Guidelines For Writing Portfolios

In simplest terms, a writing portfolio is a folder containing a collection of your writing. A comprehensive portfolio prepared for a writing class usually presents a cumulative record of all of your work over a semester and is commonly used to assign a grade. An alternate form of class portfolio is the story portfolio, which presents selections from your semester's papers described and discussed in narrative form.


The most common portfolio assigned in a writing class is the comprehensive or cumulative portfolio, containing all your writing for the term; it usually includes a cover letter in which you explain the nature and value of the portfolio contents. The following suggestions may help you in preparing a cumulative portfolio.

1. Make your portfolio speak for you. A clean, complete, and carefully organized portfolio presents you one way; a unique, colorful, creative, and imaginative portfolio presents you another way; and a messy, incomplete, and haphazard portfolio still another. Before turning in your final portfolio, consider if it presents you the way you want to be presented.

2. Include exactly what is asked for. If an instructor wants three finished papers and a dozen sample journal entries, that's what your portfolio should contain. If an instructor wants five samples of different kinds of writing, be sure to include those five samples. You may include more than is asked for, but never include less.

3. Add supplemental material judiciously. Portfolios are among the most flexible means of presenting yourself. It is usually your option to include samples of journals, letters, sketches, or diagrams when they suggest other useful dimensions of your thinking. But include extra samples only in addition to the required material (and be sure to explain why it's there in a note or letter to the instructor).

4. Include careful final drafts. Show that your own standard for finished work is high. Final drafts should be double-spaced on one side only of high quality paper; they should be titled, dated, corrected, and follow the language conventions appropriate to the task—unless otherwise requested.

5. Demonstrate evolution and growth. Portfolios, unlike most other instruments of assessment, allow you to show your reader how a finished product came into being. Consequently, instructors commonly ask that early drafts of each paper be attached to final drafts, with the most recent on top—an order that shows how a paper developed: It shows how you followed revision suggestions, how hard you have worked, how many drafts you wrote, and how often you experimented. To create such a record of your work, date all drafts and keep them in a safe place.

6. Demonstrate work in progress. Portfolios allow writers to present partially finished work to suggest future direction and intention. Instructors may find such preliminary drafts or outlines as valuable as some of your finished work. When you include such tentative drafts, be sure to attach a note explaining why it's there and where it's going next.

7. Attach a table of contents. For portfolios containing many papers, attach a separate table of contents. For those containing only a few papers, embed your table of contents in the cover letter.

8. Attend to the mechanics of the portfolio. Make sure the folder containing your writing is the kind specified and that it is clean and attractive. In the absence of such specification, use a two-pocket folder or three-ring loose leaf binder, inexpensive ways to keep the contents organized and secure. Put your name and address on the outside cover. Organize the material inside as requested. And turn it in on time.

9. Include a cover letter. For many instructors, the cover letter will be a key part of your portfolio since it represents your latest assessment of your work. A cover letter serves as an introduction describing and explaining the portfolio's contents and organization (what's there as well as what's not) and your own assessment of the work, from earliest to latest draft of each paper, and from earliest to latest work over the course of the se-mester.The following is Chris's informal letter of self assessment:

As I look back through all the papers I've written this semester, I see how far my writing has come. At first I thought it was stupid to write so many different drafts of the same paper, like I would beat the topic to death. But now I realize that all these different papers on the same topic all went in different directions. This happened to some degree in the first paper, but I especially remember in my research project, when I interviewed the director of the Ronald McDonald House, I really got excited about the work they did there, and I really got involved in the other drafts of that paper.

I have learned to shorten my papers by editing and cutting out needless words. I use more descriptive adjectives now when I'm describing a setting and try to find action verbs instead of "to be" verbs in all of my papers. I am writing more consciously now—I think that's the most important thing I learned this semester.


A story portfolio is a shorter but more carefully edited and crafted summary of your work. Instead of writing a cover letter and including all papers and drafts written during the term, a story portfolio narrates the evolution of your work and thought. In a story portfolio, you include excerpts of your papers to illustrate points in your own development as a writer. In addition, you include excerpts of whatever other written records you may have accumulated at different times during the semester that help tell your story: early paper drafts, journal entries, relevant class notes, in-class writing, letter writing, and instructor and classmate comments on your papers.

In other words, to write a story portfolio, you conduct something like an archaeological dig through the written remains of your work in the class, usually assembling it in chronological order, choosing the most telling snippets and excerpts from these various documents. Then you write the story that explains, amplifies, or interprets the documents you include or quote. The best story portfolios commonly reveal a theme or set of issues that run from week to week and/or work to work throughout the semester. In truth, a story portfolio is actually a small research paper, featuring claims about your evolution as a writer supported with evidence from texts you've written.

You may choose to write your story portfolios in an informal voice

(like a journal or letter) or in a more formal voice (like a report). Or you may prefer to write in the third person, analyzing the semester's work as if you do not know the writer and are making inferences strictly from the texts themselves. Experiment with form: Is it better to present your work as a series of snapshots or as a more fluid essay? Following are a few pages from Karen's ten-page story portfolio:

When I entered English One, I was not a confident writer and only felt comfortable writing factual reports for school assignments. Those were pretty straight forward, and your personal opinion was not involved. But over the course of the semester I've learned that I enjoy including my own voice in my writing. The first day of class I wrote this in my journal:

8/31 Writing has always been hard for me. I don't have a lot of experience writing papers except for straight forward things like science reports. I never did very well in English classes, usually getting Bs and Cs on my papers.

But I began to feel a little more comfortable when we read and discussed the first chapter of the book—a lot of other students besides me felt the same way, pretty scared to be taking English in college.

I decided to write about our basketball season last year, especially the last game that we lost. Here is a paragraph from my first draft:

We lost badly to Walpole in what turned out to be our final game. I sat on the bench most of the time. As I see now, that draft was all telling and summary—I didn't show anything happening that was interesting or alive. But in a later draft I used dialogue and wrote from the announcer's point of view and the result was fun to write and my group said it was fun to read:

"Well folks, it looks as if Belmont has given up. The coach is preparing to send in his subs. It has been a rough game for Belmont. They stayed in it during the first quarter, but Walpole has ran away with it since then. Down by twenty with only six minutes left, Belmont's first sub is now approaching the table." You were excited about this draft too, and your comment helped me know where to go next. You wrote:

Great draft, Karen! You really sound like a play-byplay announcer—you've either been one or listened closely to lots of basketball games. What would happen if in your next draft you alternated between your own voice and the announcer's voice? Want to try it?

The following suggestions will help in preparing a story portfolio:

1. Assemble all of your collected writing. Arrange both formal and informal writing, in chronological order, from beginning to end of the semester.

2. Reread all your formal work. Examine typed final papers, drafts with instructor comments, and highlight brief passages that illustrate your development as a writer. Note particular passages that have evolved or disappeared over several drafts in the same paper—what was going on?

3. Reread all your informal work. Examine journals, letters, and instructor and student comments, and highlight brief passages that further amplify your work at that time.

4. Arrange highlighted passages in a sensible order. Write the story that shows how one passage connects to another, as well as explaining the significance of each passage. (Indent passages ten spaces for ease of reading.)

5. Identify common themes, ideas, or questions. Focus your portfolio so that it tells a coherent story. Include an Introduction aimed at someone unfamiliar with this class. Tell your main Story, and conclude with a section called Reflections.

6. Append all drafts in chronological order. Date and label each as d/1, d/2, etc., with teacher comments as an appendix to the main story portfolio. Include the story portfolio in one side of the pocket folder, the appendix in the other side.

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