when does a writing sample become too old to use?

The flood of posts promised earlier is still more likely than not to be on its way … but it’s a 3-day weekend so it’s hard to decide if they’re coming today or tomorrow. And now that I’ve heard the terrible news that Christopher Meloni — who plays the extremely compelling Elliot Stabler — is leaving Law & Order SVU, I really need to put in some serious SVU time.  However …

A reader writes:

If I submit a writing sample from a job I held two to three years ago, does that raise a red flag for the hiring manager? I did a lot of longer-form writing for my first job out of college (publication summaries, web content, longer press releases), then worked in domestic politics for the next year where the limited amount of writing I did was extremely short-form and to the point (two-sentence press releases, for example). Now I’m applying to some jobs that would require longer-form writing, and I imagine the employer would want more than a paragraph for a writing sample. Am I safe using writing samples from my first job, even though some of them are almost three years old? Or should I write something new specifically for my job hunt?

Three years ago isn’t that long for a writing sample. More than five years, and I might wonder why you didn’t use something more recent, but even then, if your recent jobs hadn’t involved writing, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Of course, if you’d been writing all along and still offered me a sample from 5+ years ago, I might wonder what was up (i.e., is this the only good thing you’ve produced in that time?), but none of that is the case here.

That said, make sure that you still feel good about your 3-year-old writing sample. I sometimes look back at my own older writing and cringe. If you have any hint of feeling cringey about it, it’s okay to create something new just for the purpose of your job search.

{ 11 comments… read them below }

  1. Jennifer*

    Elliot Stabler’s leaving SVU? Say it isn’t so. And Cuddy’s leaving House? I hope you flood us with posts soon to help alleviate the upset.

  2. CK*

    I’ve been writing in one form or another for most of my career. And I still have a piece in my portfolio that I wrote back in 2002. I’m still proud of it and it’s still relevant, plus it shows a specific type of writing for a specific industry.

    With a three-year-old writing sample, I would think the hiring manager would see an indication on your resume somewhere that the reason they’re getting the longer sample from three years ago is because that’s the type of work you did then. If you’re really uncomfortable with sending them just that sample, send them a link to your online portfolio where you have more recent work in addition to the older pieces.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      In the context of a larger portfolio, I see no problem at all with including something from 2002. But if she’s offering a single writing sample (which I think is the case), I’d try to get something slightly more recent (although I think her 3-year-old sample is fine).

  3. Anonymous*

    Thanks for answering! Yes, it’s a single writing sample I’m asking about, not a portfolio. I’ve been trying to balance wanting to use something I actually wrote for an employer (vs. something I wrote for a job search) but not being sure if more recent work was preferable — very glad to know older pieces are ok!

  4. MelissaG*

    I can’t even tell you how bummed I was when I heard the news of Elliot leaving SVU. Hopefully the USA network will keep playing their all day marathons! Perfect for lazy Sunday’s :)

  5. Lauren*

    I actually have the EXACT same work history as your reader. I’m a writer by trade, I’ve done print writing, marketing, and other “long form” writing for the past decade (since just before college) and my last two years of experience are also in politics.

    So I have to add my thoughts, not because I disagree with you – I totally agree with everything you said. However, there is absolutely no such thing as providing writing samples that’re too old and I really want to stress why that is.

    In general, the whole point of a writer’s portfolio (or collection of writings) is that it provides a history of your skills that you’ve honed throughout your career. Writer’s portfolios SHOULDN’T be limited to recent history because that wont give anyone a fair representation of who they are as a multi-dimensional, expert of their craft.

    If there’s a 15 year old clip that will knock them over with your greatness, then use it. There is no such thing as a writing sample that’s too old. It will probably even get you extra points if you give them a phenomenal long-format clip form 8 years ago, and juxtapose it with a sample from a month ago that’s short-format and what you would categorize as unrelated to your what you’ve always done.

    The most important thing is for the writing sample to be appropriate for the position in which you’re applying. If you’re providing samples to an academic institution or an IT company, you wouldn’t provide that awesome short story you wrote that your creative writing professor LOVED because it pushed the envelope (and might even be considered porn by less open-minded people).

    For example, I would pick the most relevant 3 pieces from the following work I’ve done: one article I had published in print; a sample of copy editing work; a press release; a blog that I’ve written for; marketing copy I’ve written for a client, (either for the web, TV, print, whatever is more relevant to the job I’m applying ofr); and possibly even a college research paper from 5 years ago, to demonstrate my strengths in researching, reporting and formatting (although I don’t give them the whole 20 page paper, just an excerpt); .

    You would give them a few samples that would demonstrate you can do the job they want you to do. The points they give you will be on your ability to do the job they want, how you – as a writer – will give them awesome content under pressure, and how great an asset you’ll be even if you’re leaving your comfort zone.

    1. Jen M.*

      Thank you for this. I’m in a similar situation. I worked a lot, years ago, as a freelance writer, but have been an admin ever since and have not been doing much writing or reporting.

      For now, when I apply for writer/editor jobs, I use my clip file, which is, yes, around five years old. I always hold onto current stuff, though, so that I can produce newer samples–it’s just not exclusively my field at this time.

      I have worried about the age question, so your response makes me feel a little better. :)

  6. The Serial Candidate*

    Just wondering… I’m from Australia, and requests for a “writing sample” have never been mentioned in any roles I’ve had down here…

    Can I ask why a writing sample is needed? Do companies hire based on what a graphologist can determine from a candidate’s handwriting, or is it for reasons less obscure?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s not a handwriting sample, but rather a sample of something you’ve written so that they can assess your writing skills — meaning how you use language and put words together, not how you’d handwrite something :)

      It would be pretty weird for this to be handwritten, in fact!

    2. Jen M.*

      Yes. It is not a handwritten sample.

      I’m seeing this come up a lot, not just for media positions, but also for some non-profits. It’s common, also, in media/communications.

      I have not been asked for this when applying anywhere as an administrative assistant.

  7. Jackie Schmitz*

    In this thread, an on-line portfolio is mentioned. How are you storing samples on-line so that you can forward samples (or a URL) to a potential employer?


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