How To Build A Portfolio Website

Dressing for the job you want, digitally.



Raise your hand if all of your professional self-promotional tools are in great shape right now. Your resume is up to date, your online profiles are polished, and for those of you who are writers/entrepreneurs/freelancers, your personal portfolio website makes you look like the best in the business.

Why are there no hands up?

Oh right. Because self-promotion is a particular kind of hell on earth. Particularly, I’d argue, if you’re a woman. As women, we’ve spent a lifetime learning to not show off, to keep our heads down, to fit in with the pack and not toot our own horns. The trouble is, to get ahead in our careers, we have to be willing to sell ourselves. We have to be able to write a killer resume, or talk about our strengths in an interview. And in the current world, we need to be in control of our professional persona, in the form of our digital footprint.

I’m the cobbler’s child

Here is the thing about an online profile: I don’t have one. Not really. If you Google my name, you do get a page of results (which I’m grateful for). You get my author page on APW, a Twitter account I barely use, and a whole bunch of press about that book I wrote. You can get a pretty clear idea of what I’m doing professionally, if you piece it all together. You can even figure out that I’m into politics and the Oscars, if you care enough to look. But the problem is, none of what you see is crafted with any particular intention by me. This is particularly absurd, because I spend a good part of my professional life at APW consulting with small business owners (our advertisers) to help them shape their online profiles. The cobbler’s children have no shoes indeed.

Why is that? Well, I have the perpetual excuse that I have APW to run, so I’m busy. But the real truth is that I find it hellish to write about myself, and my accomplishments. I’m uncomfortable using the word “accomplishments” in a sentence, which is how bad it is. And I find it downright embarrassing to put my bio and resume right out there on the Internet… where everyone can see it. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

There is only one way that I am able to sell myself, and that’s when I give myself a deadline. So when Squarespace wanted to team up with us to talk about their platform that allows you to build easy, stylish websites, I promised them that I’d create my portfolio website on their platform. I needed a deadline. (If you need a push too, Squarespace is offering 10% off yearly website subscriptions to all APW readers; details on that are at the end of the post.)

Next month, I’ll (gulp) actually launch my new site, but after spending a lot of time working on my it, this month I wanted to talk about simple steps you can take to set up a portfolio site. Because while I’ve put off doing this for myself for years, I’ve spent those same years consulting with other women about setting up their own online profiles.

1. What Are you selling?

The key to building a successful portfolio site is figuring out what you’re trying to sell. Of course, the short answer is, you’re selling yourself. But let’s not fall into the trap of the personal brand. You don’t have to sell every aspect of who you are (or share every part of your online life). In this spot, you’re working to shape an image of the professional you are and the kind of work that you do.

You can include a few kinds of related work under one professional umbrella, but be cautious before you include too much. If I want to hire you as a technical writer, and you have a section on your site for your knitting projects, I’m going to be confused about who you are, professionally. The knitting projects can exist online, but they should have their own space.

That said, if you do different kinds of work that are all related, your job is to present those different skills in a unified way. I’m balancing the identities of writer, editor, entrepreneur, and teacher. Since I’m not looking to get hired in a particular area, I’m trying to find a way to present an overarching sense of the different things I do, and the way they are all related.

2. What do other portfolio sites in your field look like?

This is where it gets fun (and where you get a excuse to procrastinate a little bit). It’s hard to envision what your website should look like till you take a glance at how other people in your field are setting up their sites. Here, you should be looking both at content and form.

I recently consulted with APW contributor Rachel as she relaunched her own site. So I asked her for suggestions of awesome sites by women writers and editors. When I researched, what I found was a lot of smart content (Writers! Go figure!), and a lot of sites that I frankly wished had been built with the professionalism of Squarespace. I live in the world where publishing and writing meet. That means I want your website to look real pretty, because I know you have the tools. But, during my research I also found a lot of awesome, and I wanted to share the best of the best. So for your procrastinating pleasure professional research here is my short list:

  • Nona Willis Aronowitz’s site has a near perfect structure.
  • A beautiful clips page from Tracy Clark-Flory
  • Ann Friedman’s clips are so well selected that I could spend an hour reading everything on her page. The proof is in the pudding. Don’t post everything, post your best stuff.
  • While we’re on the subject of Ann Friedman, after you’re all intimidated by her work (Good job, website. That’s the goal) her FAQ with .gifs should cheer you right up.
  • Also, look! She does a tiny letter, a.k.a. a (tiny) newsletter. Smart.
  • If you’re pitching yourself as a smart, feminist, women’s writer, there is clearly a place for awesome .gifs. I should get on that.
  • Jess Bennett has an excellent example of what a list of things you edited can look like. Helpful, for those of us who feel like calling out our editing is cheating, because it’s the uncredited (if all-consuming) part of our job.
  • If you’re going to have a blog on your site at this point, you might as well follow Jessica Valenti’s lead, like so.

3. Picking a visual style: dress for the job you want

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you’re putting a portfolio site together yourself, it’s going to look boring. And that’s how it used to be. Not so long ago, if you were building a website for yourself, chances are you were trying to create some sort of hacked website. If you could get the site to reasonably convey your basic information, you figured you’d won the day.

No more. These days, you can use Squarespace to create a site polished and professional enough to compete with the best. With them, you can even hook up a custom URL to your site with no fuss and no bother. Squarespace’s tools are relatively easy to use. And if after a few rounds of playing around (for me, the third time was the charm), and using their excellent customer service, you’re still not getting it, ASK SOMEONE FOR HELP. The great thing about Squarespace, is they give you user friendly enough tools, that you can bribe your friend/partner/dog walker to help you. We’re not all good at everything, and that’s okay.

Because you have the tools (and no excuses), you need to figure out how you want to visually present your image. As someone who wants her professional work to be focused on pushing boundaries, I realized that my site needs to present as trend aware. Because of that, I picked the Marquee one page scrolling template. I’m still not sure how I feel about the new one page scrolling websites, but they are undeniably the front line of what’s happening in web design right now, and that’s part of the image I want to present.

This is a case of dressing for the job you want, not the job you have. What work do you do? What work do you want to do? If you mostly work writing freelance articles about beauty products, but want to be writing feminist think pieces, your portfolio site is the place to project that image. And that image starts visually.

4. Structure your site

I’m the kind of person who always wrote a detailed outline before she wrote a term paper (and now writes a detailed chapter outline before she writes a book). I find it helpful to set up a structure and then fill in that structure with words and pictures. So first up, I recommend figuring out what each of the pages of your site are going to be. Get ideas from your research sites, come up with an outline, and then check with a friend.

I’d originally decided to divide my site up this way: bio, APW, book, writing, speaking, press. But I ran it by a friend, who pointed out that my editing work deserved its own section. (Something that never would have occurred to me.) So come up with your outline, and then run it by a few smart people.

5. Start writing your copy

Have I mentioned that I find writing about myself hellish? I do. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone on this. So here is my recommendation. Write a rough draft of your copy, and then hand it off to someone who knows and respects your work. Bribe with cookies, and let them write some copy about how awesome you are.

You know what’s fun? Writing about how awesome your friend is. You know what’s awful? Writing about how awesome you are. So trade favors, kids.

6. Figure out what you want to include

Remember when we all were supposed to have a personal brand? Yeah, that was a hellish experiment that I think has finally died an ugly death. So keep this in mind: you are not a brand (though you might have a brand). And what you do, and who you are, are not the same. This, blessedly, allows you to set appropriate limits around how you choose to present yourself to the world. Just because you’re married with a baby (me), or like confetti (also me), does not mean that you have to include these things as part of your professional persona.

In a world where we all have a lot of online outlets, your job is to decide what you want to include. Plenty of women writers include links to their Twitter or Instagram on their websites. For the moment, I’ve opted not to. I have an Instagram account where I occasionally document snapshots of my life as a writer/editor/wife/mother/lover of confetti. And while it’s not a private account, it also doesn’t have much to do with my professional life. I’m fine with the fact that people might stumble on it, but I don’t want to include it as part of my intentional, professional image.

7. (and no, you don’t need a blog)

When I chat and consult with people about their professional websites, the idea of the blog invariably comes up. We went through a period in 2007–2010 where the smartest thing you could do for your business was to have a blog. The problem is, maintaining a blog is a ton of work. If you’re trying to update your blog a few times a week with new work, and network with other bloggers, you are looking at a huge time suck (and you better love it).

But now it’s 2014, and I’m here to tell you that you don’t need a blog anymore. Or, more precisely, you don’t need a regularly updated blog. You probably need to find a corner of the Internet to update and interact with people regularly. What tool you use is going to depend on your industry, and it’s going to change. (For me it used to be Twitter. Now, it’s mostly Instagram.) If you sell a product or like sending monthly updates on your business, that could be an email newsletter—one that you can then turn into a blog post, rather than wracking your brain for extra blog content. But almost every social tool is less time consuming than blogging just for the sake of it, so you’re welcome.

If you do have a blog on your portfolio site, it’s perfectly acceptable to use it as a place to collect your work that’s appearing in various places around the web, and to provide news updates. Think of it as a hub for content you’re producing elsewhere and a spot for news, not a place where you need to share daily updates on your life. (That’s what Instagram and Twitter are for, if you care.)

Finally, A Note

When putting together your portfolio site, you’re going to feel like an impostor. You may feel particularly awful during the part where you’re doing your research, because clearly everyone is so much more accomplished than you, WAAAHHH. This is normal. Wallow in it, if you need to. Pour yourself a glass of wine, and wonder about what you’re doing with your life. Then, get your shit together, and do not allow your impostor syndrome to show in your work. Nobody wants to read a website of someone tacitly apologizing for not being, somehow, better. No one wants to sit next to that person in a bar, either. Instead, we just want the facts on who you are and what you do, so we can imagine the awesome things you might do in the future (possibly with us).

You don’t have to believe it to put it on your website. Trust me when I say, basically nobody does.

Some impostors have bad websites. Most of them have no websites. But some impostors have amazing websites. Make yourself one of the latter.

On to you APW. What are your struggles in promoting yourself? What are you working on to make yourself look like the best in your business? And if you have a portfolio site, share it in the comments, we want to see!


This post was sponsored by Squarespace. Thanks Squarespace for helping make the APW mission possible! SQUARESPACE IS OFFERING 10% OFF YEARLY SUBSCRIPTIONS TO ALL APW READERS. JUST USE THE CODE APW14 AT CHECKOUT! CLICK HERE TO START your 14-DAY FREE TRIAL.

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  • Class of 1980

    I love the one-page scrolling!!!

    Also …

    Being “more accomplished” doesn’t necessarily translate into being more talented, or having a better vision.

    I can think of a lot of famous people who are incredibly accomplished, but whose work I don’t particularly admire. In those cases, being “more accomplished” only means they have a large body of work I don’t like. ;)

    • KC

      I find that you love one-page scrolling fascinating – can I ask why? (I detest it because it makes my scrollbar jump around madly and then I have to find where I was, etc., and because it burns CPU/memory, so I vastly prefer a “click for next page of results” format, but… I may be totally alone in this, and would love to know why!)

      (and YES on the “more accomplishments/more famous” does not mean “better”)

      • Jess

        Nope, you’re not alone. I hate one page scrolling. I also find it hard to keep track of where I was and it’s a pain if the page doesn’t load correctly.

        BUT… I acknowledge that I am a “late adapter” when it comes to the technology curve.

    • Meg Keene

      Though. They’re possibly really accomplished at making piles of money and having a house in Malibu. Which. Sounds REAL nice right about now. Maybe that’s summer talking ;)

  • A.

    I don’t have a website or work in a creative field, but here’s what I’m challenging myself to do in terms of self-promotion right now. My company is in the process of putting seven people through a training program which is only offered once a year in our state. It’s EXPENSIVE training, and I’m one of three entry level (less than 5 years at the company) people receiving it. This week an opportunity came up to double up on this training (two levels this year instead of one), and I specifically asked the VP who controls the purse strings to consider sending me. It doesn’t sound like much (and because of the cost of doubling up I doubt our budget will allow us to take advantage of the opportunity) but the fact that I came out and said, “I want this chance. If you send anyone, please consider sending me” instead of just waiting and hoping to be picked was a bit tough for me, but I’m glad I did it.
    I also expect them to balk at sending me next year (which I anticipate they will, because budgets) I’m going to prepare a case for myself and say, “Of the three entry level people, I am the most qualified to receive this training because A, B, C, and I will put it to best use on Project X, Y, and Z.” It’s really, really hard to step up and say, “Here’s why you should pick me,” but I’m going to do it!

    • KC

      Hooray for you! That’s really fantastic. :-) (and not the least fantastic because so many people go “ugh, more training, why would I want to spend time on *learning* more about things…” and you’re not!)

      • A.

        Thank you! I actually think the training itself is . . . less than stellar, but this is a specialty that everyone in my field thinks they can do but few people have been trained for, so it’s a good credential to have.

    • Meg Keene

      LEAN THE FUCK IN, girlfriend.

      • A.

        . . . I might write this on a post-it note and put it on my desk. Thank you Meg. Thank you so much.

    • Jess

      Fact: I just pitched a job to somebody higher up in my large company without a whole lot of prep or thought. It’s a position that would about a topic we went for a 2-day training course in company wide. I would need significant training to get there.

      He replied, in more professional terms, “Yeah, we’re looking into having somebody to fill a similar role. Look into training at these locations. We’d fully support you taking this training.”

      So… DO IT.

      • A.

        Thank you, I’m going to! (and this thread has me all pumped up for it :-) The thing I’m most afraid of is that, because of the cost and because we probably don’t NEED 7 people to have this training (3-4 would probably be adequate for our current project portfolio), they’ll cut people to save expenses. Which I get, but I don’t want to be the one who gets cut. If I make this pitch, even if it’s unsuccessful, I’ll feel better than if I never stood up and advocated for myself.

  • Caroline

    I’ve found having an elegant webpage is seriously helpful professionally. I’m a student and a software engineer, but I have a pretty rocking website where I really let go of my imposter syndrome and tried to talk about my accomplishments honestly (instead of cringingly). And I have to say, I’m pretty sure it’s landed me interviews. At the least, it impressed people. Also, only sending people a link instead of whatever hellish format the résumé needs to be in? Heaven. People sometimes still want a word doc resume for hr and stuff and I have one, but it makes sending my résumé to contacts a breeze.

    Also, one thing I’ve found really helpful is a very visual website. As a full-stack software engineer, my work is not always very visually obvious. I’ve found that even if I’ve done minimal CSS and HTML(changes to the visual part of a website), it helps people understand the project to have screenshots they can see. I ask all my employers if I can take screenshots for my website.

  • Alison M

    Is there an expiration date for the 10% off? I want to use Squarespace for our wedding site, but I don’t want to pay for more than a year, and we’re currently like 14 months out.

  • Daisy6564

    I have a question. I have been thinking for a long time about getting into writing. I went to college thinking I wanted to be a journalist but got bitten by the social justice/service bug and became an inner city teacher instead. After 5 years as a classroom teacher I have finally come to terms with the fact that teaching makes me miserable, so I quit.

    I am looking around for jobs now but I have thought for a while that I would like to write. People tell me that I should write a book about education reform, which I think would depress me too much. I have also thought about starting a blog but it seems to me that the market is pretty saturated with life style blogs at this point. How does one become a writer these days?

    • Daisy6564

      To be clear, I don’t want to support myself as a freelance writer at this point. I just want to write and build a portfolio.

      • I’m also on that fence as well, so this question is apt.

    • Meg Keene

      START WRITING. At this point, I don’t think starting a blog is really what’s going to make you a living, but you need a place to write and a blog is not a bad one. It can give you deadlines (twice a week) and people to write for, even if at first it’s only friends and family.

      I never considered myself a writer before I started APW, even though I’d written every day since I was 11. I was dyslexic and it wasn’t an option for me to get work in the field, so I moved on. Now I I am a writer (with blessedly little ego about my writing, because it happened without planning). But I’m only a writer because six years ago I started writing EVERYDAY. And then eventually I sold a book, and writing a book I learned how to write a book.

      So just, start. Once you start getting good, you’ll start getting to know people and networking and then you’ll get a free gig or two in exposure, and then you’ll get a paid gig, and so it goes.

    • Meg Keene

      And dear god don’t start a lifestyle blog, whatever that means. Write about whatever matters to you, not what you think people want to read. That comes way later.

  • Grace from England

    You MUST keep that tagline. Please!

    • Sarah E

      Seconded. Just cite Beyonce in a foot note and you’re good.

  • C

    I’m a freelance editor and paralegal. I would be open to also doing freelance paralegal work. Should I have one website or two? As a paralegal, I do a lot of editing, but I don’t want people to be confused. Also, I admit that I wasn’t sure if a website about just my editing work would be enough.

    • Meg Keene

      I think two websites, though you can include your paralegal EDITING work on your editing website. That said, I’m not sure you need a whole website for being a paralegal, since I’m assuming you’re not doing it freelance.

  • I want to second what Caroline says below about the value of a polished-looking website, whatever your field.

    I work in academia, and while I was in graduate school people would occasionally recommend creating a website to house one’s CV, list of publications, ongoing drafts, etc. I went ahead and did so (using iWeb, if I recall correctly) and was astonished by how many people seemed to find the site and go out of their way to mention it when I met them at conferences, applied for jobs, and so on. When I stepped sideways off the full-time-tenured-academic treadmill, my website was one of the major ways I was able to explain my somewhat unusual new job to people who knew me as a grad student.

    I used Squarespace for my new site — pro tip, if you’ve any experience with HTML/CSS/Java the Squarespace developer kit makes it a cinch to customize their templates — and it was a wonderful experience. If you have a role in a field that could be enhanced by even the tiniest bit of self-promotion (for full-time academics, this is unfortunately super-important; for my current job less so), think about LEANING THE FUCK IN and playing around with a site that tells anyone who clicks the link in your email signature or twitter header who you are, professionally speaking.

    By the way, Meg, that picture of you at the top is sexy as hell. I love it.

  • leafygreen

    A bit of a tangent, but the mention of feeling like an impostor made me think of this commencement speech by Amanda Palmer: (which I loooove).

  • anonfornow

    Yesssss thank you for this. I just decided to strike out on my own, and this is awesome. Also AMEN to not everyone needing a damn blog.

  • laurasmash

    I struggle with self promotion sooo much. When my company asked us for our resumes to put into the project proposals, I procrastinated mine as long as possible. Today my boss told me that my resume is great and I’m in charge of helping everyone else with theirs!

    Now to update the public/online version… And my web portfolio which has basically been empty since my site got hacked a few years ago. Yikes. 5 years into my career, is it still appropriate to have student work in my portfolio? I can’t share my professional work online due to company policies :(

  • artfulword

    A tip for people trying to figure out how they want their website to look and flow – Balsamiq is a fantastic, free wireframe mockup tool that has helped me put my portfolio together –

  • Rae

    Question for the group – my kid sister is going to be graduating soon with an undergrad degree in advertising/marketing – should she set up a website to house her CV/portfolio of school and internship projects as she looks for jobs? Any examples or recommendations to share with her? Thanks APWers! :)

  • Heh

    I feel like, in craft fields at least, the personal/professional overlap is still pretty prevalent. Most of the craft business I know do the combined personal and professional blog, and as someone without an adorable family and cozy homelife to blog about, I’m trying to figure out how to make my portfolio appealing to audiences. No one seems that interested in process or shop updates alone! What to do…

  • Megan

    Thank you, APW, for promoting online portfolios. As a graduate teaching assistant a couple of years ago, I taught myself how to design my own online portfolio and then developed it into a hands-on computer lab session for undergraduates as part of a course I helped teach. I urged the students to think about what might show up in the results when a potential employer Googles them. I also argued that a link that’s easy to click might catch an employer’s eye more than a resume shuffled in a stack with other resumes. I was gratified to hear over the past couple of years that those online portfolios were the clincher in helping some new grads get jobs.

    One point of contention though: Not everyone may relate to portfolios having to be “trend aware,” stylized, and pretty, and thus this post may have missed the opportunity to make its point about the value of having an online portfolio. I used for my course, and I liked its templates that allow for a clean design. Using the custom menu option allows it easy to make your site look more like a website (with headers for different sections) than a blog. Also, WordPress is free, and it costs only $18 per year to convert your web address to a custom domain.

  • This was SO helpful, Meg! I just completed v1 of my portfolio site using Squarespace!

  • can I tell you how relieving it is that you don’t seem to need a blog any more? because let me tell you, being a visual artist does not equal having a lot of words to say. however I’ve got a lot of purty pictures to show off and encourage people to pay me to make more… and I don’t have a website aside from a facebook page (that is a dedicated art page, not my personal profile). next project: portfolio website!

  • Really great post, If you are not a coding nerd, the best way is to you can choose the online Portfolio Websites Builder which will help you to run your portfolio website in a few tweaks.
    PIXPA platform provides an option for building and displaying your online portfolio.

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