should I submit an unsolicited writing sample when applying for a job?

A reader writes:

I’m back on the job search, and I’m finding that many of the jobs I’m interested in are reachable only through one of those robot applications. As though that’s not enough of a challenge–trying to choose the right keywords to get past the front door before you even start the process–there’s that little “Additional Documents” field staring me in the face.

My career is in editing and writing, so I’m applying for anything with the word editor in it. I’ll put it short. The application doesn’t say to submit any additional documents, but do you believe there’s any benefit to submitting a writing sample? I worry because I can’t decide if it would look ambitious or excessive to submit materials that were not solicited, and the increasingly inhuman way of applying to jobs these days doesn’t help me make that decision.

Nope. If they want it, they’ll ask for it.

Write a fantastic cover letter; that’s the writing sample that they’re looking at for this stage.

The only exception to this would be if you were applying for a writing job where you didn’t have the experience they were asking for but you were in fact an objectively phenomenal writer, and your writing sample would illustrate that in a way that nothing else would.

But otherwise, it’s all about your cover letter and following instructions. (Although you can certainly include links to your work; just don’t attach separate documents.)

(Also, please read this about keywords; they’re much, much less mysterious than you may have been led to believe.)

{ 56 comments… read them below }

  1. Sans*

    I don’t usually disagree with Alison, but I’ve been a copywriter for over 30 years and I always submit a writing sample or two. Yes, it’s imperative to write an excellent cover letter and resume; but they get plenty of those. If you have one or two writing samples that really speak to what they are looking for, show them. The writing on a cover letter, no matter how snappy and pertinent, just isn’t the same as it is for an article, an ad, a web page, or whatever kind of writing the job requires.

    I’ve had employers comment on my samples and mention they were one of the reasons I got an interview. Instead of attaching a sample, I sometimes create a pdf document with several samples included, and include a dropbox link in my cover letter.

    Many writers have a website with all their samples and include the link in their cover letters. I look at the dropbox link as a similar approach.

    Having said that, I wouldn’t include a lot of attachments or links. One attachment, or one link to your website or a dropbox document – that’s enough.

    1. AW*

      Many writers have a website with all their samples

      Seconding the idea of having a portfolio site to show off your work. I’m not sure if theft of your work is an issue; hopefully other writers can speak to that. But if you can make your work findable so that they’ll see it during a background check, that’d be great.

    2. Jenny*

      I was also going to recommend a website. Or if you’re not too skilled at web creating, LinkedIn allows you to post writing samples – you could very easily link to your linkedin page and say “To see more information about my experience and some samples of my writing work, please visit my LinkedIn portfolio.” and then hyperlink it to your Linkedin.

      1. Erin*

        Yes, this. I have a website that posts my writing samples, but it’s because I am lucky enough to have a tech-savvy husband to help me with that sort of thing. I also in addition have publications on my LinkedIn.

    3. Kate*

      I came down here to say the same thing– I don’t usually disagree with Alison, but…

      I recruit a lot of editors and writers. If a cover letter is sparkling and the experience is a good fit, I forward the application without checking their website or looking to see if they included unsolicited samples. If I’m on the fence, I see if they happened to include a sample or have a website on their cover letter. The quality of the samples is what makes or breaks it.

      Any communications position I post gets such a huge volume of applicants– and usually qualified ones, too– that I appreciate candidates who provide additional information. It’s not required because I don’t want the application process to be too onerous, and for many candidates, a resume tells me enough. But it’s helpful and shows interest, and certainly doesn’t come off as excessive.

    4. LizNYC*

      Ooo, the Dropbox idea is so simple, it’s brilliant! I’ve been wanting a website for years for this very purpose (see! I can write!) since blogging outside work isn’t for me. But I have Dropbox…

      1. Melissa*

        As an FYI, if you want a website I got very reasonable web hosting with Bluehost. I think I paid $120 for the entire year of hosting (maybe 3? I can’t remember) and that includes a domain name. And I know very little about building websites; they have a lot of tools like WordPress and Weebly that make it easy for you to build a site. The free version comes with 6 free pages which should be more than enough to post up your info and a couple of samples.

        WordPress is even cheaper – free – if you can transform their blog-style websites into something that works for you. I just wanted my own name as a domain.

    5. Anon.*

      Yeah. I’m a writer and a huge part of building a freelance career and ultimately being able to land a full-time position was building a personal website, with my real name on it, both to have a blog and also to store links to thinks I wrote elsewhere.

      These days I have left enough of an impression in my specific field that any editor I am likely to be talking to has already read samples of my work, but being able to just drop a link to my site in at the end of an e-mail with my phone number and e-mail address worked really well for me before.

      And if anyone wants clips, they’ll ask for ’em.

    6. John*

      I’m a writer and I’m going to agree with Alison but for a different reason. Writing samples are suspect. How do I know who actually wrote them? I’m not just talking about outright theft. The final product often reflects the contributions of collaborators and editors. If a candidate send me an outstanding piece, it may mean that they had a great editor…or were given a great idea to start with. Or they pulled some of the best material from something else.

      A cover letter tells me more because they can’t just use something off the shelf (if it’s at all effective.) Trust me, I can get to the end of a cover letter and have a good sense of whether the person can powerfully express ideas.

    7. MissDisplaced*

      I agree with the link idea as well for any type of creative job. I’ve done this for years, and it gives the hiring manager the opportunity to visit it or not. There are so many ways to make a simple portfolio page nowadays or include it on LinkedIn.

    8. Not Here or There*

      I also agree with Sans. Part of my work is in communications, and writing is a huge part of my job. I’ve actually found that for positions looking for someone who do corporate communications-style writing, submitting a writing sample, either in the initial application or suggesting I follow up with emailed writing samples after the initial interview, has always been well received. While a many of the position I have help require corp. comm. experience, they’re not traditional corp. comm. jobs, and it would be somewhat weird for me to have a traditional portfolio, since the main body of my work is as an EA. I have almost never run into a situation where I’ve been asked for writing samples, but whenever I take the initiative to do so, I feel like it actually has helped a lot. I’ve actually gotten calls from hiring managers and recruiters who’ve thanked me for taking the initiative to do so, and mentioned how helpful the samples were.

      In the case where I submit writing samples as a part of the application in the additional documents part, I only submit them if the job ad states specific types of writing. For example: press releases, speeches, newsletters, blog posts,press interviews, etc. Then I try to chose something short that would be similar in style to what I’ve seen on the company website. I usually only submit one (unless I’m suggesting it in the interview, in which case, I will tell them what I can show them, and ask if they would like me to send them some samples). I also clearly label it: Writing sample – Press Release, and have all the pertinent information, and a link to where the writing was published.

  2. LATechWriter*

    Alison’s advice is spot on. When we’re hiring new writers, the writing sample is usually tossed aside. We all know that candidates have had all the time in the world to make sure they are good/excellent, and there’s really no proof that the sample is even their work. Sadly, I’ve had candidates use other peoples’ work as their samples (since they clearly can’t write at all once in the position). They must have even had someone write their cover letter for them! The only thing I would add to what Alison said is that if you’ve got a Web site or something else that has been “published” under your name, then you could mention that in your cover letter – even include the URL. Then if the hiring manager wants to go look at your work, they can do so on their own schedule. Good luck in your search!

    1. Sans*

      So if you can’t trust that someone wrote what is in their portfolio, how do you judge their writing abilities? Do you really get someone with a lot of experience who has faked their whole portfolio?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Oh, you definitely ask for writing samples later in the process — you don’t hire without them! But you might prefer to give them an exercise where they write in response to a specific prompt, and might structure it in a way that it’ll make it hard for them to get help or turn in someone else’s work (like having them produce something in your office or in a particular timeframe or in response to a conversation that you have with them where you talk over what to include).

        1. LATechWriter*

          Exactly. There are just too many people who, well, lie or embellish on their resumes. The only way we’ve been able to really judge is by giving a very basic writing exercise that is done during the interview process. We’re not looking for Shakespeare, but it’s amazing how many “writers” don’t even have basic grammar skills, and this becomes clear in the short exercise. We had one candidate who had great experience as a contract employee, but it became very clear to us why her contract jobs were never extended, and in fact some only lasted a couple weeks.

        2. Sans*

          The weird thing is my present job did give me a writing test exactly as you’re describing – they gave me some information and a limited amount of time within their office and told me what they wanted me to produce. But that was AFTER they saw my online links and my in-person portfolio. And I was very surprised they did that – in decades of interviewing for writing jobs, that’s the first time it’s happened. Others in the field were surprised too, especially since I’m nowhere near a beginner.

          I’ve interviewed for ad agencies, large and small corporations, etc., and it definitely isn’t a standard thing to include a writing test.

          I think one of the ways interviewers see if you’ve really written what’s in your portfolio is to ask you questions about some of the pieces — What was the direction on this brochure? What was the goal? How did you come up with this approach? Was it a successful piece? It’s harder to fake it when you’re really talking about the process and reasoning you used to produce a piece of writing.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I think that increasingly changing — employers in general are realizing that it’s smart to use exercises in the hiring process and verify people’s skills.

          2. Anon.*

            My current position did that, when I was hired. The two-hour writing test was the last stage in the process — I think they had whittled down the candidate pool to their top two or three favorites at that point, and used that as the tiebreaker.

            (In the end, they did actually hire two of us.)

        3. Felicia*

          That’s how we do it too. The writing exercise they do in 30 minutes in the office actually has much more weight than any sample they provide.

        4. Penny*

          Wholeheartedly agree with Alison- your cover letter is your place to shine. We hire for several corporate communications roles in which writing is the main function and it amazes me how few people applying don’t write so much as a sentence in the cover letter/notes section of the application or do something very generic. In a job like that, you’ll be writing multiple articles with very short turnarounds selling a product, so I’m more impressed by a great cover letter.

          I don’t mind a writing sample, but if your resume doesn’t spark anything, I’m unlikely to read them since, as other have stated, there are many variables that could go into those. Yeah, it might be well-written, but for all I know you spent a month writing it with multiple outside edits. We’ll ask for a sample after a successful phone screen. And in regards to the above question, we also have candidates do a short, timed writing tests simulating the types of things they’d be writing when they come in to interview.

      2. MsChanandlerBong*

        Yes. I used to grade writing tests for a website that hires a lot of writers. You had to submit a writing sample to even be considered for the position. If selected, then you had to do the test. We had MANY applicants send in wonderful samples who obviously stole them or had someone else write them; the tests (timed, and VERY particular as to formatting, style rules, etc.) would come back looking like they were written by elementary-school students.

    2. LMW*

      I’ll counter this: I put great weight in the writing samples, but will sometimes do an exercise as well. For me, it’s the resume that’s usually ignored. Cover letter and sample are more important. I’ll take a newbie with no experience at all if their letter and sample seem on-target. (But I mostly hire freelancers.)

  3. Macedon*

    Massive disagreement. Where possible, and unless explicitly otherwise instructed, add clips for writing jobs. Doubly so for journo ones.

    Writing samples can sometimes tip the scale in favour of inviting you to interview, and they can also provide a good interview conversation topic. Just make sure you’re sending especially good work and that you’ve reread it recently.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I do think it’s different from journalism jobs, where clips are king.

      But I’ve been hired for and hired lots of people for writing jobs, and while writing samples and writing exercises will matter hugely in those processes later on, I’ve never paid attention to the ones people submit with their initial application because you have no idea how edited they were.

      1. Macedon*

        That’s what you have your writing exercises for. Though it’s worth mentioning that in journo, where the industry’s fairly incestuous, you can usually tell if/how a piece has been edited, because it’ll bear the trademark of the publication editor (whom you’ll have known, read and potentially competed with for years now).

        I don’t see what you possibly have to lose by sending samples: if they’re dismissed, they’re dismissed. If they go read, they’ll generally help. Of course, don’t send them if you’re explicitly warned against doing so, but otherwise writing samples are kind of like cover letters for me – some jobs might not outright ask for them, but you probably should include them.

  4. Bend & Snap*

    Noooope. Links if at all possible. And honestly, if I’m hiring you for a writing job, I’m going to Google your work anyway.

    The last writer I hired sent me a portfolio late in the game, but I’d already scoured his work and made my decision.

  5. Chloe*

    I’m in marketing with an editorial background, and I definitely would say to include a link to your work. In addition to putting it on your LinkedIn profile, I created a professional Pinterest board where I pin up links to my work. I sorted it by client and then wrote a little intro under the “About” that essentially highlighted the kind of work that I did for “X” client (for example: “Worked with client 3+ years writing front-of-book sections”). It’s an easy way to quickly showcase the work I’ve done and add in some more talking points without having to include attachments, etc. I would add this into my cover letter with a line like “If you’re interested in seeing some of the work I’ve done, I have a wide variety of my clips on my Pinterest page at [URL].”

    I tried going the online portfolio route and found the design element to be too cumbersome as I’m a perfectionist with extremely limited HTML skills. So Pinterest was my way around that.

    attachments I hate; links impress me. But only if it’s ONE link.

  6. CAA*

    That article about keywords should be mandatory reading for every job seeker. This is my favorite part: ” I know a lot of people who fill jobs for a living. I don’t know a single one (even the ones who suck) who is using secret codewords to filter resumes. They’re using words so obvious that if they’re not on your resume, you’re probably seriously un qualified.”

    1. Judy*

      I would say that the keyword article is 6 years old. I’d be concerned that the information is not up to date.

      At my former employer, many of the technical managers asked HR to not screen the resumes for their job postings. My own manager said that HR screened the resumes too literally in the ATS.

        1. Judy*

          The article says

          So nobody, and I mean NOBODY is going to be dumb enough to ONLY use the secret codewords. Seriously. In fact, I don’t know very many recruiters who don’t at least glance at every submission, for curiosity’s sake if nothing else.

          I’m skeptical that corporate in house HR recruiters look at every resume for every job. In the F50 environments I’ve worked in, a recruiter would be supporting 30-50 hiring managers. Maybe 1/3 of those managers has an opening at a given time. Each job posting, even ones wanting specialized technical skills, gets hundreds of applications. I can’t imagine how many applications happen for lesser skilled positions.

        2. Meg Murry*

          I think it is still applicable, although I have been burned by the too literal HR search – for instance, one job posting called out as one of the top requirements “experience with relational databases”. My resume spelled out my experience with dBase, Microsoft Access and Filemaker Pro, and mentioned database experience in my cover letter, so I thought I was good – but HR originally screened out my resume (and pretty much all the others as well), and told the hiring manager they were going to have to re-open the candidate search because they didn’t get enough applicants that met the requirements. Luckily my boss then re-screened himself and saw that HR was taking the requirements too literally. This wasn’t with an ATS though – it was a human being who didn’t really understand the job descriptions acting as a poor ATS search.

          I think the advice to only tweak your resume to update the verbage to match the job posting, or to use the phrasing in the job ad in your cover letter is a good one. I’ve also learned to hedge my bets and use more than one term for something if it’s applicable – for instance, I might use both the phrase “Statistical Design of Experiments” and “DOE” so I don’t have to revise for job descriptions that use one term over the other. The hiring manager should certainly know that they are the same thing, but a non-technical resume screener may or may not.

          The other advice I’ve seen to help with quickly getting your resume semi-custom is to make up a master document with more bullet points per job description than you actually would use on the resume, and then go through and pick only the ones best suited for that job description – for instance, in that past I had a job that dealt with teaching and training computer systems, and also managing software and creating custom databases for those users. I have a document that has 8 bullet points about that job, and if I was applying to a position that was more teaching/training oriented I might use 3 of those points and only 1 about software and databases, whereas I would do the reverse it the job was more about software and less about training (from the description, at least).

  7. Related question, I think*

    If your prior jobs weren’t “Writer” or “Editor”, but you did extensive writing for a paid job and wrote in your spare time (think personal website & blog with occasional external online & print), do you have a shot at entry-level writing/editing jobs?

    I’d really love to give it a try since writing has been such a huge part of my life, but I keep seeing ads calling for prior direct experience. I think I would love it & be good at it, but it could be one of those things that is more fun when its on your own schedule.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Absolutely. With writing jobs, the most important thing is your ability to write. If you can show you have that, you have a good shot.

      Of course, if there’s specifically asking for prior professional experience, those might not be the right ones.

      But when I think back to the first writing job I got hired for, which I do think was asking for experience, I had published clips but no other experience. If you’re an awesome writer, that’s will usually count for a lot for junior-level writing jobs..

      1. Related question, I think*

        Thanks again for this. It’s nice to know that I have a shot. I’m going to add in a few qualifiers to my search parameters to try to specifically catch the junior level roles.

    2. FormerEditor*

      In my former field (technical editing), you’d definitely have a shot as an entry-level editor. We looked for writing and editing experience, but also wanted to see if people had good communication and coordination skills and could handle juggling lots of deadlines and personalities. Since it was a somewhat specialized field, we cast a wide net and had candidates who passed a first round of interviews do an editing test.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I had to take an editing test for my job before I had any interviews. They sent me some raw material and I had a day or so to whip it into shape. I worked like a DOG on that thing; I organized it, cleaned up the copy, and even did some formatting. I aced it even though I had no experience with technical editing whatsoever at that point.

        1. Related question, I think*

          That is very encouraging. It is also helpful to know that the test can come before the interview.

    3. Related question, I think*

      I really appreciate both of your insights- thank you!
      I’d like to think I’m an awesome writer… but then there’s my its/it’s error above, so who knows?
      I would actually welcome a test of my skills at the second interview stage. I know that academically, they are above average, but seeing how that plays out in an strictly writing or editing role would be helpful.

      1. FormerEditor*

        I can’t speak to strict copy editing roles, but in technical editing, we gave folks a limited time schedule, knowing they couldn’t do everything. We wanted to see what judgement calls they made; were they catching egregious errors, or did they decide that a style choice warranted 10 minutes to “fix”?

        1. Related question, I think*

          Thank you, this is very helpful! I will keep this in the back of my mind if/when I encounter such a test. I’d like to believe that I can demonstrate prioritization, but now I will take extra care to ensure it.

    4. Erin*

      I’m literally in the same boat. I’ve mostly held admin jobs, but have freelanced with a few things published, and a blog with reasonably impressive numbers. Do you know how many visits and etc your blog gets? (I only know because of my tech-savvy husband.) It could help to put how many visits a month or how many hits you get on your resume.

  8. BRR*

    And don’t ask for a writing sample if you the position doesn’t need one. I applied for a job as a box office manager/database manager and they asked for a writing sample with not instructions. They seemed genuinely surprised that I had submitted one.

  9. John R*

    One way to get past the robot resume screeners is as follows (this isn’t an original idea, don’t remember where I saw it):

    At the end of your resume, in the smallest font possible (to save space), put in EVERY keyword from the job posting. Then make sure the font color is white on a white background. Machines will see all of these keywords and kick your application to the next level, while a human looking at your resume won’t see this text because it’s white on a white background.

    If you’re more advanced with Microsoft Word, you can also put this information into a hidden field and machine readers will still see it but real people won’t.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Don’t do that! Most ATS’s convert your text to plain text, which means that all of those words are clearly visible and you will look like a crazy person trying to game the system.

      1. Felicia*

        Also don’t do that when it’s not actually a computer filtering the resumes and it’s a person reading each one, which I have seen. Our online application system converts this to plain text, making the words clearly visible, and there is no computer screening them, that’s just me. The one person who did that came across as paranoid, personally. Integrating a couple (not every single one!) of the words in the job description in your cover letter in a very natural way would be good though.

    2. jag*

      Also put in “Cialis” and “Viagra”, spelled in all sorts of random ways to get past spam filters. If the hiring manager is searching his/her files for those drugs your resume will pop to the top. Yeah. For sure.

  10. Mike C.*

    I just have to say, my company certainly uses keywords (to hilarious effect) in the first steps of the hiring process.

  11. Snarkus Aurelius*

    The private sector might not use keywords, but USA jobs does. You need to repeat the requirements in your resume to get past the screening software. Same thing goes for the KSAs. Regurgitate as much as you can.

    And I got this advice for free!

  12. Stranger than fiction*

    Ok I think people are getting confused with what keywords actually are. As the article says they are not mysterious code words. They’re simply things that the job ad lists as qualifications like Adobe illustrator or HTML or experience, which like the guy says are already on your resume (I hope) if you have those skills

    1. Judy*

      My point is that it’s important to review the job ad and use the same terminology.

      .NET is a framework that uses C# programming language. C# is exclusively used on .NET.
      If the ad uses .NET, then if your resume says “Used C# to develop applications”, then your resume might be needlessly screened out. If the ad uses C# and your resume says “Developed multiple applications in .NET”, then your resume might be needlessly screened out. There are lots of examples like this in technical fields. It really is not that simple to know without comparing your resume to the job application and adjusting. In this case the best sentence might be “Developed .NET applications in C#”, but it is certainly worth a review of your resume vs the job posting.

  13. Enid Forgey*

    as Kevin said I’m impressed that people can earn $8601 in a few weeks on the internet .
    find more info on site ………..

  14. Michelle Darrisaw*

    As a writer and editor for several publications (mostly intern/freelance), I typically follow the job posting/ad when it comes to sending samples. I’ve been on the job hunt for a couple of years now, and most of the job postings usually say how many samples/clips they want. If they don’t specify, I refer them to my digital portfolio in the email I send or I just attach two or three. Based on these comments, I’m going to start merging my PDF samples into one document though, since it appears a lot of attachments may be a bad thing. I have also had several edit tests, and none of them have been the same. I actually prefer the edit tests as a qualifier, because sometimes you don’t know if your cover letter and resume are enough or if they stand out. If I can have another chance to show them I can pitch ideas, edit stories or craft social media posts based on articles already written by their staff, then I welcome it. Besides, most of my edit tests have been sent via email, and I usually have a day or two to work on them. I’ve gotten most of my freelance jobs and internships that way based on the edit test and samples I sent. It’s easier for me to keep up with my samples on my online portfolio, and hiring managers and recruiters can click on it at their leisure. I also love WordPress for this because I can manage my stats and views. If I applied for a job and notice on that same day I had a ton of views with no referrers, then that usually means someone visited my page using a direct link I gave them…not Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. It tells me they were interested enough to even check out my portfolio and that automatically makes me feel a little better about my chances.

Comments are closed.