By Extended Studies Arts & Humanities Team
Whether you’re a seasoned pro or brand new to the profession, if you’re a technical communicator looking for your next position you’re going to need a portfolio to show off your best work.
Yet this brings up a number of questions about what to include and how to organize it—and what are the best ways to use a portfolio to get you the job?
We asked two instructors from our DES Technical Communication Certificate Program, Dr. Liz Herman and Steve Lemanski, about what they think makes for a good technical writing portfolio.
What Are The Basics of a Good Technical Writing Portfolio?
The fundamental job of any portfolio is going to be to highlight your work. Before offering you a position, employers will want to know you’re capable of doing the work they intend to hire you to do.
“Technical communication is about the words,” said Dr. Liz Herman. “I’m looking for if you can string together a sentence. Can you show me something that’s grammatically correct and spell-checked? Can you string together a thought and purpose? That all goes a long way.”
“The portfolio is like a supplementary job-seeking aid,” added Steve Lemanski. “If the goal of a good resume is to tell a story about your experience, skills and problems you’ve solved, then your portfolio is the evidence that you bring to bear for the skills you highlighted in your resume.”
Remember, you're not just looking to showcase that you can proficiently do the work. You also want to show that you are the best fit for the position and all the elements that come with it.
What Makes a Portfolio Stand Out?
There are lots of possible approaches for how to make a technical writing portfolio stand out. Both of our experts addressed three primary points to consider; have it well tailored to the position, provide context, and tell a story.
Custom Tailor It
The first mark of a good portfolio is to have it tailored and relevant to the job you’re applying for.
“There are two ways to approach it,” said Herman. “You could have everything across every type of work you’ve ever done. Or you could have it tailored specifically to the job you're getting.
“My recommendation is to have one portfolio for yourself that has everything, but then take pieces from your whole portfolio to show employers a micro-slice of what you can do.”
Lemanski concurs, while also suggesting a broader approach.
“A good portfolio will show all of your skill sets as well as a few specialties. ‘Here’s a proposal. Here’s a social media article. Here’s a user manual I collaborated on.’
“It’s parallel to resume-writing in terms of targeting. Any resume you write that’s highly targeted and tailored is preferable to one that isn’t. The same is true with a portfolio.”
But not every employer wants to see the full breadth of your skills. Some may only want to see a couple of examples.
“I personally only want to look at what’s relevant to the job,” said Herman. “Other related pieces are good, but don’t make me search through your portfolio to find what’s relevant to the job description.”
So how refined should a portfolio be before you send it to an employer?
If you’re not sure how many pieces or how broad of a selection to include, Herman proposes a simple solution.
“It’s okay to ask. A candidate should feel comfortable asking an employer how many examples they want to see. ‘Do you want to see two pieces or seven?’ Maybe they want to see only two. That's okay.”
Another point that both our experts felt was important to a good portfolio was to provide context for the pieces that are included.
“A portfolio needs to be more than just a curated group of sample work,” said Lemanski. “You've got to tell the client what these samples represent. If you just hand an employer a stack of samples without any clear labeling, they’re not going to know how to look at it.”
“When I see a portfolio I want to know what I’m looking at,” she said. “Give me some context for the examples. Was there some specific challenge behind this piece? Why did you choose to show me this?”
She goes on to explain that contextual information can be included as a title page to the piece, in the footnotes, or even in captions.
Lemanski points out that as long as context is provided, you have a lot more options for the types of pieces that can be included, too.
“You may or may not have to limit it to finished products,” said Lemanski. “For instance, if you wanted to show your editing skills for a portfolio, the best sample to have might be something that shows the iterative improvement that you made as an editor. You could show the rough draft, the editing you did, and what eventually made it into the final piece.”
Tell a Story
Like all good content, a stand-out portfolio will also tell a story. The examples you include and how you contextualize them will paint a picture of who you are as a writer, colleague, and person.
“In some ways, the design of the portfolio is much like a presentation design,” said Lemanski. “You want to lead a person through a train of thought. What’s the overall message you want to give?”
The story you share through your portfolio could be how you’ve worked well under pressure, written proposals that won big contracts, worked well as a member of a team, or how you’ve learned and grown throughout your career.
“A lot of times technical writing job descriptions get very specific about tools and software needed,” said Herman. “You might not be familiar with all these tools, but you can also learn. A portfolio presents an opportunity to show how you were able to learn a new software or tool, and share how you’re confident you can learn this new tool too.”
What’s the Best Format for a Portfolio?
In addition to the challenges of choosing the right pieces to include in a portfolio, it’s also important to consider how you want to present a portfolio. Options range from online portfolio tools, to sample PDFs, to paper files kept in a binder.
So what’s the best way to present your work?
“I think it’s something that mirrors the diversity of the field right now,” said Lemanski. “If the interview process is entirely online and you’ll be hired from a distance, then it's ideal to have a digital portfolio put together. But if you're asked to come to an in-person interview, you might want to have that hard copy binder so you can hand over a copy in person too.”
Herman was much looser in her preferences.
“I’m flexible. It can be a PDF. Or they can put their portfolio on Google Drive or Dropbox. A lot of times people will just ask you to email it to them and it can be a PDF file. I usually don’t have a preference.”
Regardless of the format you choose, both interviewees emphasized the importance of having it ready to go. If you’ve been invited to an interview, they’re going to want to see examples of your work shortly after that, and you don’t want to keep your next potential employer waiting.
Here are a couple more specific thoughts that came up in our interview that we feel are worth sharing.
What do employers look for from someone making a transition to technical writing from another field?
“I would look for complexity,” Herman offers. “Can they translate complexity into something the user can understand?”
“This morning I talked to a woman who teaches Greek and Latin,” Herman continues. “The fact that she’s a teacher tells me that she has the ability to teach and explain things to people. In that case, maybe she could share a lesson plan in her portfolio. It could show how she takes complex information and teaches it to other people.”
What if you’re new to the industry and don’t have a body of work yet?
“Look for examples in your school or training assignments,” Herman suggested. “If you’ve taken a course through UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies, all of us try to give assignments that can be used in a portfolio, too.”
Other possibilities include volunteer work, adding documentation to open-source projects, or asking an organization if there’s something you can rewrite on their website.
What are options for getting feedback on your portfolio?
“Turn to your network,” Herman suggested. “Ask somebody at school or work to take a look. Former teachers can help. Also, the Society for Technical Communication (STC) has a mentoring circle where people would be willing to look at your portfolio to give pointers too.”
We hope these tips were helpful.
To learn more about the Technical Communication Certificate Program from the Department of Extended Studies, click here.