Becoming a freelance writer offers a lot of opportunities: you can set your own hours, work on projects that fascinate you, and help people learn and grow through your articles.
But it can also be kind of tough—there’s a lot of writers out there, so how do you break into the industry? As with any job, it can be really difficult to make a transition from another career into freelance writing because you’re expected to have a background that potential employers can assess.
Unlike other career options where you might have to go back to school or get various certifications in order to transition into the new field, though, writing has a pretty low barrier to entry. All you have to do is what you want to do: write!
Here’s how to build a professional writing portfolio that can help you become a paid freelance writer.
What Is a Clip?
In the writing world, samples of your published work are often referred to as “clips.” The term comes from the old days of print journalism, when reporters would clip out their best work from the newspaper or magazine it was published in and put those stories into a scrapbook that could be shared with potential employers.
Today, most clips are in digital format; even work that appeared in print originally usually has a digital counterpart, like an online posting. If there’s no digital version, then it’s best to scan your print article and save it as a PDF to share as part of your portfolio.
Why Do I Need Clips?
No one wants to pay for a big ol’ question mark. Writing requires a lot of skill and the ability to use the correct tone for the publication you’re targeting. Publishers and editors need to know that you can write the way their publication demands (whether that’s formal, conversational, technical, funny, etc.) and that you have a good track record of producing professional work.
That’s where a clips file comes in—you can show previously published examples of your work in a relevant style or area of expertise to prove that you’re up to the job.
How Do I Get Clips If I’m Just Starting Out?
Like so many things in the working world, it seems like there’s a Catch-22 with clips. How do you get published samples of your work if you’re just getting started as a freelance writer? You have to have published work to get published…but…but…!
Take a deep breath. It’s not as bad as it sounds at first.
There’s an old adage that says only suckers work for free, and that’s true, to a degree. It’s not a good idea to provide your skill and expertise for free…once you’re established in a field. When you’re first starting out, you may need to offer some freebies or deep discounts so that you can build the kind of writing portfolio that you’ll need to advance to better (and better-paying) jobs.
By offering free articles to select publications and then saving those published pieces to your clips portfolio, you’ll be able to point to a variety of work when you’re pitching other possible editors and publishers, proving that you can meet their needs and deserve the pay rate you’re asking for.
Creating Value with Your Clips
Keep in mind that “free” doesn’t have to mean “no value back to you.” You can get published clips that still provide value to you above and beyond their use in your portfolio!
You already have your writer website set up, right? The posts you put on your blog can count as your first few portfolio pieces. Most professional writing outlets won’t consider blog posts on your own site to be good evidence of your professional writing on their own, because they don’t show that you can work with an editor or produce targeted work based on an assignment, but they do show your writing style, which helps.
Your next few clips should be on sites other than your own—but your blog will help you get these. Check out other sites in the space you’d like to be working in, like finance blogs or DIY websites. See if they have submission guidelines or calls for contributors and pitch an article (or five). If the guidelines ask for links to your work, this is where to put links to the best content you’ve published on your own site.
By starting to publish (unpaid) as a guest contributor on blogs in your field, you’ll start developing a portfolio of online clips that you can use to expand. And, as an added bonus, you’ll start developing a reputation for being an expert in your area of focus. So those free guest articles might not be paying off in dollars and cents, but they’re certainly a solid stepping stone to a real paycheck—plus, they pay nicely in the currency of reputation!
What Kinds of Clips Do I Need?
The best clips are ones that show your best work in a certain area.
If you’re trying to become a financial writer, you’ll mostly want samples that show your range of ability in talking about complex financial topics—or in breaking those complex topics down into easily understood posts for regular readers.
In contrast, a DIY writer probably won’t want a portfolio full of articles on credit swaps and mortgage lending; that won’t tell editors that you can write about their field. Instead, you’d want a few articles on how to refinish a deck, fix a clogged sink, or create an outdoor fire pit.
Just like a resume, your writing portfolio should be customized to each client you’re pitching or each job you’re applying for. If the publication you want to write for uses a very formal, technical tone, it’s best to send along serious articles or white papers that use a similar approach.
Likewise, if the publication you’re approaching has an informal, conversational style that inserts some jokes or lets writers use personal anecdotes, then you’ll want to send samples that are fun and approachable.
When assembling your freelance writing portfolio, think about your dream writing assignment and put together the best articles you’ve written that provide evidence supporting why you’re the perfect person for the assignment.
How Many Clips Do I Need?
It’s best to have 3 to 5 really good samples of your work in any field you want to work in, representing a range of writing styles. So if you want to do both financial and DIY writing, to keep using our examples, you’ll want 3 to 5 great financial samples and 3 to 5 great DIY samples so that you can send along the most relevant ones any time you’re applying to a new job or pitching a new client.
I recommend having a range of styles in those 3 to 5 samples. Have a few formal or technical articles that show your depth of knowledge in the field, along with a few more casual pieces that prove you can lighten things up or make a serious topic seem less intimidating.
How Do I Present My Clips?
Most of the time, you’ll just be asked to provide links to samples of your work. If you can link directly to an online article, like a blog post or an archived article on a publication’s official website, that’s great! It lets the potential client or employer see how your work actually appeared in the professional publication.
If you have print clips that you’ve scanned or if the article isn’t available to read online without going through a password system or paywall, then you’ll want to host a copy on your own website. This is easy to do with WordPress; many themes have the option to build a Portfolio section that you can include on your main menu. You can also create individual Pages for your portfolio if your theme doesn’t support the official Portfolio type.
Before posting any work that you’ve done for a client on your own site or a third-party site like Scribd, though, be sure that your contract with them allows you to do so.
Most freelance contracts allow you to show samples of the work as part of your portfolio as long as you’re not taking money away from the original publication (so, for instance, you can’t resell an article published on Z Site, and you can’t provide that article for free to the whole world, bypassing Z Site’s pay system, because that violates their rights in the work under most work for hire contracts).
It’s also a good idea to have your best clips saved as individual PDFs with a first page that explains the context of the article and where it was published. That way, if you’re applying to a writing gig by email, you can either send the links to your clips or attach the samples directly to the email—the application or submission instructions will usually specify which is preferred.
So to recap:
- You need published writing samples in order to get paying writing work.
- You can get published samples by offering to do guest articles for free when you’re starting out, and this can also build your reputation as an expert in your field.
- You should have 3-5 samples of your published work in any target field, showcasing a variety of styles.
- You should host your samples in a portfolio on your website and also keep copies as PDFs.
Build a strategic portfolio of work to help you become a full-time professional freelance writer.
Read on for more on building a full-time career as a writer: