Writing Samples Demystified

skitched-20081026-155957.jpg

“You may be the most brilliant writer in the world, but if you don’t have a clip to show me, I won’t know that.”
– Rachel Clark, deputy editor of Premier magazine

Writing samples, or “clips”, are a critical part of the writer’s marketing machine. They demonstrate to editors proof of your abilities and should be included with all queries and pitches unless otherwise noted in the publication’s guidelines.

This may sound simple enough, but it’s not always clear what qualifies as a “sample” or how to send that sample in an email query. In this article, I attempt to demystify writing samples by defining what they are, how to format them, and how to send them with an email query.

What is a Writing Sample?

Writing samples, also called “clips” or “clippings”, are samples of your published work. This is sometimes confusing, because “published work” can take one of many forms:

  • Text, PDF or Word document
  • Scanned image of a magazine tearsheet or newspaper clipping
  • Blog post, either on your blog or someone else’s
  • White paper
  • Academic thesis

In some cases, unpublished material can also be used as a sample if you haven’t been published before.

So you have a newspaper clipping in one hand, a blog post in the other, and a magazine article dangling off your big toe. How do you put this hodge podge together into a tight package that won’t give editors a headache?

How to Make Your Writing Sample Email Friendly

The easiest way to make your writing samples suitable for email is to host your writing samples and clips in an online portfolio website. This allows you to simply include a link to your portfolio in your email pitch to editors. Here is an example of how to do this:

I am a full-time writer with numerous online and print credits, including The Daily Telegraph, The Hackney Citizen, and SmarterFitter.com. You can read samples of my work at at http://monicashaw.com.

Alternatively, you can include links to individual writing samples that are targeted to the publication.

A general rule is: don’t send clips or writing samples in an attachment unless requested. As Jenna Glatzer points out in her book Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer

Many editors will delete attachments unread because of the risk of viruses, and many spam filters will toss them out before an editor even has the option of making that decision. I can’t emphasize this point enough; I’m amazed by the number of writers who continue to ignore this advice and have their queries deleted because of it.

How to Format Your Writing Sample in Your Portfolio

All of your writing samples should be hosted on their own web page and include the sample title, name of the publication, and date it was published.

Whenever possible, include the text of your writing sample on the webpage itself (click here to see an example). If copyright issues prevent this, here are a some tips for dealing with specific sample formats:

skitched-20081026-132658.jpg

  • Newspaper and Magazine Clippings: First, scan your clipping as a high-resolution jpeg file. Then create a web page that includes a smaller, thumbnail image of the clipping, plus a link to an image of the full-resolution scan OR to the full text article on the publication’s website (click here to see an example).
  • Documents: Documents are risky because you can’t be sure the editor will have the right software to read it. So if you must contain your writing sample in a document, make sure it’s in a standard format such as Word (.doc), text (.txt) or PDF (.pdf). As with all writing samples, host your document on its own web page that clearly displays the title, publication and publication date. It’s also a good idea to include some text that summarizes what your sample is all about (click here to see an example).
  • Blog posts: If copyright issues prevent you from including the full text of the post in your portfolio, then include a link to the original blog post. As with documents, it’s also good to include some text that summarizes the post.

General Rules for Writing Samples

  • Keep it to no more than 500 words
  • Do not violate confidentiality (i.e., make client names anonymous)
  • When sending links to specific writing samples to editors, make it relevant to the job (i.e, if you are pitching to a food magazine, send a sample of a restaurant review or a published recipe)
  • Check for correct grammar and make sure your work is typo-free
  • If your sample is contained in a Word, PDF or text document, make sure it’s easy to read. Use Times New Roman font, double space your lines, left align the text and use 1-inch margins

3 Responses to “Writing Samples Demystified”

  1. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen Says:

    I’ve also learned that some editors don’t bother looking at samples — your brilliant idea and well-written, professional query letter can override your writing experience! It depends on the editor, the publication, and your approach.

    So, if you don’t have a huge portfolio of writing samples, don’t worry. Just focus on your query letter!

  2. Heiddi Says:

    Hi Monica,

    Great article. I’ve really been flying by the seat of my pants with the clips, but you give a great way to organize clips to my advantage. Thanks for this!

  3. monica Says:

    Laurie – I’ve heard the same thing. In fact, EatingWell’s guidelines specifically say “don’t send clips… sell us with a good pitch.” That’s definitely the most important part of ANY query letter.

    Heiddi – glad it helped! I see you’ve already got some clips up on your site. The only thing I would add would be links to the full text of the clips.