No, but seriously. How do you start freelancing/get a portfolio going?
December 31, 2016 1:10 PM   Subscribe

I feel like I have half-assedly asked people this for a long time and gotten more encouragement than answers. Meanwhile I have written for a living for years, just in ways that are overly specialized and don't yield much you can show people as a portfolio. Call it a resolution if you must, but I'm pretty determined to write more in the new year and get paid for it. Where do I start?

I'm pretty willing to do some work for free if it will get me things I can link to and get a portfolio, because I think once you're even slightly off the ground with freelancing, that's probably crucial.

For the sake of not vaguefiltering, the writing I've done in the past has included writing a bunch of copy for an opera company, writing reviews for a couple of years that were mostly for the free tickets and the hell of it and are a little insider-ish, and most of all, sentencing advocacy which makes for horrible samples in that it's pretty formal, has to be redacted if you want to show it to someone, and is's writing I'm proud of but it's not a rollicking read.

Anyone care to shove me in the right direction? I just feel like there is some basic next step that is not at all obvious to me.
posted by Smearcase to Work & Money (7 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Could you write some samples of the sort of work you want to do and present those? That is what every student in design school does to get their portfolio off the ground and in looking over this article about how to build a writing portfolio, the research and development steps are similar.

Leave the stuff that you've done but doesn't translate well to a broader audience for your resume.
posted by jamaro at 1:29 PM on December 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Have you considered pitching people on projects in which you'd be interested? For example, connecting with the ED of an organization you deeply care about, and expressing how much you'd like to write a piece on their recent contributions to the world?

Also, just writing more is a huge one, as you seem to have figured out. The average quality goes way up and you have a broader pool from which to select portfolio pieces. Connecting with other, established freelancers local to you is a terrific way to get more work lined up. I called up a local freelancer who did work that often required the services of people like me, we hit it off, and suddenly the incoming work was like drinking from a fire hose in comparison to my previous work. The quality of my portfolio went way up.
posted by circular at 1:42 PM on December 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

For a few years I worked as an editor who went through a ton of freelanced content. Most of my writers were people I knew—or who my predecessor had known—but a lot of the new ones I brought on mixed a couple of sample pieces or some small, vaguely-related experience in the field with a professional e-mail manner and a clear ability to produce work on time and with a minimum of fuss. Those weren't my best writers, at least not at first, but they were the ones I would come back to again and again, because I could trust them to do 100% of their job 100% of the time, instead of leaving the last 20% to me.

Find some local or small-scale editors in your field, get in touch with them, and demonstrate yourself to be a pleasure to work with—or at least not a pain, in my case—and you're a surprising amount of the way there.
posted by Polycarp at 1:55 PM on December 31, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think it's probably more important to make sure you have the samples presented nicely, and you can worry less about the writing you actually have at this point. I do my portfolio in a neat grid of image thumbnails and blurbs underneath. This portfolio landing page gets traffic comparable to other pages on my website, but only a small percentage of visitors seem to actually click through to read the samples, for what it's worth. Still, you will want to change up the samples once you start getting good gigs.

If you keep a professional blog on the site, more people will probably read that anyway.
posted by Leontine at 2:14 PM on December 31, 2016

and most of all, sentencing advocacy which makes for horrible samples in that it's pretty formal, has to be redacted if you want to show it to someone, and is's writing I'm proud of but it's not a rollicking read.

Keep in mind that if this is the kind of writing they are looking for and you do it well, the people wanting this will be thrilled to pieces to see your samples. I do lots of business, insurance and legal writing and they are thrilled to pieces to have someone that can do it well. Many people cannot. They don't want me to make it rollicking because it needs to not over promise, it needs to not exagerate, it needs to be accurate, etc.

So, go ahead and put together some samples from this kind of work if you want to do more of it.
posted by Michele in California at 4:38 PM on December 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

You just do new things for your portfolio as if they were a job. What's a client you feasibly have a chance of working for? What kinds of clients do you want to attract? Go self-produce a project doing exactly those things the same way you would if you were if it were for a client. If you can't think of one, do pro bono work for an organization whose cause you like.

In my freelance industry we call this "testing". Pretend you are doing a job, but for yourself, at higher standards of course.

Once you have the necessary portfolio test completed, THEN go pitch a similar project to a client who might be interested. "See the work I did here, I want to do that for you but X, Y, and Z..."

When I first started out freelancing I did work for a local paper that paid $50 per assignment, which is the same as nothing. The subject matter was interesting though, so I just did their jobs the same I would way I would for a huge publication. Which meant I was getting paid $50 but if I thought the subject matter was good, I would sink $300-600 of my own money to make better work I could use in my portfolio.

First national publication I ever worked for called me and specifically cited one of those assignments as the reason they wanted me to do their job. That first assignment for them paid more like $5000.

Maybe it was "working for free" but having a supply of "tests" with was much more valuable to me than the couple of hundred bucks it costed me to do the work "for real". Don't work for free unless it benefits YOU.
posted by bradbane at 5:42 PM on December 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Huh, I think there's a useful perspective-nudge in here for me. Thanks to all who responded. I think now I'm supposed to anoint someone as the most useful advice giver.
posted by Smearcase at 6:47 PM on January 2, 2017

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