Writing samples for non-academic job applications

Many non-academic jobs ask for writing samples during the hiring process.  Here’s information to help you select an appropriate one.

The audience for your written work and presentations at your new workplace will be intelligent, interested, non-specialist readers who will need you to describe, analyze, frame, and persuade them of the importance of your work. Your first reader, however, is a subset of that audience: the hiring manager who who wants to know how well you communicate and what kind of colleague you will be. S/he is also busy, having a job in addition to hiring for the position you are applying for, and overworked, because the job you are applying for is either vacant or about to be.  Here is what that means for your writing sample:

  • It should be brief, not more than 1000 words, and 500-750 is better. You should not need more material than that to demonstrate that you can communicate clearly and persuasively. Especially for entry-level jobs with many applicants, few hiring managers will want to read much more.
  • It should be targeted to an intelligent, interested, non-specialist reader. Unless you are applying to highly specialized research jobs directly related to the topic of your graduate work, you should not assume or expect familiarity with your field of graduate study.
  • Unless you are applying to such a research position, you should not send in an entire, unrevised seminar paper, research paper, journal article, or thesis chapter. That tells the hiring manager that you value the expectations and language of your current workplace more than the needs of your new one, which is not a message you want to send.
  • You may consider any of the following for writing samples or as a source for being revised into writing samples:
    • Blog posts
    • Descriptive text, such as for a catalog, a performance, or an exhibition
    • Abstracts of presentations, if they are for general, non-specialist audiences or speak to such an audience as well as to specialists (presentations to public on policy issues, for example)
    • How-to guides, such as instructions for websites, equipment, or processes
    • Course descriptions for non-specialists in your field. These need not be four courses you have actually taught; you may write a course description for a course you would like to have taught, say on the public policy of a particular issue.
    • A review of a work, targeted to a non-specialist audience.
    • An application for funding, it if describes the importance of the project and your role in non-specialist terms
    • A report summarizing a non-academic job you held, such as being a resident assistant.
  • Your writing sample need not have been published or have otherwise appeared publicly.  If it did, be able to speak to the likely size of its readership (local news publication, conference website for 500 people, etc.)
  • Make sure your writing sample does not contain any of the phrases that should also not appear in your non-academic job letter.
  • Never, ever refer to your writing sample as a dumbed-down version of anything. Never, ever belittle the material in your writing sample by saying “well, I had to leave out a lot, but…” or “it’s of course much more complicated, but…” Present material as self-contained; follow-up questions can always elicit your greater knowledge of the subject.
  • Before you send a writing sample to a potential employer, ask a couple people in the non-academic workforce to read it; revise it, if necessary, in light of their feedback. Let it sit for a couple days, and then look at it again and revise it, if necessary.  After those revisions, have someone else proofread it.  (This process takes a little time, so you should prepare a writing sample or two in advance of entering the non-academic job market.)
  • If you send a link to a writing sample (to a blog post, to a review in a magazine, etc.) make sure the link works and that the content is not behind a paywall.

Good luck!