What Is A Writing Sample? (With Examples)

By Chris Kolmar - Jan. 6, 2021

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You’ve found your dream job. Now they’re asking you for a writing sample. An employer may ask for a writing sample, even if you’re not applying for a job as a writer. If you are applying for a writing job, you better expect to provide samples of your best writing.

Writing samples do more than just show your writing ability, which is why you might be asked to provide one when you’re looking for a non-writing job. An impromptu writing sample can also give them some insight into your ability to think on your feet and your grasp of the language, spelling, and grammar.

What Is a Writing Sample?

It seems like this should be a straight-forward answer – but it’s not. Sure, it’s an example of the way you write. That’s the easy answer, but there are different writing samples for different jobs. There are also various situations where a writing sample can be used.

Basically, three types of writing samples might be requested of you if you’re applying for a job:

  1. The portfolio writing sample. Writers are well-aware of this type of document. They’re looking for jobs writing, so they’ve taken some of their best work and pulled it together to represent their skills and style.

    Whether your portfolio is online, a paper document, or you have both – these pieces should be your very best stuff. If you’re a new writer, they might be pieces you did in school. If you’re a professional, use your work that appeared in the best-known publications.

  2. The pre-interview requested sample. This is something writers can expect to encounter quite often when they’re applying for jobs. They’ve been selected out of the applicant pool to show how they can write for the company in question.

    They’ll typically be given a mock assignment and asked to do the job. Or at least a part of it. This shows the hiring manager how your work would fit in with their company.

  3. Impromptu writing sample. This type of writing is less common, but it happens. It might be something you encounter if you’re not applying for a writing job, but the employer feels writing is an integral part of the job.

    Maybe you’re looking for a customer service job on a chat line. They’ll want to see what your grammar and language skills are so you can accurately and professionally represent the company. These tests will typically be done at the time of the interview.

When Do Employers Request a Writing Sample?

Of the three writing sample types, two are requested well before the interview, and one is frequently completed at the interview.

  • At the job interview. There isn’t much you can do in preparation for an impromptu writing sample. You should have a solid foundation in language, literary comprehension, and grammar. If you feel your skills are a little weak there, it’s always a good idea to brush up on what you learned in school. Other than that, fight back your test anxiety and start writing.

  • With the application. Some employers ask for a writing sample in the job posting. They don’t want to see your resume and cover letter without an accompanying writing sample.

    Job type you want
    Full Time
    Part Time
    Internship
    Temporary

    In fact, some companies will toss your application without reading it if your writing sample isn’t there. And no, your cover letter doesn’t count as a writing sample, but that needs to be spot on if you’re looking for a writing job.

  • As a follow-up. You may find that whether the employer requested a writing sample from the outset or not, they’ll then request a specific writing sample or a tailored sample.

    For example, if the job is all about emails, then they’ll ask for some samples of emails you’ve written. If the job is writing product descriptions, they may give you a product and ask you to write a description.

  • With the interview. This is different than at the job interview because they’re asking you to bring something with you to the interview. Whether it’s a physical writing portfolio or something they’ve specifically asked you to complete.

    This is not common. In fact, you may never encounter this situation. That said, it’s a great idea to compile a leave-behind portfolio that’s professionally bound and tailored to the company if you’re asked in for an interview. It speaks volumes when it comes to your professionalism.

Choosing a Writing Sample

Whether you’re sending your writing sample with your application or you’ve been asked to submit a sample, great thought must be given to which sample to send. This requires research. It’s almost like the old adage about real estate – location, location, location.

Make sure you’re selecting samples that echo the company that you’re targeting. If they’re a high-tech firm, your writing samples about parenting tips probably won’t cut it. If the job is to do social media, then your long-form white papers are a terrible idea. You get the picture. Give them what they want.

  • When it’s not about research. So, it’s research, research, research except when it isn’t. If you’re creating a portfolio, especially an online version, it’s a great idea to show your strengths.

    People with broad-based backgrounds need to bank on this and show all of their many writing styles and voices. Writers who have a niche need to highlight their skills there. So the idea is, when it’s not about research, it’s about you.

  • And don’t forget to be perfect. We shouldn’t have to point this out, but if you’re choosing a writing sample, you want it to be perfect – no spelling or grammar errors. There also shouldn’t be any factual errors.

Match the Sample With the Job

Are we hitting the research button again? Yes, we most definitely are. A writing sample that fits with a company’s theme, products, industry, voice, etc. is going to sail over the other applicants. Imagine being a hiring manager and seeing a writing sample that looks like it should already be on your company website. That’s the writer you want.

What if you can’t? Sometimes, you’ll find a company that is looking for a well-rounded writer. They might not have a lot of collateral online that helps you tailor your samples or style. These situations are not ideal because you’ll have to wing it. Take what you know and run with it. If you know they want video scripts, emails, and social media posts – give them that.

Start From Scratch

Should you customize your writing samples for the job and start from scratch? Yes and no.

If you have written for well-established publications or companies that are respected across the globe, then probably not. You want future employers to know that you’re well-respected and a trusted writer.

If you’re new to the industry or writing something timely, then yes. Fresh content speaks volumes, especially in our of-the-minute world.

Want to nail it? Then include a fresh writing sample that you explain was customized just for the company in question. Also, include one of your older and more established pieces to show your breadth, experience, versatility, and professionalism.

Follow the Employer’s Directions

If the company asks you for email writing samples, don’t flood them with social media posts. There is a reason they’re asking for something – they want it. It’s that simple.

Also, review the instructions you were given several times. Don’t just skim it because you assume they’re like other requests you’ve received. Assumptions are never a good thing in the job interview process.

Bringing a Writing Sample to an Interview

As we mentioned before, if you’re invited in for an in-person interview and you’re applying for a writing job, bring a writing sample. The best way to handle this is to pull together your best pieces of work and create one just for the company.

Also, print out your resume, a publications list if you have one, and your cover letter. Then create a cover page and an index page so they can easily find your samples and know what they are. Take it to the next level and have it bound at a copy shop. Then, make sure you have a leave-behind sample for the interviewer(s).

Take it a step further. You have electronic copies of all of these documents, right? Collect them and put them on a thumb drive, and include that in your leave-behind presentation.

Writing Sample Tips

Okay, you’ve got a general idea of what a writing sample is. You know when you might be required to provide one. You know that you need to research what is being asked of you. What else? These writing sample tips will help.

  • Keep a file of your best work. That way, you have something if the request is immediate. Timeliness matters when applying for jobs, and they might not wait a week for you to write something fresh.

  • Have someone else proofread your writing samples. Sometimes you are so involved in the words that you miss mistakes.

  • Try to tie your sample to the company’s voice, product line, industry, etc. This is where your research pays off.

  • Brag about your best work. By including it also.

  • Be current. A sample that’s ten years old is not going to go over well if you don’t have recent work as well.

  • Show diversity in style. While you want to customize to their requirements, it doesn’t hurt to let them know if you have some chameleon-like abilities.

  • Create a pdf and make it look good. A word document is one thing, but a pdf with some graphic design elements behind it can really polish your words and make them look legitimate.

  • Use the actual publication. If you can, submit the link to your published work. This adds tons of legitimacy and value to your work.

  • Lean toward the short side of things. You want them to read most of what you’re submitting. This means a 20-page, in-depth research grant proposal is too much. How about just a sample from that document? You can always let them know that you’d be happy to send the entire document at their request. Otherwise, try to keep your samples to one page or less.

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Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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