A couple of weeks ago, I delved into how emerging writers and editors can get a foothold in the industry. There’s one piece of advice that I always give but that might seem unnecessary, especially to those who are just getting started in their careers: Get yourself a website or an online portfolio of some sort.
I’m not sure how it works for fiction writers (I do write fiction, though not professionally), or influencers, or other people who make their living primarily through their online footprints — but for someone who’s trying to make it as a nonfiction writer, selling your services to clients or stories to publications, then a website is essential. Here’s why.
What’s the point of a website?
“Do I really need a website?” Believe me, I understand the hesitation that spurs this question; I was a decade-plus into my career before I invested in a website myself. Websites take time and cost money. Even if you go with a free version and do all the design yourself, the time it takes to build a website can still feel (and be) monumental — especially if you already have a part-time or full-time job and the website is for a side gig.
Plus, there are all of those lovely social media platforms out there, or even Medium, so why not just host your work elsewhere? Can’t you just put yourself out there on Facebook, Instagram, Medium, maybe Pinterest and YouTube, and call it a day?
I mean … maybe? Again, I’m not an expert on fiction writers or influencers. Those people might very well be able to get away with a social media presence and little (or nothing) more. But if you’re working in the news or marketing space, then a Facebook page and a Twitter account really aren’t going to suffice. These platforms might show how well you manage a social media account — which can certainly be beneficial — but most journalism and marketing tasks involve a lot more than posting on social media, and restricting yourself to just the social platforms is not going to do you favors.
There are three big reasons why I think writers and editors of all stripes need a website: They save you time by explaining what you do, they provide an easy-to-access portfolio of your work, and they show your prospective clients that you take your work seriously enough to invest in a website.
Websites save you time by explaining what you do
I’ve been getting paid to write things for almost twenty years now, and at this point, my experience includes … a lot. I’ve written news stories, website and app copy, big industry lists, marketing and email campaigns, white papers, research projects, and much more, spanning a range of topics — arts and culture, music, food, health care and health insurance, cannabis, and (most recently) real estate, to name the most prominent.
So if someone reaches out and asks me what I can do and about my areas of expertise, well, there are a few! I find it’s a big time-saver to direct prospective clients toward my website so they can learn what they want to know about me and I don’t have to repeat myself endlessly when someone new has a question. Of course, if the question is specific — “Can you help me with ghostwriting as a real estate CEO?” — then I can answer that quickly and direct the prospective client to my portfolio (more on that in just a minute), but if it’s a general “So what kind of writing do you do?” type question, then it saves us both time to deliver my website URL and allow them to explore my career at their own pace and according to their needs. Someone who’s mostly interested in website copy for a health care business probably isn’t going to care much about my food and music writing credentials — or my real estate background — and we can all be more efficient by focusing on what I have done and can do for them, specifically.
Websites provide samples of your work
When clients are hiring someone to do a specific job, it is not unreasonable for that client to request samples or some kind of proof that you know how to do that job. This will be increasingly important as your rates increase throughout your career; you want to be able to show clients that your work is worth what you charge. And it will also become increasingly difficult as you accrue more and more samples — it’s a nice problem to have, but getting the best examples of your work to a client quickly and efficiently is nonetheless a problem when there are dozens of items you could send and you’re not entirely sure how you named them and where you saved them on your computer.
One very easy solution: Create a portfolio page on your website and update it regularly, or at least semi-regularly — once a quarter, twice a year, whatever makes sense for your business. Eventually you can start dividing your portfolio according to type of project, area of expertise, or another method of segmentation so that clients can find what they’re seeking quickly and can browse several examples of your work at their convenience.
Maybe you don’t have much to show in your portfolio at first, and you’re concerned it might draw attention to what you’re lacking instead of what you can offer. That’s a valid concern, but the fact that you’ve bothered to gather any samples of your work and put them in a portfolio will show clients that you’re motivated, even if you’re just starting out in your career, and after you land your first client, you can start beefing up those samples. Sooner or later, you’ll have enough work that you can pick and choose your favorite examples for your portfolio.
Websites show clients you’re serious
Anyone can build a website. That’s true! But how many people actually take the time to build one, paying attention to structure and design, improving it as business grows? Just because anybody can do something, it doesn’t always follow that everyone is doing that thing, and your website can help elevate you from any competition you’re facing if it’s clean, easy to navigate and read, and includes all the details that a prospective client might want or need to know before they ask you to work with them.
Building your own website shows clients that you are invested enough in this business to actually invest some of your own time or money into the website. I know that cost can be a barrier when you’re just starting out, and if that’s the case, consider that it’s well worth taking a segment of your first writing-related paycheck and using it toward your website.
I spend about $175 per year to keep my website operational, which includes two domain names (polishedcopy.com, the name of my business, and ambertaufen.com, which I figured I would want to own just in case someone types it in — it redirects automatically), the software to build the website, several pre-existing templates, and my domain-specific email address (a little more on that below). You can get started for about $100 with one domain name and then add services and features as you grow. Platforms like WordPress are more expensive; platforms like Wix or Weebly are absolutely free, but you don’t get to control the domain name. Point being: There are options; you can use a free option, take some time to make your site look nice and polished, and then decide you’ll start paying (maybe) once you’ve been able to save up enough money.
One way you can get your foot in the door with clients is by offering to clean up or build a website for them — even if you’ve never done it for anyone else, the fact that you’ve at least created and manage your own website is one example of your work that you won’t have if you don’t do it. And it’s awfully convenient for clients, too. I try to include any information that someone might want to have before they hire me except for my rates, which range in scope depending on the project, and if someone is seriously considering hiring me, that gives them an incentive to reach out and tell me a little bit about their needs.
And this is no guarantee, but I’m 99% sure that I’ve landed at least one full-time job by way of my website because a hiring manager asked me during an interview to talk about a time when I learned how to do something on the fly and in a self-driven way. “Well, I built my website using tutorials and had never used the software before, if that counts.” (Full disclosure, I’ve had one of my designer friends help me revamp it since then, but it looked nice enough that I guess the manager was impressed, and I got the job.)
Bonus tip: The domain-based email address
I realize there might be some similar objections to the domain-specific email address, the biggest one being “but I can’t afford that!” I don’t know about you, but my personal email account has been active for more than a decade and if you email me there, I might see it immediately … or it might take me a few days or even up to a week to realize you asked me a question. So in my opinion, a business email address is worth creating even if you’re merely using “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
However, there is a strong argument for forking over the $50 per year to Google to create a domain-specific email address once you own a domain. The confidence and authority that an @yourdomain.com address conveys over an @gmail.com address is huge — just like a website, it shows clients that you’re invested in your business and says “I’m a true professional” without you having to articulate it using words. And when you get the suite of products that includes Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, and so on, it provides an easy way for you to keep your personal and work lives separate; you can send and share documents and projects while maintaining version control, and everything will be easier to find.
(For what it’s worth, I wasn’t paid a dime by any products mentioned in this post; they are tools that I’m willing to pay to use because I really do think they make me look better than the alternatives and have elevated my business.)
Bottom line: Websites make hiring you an easier decision for prospective clients, and when well-constructed and updated as often as necessary, they also save you time. If you want to convey that you’re serious and professional about your business, then a website is an excellent way to start showing clients how great you are.