How to Build a Writing Portfolio (and Start Getting Paid to Write)

At a certain point in my writing journey I realized that I had to make my writing career happen. Not just writing my fiction on the side, but really writing all day and getting paid for it. I was tired of answering the What do you do? question with, “I’m a nutritionist and I write sometimes,” then, “I’m a nanny and I’m working on a book.” I wanted to say, “I’m a writer for XYZ Magazine,” or whatever. I go into a lot more detail about the early writing years in another post (and in my forthcoming memoir) but here I’ll just say: you have to start wherever you are. Never gotten paid a buck for your writing? That’s fine. Do you care so much about writing that you’ll regret your existence if you don’t try? Good, start with that feeling and let it pull you through. It’s a lot of work, but if you know how to navigate the writing world and you’re ready to put in that work, you can start now. And you can start making money soon. 

Note: in this post we’re talking about nonfiction; fiction is a beast for another time.

First, Write About What You Know

When you’re starting out, the first step is to build a writing portfolio. For most of us, this means taking any writing gigs you can get. The goal is to build up a collection of work that you can show to editors as proof you can write and that other places hire you, so they should hire you, too. Especially if you’re still finding your niche, the more variation (and quantity) the better. 

There are two ways to start finding writing gigs:

1. Write about what you love

2. Write about everything 

I’ll expand on both. First, the everything part.  

My undergrad is in nutrition. For five years I worked as a nutritionist in an educational mental health setting. By the time I was ready to focus on writing, I was sick of thinking about nutrition. But when I was ready to start finding writing gigs, this gave me three areas of expertise: nutrition, education and mental health. I had zero pieces in my writing portfolio, so I started looking for blogs and websites that focused on these three things. Soon I found a website that was looking for a nutrition and health blogger. I told them about my expertise and they started paying me $40 per post to write about what I was most familiar with. I didn’t love it, but I knew the topic well, so producing the work didn’t require much research on my part, and writing one post each week was very manageable. 

As soon as I had a couple of pieces in my portfolio, I found another website that was looking for a wellness blogger. I didn’t want to be a nutritionist anymore, but I could start writing about nutrition-related stuff and start shifting my career in the writing direction.  

Here I am at work. Illustration by Jesse Rimler.

Typically, outlets are looking for people whose (online) portfolio they can easily reference as proof that they can write. However, if you have no work yet and can prove that you’re an expert on your topic in a passionate cover letter (more on that in another post) many places will hire you based on your professional experience. Remember, not everyone can write! There are many outlets that are looking for experts who can write about topics that most people can’t. Use your expertise. This is not a degree-based thing. Expertise is not something that needs to come from a formal education.

And now, the first thing: writing about what you love.  

Write About What You Love

The easiest and most efficient way to start a writing career is by writing about something you love. Not only is it more fun, it is much easier to write about something you love than something you don’t. What do you love? Is it baking or cats or woodworking or education or social justice? All of these things? Whatever it is, WRITE ABOUT THAT. 

After about a year of writing one to two nutrition-related posts every week, I was dying to start writing about cool stuff. I wanted to love what I was writing about. It was hard to get rid of that “but I’m so many steps away” feeling. But as Prince once said, “Just start by creating your day. Then create your life.” With that Purple wisdom, I thought okay, just start looking. One day at a time. 

I started spending a few minutes everyday looking at the Craigslist “writing gigs” section to see if anything I loved came up. One day I saw an ad that said, Associate Editor for Music Blog. Holy smokes, what a dream. Music is at the tippy top of my Things I Love list. And I know a lot about it. I wrote a banger of a cover letter. I wrote a couple reviews of new albums I’d just heard. I wanted to prove that I would be great at this. The editor wrote me back the next morning and boom. My first writing job

Writing and Money: What to Ask For and How Much to Expect

Once I started writing about music, I couldn’t wait to sit down at my computer each night. I’d write on my lunch breaks. I’d decline drinks with friends because I couldn’t stop thinking about a certain piece I was working on and I just wanted to get it right. Not that I didn’t have a life, but my life shifted. 

I was writing two to three music pieces each week and I loved it. 

And guess what? For the first piece I wrote, I was paid $5. And for the second, and the third, and the fourth. Over the course of many, many hours I wrote a couple dozen pieces for about $100. A sweet Franklin for my time. 

But I f***ing loved it. And I was quickly building a portfolio. 

After a few weeks I sent that portfolio to other music outlets, who saw that I was writing regularly and passionately. They started paying me $20 then $40, then $100. Then it was $800 per piece. Then $1,000, $1200. I did this in the span of a little more than a year. How?

I quickly created a portfolio because 

I wrote a lot and

I did a great job because I loved it

And guess what? No one is going to ask how much you’ve gotten paid for any of the stuff in your portfolio. Whether it was $500 or $5, all that your potential clients will see is that you have work. And if your writing is good, they’ll not give a s*** about what you got paid to write it–they’ll just see that you’re able to do the work and will want you to do it for them. 

Truly, you have to expect to get paid little-to-nothing at first, especially if you’re writing about the arts. Because, sadly, the arts are historically and absurdly underfunded (but that’s a topic for my next book). So what are websites and magazines looking for, and what do they typically pay? Each industry is different and you’ll have to do a little homework, but generally: 

Some websites are looking for unpaid contributors — When you’re starting out, take these. Even just a couple here and there. You’ve got to have a long list of work in your portfolio and free or cheap gigs are a quick way to build a collection.  

Some blogs pay $5 per post — I know. But no one knows you’re making that little. And if you started off writing for free–now you can say you get paid to write about a thing. That just feels good. Congratulations, you’re officially getting paid to write. 

$50 for contributing articles — A lot of companies want to hire people to write regular posts to keep their blogs relevant. This is a bump up from a fiver and a good way to develop an ongoing client relationship. 

Interviews and longer pieces — These can vary greatly across industries and outlet sizes. With music, smaller websites might pay anywhere from $30-75 to write a feature, and larger ones can be anywhere from $150-$1200.

Whenever possible, write at least twice for the same publication. This allows you to say you’re a “contributor” or even “regular contributor” to an outlet, which demonstrates that an outlet liked your work enough to hire you again–which vouches for your worthiness and shows other editors that you’re legit.  

A final word of advice: no matter how much you’re getting paid, write your best work. Do not blow through and submit a piece of s*** because you’re only getting paid 5 bucks to write it. The whole point is to show that you’re a great writer and that you can cover a topic. Do a great job, and people will hire you (and again: no one needs to know what pieces you wrote for a Lincoln or a Franklin). 

How Practice Leads to Professional 

It’s all practice. Everything you’re working on, if it has anything to do with writing, is practice. Even if it’s a topic you’re not in love with, you’re learning how to be as concise as possible, you’re learning more about how the industry works, and very importantly: you’re adding things to your portfolio that will lead to more gigs that you really want.  

In Conclusion:

1. Write about what you love

2. Also write about everything

3. Add everything to your portfolio (for now)

4. Don’t worry about the money yet

5. Look for new gigs regularly

6. APPLY to writing gigs

7. Write, write, write

Do you have specific questions or want tailored advice? Leave a comment or shoot me an email. Keep the writing love strong by sharing this post.

Michelle Kicherer is the founder of Ghost Writer’s Block. She is a ghost herself, writes her own fiction and nonfiction, and teaches online classes through Litquake and others. 

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