Regular readers of my column know that there are a few topics I write about over and over. Resumes, job search for veterans, avoiding online applications … you can count on me to hit these issues often. Another topic close to my heart? Writing for a living.
And, as I tell my writing students, I’ve noticed that a lot of bad writers get printed and paid. “If those bad writers can make a living at it,” I ask rhetorically, “why not you?”
I’ve gotten one answer to that question more frequently than any other: “I don’t have any writing samples.”
That is a deal breaker. Without samples — commonly called a writer’s portfolio — you are out in the cold. The following steps should get you started.
1. Identify the kind of writing you will do. For example, you could be a technical communicator, a public relations writer , a grant writer, a newsletter writer, a copy writer for catalogs … as you can imagine, employers in each of these fields will want to see different samples. Start talking to people who work as writers in different ways to narrow down your own career choices.
2. Review the writing samples you do have. Complaint letters to product manufacturers? Newsletter articles? A college research paper? Much of what you find will be unusable, but there might be a gem in there. Don’t forget your work files. While these technically belong to the company, samples in your portfolio are considered fair game, provided they do not divulge confidential information.
3. Identify the gaps between what you have and what an employer would want to see. Don’t have those samples? The good news is that you know it.
4. Create the missing samples. So you need a sample grant application and you don’t have one? Well, who could you volunteer to write a grant for? When you don’t have the appropriate sample from work, most potential employers are fine with seeing something that you wrote as a volunteer. They’ll even look at things you wrote as a class exercise. As long as it’s relevant to the job, they’re getting something they can evaluate.
5. Decide how to present your portfolio. You could go with a presentation folder full of glossies, a set of clean photocopies to leave with the employer, a downloadable e-folio, a Web site … the decision will hinge partly on you, and partly on your perception of what prospective employers would find most appealing.
Just pull together those samples and start contacting potential employers.
Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at email@example.com or at 626 Armstrong Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102.