Empty copywriting portfolio? How to make up client-wowing samples

When you’re just starting out as a copywriter, your empty portfolio can feel like a neon sign telling potential clients “I HAVE NO COPYWRITING EXPERIENCE.”

You feel like it’s the only thing they will notice about your beautifully written website.

There are a few ways to fill up your copywriting portfolio while you’re filling up your pipeline with actual clients.

One is approaching local businesses and offering your services in exchange for a testimonial and use of the piece in your copywriting portfolio.

Another is working with not-for-profit organisations, which are often crying out for help with their marketing efforts.

You can also accept copywriting projects from any number of freelance job sites. However, I do not recommend getting too embroiled in these sites. Some freelancers do very well, but when you’re competing against low prices, it’s a race to the bottom.

The option I want to explore in this post is making up samples for your copywriting portfolio. Yes, you read that correctly. Making up samples.

This actually came up in a recent coaching call for my Copywriting Master Class, and a student asked, “Is that legit? Can we just make it up?” Yes. You can just make it up.

Potential clients just want to see that you’ve written something. In most cases, they don’t care about the businesses behind the pieces they see in your portfolio. They just want to see something in that portfolio!

A quick aside: Don’t lose your mind over having an empty portfolio. The easiest way to get around it is to just leave that page off your website until you have something to show off!

Where do you even begin making up copywriting samples?

Whipping up an advertisement, brochure or website page sounds relatively easy, right? I mean, you’re a copywriter. How hard can it be?

So. Hard.

When I tried to do this as a newbie copywriter, I remember staring at a blank page wondering where the hell to start. My mind was blank. I questioned my skills as I struggled with this simple task.

I can confirm, with more than a few years of copywriting under my belt, that writing about a client who has given you a real copywriting brief is MUCH easier. So creating a copywriting brief is the first step.

1. Write a fake copywriting brief

My copywriting brief is very detailed. I ask clients a lot of questions because buried in the details of their responses is the gold that helps me differentiate their businesses.

This is where to begin your made-up project.

Choose a business from a local business directory or your hood. Pool supplier. Accountant. Bakery. Whatever. Just keep it relatively straight-forward. Then fill out a copywriting brief for the company.

2. Choose a type of copywriting project

Will you write an advertisement, brochure, flyer, email or website page? These aren’t the only options of course, but they are the most common copywriting projects asked for and so make a great start for your fictional client.

You don’t want to make this harder than it needs to be, so keep it simple.

If you choose a brochure, make it relatively short. If you choose a website page, just write one page.

Remember, most clients just want to see something.

3. Look at examples for inspiration

I broke into a sweat the first time I had to write a small ad for a newspaper.

So much to say and almost no space! But looking through other ads gave me some reminders about the key elements to focus on. The same applies for a short brochure, flyer or an About page. This is exactly why copywriting swipe files are so damned useful.

If you feel a bit vomity when you start to write your made-up sample for your copywriting portfolio, just have a look at other examples and let the words flow from there.

4. Write and edit

This naturally is the hardest part of the process, but all the research you’ve done for your imaginary client will make the writing easier. And not just for this copywriting portfolio sample—for all your copywriting projects.

5. Format it for your portfolio

You might be wondering how much design work you have to do for your made-up copywriting sample. Don’t stress. Your focus is on the words, so formatting your sample in a word processing tool is just fine. However, if you’re whizzy with a design tool, go crazy!

Include a header that explains the business and some information about the project. For example,

Project: Website About page for a bakery

Objective: To help customers feel like they know us when they walk into the store.

Or

Project: Flyer for a newsagent

Objective: To promote a sale on back-to-school stationery

When you do this, you are showing off that you write copy to achieve objectives!

Your copywriting portfolio has its first piece!

It’s nowhere near as hard as you might think. And once you go to the trouble of filling out that copywriting brief for your imaginary client, you may as well create a few pieces for them!

Then you can sit back and concentrate on bagging new clients knowing that neon sign in your copywriting portfolio has been taken down.

Will you use this process to create your first portfolio piece? Let me know how you do! And copywriters who already have a portfolio, how did you get your first pieces?

The Copy Detective 

57 Responses

  1. Great tips Belinda.

    Before I set out as a freelancer, I was studying Business Advertising and a number of our assignments were to review and rework existing advertisements and marketing copy. It was a really useful exercise in considering where weak points existed, and how to strengthen the message (I’m sure I’m not the only copywriter who rolls their eyes at some of the poorly worded ads on TV and in print). I definitely used some of these in my first portfolio.

    In regard to point #5, I like to outline what the client brief was so potential clients can see what the challenges and objectives were and how the copy met those objectives.

    1. Thanks Anna!

      That’s great advice about setting the context for the portfolio piece. Remembering back to when I worried about empty portfolio, I don’t think I would have known about the challenges etc that a client would face! But it certainly does add a great context to the writing.

      Thanks (always) for reading! 🙂

  2. Great ideas, Belinda! When I taught writing (which included copywriting and scriptwriting), the final assignment was a portfolio of my students’ best work. I let them improve their grades by continuing to improve each assignment throughout the course of the semester (which also helped them learn the value of rewriting). Every year for a long time, I heard from students who used that portfolio to get a job. So I love that you’re advocating something very similar. Clients need to see great writing.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience Susan! That’s also one of the things my students get to create as part of my Copywriting Master Class – pieces that not only pull together all the skills they’ve learn but also pieces they can use in their portfolio. Just filling the empty page with something can be a real confidence booster!

  3. Hello Belinda, you just addressed one of the problems we are facing. Let me assure you that each of these tips is highly actionable.
    See you soon after implementing what you have told me.
    Many thanks for sharing.

  4. Hi Belinda,

    These are some great tips. I’ve been writing copy for years now, but I only did it for a single brand as I was a brand manager before going freelance. It didn’t occur to me that I can actually build my own sample portfolio!

    Keep up the great work.

    1. You sure can! It’s tougher than it looks when you actually sit down to write, hence the idea of creating a bit of a brief for yourself. I always found that much easier. Good luck with it!

  5. Oh my goodness!! I’ve SO been stressing about building my portfolio. I’ve been taking a copywriting course that has placed a heavy emphasis on making sure I don’t try and design the piece by myself. Instead, I should only concentrate on the copy. So here I am trying to find a novice designer to help me accomplish this, and that in itself had been the most nerve-wracking thing. I’m pretty confident about designing it myself. Have I been overthinking this? Haha. Thank you Belinda.

    1. Firstly, yes. You’re overthinking it! Seriously. Don’t stress. If you can design something up, great, but I’ve included many portfolio pieces that were just the copy, presented as formatted text. There have been a few reasons.

      1) I’ve created the portfolio pieces myself (as samples created for clients or to round out my portfolio)
      2) The client hasn’t published the copy I’ve written (for any number of reasons)
      3) I couldn’t get a copy of the finished product (as it was a printed piece)
      4) The client butchered my copy after the project ended and I wanted to show off the original piece.

      So, lots of good reasons why I haven’t had the finished product in my portfolio.

      I didn’t want to miss the chance to show off my writing so I just showed a screen shot of the copy alone. One benefit is that there are no distractions to the copy 😉

      So don’t let the design hold you back from showing off great copy!

  6. I have done a lot of copywriting for one company (my employer, who doesn’t employ me as a writer, but gives me lots of writing projects to do on the side… and yes, I get paid extra for doing them).

    There is quite a diverse range of projects, covering a number of different types of output.

    Despite the diversity, I have fears that it will impact on me negatively that everything I write has been written for the one company. When looking at a portfolio, does it need to have a greater scope of clients in order to appear “better”?

    1. I would be surprised if it did Butch. Prospective clients really just want to see you’ve done some stuff. You have the benefit of having a wide range of project types and I think that has more influence than a wide range of companies.

      And kudos to you for being paid to build your portfolio on the side!

  7. Good tips. I’m going to try putting this into action.

    I actually have a decent amount of experience writing, but haven’t had much confidence in selling myself as a copywriter, and haven’t done the best job at building a portfolio.

    In pursuit of becoming a copywriter, I actually learned SEO several years ago, and then started getting jobs in that category. However, I always wanted to write, but got side tracked along the path. Now, I’m back in school studying nutrition and exercise – long story. Any how, I’ve made it a new goal to start getting freelance copywriting projects, as it’s always been a dream of mine, plus it would help with paying for school. And, I’m realizing how much knowledge and experience I actually have.

    In any case, it starts with developing a portfolio. So, thanks for the tips. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  8. Hey there,

    Reading this really put me at ease! I’m left with one question: how do you bring the pieces together both digitally and physically? Just printed pages bonded together? Do you have an online platform you used to display your portfolio?

    1. I have never need to provide a physical portfolio so that just leaves a digital version. For me, it’s been as easy as installing a portfolio widget in WP or creating a page that displays my work. I’ve included a brief blurb about the client, the challenges and my copywriting solution with any links and screenshots. For work that I couldn’t link to I would include the raw copy, formatting in a branded (Copywrite Matters) document.

      Clients really just want to know you can and have done stuff. Another way to show off your writing is a blog!

  9. Great information here. I want to apply for a SEO Copywriter position. I don’t have a portfolio but I do have a blog. Would you suggest pulling posts from the blog for the portfolio or could I just send them the link to my blog?

    1. If your blog posts are good examples of optimised copy, then pointing them to your blog is a great idea! You could also create before and after versions of existing copy to show off your optimisation skills.

      Thanks for reading!

  10. Okay, so this is waaay closer to the kind of answer I’ve been looking for. Thank you for this article.

    I have a collection of blog articles I’ve written for imaginary businesses. I’m planning to put them on a portfolio and link to them when I’m asked for samples. Unfortunately, this has amounted to a body of random pieces that I feel uncomfortable shopping around, mainly because they are so unrelated to each other.

    I’m wondering if it would be a better idea to write pretend articles that all cover one topical field, or if this is a bad idea altogether.

    Regarding the idea of writing a “fake” piece for a portfolio, do you think this is viable for portfolios oriented around other fields of freelance writing besides copywriting? If yes, do you think these pieces should all be coherently tied to each other somehow?

    1. Brilliant Isaac. I’m glad!

      I wouldn’t worry about the disconnect. For me, it demonstrates that you can write on different topics (or at least that is how I would sell it to clients). If all your articles are on one topic, it doesn’t show off a diversity a copywriter needs to embrace.

  11. Great article. Very informative too.
    I’m a writer and author and want to start a freelance copywriting business. I already have a blog- a lifestyle/relationship blog where I post my short stories. It’s about three years old now.
    Instead of starting a totally new copywriting website for the new business, can I create a separate page on the blog offering my copywriting services with my portfolio, sample works as you advised?

    Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Patience, Thanks! You could create a new page but I would create a separate website for your copywriting business. It will be a lot better for SEO and less confusing for your clients. More work I know but a single niche focus will give you better returns all round 🙂

  12. Hi, thanks so much for the information. I would just like to clarify “reworking advertisements.” Is this literally cutting out a page from a magazine, and simply on a separate sheet of paper create your own copy? Is this okay for building portfolios? I enjoyed your idea with the header on the sheet of paper.
    Do you have any other suggestions for building copywriting experience for a resume… without any actual copywting experience? Unfortunately, I mainly have writing experience derived from education. How would I funnel that into my resume to build for copywriting or how can it serve as some sort of jumping off point? Does this make sense? Thanks so much.

    1. Hi Crystal,
      Reworking advertisements is just about that! You don’t need to literally cut anything out – unless you want to! For myself, I would start taking photos of potential ads and saving them somewhere like Evernote. You’re looking for ads that you think, I could do that so much better! If you have a photo you can show the before and after.

      And the after doesn’t need to be fancy, it could just be a paragraph in a text document. The idea is to show off your copywriting!

      In terms of building copywriting experience, you could apply to a nonprofit who are often grateful for help BUT also often need someone who is a specialist in fundraising copywriting. You can also look at job boards like Upwork. Jobs often don’t pay well so I don’t recommend you hang around but it can be useful to get a few jobs to get experience, finesse your client/project process and get a testimonial too.

      I would also look for opportunities with local businesses. You can offer to write copy for them probono in exchange for a testimonial.

      You might find this Hot Copy podcast I did on getting clients >> http://www.hotcopypodcast.com/flashback-how-to-find-copywriting-clients-2/
      Most of the tips will be useful whether you have experience or not!

      1. Thank you taking the time to respond, Belinda! You rock! Definitely tuning into the podcast. I’ll follow up with progress. Thanks again!

        Best,
        Crystal

  13. Hi Belinda, I guess, would it be possible for you to expand on these two points from above? It would be great help.

    “One is approaching local businesses and offering your services in exchange for a testimonial and use of the piece in your copywriting portfolio.

    Another is working with not-for-profit organisations, which are often crying out for help with their marketing efforts.”

    Thanks for any help.

    1. I think I go into detail on the Hot Copy podcast so that’s a great place to start!

      We can also schedule a coaching call to nut out some details for you, if you’d like 🙂

  14. What if I have the opposite problem – I have tons of samples but it’s from my previous employers. I am able to use those samples in my portfolio for my freelance work?

  15. My issue is that I have a tun of samples from previous work experience. Am I able to use that for my portfolio when trying to get freelance work?

    1. Hey Daphne, thanks for reading. I think it’s polite to check in with your previous employer and make sure they’re okay with it. It does open the door for them to say not but it’s a professional courtesy. If they say no, you could suggest you take off their branding so they aren’t identifiable.

  16. This has been incredibly useful, thank you! I’ve just started copywriting, and while I have clients just now, their projects aren’t complete and so I can’t include them in my portfolio just yet. I hope to soon!
    My question is, do you need to disclose that these are samples and not real clients? Do you think that puts prospective clients off?
    Thanks for your time.

    1. My pleasure Gill!

      I think it’s worth disclosing but you don’t need to make a huge deal of it. For instance, you can just label the portfolio item as SAMPLE and then describe what it is.

  17. Thank you very much Belinda. This has been so helpful. I am just starting out in copywriting was worried about putting together a portfolio for a potential client. Reading your article made me realise I already had material I could use, all I needed was to follow the tips you outlined.
    2 days ago, I didn’t know what to do when they asked for a portfolio. Today, I have submitted my CV along with a link to my portfolio.
    Thank you once again.

  18. Dear Belinda,

    And what should i do with about option? Should i wrote about courses i took or what? Regarding that i cannot write about years of experience and satisfied clients.

    1. You can absolutely write about the courses you’ve done. You can also talk about the work you’ve done highlighting the transportable skills – the skills that you need as a copywriter too. Also, personal information that helps potential customers understand what you’ll be like to work with. Like, your hobbies and favourite things!

  19. This is extremely helpful. I’m trying to break into freelance writing and feeling heavy imposter syndrome thanks to having no portfolio to speak of. Thanks so much!

  20. Hi Belinda! thanks a lot for this super helpful article. I’m trying to build a copywriting portfolio to put into practice all the things ive learnt and to land some clients. However, with the copy done for fictional clients ,how do these get tested to prove that my copy actually works, since that’s what clients look out for ?

    Thank you!

    1. Well, you can’t. But here’s a little secret. Unless you’re pitching the kind of work where conversion is essential – like launch copywriting – then most clients just want to see that you’ve done some copywriting. Copywriting is just one part of a marketing picture and so while clients are looking for some certainty, you can’t give it as a copywriter.
      This is an opportunity to give them some certainty in other ways… like having a strong writing and project management process. This tells clients you are 100% on top of the pieces you’re in control of.

  21. You spelled “organizations” incorrectly in your fourth line, it is in bold. I am looking to start a freelance career and would love to start out as a proofreader if there is demand.

    1. Hey Robert, I think you’ll find it’s the correct British/Australian English spelling of the word 🙂 There is always demand. If you want to be accessible to an international audience, the different versions of English has a lot to cover.

      Belinda

  22. — “Is that legit? Can we just make it up?” Yes. You can just make it up.
    I think what I was looking for was this permission, to start where we’re at. You article really gave me the ease I needed to just begin with what I’ve got. Thank you so much for sharing your kind insight with us.

  23. Thanks so much for your concise directives and tips on copywriting.

    I was thinking of how to start but now am confidently know when, where and how to start and how to go about it.

    Hope to get more tips from you in order to nurture me to maturity in the world of copywriting skill.

    Regards.

  24. Hi Belinda,

    This was super helpful – I’ve been doing some basic copywriting for work, for web content and newsletters etc, and wanting to pivot to a job that focuses on that specifically.

    I’m wondering: to do made up/ spec pieces for a portfolio, can you look at local businesses and write your own copy for them as part of your portfolio? Does it need to be an imaginary business? I’m guessing it’s better to leave any real business names out.

    Thanks!

  25. Hello Belinda.
    Good day, I don’t have any idea, concerning creation of portfolio.
    And can I get a means in which contact you personally,in order to ask questions that I don’t understand.

    1. hi Emmanuel. Join my free Facebook group – For The Love of Copy – and search for “empty portfolio” as I just did a free training session on this topic and it might help!

      Belinda

  26. Hi Belinda!

    This information was so helpful! I am looking to get into copywriting from a job in education, and I was worried about being empty handed as far as samples! Your article has made me much more confident in my ability to have pieces prepared for a portfolio! I do have a question though, is it helpful/harmful to include fictional writing? A short story, for example. Is this something that would show off a specific voice and form of writing that I have as a skill, or is it too far from what clients may look for? In my mind, most marketable content tells some kind of story. Surely I am overthinking this, but I thought you may have a good answer! Thanks!

    1. Great question Alicia. It’s something that could live in your portfolio to showcase your skills but the work you showcase will influence the requests you get so that’s a consideration.

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