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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Comment by John Lee Rosberg on April 11, 2011 at 2:20pm
How do you deal with the Intellectual Property issue, sir? Heavily edit the samples, delete logos/company names and product identifiers?
Comment by Arnold Burian on April 11, 2011 at 9:27pm

Excellent question, John - one that would make for a more detailed followup post. I always approached the intellectual property aspect as it relates to one question: will your samples ever leave your possession?

With an online portfolio, I believe you must heavily edit or redact your samples. You are making protected content available for an indefinite (and ultimately uncontrolled) amount of time.

The same would apply if you are transmitting samples electronically (the "please send me some of your samples so I can review them" scenario). Again, the items in question are now out in the wild.

Some items must always be redacted with no exceptions (or should not be included at all). This depends on the industry, regulations, etc.

But, if you are assembling a portfolio that will never leave your possession, I believe you have more leeway. You should still not have complete deliverables, but samples may not need much modification. I was asked in an interview once to leave some of my samples behind - I declined, citing intellectual property issues.

I would love to hear what others have to say on this.

Comment by Bruce Curley on April 28, 2011 at 2:53pm

This is very good advice for any technical writer.

When I interview potential new hires, I spend far more time on their writing samples than their resume. As you say, 5. Be prepared to highlight and speak to anything in your portfolio. I analyze their writing portfolio carefully and drill down on every writing product they present for three reasons.

One, to verify that the candidate actually wrote it. (Sadly, I've had many cases where it is not their work.)

Two, I want to know how well they can explain what they created. It helps me figure out how well they communicate.

Three, I want to know how enthusiastic they are about their writing products to see if I want to be around them a year later.

I like a portfolio that has variety (procedures, scripts, hardware and software manuals, articles, videos, proposals, for example) and demonstrates an ability to handle complex and varied assignments. We hire senior writers, so they should have a senior-level portfolio.

And your tip that they keep their portfolio samples current is spot on. I've run across many dated writing products in interviews. Current writing samples tells me several things, one of which is that they care enough to be current on their software tools.

We always require that candidates bring writing samples. If they are organized into a portfolio, that is a another reason to hire them over another candidate.

As for the intellectual property question, it is just good business ethics to ask for and receive permission to use a writing sample or work product before presenting it. 

Comment by Matthew Milsop on April 29, 2011 at 3:00pm
This is great! Just the advice I needed! Thank you. Pictures are wonderful too.
Comment by Sanjay G on August 2, 2011 at 2:33am

Great advice Arnold! Thanks for the same.

Comment by Melanie Blank on August 2, 2011 at 11:51am

Terrific, Arnold - thanks. Good reminders.
I don't even try to redact material.  I simply don't show samples of company-confidential material.

Comment by Dipti Bist on April 29, 2014 at 6:38am

Very informative. Thanks.


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