Writing Sample Tips

By Ryan Morris - Mar. 29, 2021
Articles In Job Application Guide

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Articles In Job Application Guide

Nothing gets the heart racing while on the job hunt like reading the words “writing samples required.”

It’s not that accruing writing samples is tough, per se. Even if you’re fresh out of college, you’re bound to have at least some examples of writing that you’ve done, however amateurish those samples might be.

It’s just that actually choosing and submitting a sample can be a huge stressor.

After all, resumes can be tweaked fairly easily. Writing samples take time to make — by the time you’re ready to apply, it’s easy to feel hemmed in by what few samples you’re able to scrape together.

But we’re here to make the process a little easier on you by giving you a few tips on how you can choose the samples that will best represent you to an employer.

What Is a Writing Sample?

A writing sample for a job is any piece of written work you’ve produced in your life. In general, writing samples fit into one of three categories:

  1. Portfolio writing sample. This is a collection of your best written work. It can be a hodgepodge of different projects you worked on for various clients, or simply your most impressive work for a single employer. Anyone in a writing-heavy industry or role can benefit from keeping and maintaining a portfolio of the greatest hits.

    However, it’s also important to keep your writing portfolio dynamic. You may choose to add or omit certain pieces when submitting your portfolio to various employers or potential clients. You want to show off the stuff that most closely resembles what you’d be doing for the recipient.

  2. Pre-interview requested sample. This is quite common and you should expect to get a pre-interview writing sample test for any job that mostly involves writing.

    The company likes your resume, but before they bother with an interview, they want to make sure that you have the writing chops and style they’re looking for — or that you at least show the potential to adapt to their way of doing things.

    These are annoying because you’ll have to write something new from scratch without getting paid for it. But they’re also good because they give you a chance to show how perfectly you could fit into the role that the company needs.

    This type of request may come after the interview too, but most employers opt to use it as a screening test rather than a tool to make a final decision.

  3. At the interview. These aren’t nearly as common as the above two, but some interviewers will spring impromptu writing tests on interviewees. Look out for these in customer service roles where you’ll be operating an online chat service.

    These tests aren’t usually as stringent as the above two either, as the hiring manager just wants to make sure you have a good grasp of spelling, grammar, and accuracy.

Why Do Employers Ask for Writing Samples?

If you want to write professionally, you’re going to need some proof that you can do the work. Writing samples are essential because there’s a lot of variation and creativity in different kinds of writing styles.

That is, there’s no single way to do the work, even in relatively less “creative” positions. There are a lot of ways you can write the things you need to write for your job.

But not all of those ways will be a good fit for the company you’re trying to work for. That’s part of why the writing sample is so necessary. It kills several different birds with the same stone.

For one thing, it demonstrates your writing style, which is essential for the company to see so that they can know if you’re a good fit for them or not.

For another thing, it shows how well you’re able to construct an argument or string together an idea, which is also of eminent importance for any position related to writing.

And finally, the correct kind of sample can show off how much previous experience you have doing the kind of work that the company needs you to do.

But picking a good writing sample — or several samples, as the case often is — can be tricky.

How to Choose a Writing Sample

Simply put, you need to do a lot of research before you can hope to choose a good writing sample for your application. You have to not only have a solid grasp of your industry’s expectations but also understand the kind of work that the company you’re applying to tends to undertake.

If all you have is a vague understanding of what the company does that you’re applying to, it’s going to be tough for you to show them something that aligns with their work.

With that in mind, here are some dos and don’ts for choosing a good writing sample for your application.

Do:

  • Keep it relevant. Make sure that you choose a type of writing sample that aligns with the work you’d be doing if you got hired.

  • Prioritize quality over relevance. If you have one sample that’s well-written and one sample that’s more relevant to your industry’s work, it’s usually a good idea to send the one that has better writing. But the ideal sample includes both quality as well as relevance.

  • Follow instructions. If a company has any instructions listed, then for the love of Zeus, follow them. Only send them the kind of writing samples that they have stated they’ll accept.

  • Keep it concise. If your sample is too long, shorten it. Just make sure that you label it so that the company knows that they’re reading an excerpt and not the full work.

Don’t:

  • Send anything irrelevant to your industry. If you’re applying to the NY Times, don’t send them an article you wrote on “39 Times That Mr. Bean Was Totally Relatable.” On the other hand, that would be a great writing sample for places like Buzzfeed.

  • Send outdated writing. Unless you’re fresh out of college, you shouldn’t be sending college essays. But even 10-year industry veterans shouldn’t be sending work from their first year or two on the job — find something more recent.

  • Send samples with a co-author. Unless you explicitly mention the co-author’s existence. It’s bad form — not to mention, you know, plagiarism — to try to pass off someone else’s work as your own, even if you did help with that work.

Appropriate Types of Writing Samples by Industry

Not all writing samples are created equal.

If you have enough writing samples that you can choose between them, it’s important to curate your submissions.

In the event that you don’t have the kind of writing sample you think a business is looking for, it’s not a bad idea to write one on your own.

Here are some examples of writing gigs and the types of writing samples they might be looking for:

  • Grant Writer: academic essays, research papers

  • Content Writer: viral “top ten” style articles, pop culture opinion pieces, blog articles (as long as they look professional)

  • Public Relations: press releases, current events news articles

  • Journalism: Current events news articles, opinion pieces, investigative or ethnographic pieces

Final Thoughts

Writing samples may seem like an annoying extra hurdle you need to jump in order to land a job. But if you’ve got great writing samples already or if you’re confident you can produce a great piece for a writing test, then they can be just the thing to clinch the position of your dreams.

Just remember to keep your samples relevant and impressive if you’re sending stuff you’ve already written. And if you’re writing a new sample from scratch, be sure to follow all the employer’s instructions carefully. You’re not only being tested on your writing ability, but also your ability to take direction.

If you start saving your best-written work now, you’ll have a much easier time collecting appropriate writing samples when the time comes. So get out there and start writing some great stuff and land the job.

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Author

Ryan Morris

Ryan Morris was a writer for the Zippia Advice blog who tried to make the job process a little more entertaining for all those involved. He obtained his BA and Masters from Appalachian State University.

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