The portfolio is the most important work you can put together when looking for a job. A good portfolio can make up for years of experience. You can have 20 years of experience as a technical writer, but if your portfolio is uninteresting or doesn't sell yourself, you won't get the job. Conversely, if you have just 1 year of experience but have an impressive portfolio, you might have a better chance of getting the job.
There's a reason that putting together a portfolio is step four. You can't put together a good portfolio until you know a bit about technical writing. For example, if you just jump right into the portfolio and start creating samples that show a full screenshot with each step in a generic Microsoft Word document, your portfolio will be poor and will work against you. You need some theoretical grounding before you can create worthwhile documentation. You need real projects before they are convincing. And you need some knowledge of industry tools before you can create an attractive-looking design.
When putting together your portfolio, keep the following best practices in mind:
Most likely you won't have a ton of writing samples. If you completed step 2 ("Get Real Experience Doing Technical Writing"), you'll have a few samples you can show. But you probably need more. Here's a great tip from Barbara Block in "Finding That First Job." Can you document how to do your job? (You have a job, right? ) Are there concepts and tasks to master? Steps to perform for each of the tasks? Your current employer might appreciate this little handbook you create, and it can be a perfect addition to your portfolio.
When you go to an interview, always bring a portfolio of your work to leave with an employer. (Don't expect to really get these back, by the way.) The employer will want to peruse your writing both before and after the interview. Know also that a portfolio provides perfect talking points during an interview.
When I was looking to break into technical writing, I brought a portfolio with about 15 samples to the interview. I later learned that it was an article I wrote about protein that impressed one of the interviewers (who had a PhD in biology). I also had a sample online help file that I created with RoboHelp as well. I beat out 5 other candidates without having any actual technical writing experience. Trust me -- the portfolio is key.
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I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.