No matter what you call it, the writing sample is just that – a sample of your writing.
Ideally it’s a sample that is on the same topic or similar topic that your prospective editor or client is interested in.
So if you want to apply for a job about organic writing about organic farming, your best clip would be one on some aspect of raising food organically.
If you don’t have that but you’ve written other articles about organics or food those will certainly work too.
And if you haven’t written anything along these lines a sample or two of your best writing in the style you imagine is appropriate will often do the trick.
Writing samples offer proof
The reason potential clients and editors ask for samples is they want to be assured you can write. Advertisements for good writing jobs get hundreds sometimes even thousands of applicants many of which have no samples or very poor ones. Reading samples is one way to screen applicants.
How closely the your writing samples will be read is anybody’s guess. I know when I was editing newspapers, the fact that of writer had a few newspaper clicks was all I wanted to know. I didn’t need to read each one in great detail. On the other hand, when I was editing magazines I tended to pay more attention to the clips because each magazine had its own distinctive voice style. Of course I’ve been known to assign a story on speculation to anybody who comes up with a good idea even if they had no clips. I’m not the only editor is done that. (‘On speculation’ just means the editor will take a look at the article, it’s not a guarantee that they will buy it on; spec is kind of a foot in the door and not a bad approach actually.)
How to send writing samples
Back when most writing was done with typewriters rather than computers sending samples was a real chore. Either physical samples of newspaper or magazine articles had to be sent, which is why you’ll still see some promise payment in multiple copies, or they had to be copied and the copy sent. Getting a 40 inch article on an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper was quite a puzzle as the illustration above shows.
These days writing samples are usually actual links to your writing that’s live on the web. This is another good reason to have your own professional website. As articles get published and are available online you can create a credits page where you actually link titles of your articles to their live versions. Then all you need to do is send the URL of your credits page.
If you have a copy of the article on your computer, you can save it as a PDF and attach to an email if that’s allowed or uploaded for your website. (If they say no attachments, believe them and paste the article from word into the body of the email or give them a link.) In a very rare occasions someone will ask for physical copies. I always assume the person is less than technically savvy and generally don’t apply in this cases. I’m not recommending that, it’s up to you.
Sample article scams
Sometimes you’ll find an ad that insist you have to write an original article in order to submit your application for freelance writing job. I ignore most of these because they seem perfect setups. The advertiser can publish the article and never pay me and I may never know. If I do find out it’s going to be almost impossible to get them to either pay me or take it down.
I did see a posting the other day asking for an original sample that said they would pay me if they published it. That acknowledgment of the possible problem was somewhat reassuring. If I’d been looking for a gig in that area I might have written a sample for them. If I had done such a thing I would’ve put a copyright notice on it in my name and if they balked I would’ve explained it as soon as they paid for it I would be happy to remove it – or I might have withdrawn the article and sold it elsewhere.
In other words, be careful
What if you have no clips?
If you’re a real beginner at freelance writing you may not have any clips. In this case write a few samples for your website and label them as such.
Remember that what the potential client or editor really wants is to know that you can write before they hire you. Samples on your website that you wrote specifically to demonstrate your talent will, for most people, count as long as you’re not trying to fool anyone being published elsewhere.
If you want to break into a new area of writing, even if your a pro, it can’t hurt to write a sample or two for your professional website.
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Write well and often,