A reader writes:
I’ve got a question about something you’ve touched on in some of your posts, but never really talked about at length. Writing samples. When a job listing requests that you send in a writing sample along with your resume and cover letter, but doesn’t specify a topic or style of writing, what are you supposed to write about? I’m curious because I’ve just come upon an ad for a position that I might otherwise have applied for, but they requested a writing sample and I have no idea what to send them.
Things not to send them: A 20-page paper from a college class. Something you wrote but that was heavily edited by someone else, until it no longer reflects your own writing. Blog posts featuring highly inappropriate personal details.
Ideally, you’re using a writing sample that you already have, rather than writing something fresh (unless they specifically assign you something to write about). For instance, I used to use old articles I’d written; op-eds, if you’ve ever written one, are perfect for this. But if you don’t have anything already existing, I’d create something specifically for your job search (which you can use with many different employers).
Of course, the ideal writing sample varies by job. If you’re applying for a PR job, send a sample press release. If you’re applying for a legal job, they want to see an excerpt of a legal brief or something similar. But if the type of writing you should send isn’t obvious, something in the style of an op-ed or a case study is good (again, even if you need to write it specifically for this use). But in all cases, what’s most important is that it be clear and concise and showcase your ability to write well.
And while it’s great if you can use a sample directly related to the job, quality matters more. Pick an unrelated, stronger sample over a related but weaker sample.
And whatever you do, don’t overwhelm them with a massive tome. In most fields, employers are looking for something around 2-5 pages (although some fields, like law, wanted slightly longer ones). It’s fine to send just an excerpt from something longer.