How to Build a Killer Portfolio

by Arnold Burian

It surprises me how many technical writing candidates show up to an interview with a haphazard collection of past work as writing samples. A number of factors determine the overall impression you make during the hiring process, but your writing samples, how they are assembled, and how you incorporate them into the interview can serve as your unique differentiator. Below is my advice for building a killer portfolio.

1. First, assemble the supplies.

2. Collect samples of your best work

Now that you have assembled the supplies, pull together samples of your best work. The goal is to demonstrate a variety of deliverables relative to the breadth of your experience. Identify five to ten categories within your body of work. If your experience is limited to a single industry, you can use audiences for the category names. For example, if you have only ever worked in the software industry, use categories such as user guides, reference manuals, administrator guides, and release notes.

If you have documented both software and hardware, you can expand beyond audience types to differentiate between industry specific procedures. For example, you can have hardware installation and software installation categories to demonstrate two vastly different deliverables for what is essentially the same goal – to install something.

If you have management experience, include samples of your project management, personnel development, status reporting, quality measurements, and any related processes that demonstrate your capabilities.

3. Print everything on three hole punch paper, double sided.

Now that you have your categories identified, print your samples out on double sided paper. The goal is to demonstrate density. Regardless of how you feel about the value of white space, the ink on the pages should appear dense when you quickly flip through pages. You want your portfolio to appear heavy in content, which helps reinforce the image that you are confident and experienced. Avoid having too many blank pages or pages with minimal content. If possible, combine smaller samples into one larger continuous flow. Printing double sided also minimizes the empty spots in your portfolio.

If your printer does not natively support duplex printing, the printer driver may offer a way of printing double sided manually. This usually consists of printing all the even numbered pages, flipping the printed pages over, then printing the odd numbered pages.

As a side note, many industries are protective of their intellectual and legal properties. If you are asked to send writing samples through e-mail or some other means, be mindful to not violate any contractual agreements you may have signed. A prospective employer will understand if you explain the sensitive nature of your collection; generally, you can share your samples in person, but not transmit them or leave them behind.

4. Assemble your samples into a professional package.

Now for the easy (and fun!) part. Print your categories on printable divider tabs, and insert the tabs and writing samples into the binder. Do not use handwritten or colorful tabs. The goal is to build a professional and elegant portfolio.

5. Be prepared to highlight and speak to anything in your portfolio.

If the previous step was the easiest, this step Is the most challenging. Now that you have a professional and elegant portfolio, you must become intimately familiar with everything inside it. The effectiveness of your portfolio directly correlates with your ability to reference the content it contains during the interview. If you are asked to provide an example of how you perform under pressure, use your portfolio to highlight a guide or section where you had to make concessions due to time restrictions. Explain what you did and why did it using your portfolio as tangible evidence of your time management and planning abilities.

6. Keep your portfolio current.

As the breadth of your experience continues to develop, adjust the categories and corresponding writing samples in your portfolio. Again, focus on variety – you want to demonstrate that you can succeed in a number of different scenarios. And take pride in your portfolio – it is a reflection of your knowledge, experience, and capabilities!

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