Just like any other job seeker, as writers start out, they are told to “send clips” of their previously published works, and to submit a resume. You have to have clips to get clips; it’s the famed catch-22. This is discouraging for a writer whose career is in its infancy. The good news is that there are several ways even a novice writer can begin to fill a portfolio, especially in non-fiction.
Take a look at your expertise.
What you know is an excellent reason to assign you an article, whether you have ever written on the subject matter before or not. Perhaps you lead poetry workshops, and want to write an article about iambic pentameter. Rich material written by an expert is needed at every publication, and a well-written query or thorough proposal will show a bit of your style, approach, and writing ability, giving an editor a favorable view of you before even seeing your manuscript.
What have you written at work over the years?
Newsletters, correspondence, brochures, promotional materials, instructional brochures, safety manuals, software guides, web copy… Many writers have been active in the corporate world for years. Start compiling your portfolio, and your writing resumé, based on the contributions you have made at work. Even if you do not want a career as a technical writer or copywriter, this experience shows that you are capable of producing quality items on a deadline. After all, would your employer(s) have continued to use your services if you were incapable?
What have you done for friends and classmates?
Have you proofread or copyedited academic essays? Created or reformatted resumés, cover letters, or their own publications? Have you perhaps designed slogans for your cousin’s business? Your contributions to friends, family, classmates, or colleague’s projects may be a starting point for your own professional portfolio.
Go pro – pro bono, that is.
Offer your articles or services for free at first to build up your portfolio, references, and referrals. Submit to low-paying or non-paying markets. While some writers would argue that this de-values your work, or that submitting work for free drives down industry-wide wages, I have not personally found this to be a problem.
You can not only earn money by entering contests by reputable journals, publishers, and foundations, but you gain recognition for your work from peers and publishers, awards are great additions to your writing resumé or CV.
Find a partner.
Perhaps you have a great idea, but still feel uncomfortable with the level of your personal knowledge on the subject, or your researching or interviewing capabilities, though you know you have the writing skills to tackle the job once the information has been gathered. Especially for non-fiction, co-authoring might be the best solution. An expert can handle the press and add legitimacy to your manuscript, while you concentrate on what you do best – writing.