Developing an Annotated Portfolio

Question: I’m just getting started in technical writing and am getting ready to start job hunting. I have experience working on a number of projects; however, I don’t have any project that I can call my “own” or a collection of projects that I could call a portfolio. How can I overcome this lack of portfolio material when interviewing for jobs?

Okay, so you don’t have a project that’s all your own. Or, maybe you don’t have many completed projects to show a prospective employer. But, you do have skills in planning documents, compiling and organizing information, writing, editing, and designing…right? Put those skills to use and create an annotated portfolio of your work that includes excerpts of what you have done, demonstrates your capabilities to develop documents, and makes potential employers look twice.

But wait. How can you create a portfolio without actual portfolio pieces? You can, by examining what you have done, examining what skills you’ve contributed, gathering reader/boss/coworker comments, and developing a cohesive document. This annotated portfolio will include

Note! The sample portfolio pages provided here were developed to be printed on a black and white printer, not in color. The medium-orange and light-blue colors were easy to view onscreen and contrasted well when printed on a black and white printer.
  • A title page (view sample)
  • A descriptive contents page (view sample)
  • A project description for each project (or category of projects), describing your contributions to the project and including reader/boss/coworker feedback (view sample)
  • Excerpts of your projects (copies or printouts of your projects)

Of course, developing an annotated portfolio can also be useful for people who have lots of experience and portfolio pieces, but it is especially useful if you don’t yet have much experience or pieces to demonstrate your capabilities. By creating an annotated portfolio of your work, you can highlight the work you have done, demonstrate your skills in developing a cohesive document, demonstrate your writing, editing, and design skills, and create an eye-catching addition to your resume. The following steps will help you plan, organize, design, and compile your annotated portfolio:

Step 1: Plan your portfolio

Your first step is to plan what you want to include and what you want it to look like. So, for starters:

Gather project excerpts. Ensure these excerpts demonstrate key skills that you contributed and would be emphasizing in an interview. If you can, go ahead and have quality copies made and set them aside. If not, you can do so when you’re ready to have the portfolio bound.

Plan for document printing.  Before you begin developing your portfolio, research the printing and binding services, as well as the materials that you’ll have available. For example, do you plan to use a black and white or color printer? Will you be developing your document at home but printing it out at, say, a computer at a printing/copying company? If so, be sure that your document print settings are set to the same kind of printer that you’ll ultimately use to print out the final copy so that your settings and page breaks stay in place.

Plan for document binding.  What materials, sizes, and colors are available for the portfolio cover? What bindings are available? Choose materials and binding that would allow readers to browse your portfolio without fumbling. My portfolio, for example, is printed using a black and white printer, has a clear plastic front cover that lets the title page show through, has a black plastic cover, and is bound with spiral binding.

Plan the overall document design.  Use this opportunity to demonstrate your page design and layout skills. In general, the focus of the portfolio should be on the excerpts, descriptions, and comments you provide. So, although you can start from scratch and create an original or somewhat interesting design, the overall design should be simple, usable, navigable. My portfolio pages, for example, use a fat grey border in the header and footer (it appears as orange in the sample, but again, I printed it using a black and white printer), body text that’s indented a bit from the left margin, Arial for headings, Times New Roman for body text, and indented italic Times New Roman for reader comments. Also, as you’re developing your document design, keep in mind the printing and binding you’ll be using, as that may affect your design and margin settings.

Step 2: Plan the project descriptions

Determine what information to highlight.  For example, you may want to mention specifically what you contributed to each project, as well as what skills you used. Or, you may want to mention difficult obstacles that you overcame, a particularly tight deadline that you met, or special circumstances of the project. Examine each project, and choose details that you want to highlight, given the job(s) you’re applying for.

Gather comments you’ve received about your work on these projects.  If possible, gather reader comments, as those show the bottom-line effectiveness of your work; however, positive comments from your boss or coworkers can be effective, too. To find such comments, you might refer to document drafts or email correspondence, or you might ask your boss or a more senior coworker to comment on your work specifically for your portfolio.

Get permission to use the comments you’ve gathered.  For each person, explain that you’re developing your portfolio, state specifically the comment(s) you’d like to include, and ask permission to use the comment(s) in your portfolio.

Keep these notes and comments handy, as you’ll need them again in Steps 3 and 4.

Step 3: Determine the organization

Having planned the portfolio, you can begin to organize the overall document. If you have relatively few excerpts to include or if your excerpts are from only one type of publication (say, you’ve worked on hardcopy documentation or brochures or online help), then your portfolio would likely only have one section. For example, your document organization might look like this:

  • A title page
  • A contents page
  • A project description that describes your contributions to the projects and includes reader/boss/coworker feedback
  • Excerpt of project #1
  • Excerpt of project #2 (if applicable)
  • Excerpt of project #3 (if applicable)

Alternatively, depending, you could develop a separate description for each project, like this:

  • A title page
  • A contents page
  • A project description that describes your contributions to Project #1 and includes reader/boss/coworker feedback for that project
  • Excerpt of project #1
  • A project description that describes your contributions to Project #2 and includes reader/boss/coworker feedback for that project
  • Excerpt of project #2
  • A project description that describes your contributions to Project #3 and includes reader/boss/coworker feedback for that project
  • Excerpt of project #3

Exactly how you organize your pieces depends on how much descriptive information you plan to provide, as well as how many excerpts and types of documents you plan to include. Keep in mind that your project description could be more than one page. The key is to ensure that you provide the necessary details and comments to highlight your contributions and other relevant details. Refer back to your notes and comments from Step 2 to see what kind of details and comments you’ll need room for.

You might jot down the organization you want, in case you need to refer to it or revise it later.

Step 4: Develop the portfolio pieces

Okay, with your portfolio planned and the pieces organized, you’re ready to start developing the portfolio. You can develop the pieces in any order that suits you, but you’ll be able to see the document develop and picture the results if you start at the beginning and do one piece at a time. Refer back to the ideas and information you developed back in Steps 1, 2, and 3, and then use the following tips:

The title page Your title page should include the document title (you might call it “Portfolio,” “Annotated Portfolio,” or even “Annotated Resume”), your name, street address, email address, and phone numbers. For example, my cover page includes this information, as well as a simple graphic. You might also include an employment objective that briefly summarizes your employment goals.

The contents page.  Your contents page should list the excerpts you plan to include, as well as briefly describe each piece. My contents page for example, includes a contents heading, a title of each piece (or, in my case, of each section), and then a brief description.

The project descriptions.  Exactly what your project description includes depends on how you organized your portfolio back in Step 2. If you plan to have only one project description that covers all of the projects, then on one or more pages you would list all of the project titles, brief descriptions, and comments you’ve gathered about each. Or, if you plan to have a project description for each project or type of document, for example, then each page would include the project name, a description, and comments. This sample project description lists projects, describes the time and circumstances of projects, and includes up to three comments for each project. Refer back to the notes you jotted down about your projects in Step 2 to see what you should include in your project descriptions.

Step 5: Print ’em out

Whew! After you’ve finished your cover, contents page, and project descriptions, go ahead and print them out using a high-DPI printer, if possible. Also, if you haven’t yet printed out or copied your project excerpts, get those ready, too.

Step 6: Compile your portfolio

If your portfolio has multiple sections or excerpts, you may separate them with divider pages. You could, for example, use tabbed pages or heavier-weight pages with section names printed on them. Alternatively, you could cut long, thin strips of heavier-weight paper to be bound in between the sections. These aren’t full-sized pages, but they do help readers flip to the beginning of excerpts that might otherwise seem to run together.

This is it…the moment you’ve been waiting for! Collect all the pieces you’ve developed and gathered, and put them in order: The title page, the contents page, the project descriptions, and the project excerpts. Refer to the organization you devised in Step 3, if you need to.

You might compile a draft portfolio first to ensure you have all of the pieces in place. When you’re satisfied that the title page, contents page, project descriptions, and project excerpts are as they should be, take the final compiled document to your local printing/binding shop and have the materials bound. Give specific printing instructions. Hover and lurk while they’re working if you have to. Ask to watch them copy, print, or bind your portfolio, depending on what services you’re having them do.

Now, with this portfolio in hand, you can show any prospective employer what you have contributed to previous projects, demonstrate your planing, writing, editing, and design skills, demonstrate your creative skills, and demonstrate that you can develop a cohesive document from start to finish.

Good luck!