The dos and don’ts of writing samples

In no particular order, here are my recommendations for writing samples for those of you applying for a tech writing job.

And yes, you need writing samples.

Purpose

The purpose of writing samples is to prove you have technical writing skills, not that you’ve held down a job. So when you pick or write samples, ask yourself explicitly “What am I trying to prove? Which of my samples proves this?”

Don’t send me a sample that doesn’t prove anything about your skills – that’s wasting my time and not helping your case. Definitely don’t send me a sample that proves the opposite of having those skills – you won’t get the job.

Relevance

  • Your samples don’t have to be official job-related ones. You can take a weekend to write non-job ones if you think those will serve you better. There’s no shortage of real-life topics you can write about. If you’re drawing a blank, write about an application you use very often.
  • Don’t send me samples from the job you left a decade ago; it looks like you haven’t learned anything in ten extra years of doing this job. If you cannot provide samples from your current job, usually because of NDAs, write new ones.
  • Don’t point me at your company’s whole website – did you really write every single word there, or am I looking at other people’s work?

Size

A good sample is 250-500 words long. Two or three of those put together provide all the evidence I need.

Do not:

  • Provide something from the middle of a huge set unless you’re confident that it can stand on its own – if I can’t understand it on its own, I can’t tell how well you explain things.
  • Give me a 180 page manual. I will pick a page at random, which takes us back to the previous point.
  • Give me just two sentences. All you’ve proven is that you can use a period.

Topics and content

  • Do feel free to include charts, screen shots and tables in your samples if they’re relevant to the content.
  • Don’t provide more than one sample that isn’t technical writing, and be very careful with that choice. In particular:
    • Don’t provide artistic samples. Plays, poems and short stories do not provide evidence that you can write clear instructions using simple language.
    • Don’t provide your university papers; academic writing standards tend to conflict with technical writing standards. They also probably violate the length recommendation I made earlier.

Access

  • Don’t make me work hard or download anything to access samples – put them online so I can reach them with a single click from your CV or cover letter.
  • Don’t provide so many samples that I have to start picking and choosing. Two or three are enough. Putting all your evidence into these two or three samples ensures I see all of it. Spreading it between 15 samples means I’ll miss anything that’s in the 13 samples I didn’t read.

One final tip

Getting a friend to proofread your samples is not cheating; it’s good practice. If you have anyone in your life you trust with a comma, get their help. If you don’t (or even if you do), take a couple of days’ rest, then look at the samples again. The break will help you find more of your own mistakes.

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