Portfolios--a summary

Subject: Portfolios--a summary
From: Anushree Tewari <anushree -at- RIVERRUN -dot- ERNET -dot- IN>
Date: Mon, 2 Sep 1996 11:21:44 IST


Thanks a lot to all the people who responded to my question about compiling
a portfolio. Contributions came from: MCDANEL, BRUCE; Williams Diane; Julie
A. E. Tholen; David Demyan; Miki Magyar; Eric Haddock; Win Day.

Since quite a few people were interested in this topic, I'm posting the
responses, which I have numbered (a few of these were also posted to the

Creating a portfolio does seem to be a time consuming affair, but now I/we
know where to start.

Have fun creating portfolios!

Anushree Tewari (anushree -at- riverrun -dot- ernet -dot- in)
River Run Software Group
B 5, NEPZ, NOIDA 201 305

1) As a technical writer, I try to keep one copy of each piece of every
project I work on. Then I can arrange my portfolio for specific

If I were a graphic artist, I might choose more carefully and make a more
permanenet arrangement.
2) Someone else had a good answer for this a while back: Create a portfolio
of original pieces as an artist would (color tear sheets from books or
magazines or reports, etc.) that you can show to prospective employers;
but send or bring photocopied examples to leave off, which you probably
wouldn't get back. I have gotten back some of my work samples. I don't
know if that means the employer is conscientious of the expense of
making copies, or that the employer knows I'll never work at that
company! ;-)
3) When I was in grad school, one of my profs made us compile two 3-ring binders.
The first contained handouts, articles, and general items of interest to an
instructional designer/trainer. The second was a portfolio. Our portfolio
contained smaller projects; procedures; needs analysis and any other interest-
ing work we had done.

Because I had done a fair amount techncial writing, I included examples of
the different projects/documentation that I had worked on or created.

When I went out on my first job interviews, this portfolio should what I could
do; the interviewer didn't just have rely upon my resume for information.

I've kept up my portfolio over the years. Now it extends to three binders, one
for TW, one for ID, and one for Training. I have a very nice little leather
3-ring binder into which I put the appropriate type of documentation for the
interview. I make duplicate copies of the samples, as people often want to
keep copies, in plastic sleeves.

The response to the portfolio has been one of pleasant surprize. If the inter-
viewer doesn't ask to see it, I suggest that may wish to review it as we
discuss my experience. The use of the portfolio helps to set my interview out
in the interviewer's mind.

Hints on keeping a portfolio:
Samples shouldn't be too long.
Samples are relevant to the job at hand.
(or a good spectrum of your experience)
Have duplicate copies of your samples.
The portfolio should be
in chronological order
well organized
professional in appearance.
Use appropriate, creative graphics to add interest.

It may be a lot of work to maintain. But I have found it to be well worth the
4) Perhaps I am not typical, but I do have a strong back. I take along
completed projects, binders, diskettes, laptop, whatever to interviews
or client proposal meetings. I have a nice-looking case to keep them
in and, when the interviewer asks a question that is answered by some
arrow in my quiver, I pull out the sample and basically say: "Been there;
done that." I find employers very impressed and confidence-inspired by
this approach and it often helps me get the assignment.

BTW, I don't think it is wise to show some something without the permission
of the previous client/employers for whom it was completed. I also rely
on these people for recommendations, so it is best to lay out all the
cards for a prospective client/employer because he/she may just call
your reference and say something like: "I saw the work Dave did for
you and I have some specifc questions about that project." If you have
given away any of the previous client/employer's secrets, you'll be in
deep doo-doo and may get a bad rap.
5) A portfolio should show off what you can do, so the potential employer
can feel confident about hiring you. I have found that the best way to do
this is with before-and-after examples. When I have an interesting
project to do, I save some of the rough drafts, sketches, programmers'
notes - anything that will show what I had to start with. Then I put the
finished product on the opposite page (in a 3-ring binder) so it's clear just
what I was able to do. The response to this has been very favorable.
And it's also quite easy for beginners to do, since it only takes a few
examples to show the range of your skills.

Limit each example to one or two pages, even if the whole thing was a
book or manual. Just make a note at the top of the page - 'sample from a
350 page manual' to let them know.

Since one of my past projects was to design the binder for a
conference, I use that as my presentation binder. But you can also use a
standard 3-ring binder and design a nice cover for it.

Keep a copy of your resume and business card in the back, so you can
hand them out at the end of the interview. I also collect a letter of
reference from everyone I work with (if they agree), and keep copies of
those also. Since people here move from job to job so frequently, it helps
to have that kind of written reference.
6) I participated in a _wonderful_ degree program to become a technical
writer. The program was virtually built around creating a portfolio. For
almost every class we took, we had to pick something to include in our
portfolio in addition to writing/creating things on our own.

We were told repeatedly that portfolios make the difference. It was
hammered into us actually. I can say from experience that it's _so_ true. A
good portfolio is so valuable that you'd be foolish not to create one. _I_
wouldn't hire anyone who didn't have a portfolio. A degree is just a
goofy-looking sheet of paper without some kind of evidence that an applicant
knows how to apply skills and see product through the production process.

If you haven't had the opportunity to create a portfolio over time, then
I would start by scrambling around trying to find a copy of every single
thing I've ever done as a technical writer. Then start picking which ones
represent my talents and which ones say "professional." Try to get a full
range of things and think about showing it at an interview. What would you
say about it? What's special about this piece? Did you do the text and
graphics? Why are you showing this piece instead of something else you
might've done?
Pick things that showcase _you_.

Do I need to mention that your samples have to be 100% perfect? No? Good. :)

For manuals and things too thick to slide in to a sheet protector, buy
those thin plastic slats used to hold thick material in three ring binders.
They're wonderful. Expensive sometimes for what you get, but worth it.

I would suggest buying a smaller 81/2x11 or 11x14 portfolio and not a big
ol' artist-sized one unless you have a significant amount of extra-large
material. I wouldn't worry about the expense of the portfolio itself. The
interviewer is focused on the contents--as you should be. Don't get a
super-cheap one, but don't spend $100 on it either. It should be, I think,
discreet, neat, clean, but important of all function well at displaying your
work and allow for the interviewer and/or yourself to flip through it
easily. You don't have to spend a lot of money to get that. Not at all. Make
sure it has a place to hold your business card.

You made a mock business card on heavy card stock if you don't already
have one, didn't you? Good. :)

Don't take too many things. This is real important. You don't want to
bore the interviewer with a bunch of samples all saying the same thing. If
you bring in a bulging portfolio, it's better to have it thick with
diversity. Personally, I would take two examples. Two manuals, two
brochures, two forms, two one-sheet descriptive bulletins--whatever. *Just
make sure each one illustrates a different talent* like one thing
graphics-heavy if you did them and the other text-heavy. The only exception
I could think of is if all you did all day for the past decade was, say,
manuals and manuals alone. Surely over that time you did a variety of kinds
of manuals that represent different skills.

Tailor the portfolio for the person you're interviewing with if at all
possible. If you're going to be expected to do graphic design, typesetting,
illustration, or any of the zillion tasks TWs do aside from writing, include
things which show you can do it. If you have the misfortune to apply to a
place where all you would do is write--nothing but write--then include lots
of gorgeous text.

Here's something often overlooked: Include things which you have designed
just for yourself to make your work day more productive. Say you designed
your own work calendar or production checklist or whatnot--including
designing the layout and typesetting it yourself. That shows you're on the
ball (or at least thinking about) meeting deadlines and managing your time
as well as having the skills to execute original designs. It shows you've
thought the thole design process out and if you're applying to a company
where you'll be working more on your own than not, this can be a really big

Collect samples even at your current job. Use whatever means available to
secure *two* private, take-home copies of whatever you produce at the
company. I would even buy them if I had to. Save them. No matter what save
them because you never know when you may need to show something like that to
someone--even if you're not applying for a job. Some other technical writer
may need some help on something similar and showing that person an example
might be a big help.

Include things you've written and/or designed that aren't strictly
technical writing. If it's something you created and produced that uses
skills that are used in technical writing, then use them to shore yourself
up if you have meager TW samples. After all, you have been doing things even
when you don't have to, haven't you? Things for the family? Things for
friends, for charities, and organizations? Good. :)

Make stuff up from scratch. Applying to a financial company? Make a fake
guide to managing monetary transactions over a computer network. Applying to
a governmental institution? Make a fake zoning report/survey/study thing.
Be sure to say they're fake. First, don't lie. Second, it shows you're
creative and have enough interest in the subject to go to the trouble of
making something up when you didn't have to. Third, it showcases everything
about you from design to execution to printing. :)

A good portfolio is better than a great resume, I think. A superior
portfolio means you'll be hired. Put a lot of effort into it. A _lot_. It
can make _such_ a big difference in so many ways.
7) A word of caution:

For all those who are busily gathering samples of work created for employers
or clients, please remember to get written permission to use this material
to market yourself.

Most of the material I create is proprietary. I can't just flash this stuff
around. I've signed secrecy agreements with several clients, and I honour
them. Some of my clients compete with each other for market share; I must
be very careful.

I don't use a portfolio for this very reason. I obtain most of my new work
from word-of-mouth recommendations. Just because these clients compete
doesn't mean they never talk to each other!

Even if the material you create isn't necessarily proprietary, please get
permission before using it to market youself.

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