The beginner's dilemma: to get clients, you need a portfolio of work, but to get work for your portfolio, you need clients. It's a catch-22, but there are ways to start building your freelance writing portfolio without any prior experience.
But first, what does a freelance writing portfolio even look like, and why do you need one?
What Is a Freelance Writing Portfolio?
A portfolio is a collection of your best writing samples, organized in a way that demonstrates your skills and experience. It's a marketing tool that you can use to land freelance writing jobs, whether you're a newbie or a veteran writer.
Your portfolio should include a range of writing samples that show off your skills, from web copy to white papers to case studies. You can also include a brief bio, your contact info, your rates, and any testimonials or snippets from reference letters you have.
Why Do You Need a Freelance Writing Portfolio?
A portfolio is essential for any freelance writer because it helps you stand out from the competition. A lesson I've learned from Chris Do, founder of The Futur, is to make it easy for possible clients to find you and choose you without lowering your price.
When you're pitching a project, you can send potential clients your portfolio to show them:
What you're capable of,
Why you're a good fit for the project, and
How much you charge.
In other words, a well-crafted portfolio can help you close more deals and get paid what you're worth. So, how do you start building a freelance writing portfolio without any experience?
Start a Freelance Writing Portfolio From Scratch
1. Fake It Till You Make It
One way to start building your freelance writing portfolio is to create dummy projects. This means you'll write content that doesn't have a client attached to it, but you'll still treat it as if it does. In television and publishing it's called writing on-spec (or speculation) and it's a great way to get your feet wet and start building your portfolio.
Allena Tapia defines on-spec as "writing something for a publication [or brand] without the guarantee—implied or explicit—that the publication [or brand] is going to buy the work from you once you've finished writing. Basically, as a writer, you're speculating that someone will give you a chance and you're taking a shot in the dark."
You can do the same thing with your freelance writing portfolio. Let's say you want to write marketing copy for CrossFit gyms. You can create a project that's fictitious but has the same specs as if you were writing for an actual client. You could even write something for three gyms in your city on-spec (without mentioning them, of course). This will give you a chance to show off your skills as a freelance writer, and you can even mention that you're available for hire in your bio or contact info.
And go all out, create a marketing campaign for a made-up product.
The point is to treat these dummy projects as if they're real, because in a way, they are. You're showcasing your skills and experience to potential clients, which is the whole point of a portfolio.
Next, write up a case study for your dummy project. A solid case study outlines the brand, it's ideal clients, the unique problem it was facing, the solution you came up with, and how it performed.
Now, since this is all on-spec, you won't be able to test it. However, you can apply the same strategy and tactics to your freelance brand. Then, test how it performs and write up a second case study with those results.
2. Guest Post on Popular Blogs
Another way to start building your freelance writing portfolio is to guest post on popular blogs. When you guest post, you have the opportunity to share your writing with a new audience, and you can even link to your portfolio in your author bio.
Guest posting is also a great way to build relationships with other bloggers and editors. It's also an excellent way to get your name out there and position yourself as an expert in your subject matter.
When you guest post for a high-quality blog, the site's editor may be more likely to consider your pitches in the future So, how do you go about finding popular blogs to guest post for?
The first place to start is Google. Simply type in ""your topic" + "guest post"" and you'll get a list of popular blogs that accept guest posts. For example, you can type "CrossFit" + "guest post" or "car insurance" + "write for us."
Freedom With Writing is a great resource for finding guest post opportunities. Just enter your topic and the site will give you a list of popular blogs that pay for guest posts.
Guest Post Strategically
Earlier, I mentioned that your portfolio is marketing tool. Well, guest posting is an excellent way to market yourself as a freelance writer. When you guest post for a popular blog, you're not only sharing your writing with a new audience, but you're also establishing yourself as an expert in your field.
When you guest post, make sure to pitch stories that are relevant to the blog's audience and align with your subject.
The point of a guest post in your portfolio is to,
Show off your writing skills,
Build relationships with editors, and
Establish your knowledge and authority in your field.
For example, if you want to write for a car insurance company, you could guest post on a blog that focuses on insurance. The article should be about a relevant topic, like how to save money on car insurance.
If you're writing for your blog or social media, then share tips targeted at car insurance agencies. You could create a post like, "5 Mistakes Car Insurance Agencies Make On Their Landing Page" or "3 Email Marketing Tricks That Drive Car Insurance Rates Up."
When you guest post, make sure to include a bio with a link to your portfolio website or email.
3. Borrow Experience from Others
If you don't have any experience as a freelance writer, then you can borrow experience from others. This is another trick I learned from Chris Do.
Instead of creating spec projects, you can dissect your favorite pieces of content or ad. For example, you can look at the headlines, tone, structure, and approach used in those pieces. Then, try to emulate that in your own work.
That kind of content is super trendy, too. Next time you're on YouTube, look search for "Why the Share a Coke Campaign Was So Successful." Chances are, the top results will be videos about how Coke executed their campaign. The same goes for any other popular campaign.
Pay attention when you're reading or watching content. Whenever something resonates with your or gives you a sense of "that was awesome" or "that sucked" try to figure out why. What made it work or not work?
Then, write an article or create a social media post about it.
4. Be Your First Client
If you're struggling to find clients, then consider being your own first client. If you want to be a social media copywriter, then create a strategy for your main social media platform. If you want to be a content writer, then create an strategy for your blog and document the process.
"The secret: do good work and share it with people," Austin Kleon shared this in his book, Steal Like an Artist.
Use your writing skills to help market your business. And document everything:
Outline the problem you're trying to solve,
The steps you took to solve the problem,
What you learned from the experience, and
How you can improve upon your process.
In the early days of my freelancing career, I focused on improving my Instagram account. I studied the accounts of other successful creatives and tried to emulate their tactics. Then I learned to create carousels, work with color to establish a brand, and used captions to tell stories. Whenever I had a sales call or met with a potential client, they all said the same thing: "I love your Instagram feed and I want you to do that for me."
That was my portfolio. I could share my Instagram account and show them how I was using the platform to grow my audience, which is what they wanted. In the process, I learned five key skills:
Writing for social media,
Building a brand from scratch,
Graphic design basics,
Creating a color pallet,
Telling stories with captions,
Monitoring analytics, and
I was able to use those skills and turn it into my signature Content Strategy Roadmap workshop as my first paid offering.
"Give the reader more reason to view your website [or portfolio] than just to look at your work," - Lee Bergman
While my Instagram account can do with some TLC, I've used those skills to grow my LinkedIn platform from just over 100 connections to more than 3,500 followers and close to 1,400 subscribers to this newsletter, The Write Space. And while I've traded the bright magenta for softer colors, those skills still help me generate leads every month.
And although prospects no longer say, "Whatever you're doing, do that for me," they do say, "I see you're a writer, we're looking for... are you interested?"
Being your first client can be a great way to establish your credibility as a freelancer, practice your key skills and get started in your career.
Tell a Story
In the words of David Ogilvy, "The most powerful words in the world are not 'I love you' but 'Tell me a story.'"
People connect with stories. They resonate with them. And they remember them.
That's why you should focus on storytelling in your portfolio. Create a story for every project you worked on, for every client you've served, and for every piece of content you've created. "Give the reader more reason to view your website [or portfolio] than just to look at your work," said Lee Bergman, a design leader and founder of Studio Empatia.
Your story doesn't have to be long or detailed, but it should provide enough information for the reader to understand what you did, how you did it, and what you learned.
"The most powerful words in the world are not 'I love you' but 'Tell me a story.'" - David Ogilvy
There's no excuse for not having a freelance writing portfolio. Even if you don't have any experience, there are plenty of ways to get started. You can be your own first client, tell stories, focus on your skills, and be creative. And don't forget to document everything.