Writing samples, or writing tests, are standard hurdles job-hunting writers, editors, and others in communications-oriented fields must leap. When applying to jobs, I’ve been asked to submit published clips, conduct interviews and write news articles, respond to prompts relating to a company’s values, write social media posts, and create press releases, all so hiring managers could assess whether I was the right fit for the job.
I’ve also asked for a fair number of writing samples myself, as I’ve managed freelancers throughout my career, and I’ve learned that certain mistakes can be major red flags. To make sure you send the right message, here are the top seven mistakes to avoid when submitting a writing sample.
There are tpyos and grammatical or spelling errors
Let’s start with an easy mistake: typos and grammatical or spelling errors. No one is perfect (I once applied to a job with the first sentence of the cover letter only half written?!), but when you send a writing sample, you want to put your best pen forward. Look up words you don’t know. Know your weaknesses and proofread for them. I often omit articles like “a” and “an,” so I read all of my work aloud. Then I ask a friend to look over my work because...I once I applied to a job with the first sentence of the cover letter only half written.
You don’t know your audience
Whether you’re sending a published clip or you’re writing something fresh for a job application, your writing sample should have noticeable connections to the position you’re applying for and, if possible, your prospective employer’s brand. My background is in journalism, but I have experience with internal communications, marketing, public relations, and museum exhibits. The writing for those categories is very different, so I tailor my writing samples to showcase the skills that best fit the position I want. I also read content on the company’s website (their blog, their press releases, their company description) to see what kind of voice they’re looking for.
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Plagiarism wasn’t cool in school, and it’s not cool in the workforce. When hiring, I often pull sentences that aren’t formatted as quotes from new writing samples to see if they’ve come from somewhere else. If they have, that’s an immediate “no” for me. I’m not paying someone to copy and paste.
It’s late—with no explanation
Barring emergencies, a writing sample should never be late. This won’t be an issue if you’re asked to submit one upfront, but if an employer gives you a writing test during the hiring period, then you need to get it back to them on time. And if it’s not going to be on time, you need to effectively communicate why—ideally before the original due date passes. That means emailing or calling them, telling them why it’s late, and offering up a new date for you to submit the assignment:
I’m really excited about this job, but I need an extension on the writing sample. We had a family emergency this weekend, and I’ve been tied up every evening since. I’ve set aside time this Thursday to work on the assignment. Would a Friday a.m. deadline work for you?
You didn’t follow directions
In that same vein, if you’re given a writing test, make sure you read it thoroughly and ask clarifying questions if needed. Ask for an example if you’re uncertain. Writing samples are just as much a test of your ability to weave a good yarn as they are your ability to get a job done the right way. A 500-word assignment that comes back as 2,000? No, thank you.
It doesn’t make sense
Stream of consciousness is a fun narrative technique, but most hiring managers aren’t looking for you to wax poetic on your innermost thoughts. If I prompt you with, Why are you the right person for this job?, I want to be able to easily follow your thought process from the introduction through the conclusion. From a hiring perspective, this is a big one for me: I’m not concerned with where you’ve been published or the big-name companies you’ve worked for. If you always forget the comma before the conjunction in a compound sentence, I can deal with it. I’m most interested in your ability to stay on track.
It’s not accurate
You stayed on track, and, man, what a good read it was. But when I started digging into the facts, nothing added up. Not every writing sample will be as research- or reporting-driven as one for a news outlet or publication, but you should check and double check any claims you make in writing when applying for a job. The same goes for writing samples that are more personal; stick to the truth. I’m not hiring you because your backstory inspired the next Netflix original movie (out on February 1!!). I actually want to know what led you to this pivotal moment in my inbox.