How to Build a Portfolio
Updated: Feb 24
It happened again.
I came home to a letter from a magazine with a check inside, buying the first printing rights to something I wrote.
The excitement I feel whenever I receive a letter from this publisher is ridiculous. They only send mail when they've accepted. Otherwise you receive an email.
At least, I will be.
So now let's talk about why.
If I am a suspense writer, as I so often claim to be (wow that made me sound like a liar. I have witnesses who have read my as of yet unpublished novels who can confirm this . . .) I must have a reason for writing, selling, and publishing devotions and articles and other pieces of short nonfiction, right?
The harsh fact of the matter is that if you show up to a meeting with an editor at a writers conference and pitch your book without platform and without past publishing credits, your chances of success fall dramatically.
Publishers want to see proof that other editors have deemed your writing worthy of publication.
Publishers want to see proof that other editors have deemed your writing worthy of publication. This shows them that you are aware of how the publishing industry works. It proves you can work with an editor, and it proves you're willing to do the work.
Think of it this way: When you walk into a job interview and the hiring manager asks what your past experience has been and how it applies to your desire to work in this job, what happens if you shrug and say, "I've actually never done this before."
For some jobs, that's not a huge problem. Service based jobs usually require a training period and then you're ready to go clean those bathrooms or make those sandwiches on your own. But if you walk into a computer science building applying for a software engineering job and you have no idea how to read code, they're not going to hire you.
The same thing applies here.
By getting published in smaller presses and magazines, you "build your clips" as they used to say (a phrase taken from the actual cutting of your articles out of their respective publications to keep in a folder--newspaper or magazine clippings--so that if an editor asked for proof you could photocopy some of your best clips from your portfolio and mail them to the editor as proof).
Your chances of success crumble when you can't prove your writing style or ability.
Your chances of success crumble when you can't prove your writing style or ability. It's a way of proving you have the right experience for the job, and your way of sending them an audition so they can get to know your voice and style and better judge whether you would mesh well with the other writers in their publication.
So how do you start building clips and gaining bylines?
There are a few places you can start. In my major, we always start with professional book reviews and devotionals.
Reach out to review companies or publicity managers at publishing houses and ask if they have any ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) of books that need reviewed. Likely, they'll happily mail you a couple. You read them, and assess them, and submit the review to online review catalogs, newspapers, or magazines.
If you're interested in writing devotions, go research submissions guidelines for devotional magazines and give it a try. The worst that can happen is they reject and you submit it elsewhere.
Once you're more confident that you'll be published or have been published a few times, start reaching out to smaller magazines. You can either reach out to the editor in chief and see if you can get an assignment, or you can write something you think would fit and submit it without invitation.
This is the nice thing about magazines and newspapers. You may have to query to see if they're interested in the article before sending it to them, but sometimes you don't have to, and it turns out in your favor.
Once you've done that for a bit, you can start reaching out to the bigger magazines with a much larger readership.
They'll be more likely to accept because they've seen you prove that you can do it before, and you've honed your craft while building your portfolio.
And then, when it comes down to the wire and you have a novel ready for publication, when a book publisher asks what past publishing credits you've had, you'll have a list that you can pick and choose from to prove your skill.
But you have to put in the work.
You have to be willing to be rejected, or you won't make it as a writer.
Submitting articles to magazines and newspapers will help you get used to hearing "no" and make those months or years of submitting your book to traditional publishers easier to handle. It will thicken your skin and tune your ears to the right things to focus on, rather than simply hearing a "no."
So go out there and get published. Reach out to blogs, magazines, newspapers, anthologies. I don't care where you go, just go get it done.
It can only help your career.
J. J. Hanna graduated from Taylor University with a degree in Professional Writing. She's currently working with literary agent Cyle Young as a literary scout. In what free time she has left, she also works as a freelance writer and editor. To hire her for editing, writing, speaking, or consulting, see the services tab. She can often be found cuddling with a cat, reading the latest suspense novel, or filming YouTube videos about the publishing industry.
Follow her on most social media @authorjjhanna