Whether you’re looking to land a full-time technical writing job or freelance contract, you’ll almost always be asked to submit your technical writing portfolio.
A technical writing portfolio is your opportunity to show your potential employers the range of your writing abilities, thought processes, and other valuable complimenting skills. It could be the decisive factor in whether you get invited to an interview.
Tom Johnson of I’dratherbewriting once mentioned that his portfolio was what got him his first tech writing job, even though he wasn’t the most experienced of the bunch.
In this article, I’ll share some best practices to keep in mind when putting together your tech writing portfolio. I'll also try to provide answers to some of the most common questions I've received regarding creating a technical writing portfolio.
Creating/selecting samples for your technical writing portfolio
A technical writing portfolio is simply a showcase of your best tech writing samples and should contain at least 3-5 samples.
Regardless of your level of experience, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when putting together your samples:
- Put your best foot forward: As I said, your tech writing portfolio should be a showcase of your best technical writing samples. But how do you even know what your best writings are? They're the ones where you took a topic that was really complex (and very foreign) and wrote something that made the topic ridiculously easy to understand; the ones for which you've received several positive feedback.
- Showcase different types of writing: Technical writers in the software industry create different types of writings, such as tutorials, conceptual or explainer guides, reference documents, API docs, e.t.c. Your portfolio should feature different types of writings to demonstrate flexibility.
- Showcase samples relevant to the technical writing niche you want to work in: Employers want to see that you can produce the kind of content they’re looking for. If you want to work in developer documentation, then your samples should be focused on developer docs. If you want to work in user-focused docs, then your samples should be in that line. And if you want to work in developer marketing or technical content marketing, then the majority of your samples should also follow that line.
- Keep your samples brief: Recruiters or hiring managers want to be able to quickly see that you have the skills they’re looking for. So, as much as possible, keep your writing samples brief (1000 -1500 words) and be sure that they’re easily scannable.
For experienced tech writers
If you've worked as a technical writer before, you'll already have some good writing samples. Choose the projects with interesting backstories and challenges — those that really pushed you to your limits.
What if most of your writing samples are proprietary, paywalled, or protected by an NDA? This is a question I’ve heard from most technical writers. If that’s the case, then ask your employers if you delete confidential names and information from your work and showcase fragments of it.
If they ask why, or if you’re planning to leave, just say: “I wanna keep my portfolio updated the same way I keep my resume updated, so I don't lose sight of my work”.
If they refuse, then you should consider working on samples for the sole purpose of including them in your portfolio, following the recommendations for newbie writers below.
For newbie tech writers
As a newbie tech writer, you probably don’t have any writing samples under your belt. Regardless, you need to create a portfolio to apply for tech writing jobs. Here are some suggestions:
- Contribute to open-source docs on your own: Many open-source projects need help with docs, so It’s a good place to start. Contributing to open source is a great idea because the skills you get such as usage of Git, GitHub, and Markdown are skills that are used on a daily basis by technical writers across the globe. Here's a huge list of some open-source communities that need docs help and how you can get started. Also, here’s a guide on how to contribute to open-source projects and a guided tour to help you learn the fundamentals of git.
- Contribute to open-source docs through curated programs: Programs like Outreachy and Google Season of Docs, are designed to help people contribute to open source docs in a structured manner and under the guidance of mentors.
- Freelance tech blogging: You could also write tutorials or explainer articles for some of the tech publications or content agencies mentioned in my ‘how to make money as a freelance tech writer’ article.
- Do documentation revamps: Take a look at some poorly written documentation, and rewrite it to make it better. Then in your portfolio, discuss refinements you made and why.
- Self-write/volunteer: You can start publishing articles or tutorials about your favourite tech products. You can also volunteer to create user guides/ documentation/ articles for your favourite startups. Who knows? They might just even end up hiring you.
Presenting your technical writing portfolio
Now that you’ve successfully created/gathered sample writings for your tech writing portfolio, how do you present it? Where do you host it? Here are some ideas:
- A markdown file in your personal repo (GitHub or GitLab).
- A dedicated page on your personal website or blog.
- A notion doc
Another thing to keep in mind is to give context to all your writing samples. Don’t just present a list of links. For each of your samples, tell the behind-the-scenes story.
- Why are you proud of this piece of content
- What challenges did you face during the course of its creation
- What skills (save for writing) did you have to employ to get the job done?
- What's the impact of the content? What problems did it solve? e.t.c
- What tools did you use?
All this information serves to give recruiters more details about you, your writing process, and your thought process.
For example, in my own technical writing portfolio (which I cannot link to because it contains some NDA samples), I highlight one of the documents I wrote for a data pipeline startup. I stated that I was particularly proud of that document because prior to that, I had never heard of the startup's product or a data analytics pipeline. So, it took a lot of researching and interviewing the company's engineers, marketers, and users to write that piece. And in the end, it turned out so well.
Start creating that tech writing portfolio now. Don’t procrastinate. Start now.
Here’s six example technical writing portfolios in case you need some inspiration.
Remember to be obsessive in your proofreading. Make sure to eliminate any spelling, grammar, or typographical errors. Don’t give the hiring manager an easy way to disqualify your application!
Good luck! And if you need someone to look through your portfolio, you can always reach out to me on Twitter.
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