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What to include in your online portfolio

A pile of newspapers

Something that’s been a constant in my life as a freelance writer is editors and clients wanting to see samples of my work. Back in the day, that would mean photocopying selections from my then-meagre stack of published clips. Then, I’d carefully fold them and stuff them into an envelope with a query or application letter. After that, the wait began.

The web makes sharing your samples a lot easier. Better yet, you’re not killing trees to do the deed. Since the mid-1990s, I’ve been making samples of my work available on my various websites. Other writers have, too. On top of that, there are dedicated sites out on the web that make creating an attractive online portfolio quick and simple.

No matter how you create your online portfolio, the most difficult part of the process is deciding what to include. Here are a few tips that I think will help you decide what work to put into yout portfolio.

Only include recent work

That article or report that you wrote in 2007 might be a great example of your writing, but chances are the subject matter is out of date. You don’t want to be seen as a writer who’s resting on his or her laurels, or one who hasn’t kept up with the times.

Instead, only include your work from the last 12 to 18 months. That work will be fresh and up to date.

Remember to rotate your work regularly, especially if you can’t decide what recent work to include in your portfolio. That takes a bit of extra work, but it keeps your portfolio fresh.

Limit the number of samples in your portfolio

Offering a potential client or an editor a dozen or more samples can seem like the right thing to do. More samples means you can give them a good idea of your range and flexibility.

Don’t do it.

Clients and editors are busy. Very busy. They don’t have time to wade through a range of choices. They don’t want to have to pick and choose between what you consider to be your best work.

Instead, present three or four of your best pieces online. That narrows it down for clients and editors, and they can focus on what you want them to see. It gives them a chance to skim and scan. Remember what I said about them being busy?

If you feel the need to, include a way for a client or editor to contact you should they want to see more samples of your work or just longer samples.

A full sample or an excerpt?

I leave that decision up to you. Both approaches have their good and bad points.

A full sample gives a client or an editor an idea of how you’re able to pull something together from beginning to end. It shows your skills with structure and narrative, and gives them a good idea of your writing style. However, a full sample might be a bit too long for them to read.

An excerpt, on the other hand, offers a quick look at what you can do. A client or an editor should be able to quickly get an idea of your ability by reading a couple of hundred words. That said, an excerpt doesn’t give them a full picture of how your work holds together.

HTML or PDF?

I’ve been guilty of providing the samples in my portfolio as PDF files. If you’re wondering why PDFs aren’t the best online format, feel free to read this article and this one.

Try to use only HTML for your samples. HTML is the web’s native format, and it’s easier to read on computers and tablets and phones. You’ll want to make reading your samples as easy as possible, and PDF just doesn’t do that.

Make sure you can use the samples

Regardless of whether you’ve written for a publication or for a client, you might not be allowed to post what you’ve written to your website or on a portfolio site. Doing something like that drives traffic away from them, which is a bit of a no-no. On top of that, what you’ve written might be internal or for a client’s customers only. They’ll frown upon that work, and the information it contains, appearing elsewhere.

If in doubt, and you should always be in doubt, ask for permission or clarification. Don’t post something and then say Sorry! when a client or publications calls you out. Doing that will damage your reputation.

On the other hand, what you’ve written might be available online. Instead of reposting it at your website consider linking to the publication or client’s site.

Include a short summary of what you’ve written on your portfolio page or site. That summary should include:

  • A brief description of what you’ve written and for whom
  • A small, thumbnail screen capture of what you’ve written
  • A link to the original

You’ll need to maintain those links, however. Which means checking them every so often to determine whether the links are still valid, have moved, or no longer exist.

Creating an online portfolio of your writing doesn’t merely involve dumping articles on a website. You need to think about what you’re including in the portfolio and how you’re presenting it. It’s worth the effort, though, since a well-thought-out portfolio can garner you attention and can land you assignments and gigs.

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