Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tip of the day: Writing samples

Tip: Send the best writing samples

Chances are, if your dream job involves working with the public in any way, someone's going to ask you for writing samples. The key to providing the best writing samples is understanding what the hiring manager hopes to learn from them.

This isn't just about whether or not you can put a couple sentences together. After all, we've already seen your cover letter. And it's not about performing this job to the letter; if we want that, we'll give you a scenario and ask you to write something from scratch. No, the writing samples are a demonstration of existing skill, and your task is to determine which skill you want to showcase.

Writing samples need to be good, but they shouldn't be epic.
Image via Brenda Clarke

What makes a good writing sample

  • Similar to the work you'd be doing. Look back over the job description. Talk to people in similar lines of work. Then look at your own body of work and pick out the one that best matches the type of output you'd be expected to produce. 
  • Content agnostic. A lot of people worry when breaking into a new field that they'll be held back by a lack of familiarity with terms of art or history. If we've asked to see your writing samples, you can put that concern out of your mind; we either think you're already knowledgeable enough, or we think you can learn. So don't worry that your sample press release is about a groundbreaking at a hospital instead of a symposium on emerging technology. For the purposes of this sample, the subject matter is irrelevant.
  • Platform agnostic. Don't worry about the content of the piece, or its distribution; if I wanted to know whether you could get your op-ed printed in the New York Times, I'd ask about your pitching skills, not your writing skills. This is about finding a piece that would blend in with your expected work product.
  • Showcases your background. This is where you can have a little fun, and also make yourself stand out from the crowd. I said earlier that writing samples are a demonstration of skill, and you shouldn't get bogged down in the content or topic. That's true, but the hiring manager is a human being who's probably reading a dozen writing samples. 
If you've reached the stage where hiring managers are asking for writing samples, that means your job hunt is going really well. You should feel good about where you are and bask in the warm glow of accomplishment, because up next is the truly fun part of a job hunt: the interview.