Designing a Writing Portfolio

wp-01I have to apply for my own job. I know. It sounds weird. It is.

I’m getting hired as a permanent employee instead of a contractor, but they still have to go through the interview process.  Part of that involves updating my resume, which is a whole different beast. But part of it is pretty straightforward:

Have a stellar writing portfolio.

Writers are in the unique position that it doesn’t matter as much what your experience or job history is. What’s important is the writing portfolio. (The same goes for designers and illustrators.) You could have 2 years of experience or 20, but if your writing/art is stellar (or crap), then that’s what counts. It’s what they look at. Beyond that, they look for typical interview stuff: do you fit will into the team, are you clever, a fast learner, organized, filled to the piping brim with initiative?

Putting aside interviews and resumes, I’m going to talk about how to tailor your writing portfolio to the job you’re after, and what really makes it shine. (Grain of salt: if I don’t get my job back, then feel free to ignore this advice and also give me free cookies since I’ll be terrible and despicably jobless. Oatmeal raisin.)

  1. Diversity of writing samples
    • You better believe I’m including an excerpt of THE NAMELESS QUEEN in my portfolio.
  2. Purpose of the writing samples.
    • This is where you want to describe what the goal of the piece is. Developed for a specific client? To display data or communicate a specific message? Charity work or a paying gig?
  3. Demonstrated skills of the writing samples.
    • What does this piece of writing say about you as an employee and worker?
    • Does it demonstrate collaborative skills, translating technical material, long-term project management?

Materials for Your Portfolio

Technical Material

If you can, include material that demonstrates you either have knowledge in the area tey are concerned with or that you are capable of communicating content clearly when you don’t have a background in it.

Example: Chemical Analysis Report

  • Prepared and presented analysis of “science something” for collegiate faculty at Symposium of Science Stuff. [purpose]
  • Demonstrates ability to understand and communicate technical materials to a specific audience. [demonstrated skill]
  • Involves collaboration with other writers and technical personnel. [demonstrated skill]

Here’s what this says to an employer:

  • This employee can understand materials that they don’t necessarily have expertise in.
  • Can work collaboratively with others when necessary and deliver a final product.
  • Can display and interact professionally and present work to authority figures.

There you go! You just took that science presentation from college and made it into a business experience asset! And make sure that if they ask you about your writing samples, you expound on these skills.

Remember, they don’t necessarily care WHAT your writing is about, but what it says about your skills as a writer!

Creative Material

An interview and portfolio is NOT the place to discuss how you’ve written five books, 231 short stories and 23,000 poems but still haven’t gotten published. You might think “look how much I’ve done!” but they’ll think “and you don’t have ANY publication credits, yikes!”

Avoid the bitterness and suppositions that come with the numbers. Focus on the hard work of the process. There’s a method for using creative material to your benefit.

Example: Novel Excerpt

Let’s see that same format again, but this time for creative material.


  • Involves long-term time management, dedication, and marketing.
  • Represented by New Leaf Literary & Media.
  • Large scope approach to writing project through various stages: drafting, revision, copy-editing, and proofing.

Mentioning the representation is sort of an ethos thing to prove that my work has the snuff to get represented and published. If you are citing work that isn’t published or represented, make sure to keep it succinct and clear.

Here’s a (not-so-secret) secret about writing: people think it’s easy. They think you write a book as a weekend hobby, and then you’re magically a mythical portmanteau between JK Rowling and Stephen King. They think you’re a Jphen Rowlking. Or something.

So if a potential employer asks about your Work-in-Progress (or even if you’re published), make sure you give them just enough insight to show them the hard work involved, but not enough to seem like a bitter wannabe.

Here’s a good example:

Interviewer: “Oh, I see here you’ve written a book? Are you going to get it published?”

You: “That’s the dream, isn’t it? Writing a book is all about time management and dedication, and it really involves a complex process of drafting, multiple revisions, fielding external feedback, and then marketing the book for representation.”

Did you hear all those buzz words in there? If not, I bolded them for effect. You can turn writing a book (what most people think of as a hobby for old folks and hermits) into a business venture. If they ask for more details, be prepared to discuss your life’s greatest passion as if its a logical business project. In reality, it is. You want to make sure your attitude and tone reflect that. After all, you’re after a job here, not validation for your personal work.

Picking a Good Excerpt

If you’re struggling with what to pick, just do the first 250-300 words. That’s the equivalent of the first page, which should be a stunning example of your writing. After all, that first page has to convince agents, editors, and readers alike to keep reading–so why not convince your future boss? If you’re not feeling confident enough to include it in your portfolio, don’t. It’s better to have a few excellent writing samples than a bunch of crap ones.

Remember When I Mentioned Diversity?

Be prepared to include unique forms of writing and associated work. Especially if you’re lacking a good number of pieces to include, it’s a good way to pad the portfolio and display diversity.

In fact, try not to have more than one of the same type of work. Don’t include three excerpts from your various unpublished books or two essays about similar renaissance literature. You want to display DIVERSITY. Show them your broad range of skills.

  • Did you make a style sheet while copy-editing your book (or at a previous job)?
  • Did you design a landing page for a local business on a school assignment?
  • Did you do any writing-related support work? For instance, I’ll be included some HTML/CSS web page layouts that I created, because I also did the writing for them, ergo: totally acceptable for the writing portfolio.

A lot of what you put in there will depend on what the job description is and if you have anything that can remotely display exposure or expertise in those areas. This is the same as the technical materials section. Use what you have to show how adaptable you are.

The diversity of your portfolio should shine and show that you are capable of tackling different types of projects with different types of content.

In the Interview and On Paper

They’re going to ask you about your writing excerpts. Or at least they should. Or at the VERY least, they’ll be holding onto the portfolio to look it over when you’re gone.

If they DO ask about any of your writing/work samples, make sure you can speak about each of them in an educated, professional, and objective way.


If you use fancy English terms, like syntax, copy-editing, proofing, etc.,  know what they mean! And know how to explain what they are or how you do them to an interviewer who may not have writing experience.

For instance, if they ask about your book excerpt, etc., be prepared to discuss (briefly and succinctly, as always) the differences between drafting, revision, and proofing, and the different tactics and timetables for each. Or be able to display that you know that different areas of writing require different focuses.

Know You Aren’t a Secretary

Be prepared for people to think you are a secretary or that a secretary can do your job. Be prepared, but don’t believe it.

Like I mentioned before, people think writing is easy. They think anyone can write.

But not everyone can be a writer. This is something that a lot of people (and maybe even your boss or boss’s boss or coworkers or friends/family) don’t understand. So if you’re being hired by someone who knows a lot about writing and English in general, that’s great. Prove you know your stuff.

If you’re interviewing with people who don’t quite understand what goes into it, be sure to give them the “creative writing as a business venture” impression. Throw in some technical jargon that gives them flashbacks to High School English. Mostly, make sure they have a sense that you know that solid technical, professional, and creative writing are all difficult and challenging pursuits with a myriad of details to know and tackle, but also make sure you convey that you are more than willing to do that hard work.

This goes for any interview, really. Don’t make it seem like your job will be easy, because they’ll think you’re just not trying hard enough or you’re not equipped for it. Make it seem like a challenge you are willing, ready, and motivated to take on.

In the end, that’s the type of employee they want to hire.


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