As a young magazine journalist trying to build credibility (“Really, I’m a writer!”), I put every national clip I had on my first web site. As I got more prestigious clips, I had the luxury of choosing—so I put up only what I saw as the most impressive ones (“I don’t have time for the small stuff anymore!”).
When I switched my focus away from magazines to writing for agencies and organizations, I took all of those magazine clips out. (“I’m sooo over journalism.”) In fact, by the time I launched a new brand (the older iteration of my current site), I found myself being extremely choosy about what to put in my portfolio—choosy to the point of not really having one (“I’m exhausted by all of this; if you want to know what I do, just call me”).
And now, I’m back to including it all—the stuff I’ve done and am still doing, the stuff I probably won’t do anymore but still shows my experience, and the stuff I lucked into doing and would love to do again. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year updating and expanding this portfolio of mine. I’ve also had a spate of clients recently who have needed some help figuring out what kinds of things to put in their portfolio—from agencies to solo creative types like me. It’s a challenge for them—the same way it’s always been a challenge for me and the same way it’s pretty much a challenge for anyone trying to present a body of work.
Maybe it’s age, but I’ve gotten to a place of peace and joy about what’s in my portfolio. All of my other portfolios were filled with angst and the desire to prove things or define myself. Don’t get me wrong: I still want to communicate credibility and experience. I’m not abandoning all strategic thinking about it, and I’ll still keep tweaking. I’m just less stressed about the whole endeavor.
I wanted to share a few things I’ve worked through over the past year or so, in case your organization is in portfolio curating purgatory and could use an outside perspective.
What do you want your body of work to say about you?
This used to feel like a terrible question with so much pressure attached, because I thought there was a right answer and a wrong answer. For me, the way out of that was to take a more playful, curious approach. I’ve realized that I want my portfolio to communicate this: I’m bored doing only one kind of writing or working for only one kind of client. I’ve forsaken the idea that I need to present some narrow, niched-out version of me. Guess what? I want to do a whole bunch of different things that may not even make sense, and I don’t want to hide it anymore. I want to write op-eds for the Washington Post and interview authors for Costco’s magazine and partner with agencies and write speeches and consult with companies on content strategy and write books and ghost some blogs and do some brand development and maybe other things I don’t even know yet.
I get bored if I don’t mix it up in terms of clients and content. And here’s what is so fantastic: the writing I do for a client in one space helps me do better writing for the next client, who is in a completely different space and needs a different deliverable. People who hire me will like that about me, instead of seeing it as an inability to niche-ify.
What can you actually show?
Sometimes what goes in your portfolio is dictated by the permissions you can get, the NDAs you’ve signed, and the deliverables that you can actually show. This doesn’t have to determine everything though. If you can’t show it, can you bring it to life in some other way? For example, it’s hard for me to show corporate script writing. First, it’s proprietary. Secondly, it’s like 100+ pages. But it’s a huge part of what I do! I get around it by talking about it and having testimonials. I also have pieces I’ve written for online outlets, and the outlet is gone. But I still love the piece and feel it represents a type of writing I want to showcase. I do some rough cobbling and pull it together. It’s not the flashiest—but I’m writer, not a designer, so I can get away with such things.
Find the balance between where you’ve been and where you’re going.
One school of thought says that you put up the projects, case studies, and samples of the kind of projects you want to attract now and into the future. Another school of thought says you show the breadth of your experience. I’ve been to both places, and I think it’s actually a balance between the two. Who says what you’ve done in the past isn’t going to attract what you want in the future? You may never want to work with a company like ABC or XYZ again . . . but your knowledge in that industry may be very appealing to a potential client—who is completely unlike ABC or XYZ, but likes that you get that space. It’s all in how you frame the story around your projects, case studies, and samples. Putting up a portfolio without context is a disservice to you. Context—as in, writing a succinct and interesting paragraph about the project and how it fits into your overall brand—is what allows you to find the balance.
In other news . . . next week, I’m headed to Dairy Hollow Writers’ Colony for a week! I can’t even believe I’m going—a week just for me, to focus on the writing I want to do, with no distractions. I’m sure it will inspire a frenzy of newsletters this fall. Stay tuned!