body experience: I’m watching myself, saying, “WHAT are you doing?” 😉

    Luckily, I don’t do that much anymore. Before any face-to-face meeting where I’m introducing myself and my work to a new prospect, I will always set aside a few pieces I want to show, and throughout the process, I’m always checking in with the prospect saying things like, “I do NOT want to bore you, so just tell me to stop at any time.”

    As long as they’re saying (with conviction), “No, you’re fine. We DO want to get a sense of your work,” I’ll continue, but still stop after a certain point.

    I do think that how well we write (and how well we write the kinds of things they need written) is something a client needs to know, and to get a sense of those skills, they do have to see a certain amount of samples.

    Yes, we should be asking a lot of questions in an initial meeting to get a sense of what the client’s needs are, and to determine if there’s a confluence of their needs and our skills. By the same token, we can be the most “prospect-focused” writer out there while in a meeting—zeroed in on that client’s needs, and NOT talking about ourselves the whole time—but in the end, none of that matters unless we can deliver what that client needs.

    And yes, I know Andrea isn’t saying we shouldn’t show anything, but I’m just offering up a reminder that our skills are what’s important to that client.

    Also, not sure I agree that we only need to have a minimum number of samples on our site. IF we’re only focused one one or two project types (perhaps as a “content” writer), then maybe it makes sense to have a small number. But what if you’re a generalist, as I’ve been forever?

    I’ve had plenty of clients over the years who are delighted that I can handle a wide variety of projects: brochures, ads, direct mail, case studies, newsletters, speeches, landing pages, articles, taglines, names, and a lot more. For writers in situations like that, it’s just not enough to have a web site with 5-6 samples.

    Now, I think what Andrea’s getting at it here, in part, is all about developing a confident attitude, and one of the “symptoms,” so to speak, of that mindset, is that you shouldn’t overwhelm clients with samples, that a few strong samples, coupled with a confidence, is going to speak powerfully to many clients. Agreed.

    AND, I’m not sure that someone starting out with little to show should just say, “Yay! I only have a few samples, but that should be all I need to land big juicy jobs.” Not so. Get a pile of work under your belt, and then the confidence that naturally springs from ongoing success can put you in a position to take a more minimalist approach. Just one man’s opinion… 😉

  6. Andrea Emerson
    Andrea Emerson says:

    Good stuff, Peter. Yes, high-paying, high-quality clients absolutely want to make sure your writing is top-notch before they hire you.

    Interesting observation while comparing notes with other writers… My sense is that some prospects click around your website and are “sold” (or turned off) before they get to your portfolio based on your site’s content — particularly your Home and About pages.

    In other words, if you nail your own pitch and can move your own readers to action, that goes a long way to persuading a prospect that your writing will produce the effect they’re looking for.

    But, yes, absolutely, you also need to have strong pieces that showcase your abilities and experience.

    Thanks for letting me pop in here and contribute my perspective! Thanks also for the strong advice you provide.


  7. Star Lawrence
    Star Lawrence says:

    The Samples Dance can get really weird sometimes. I remember a prospect who wanted a 16-pp brochure. I had several four and eight-pagers–but they insisted, “How do we know you can write 16 pages?” I can’t remember what I said but knowing me, it could have been a little sarcastic.

  8. Lori
    Lori says:

    I do things slightly differently. I have a portfolio, and I use it whenever I attend conferences. I limit it to six pages, and there’s no way anyone is reading these things at a show, so I don’t even include the entire pieces. They’re just used as visuals. I can’t tell you how many times I get “Do you have any samples with you?” at these shows. While I make appointments ahead of time, there are plenty of new people I meet at every conference. Impromptu meetings — you bet they want to see samples. Do I send them later? Only if they ask in the follow-up email.

    My website right now has links to online samples, but not many. I have my client list, and I’m working client testimonials in this week (I hope). That should be plenty. Beyond that, my goal is to create the relationship and nurture it to the point where they’ll never need to ask.

  9. Jake Poinier
    Jake Poinier says:

    The old saying in college admissions is: “The thicker the folder, the thicker the applicant.”

    Like you, Peter, I’ve had that out-of-body, “what are you doing?” moment. Not often (or in recent memory), but it’s happened.

    Great food for thought, Andrea!

  10. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks all,

    I agree, Andrea, that some clients who visit your website will be turned off before they even get your samples. Common culprits would be sites that are too broad in their writing focus (“I write everything!”) as opposed to being dedicated to commercial writing. Or “About” pages that are too cutesy (i.e., talking about “My hobbies are cooking and stained glass, and I’m the owner of a “spoiled cocker spaniel”).

    Or maybe even just in industry focus that’s different than what the client’s looking for. A good reason to make the copy on your site pretty business-oriented and no-nonsense.

    Thanks Lori, as always, for weighing in. Good stuff. And I like your approach – sort of meeting people where they are, and understanding that most people will just scan things, not take the time to really read them. And that that’s enough!

    Never heard that one, Jake, but makes sense. Though, come to think of it, my portfolio is pretty thick, so whattaya you trying to say? 🙂

  11. Ryan Bozeman
    Ryan Bozeman says:

    I agree with a lot of the comments here. If you are going to be sending portfolio items to a client, narrow it down to the 2-3 that give you the best shot at landing the gig. Don’t overwhelm them. If anything it just seems needy to send a whole bunch of items and expect them to go through your entire portfolio.

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