If you're applying for a new job or an internship, especially in the editorial world, or even graduate schools, you might be asked for a writing sample. But what is a writing sample and what's expected of your writing sample? How exactly do you write one?
What Is a Writing Sample?
A writing sample is exactly what it sounds — a sample of your writing. Writing samples allow employers or graduate programs to judge your ability to convey a message in written form. They test your communication skills and ensure that you're capable of communicating effectively and efficiently.
There are several types of writing samples. When choosing a writing sample to send a prospective employer or graduate program, consider the writing style that you will be using in that job, internship or graduate program. In other words, chose a writing sample either from your coursework and/or work experiences — academic papers, policy briefs or memos, news articles, blog posts or web content, press releases or otherwise — and make sure that this is the best writing sample you have to mirror the type of job or program for which you're applying.
"The goal of a writing sample is to measure your ability to write professionally, clearly and succinctly," according to American University. "The best way to demonstrate this ability is by discussing an issue area relevant to the position or program for which you're applying. If possible, your sample should use the organization's style and tone and should either demonstrate the organization's focus or address the topics that you will be working on."
When Do You Need a Writing Sample?
You may need a writing sample while applying for a variety of jobs, internships or graduate programs.
"This is a common requirement for writing-intensive jobs in journalism, content development, publishing, public relations, communications, research and consulting," according to The Balance. "However, you may be asked to provide a writing sample, or other examples of your work, for other types of positions. For example, if you are applying for a position as an executive assistant to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and he or she will need you to write some of their correspondence, your writing skills are key. The employer's goal is to determine whether you have the writing skills they are seeking. Your writing sample may be read for tone and style, as well as for content, grammar, spelling and punctuation."
It is not uncommon for hiring managers to request a writing sample from you in addition to your resume, cover letter and even sometimes references. They may do this during the application or interview process.
What's Expected of Your Writing Sample?
Your writing sample should show your writing skills and communication capabilities. This means that your spelling and grammatical should be impeccable in your writing sample. Be sure to proofread the entire writing sample and have a trusted second (or third) pair of eyes double check your work.
"As with any material that you submit to a prospective employer, your writing sample should be grammatically correct and free of typographical errors and misspellings," according to Dickinson University. "Additionally, be careful to omit any confidential and privileged information from your writing sample. For example, if you are submitting a case study, delete names or any other identifying information."
Otherwise, the expectations for your writing sample might depend on the employer or program. For example, the length and content of the writing sample will depend on the employer or program and the nature of the writing sample.
While many employers will specify the desired length of your writing sample, if there's no desired length suggested, it's recommended that you choose a writing sample that is two to five pages long — neither too long nor too short. You can also highlight a section of a longer-form paper, such as a two- to five-page selection with added context (such as an excerpt with a notation at that top that tells the reader that it's an excerpt from an X-page papger) for the reader.
Note that, if you're wondering should a writing sample be double-spaced, the answer is yes (unless it is a clip for journalism).
As for the content, it's best to try to share a writing sample that fits the style and voice of the job or program for which you're applying.
"You should always match the type of writing in your sample to the kind of writing required in your target job," according to The Balance. "For example, a journalistically-styled piece (or a press release that tells a story) is most suitable for media-related jobs, while an academic paper works best for a research job... It can also be helpful to supply a sample with content similar to the topics you might be writing about. For example, an analysis of the use of social media to promote products might be useful for a job with a public relations or marketing firm."
According to Princeton University, there are different types of writing clips for different jobs in fields like journalism, research and PR. In journalism, for example, an employer or program might ask for clips, or actual news articles that have been published. In research, they may want to see an in-depth analysis of a policy or issue. Meanwhile, in PR, they might want to see a press release that you've drafted.
"If you are deciding between two papers, and one is better written than the other but your weaker paper is topically more relevant, choose the paper that is better written," Princeton University advises. "The other option is to rewrite the relevant paper to be stronger before you submit it."
How Do You Write a Writing Sample?
There are some simple steps you can take for creating a writing sample if you don't already have one.
1. Follow the Guidelines
Be sure to read all the guidelines when an employer or graduate program asks you for a writing sample. They may ask for something specific — and your attention to those details and ability to act accordingly can be just as telling as your writing skills. They may also ask for you to submit the writing sample in a specific manner — by email, mail or via an online portal. Be sure to follow all directions.
2. Keep it Clear and Concise
Keep your writing sample clear and concise, and do your best to choose or create a sample that's written in the style/voice of the job or program. You want to show that you're an effective communicator.
Proofread your writing sample, and have another person read it over, as well. You don't want to submit a writing sample that has easily avoidable errors you might have caught if you reread it a few times over.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.