It’s the age-old chicken or egg thing, getting started in a new professional field: you really want to start writing microcopy already, but all your potential clients are asking to see your portfolio. Which makes sense, but no clients means no portfolio; and no portfolio means no clients.
This guide is mainly aimed at microcopy (UX) writers, but it can be useful for pretty much anyone taking their first steps as a freelancer.
Yup, it’s completely possible to start writing microcopy without any actual clients. It’s all down to a bit of strong will and a couple of days of work, and you’ll end up with a portfolio to get your foot in the door.
1. How to get projects for your portfolio
Try connecting with designers & UXers — they bring the visual, you bring the microcopy
Graphic design & UX students are given a lot of assignments to design apps or websites. If their design contains microcopy (which it probably does), you could offer them your writing skills.
Even if they’re working on a fictional product, you’ll have the chance to collaborate and come up with a voice and tone design and microcopy for this product, and that right there is a complete project you can add to your portfolio.
Offer microcopy as an extra product to something you’re already working on
If you’re coming to microcopy by way of design or content, consider offering microcopy as a complementary product to the service you’re providing anyway. Chances are the client will jump at the opportunity.
For example, if you’re working on UX design for an app or writing content for a website, slip the microcopy component into your proposal (reasonably priced as you’re still a junior). Even if the microcopy is ultimately a small part of the overall project — it’s still work you can show on your portfolio.
Do pro-bono microcopy and earn clients (and good karma!)
There are so many non-profit organizations with a web presence who’d be absolutely grateful for some free microcopy. You could offer a voice and tone design and microcopy, free of charge, to an organization with values you consider close to your heart,and gain real (if not paying) clients.
Make sure you choose a website with a fair amount of microcopy to work with, so you’ll have enough to show on your portfolio.
Design a real voice and tone for friends or family
A great way to practice designing voice and tone is writing for a friend or family member’s business. You want to find someone with an active website and customers, so you’ll have enough data to work with.
Depending on the type of product and your new “client’s” patience, figure out if you’re going for a full voice and tone design or a leaner process. Use
Microcopy: The Complete Guide to prepare questions for your voice and tone interview and to implement the process step-by-step. If your client doesn’t come from the digital world, you’ll want to make sure your questions are clear enough to provide answers you can work with later. A good way to make sure you don’t miss anything important is to record the interview on your device (give your client a heads-up about being recorded, obviously).
Then you can also write the microcopy for them, or at least for the website’s main parts; and there, again, you have the whole process to present in your portfolio.
With a bit of imagination, even Google could be your client
Even if you’ve never written microcopy professionally, you could still show your chops in an imagined portfolio. Choose well-known websites and apps, and create “Before & After” examples based on screenshots you took, showing the changes you would make if you were the product’s microcopy (UX) writer.
In this case, it’s best to stick with a world you’re familiar with: if you’re vegan, look for a vegan-aimed website (like HappyCow); if you’re a new mother — look for an app or website that caters to moms (like BabyCenter). You have the advantage of being a target user yourself, so you could easily write the microcopy to speak to that community.
Also — pretend, but do it right: before you go for the actual writing, you need to come up with the foundations on which you’ll base your microcopy examples. The brand’s values and personality, its target audience and one or two product challenges. You don’t have to design a whole voice and tone for each example, but it’s still important to stick to some guidelines, just like you would with a real client.
Then, write a short description of the brand or product and the principles and challenges you approached with microcopy. For each change you make, add a few words describing the reasoning for the changes and how you came up with the new copy.
Important: When you show imagined work, make sure you clearly note that they’re examples and not projects you were paid to do.
Work on official government forms & websites
Writing microcopy often means turning tedious and menacing forms into pleasant and simple ones. And where would one find such forms a-plenty? That’s right! Government websites.
These websites are usually chock-full of dry, archaic copy, and could become your bread and butter until you graduate to yummier (and more profitable) projects. Whether it’s writing more gender-inclusive copy or turning formal and yawn-inducing phrasing into words people would actually say — there’s a lot to work with.
Bonus: these interfaces usually cater to a broad audience, so the product probably won’t need a very complex voice and tone design, and any change you suggest would make a huge improvement.
Practice character limitations, or: size does matter
Text messages, push notifications and alerts are good examples for your portfolio. Find an app that sends these types of notifications and re-write their messages, keeping in mind the character limitation for each message.
Remember — with text messages and push notification you have the chance to play with Emojis! But make sure you only use the basic Emojis and not the ones that can be open to other interpretations (this is good for accessibility too).
2. How to present your portfolio
Your goal is to show potential clients your thought and work process, so to save them from having to use their imagination, it’s helpful to show your microcopy on top of the original design using screenshots.
How to do this:
- Take a snip of just the part of the screen you want to change, as opposed to the whole screen. For the best resolution, zoom in on your browser and then take a snip of the relevant section.
- Paste your screenshot twice on a PowerPoint slide or any other tool you’re comfortable with. One screenshot will be the “Before” and the other will be the “After”.
- Use text boxes to show the microcopy you’re suggesting, placed on top of the “After” screenshot. Try to stay as close as possible to the original size, color and font.
With text messages and push notifications be aware of character limitations, so as not to go over the limit. One of my basic rules is to check the number of characters the “client” used, and decide that’s the maximum number of characters to use (if it were a real client, I would ask for character limitations before beginning the writing itself).
- Next to each example (or at least the ones you think are important) explain why you chose to change the microcopy the way you did, what guided you along, and what you were trying to accomplish with the new copy.
- I recommend saving this document as a PDF file, in the lowest weight and highest quality possible. Check your file on a few different devices to make sure your microcopy is always legible.
3. What makes an impressive, comprehensive portfolio
- At least one example (two is also great) of each basic element of websites and apps — sign up pages (for websites and newsletters), recovering passwords, menus, error messages, confirmation messages, alerts or text messages, loading screens and 404 pages. Once again, every example should be accompanied by an explanation.
- Varied examples — not just government websites, but not only fun products. Choosing various products will show your skills on different types of content (even if some might be a bit dry). But you don’t have to send the entire portfolio to every potential client; consider arranging the portfolio so that the most relevant brands or products for that specific client appear richer and more prominent.
- At least one complete process — including the basics of voice and tone design and a series of elements from the website or app that shows microcopy that you based on these guidelines.
Have all these?
Great, your portfolio is ready. Now go impress some clients!