A Writing Sample about Writing Samples: The Pros and Cons
If you’re working as a contracted writer to create web content for others (like us), you’ve probably had a writing sample request at some point in the past. For some employers, writing samples are a way to get a feel for the quality of your writing to determine if your work is the style and quality that they’re striving to achieve. Of course, if your writing style is below average, they will want to keep looking until they find a capable team who can meet the standards that they have in mind.
A less advertised motive for writing sample requests is that they want to see which companies you’ve worked for in the past to get a sense of how well you can write about various unfamiliar industries.
As you might imagine, writing samples have their benefits in getting client’s content strategies on track, but they also have their drawbacks.
In this article, we will be explaining to you precisely what kind of value writing samples have.
Let’s dig in!
What is a Writing Sample?
Have you ever been to Costco or Trader Joe’s or, well, any grocery store that offers free samples of the food they want you to buy? Well, a writing sample is the writing equivalent of those little biscotti cookies that they show off at the front of aisles, albeit a little less tasty.
A writing sample is a preview of the work you can offer businesses as a writer.
When working as a third-party contractor, your job is to write a blog post to attract extra visitors, providing value, and eventually steering them towards a product or service in some way. The ability to clearly and concisely convey information that cultivates engagement and keeps users around is the most challenging attribute to find in a writer, making the first blog posts remarkably stressful to create. Businesses ask to see samples of your past work to get a sense of your skill level, or in some situations, they may request that you produce a dummy article for them to assess. It varies from employer to employer, though the former is more common than the latter.
There also exists a third option in which you preemptively produce sample writings with the content of your choice to serve as an example of what you can do when it comes to ‘hard’ skills in writing – for example, writing a sample article about writing sample articles.
Sample writing generally consists of a 1,000 to 2,000+ word article on the subject matter that the business wants to cover. While using writing samples to garner employment opportunities, it is wise to have a pre-existing stockpile of articles covering a broad range of topics.
For example, submitting a sample article about advancements in security technology might not resonate well with a company looking for someone to write about the medical benefits of turmeric (or vice-versa). Otherwise, a sample article should be treated the same as a real one, with sources and citations being used to back up your overall thesis.
You might also want to consider writing a fresh, new article for a potential employer to really “wow” them. These are usually offered as a single article pilot and are the equivalent of dipping your toes into the pool before you jump in, but we will cover more on that in just a moment.
Ultimately, employers tend to put more weight into the value of these sample articles than they realistically have. Thus, these samples may serve to assuage their concerns about your ability or, as they fear, your lack thereof.
How to Write a Sample Article
While you likely do not need any help writing an article, or a sample, it can still be beneficial to go back to basics. Again, in the words of Neil Patrick Harris in How I Met Your Mother:
“Ambition is the enemy of success.”
Of course, this is a bit of an oversimplification, but the point remains: overthinking the content of your article could make it a chaotic and incoherent mess. Sample articles are tricky to navigate as it is – you don’t want to provide poorly structured content that turns off potential employers from your services.
Operating on the assumption that you intend to write samples on a case-by-case basis, there are three basic rules for you to remember:
- Grammar is your new king. When writing a sample to make an impression on a potential employer, grammatical or spelling mistakes will send them running faster than a Vikings fan out of Wisconsin. Whenever you write your article, make sure to double-check, triple-check, and then quadruple-check for any mistakes. Never rely entirely on automated spellchecks since they have a habit of missing errors. Carefully reread your article several times to ensure you have not missed a single mistake.
- Watch your tone. Your employers will have a particular idea of the writing tone that they want you to use when hiring you to write for them. When tasked with giving a sample, it is good to look at the topic at hand and thoroughly research beforehand. If their articles are scientific and matter-of-fact, and yours is jolly and humorous, it’s not going to mesh very well.
- Do your homework. One of the most important things you can do with your writing sample is to investigate the company. Learn about the services they provide and the type of content they usually publish to help you match their style and unique voice. Showing that level of dedication helps your sample become more appealing to them.
These three rules will help you create a sample article that will impress your prospective employers and improve your chances of being contracted to write for them in the future. Of course, the process of writing web content is something that cannot be easily translated into a guideline simply because the habits and preferences of every writer will vary from person to person. However, it is always wise to outline the subjects you intend to cover first so that you’ve outlined expectations with your client. It makes things easier for everybody and avoids surprises.
What to Use Samples For (And What Not To)
It might seem like sample writing is a great way to improve your chances of employment, but samples (in general) are far from perfect. Sample writings, while occasionally helpful, are not the end-all and have just as many cons as they do pros when it comes to the profession.
Let us start on a positive note and list all the benefits that come with sample writing:
Intellect: The primary benefit of sample articles lies in how they portray your ability to convey information intelligently. Sample articles give you the chance to show off your wit and intellect and give your employers an indication of how eloquently you can get your point across. In addition, it gives your potential employers a feel for your knowledge and understanding of the subject. Intellect is about more than just research – it’s what you decide to do with the article after you have all of the information you need.
Research: Another way sample writing is helpful is it demonstrates your ability to research the topic – not only the core subject matter but also the related information. Using quotations from reliable sources and tying in those sources with citations helps show your employers you focused on the facts rather than on your opinions. It also shows them that your work allows their readers to follow up on their own and do their research based on the citations you have made in your content. Search engines love this, users love this, and savvy businesses love this.
Flow: When presenting sample work to a potential employer, you demonstrate more than just your ability to write and research. You showcase your ability to create a coherent document that flows seamlessly from one topic to the next. As you might expect, transitioning from an introduction to the uses of a medical supplement and then explaining what the supplement is will mess with the flow of your content. A poor structure will make it a confusing chore to read your article from start to finish, and it’s a killer of visitor engagement. Keep your writing tidy and carefully assemble an outline before you start writing. Your information needs to present itself in a sequence that makes sense to the reader. Content like this goes a long way in showing potential employers how you can help their readers reach the goal of the contracted article.
Graphical Supplementation: While writing an article can be straightforward with a simple goal, there is more to it than just the writing. Sample articles offer a rare insight for employers to see how you both write your content and present it. Almost every piece you will find has graphics and images to accompany the text and offer visual aids that add value to the subject matter. Giving employers a chance to see what kind of visual aids you create for your article helps them envision how their work will fit with the aesthetic of their publishing platform, be it a website or even a magazine. Matching their site’s color scheme, using your logo for a watermark, and putting extra work into designing top-notch graphics are all excellent signs.
Sample articles have at least a few benefits for your growth as an article writer. They primarily serve to assure any potential employers that you have the skills and resources necessary to create engaging, helpful, and visually attractive content. And yet, despite these benefits, there are far more issues involved with sample writing. Go figure. The reality is that writing samples don’t work for everybody. These are samples with subjects that may be foreign to your clients, voices that may not match their business voice, and graphics that might not appeal to them.
Now that you’ve read some of the positive aspects of writing samples, we’ll contrast that with some cons.
One Size Fits None: The biggest issue with sample articles is that we design them to be used and read without any specific association with a brand or company. However, this detracts from the efficacy of using a sample article to entice potential employers. That style or subject matter used in the sample might not fit with the mission statement of the person reviewing it and cause them to decide against hiring you to find someone “more suited.” No amount of writing samples can represent your final work for the client, and in some cases, they can even confuse them. If you have a writing sample for a staffing agency, how is that going to be helpful to a smoothie business?
Graphics and Formatting Conflicts: Another inherent risk in using sample articles to help businesses narrow down an ideal writer is that the format and graphics associated with the sample might not mesh well with the employer’s platform. Since sample articles need to be somewhat “cookie-cutter” in their design, using them as a frame of reference can negatively impact their value.
Voice: While your voice can be your greatest asset while writing, imparting your personal touch on a subject matter has its drawbacks when submitting a sample article. Numerous potential employers will evaluate your pre-written sample articles, and the content might not have a voice that is appropriate for the employer’s message. Certain employers will require a firm business-oriented voice, and others will have a casual and relaxed writing style. If a sample uses the wrong kind of voice, it may be enough to turn the business away.
NDAs: Businesses value confidentiality and trade secrets, and content marketing agencies usually have access to sensitive information and analytics. As a result, many companies require that their content partners sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to protect their privileged information. After you’ve signed an NDA as a content writer, any articles you wrote for that client are off-limits and treated as confidential information. These contracts protect the company’s privacy about employing you or your firm and any sensitive information they share throughout the business relationship. This same contract also prevents prospective employers from viewing the results of previously written articles to ascertain their level of success.
The Lost Details: Sample articles only show one aspect of a firm’s capabilities. Writing a blog post requires a great deal of back-end work to ensure that your articles are up to snuff. That extra work isn’t easy to present to potential employers, and it isn’t easy or realistic to throw it all in a Word document. Likewise, content marketing is often over-simplified; it’s equal parts content and marketing, art and science.
So, if your sample article (which is generic by design) does not resonate with the potential employer, it’s should hardly be a surprise. They may become less inclined to hire your firm in favor of another that they might think is better when you are equally, if not more qualified.
You can mitigate much of this risk by setting clear expectations and communicating this to your potential clients.
Sample articles are, in and of themselves, a double-edged sword. While we are not overly fond of them for some of the reasons listed above, we also recognize their necessity for the peace of mind of certain companies looking to employ a firm to author their next blog post. Samples are commonplace in most art-related industries, and they’ve become popular in the content writing world as well.
Before giving your clients sample articles, keep in mind that they may turn off potential clients for any number of reasons:
- They may not see their industry in your samples and assume that your writers can’t intelligently write about it.
- They may think that the voices in your articles aren’t a good fit for their brand.
- They might not like your graphic designer – some businesses like stock photos, some like illustrations, and some like step-by-step screenshots and annotations.
- They may use different auditing software – one client might check your post with MarketMuse and the other with ClearScope. The two would yield very different results.
- They might want to see additional functionality that isn’t present in your samples.
Sample articles are a hit-or-miss tool. The best you can do is create well-refined articles that are as close to the standards you have for your other clients as possible. They may give you an edge when presenting the best of your work to the companies who are evaluating it.
How do you feel about writing samples? As a business, have you requested them in the past? As a writer, what are your tips and tricks for sharing examples with prospective clients? Please share with us in the comments section below!