Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
You’ve pitched your idea to a publisher, they like it, and they seem to like you. Now they want an unedited writing sample. First, be sure that it really is unedited if they ask for it. They are trying to judge how much editorial time will be necessary on your work. If you end up being more work than they estimated, the budget goes catty-whompus, and there goes everybody’s profit. It’s better to be honestly mediocre than falsely excellent.Next, they’ll flip through for some obvious elements: is it at least the length they asked for (more is okay, but less is not); is the formatting pleasant, providing enough white space and suitable paragraph-length to be appealing, and are there lists or images to break up the text; are there any obvious (spelling checker-flagged) mistakes in the language; are there sub-headings, and if so, are they apt to the discussion; have you violated any Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) to provide this sample? (DON’T violate NDA. You may need to write something new to get this job, but they shouldn’t hire you if you can’t be trusted with NDA information.)Once they’ve established these basic elements, they’ll read your text. They are looking for clarity of topic, clarity of audience, a linear discussion, a single “voice,” and expertise on the chosen subject.
If your subject is a new feature, don’t talk about anything else. It’s very simple. If you get hired, there may be room to flex your muscles a little bit, but in a writing sample, be as narrow as you can be. As in any audition situation, you only get this one chance to make a good impression. Name your topic in the title, name it again in the introduction, and then don’t leave it—not once—throughout the sample. Don’t violate NDA. If you don’t have any existing work to send in, write something that might be part of one of the chapters or of the article for which you are auditioning. If you are uncomfortable giving away the farm, write on another subject that is roughly parallel. If you are writing an article about programming, you could write a sample about how a stapler works, how to tie a shoe, or best practices in the kitchen. It won’t be wasted effort to write such a piece: it shows that you are careful about NDA, that you are creative in finding solutions, and that you can write really well about anything. And of course, you can use it again the next time someone asks for an unedited sample. (Believe me; if you can write intelligently and clearly about how a stapler works, you can write anything technical.)
Before you write anything—even a blog—think about who your audience is. Are they developers looking at some very obscure aspect of a high-end product? Are they new to the subject entirely and need every word explained? Are they casual users who want to use the advanced aspects of a product? Are they managers who need to understand the benefits and downside of a product but don’t need to understand how to do anything with it?It may help to think of a specific person, real or imaginary, as your audience when you write. Or perhaps the audience is people just like you. The important thing is that you narrow it to a certain type of reader and write to them from beginning to end.
Next, make sure that your discussion flows in a straight line from introduction to conclusion. One way to ensure this is to create an outline and write to it. Another way is to be brutal in your self-edits. Perhaps you can do both.If you use subheadings, a clue that you are not writing linearly is that the heading-sizes skip around, or that they are all the same size. If you use Word’s default Normal.dot template, Heading 1 should be the title (and nothing else), Heading 2s should be major topics, and Heading 3s should be minor topics, tangents, and details. If you need to go deeper than that in a three-to-five-page writing sample, you may be over explaining.Whether you use subheadings or not, every single sentence should directly address the promise made by the title. If you say you’re going to cover security features in Purple People Plotters, don’t discuss how to change the background color unless it has a direct impact on security. Your introduction should tell us—either explicitly or by implication—who the audience is and what experience or role they bring to the document, what tools the audience needs in order to follow along, and what will be accomplished by the end of the piece. It’s possible that you are only providing the first three to five pages of a longer piece. That’s okay; your introduction can read the same way. We should have no doubt about where we’ll end up at any point along the way.Then, without providing history, give us some context for what we are about to read. Describe the issues that make this subject interesting or complex and tell us what you plan to show us. This can be the first paragraph or two of the piece proper, or it can be the tail end of your introduction. The topic and audience determine where it belongs. Now, launch into your topic. Head directly for the promise made in the title. Do not follow tangents. In a writing sample, you need to show that you can focus and do what you promise rather than that you can be comprehensive or clever. It’s okay if the sample length is not sufficient to reach the conclusion. If your piece does reach a conclusion, restate the promise made in the introduction, and point to specific examples from the text.
If you start out being cheerful and friendly, don’t change the voice mid-stream to being serious and intellectual. A change in voice makes editors suspect plagiarism. Plagiarism is a filthy and inexcusable crime, and no publisher who wants to stay in business will have any generosity at all on the subject.Choose the voice for the piece based on the audience and the topic you’ve chosen. If your readers are managers, they just want the surface facts, and maybe a little jargon and hyperbole here and there. If your readers are developers and your task is to show them something specific, head right for the meat and potatoes, don’t be fancy or cute, and don’t wobble onto any other subject. If your readers are beginners, be chatty and excited, and show them that there’s nothing daunting about the task at hand. The important thing is to pick one voice and not change it. If you start out being chatty and find yourself being more direct once you get into the piece, decide which one you can maintain for a longer piece, and edit the whole piece to match. Match the voice for the same audience as for the piece you want to write.
Scrupulous Attention to Detail
There is no excuse for ignoring the tools provided with your word processor. It seems like an obvious thing to say, but sadly, I’ve seen rather a few samples where the spelling was atrocious. Although grammar checkers are often wrong, you need to make sure you haven’t left in egregious passive voice, fragments, or the wrong form of a word.Please put your name on every single page and number the pages. Yours is the nine-gazzillionth bit of writing to cross the editor’s desk. If they send you a template to use, read the instructions and the style sheet, and then use the template to the best of your ability. They won’t expect perfection, but they will expect that you can follow instructions. It doesn’t matter if you think you have a better way to accomplish things; you have to comply with their method no matter what you think of it.
If they asked for three to five pages, don’t send them any more than that. They won’t read it, for one thing, but they will question your ability to follow instructions. If you think they will find the work compelling, make a note at the end of your submission that you’ll be happy to send the rest of the piece on request. If you feel that the early pages of a long document don’t truly show your skills, go ahead and send a central portion. Just let them know that you’ve done that because you feel that the excerpt more accurately reflects your skills regarding the assignment that you seek.
If they give you a due date, don’t miss it. If you can’t meet a deadline for a short sample, there is no way you will meet a deadline for the real piece. Missing deadlines in publishing can have dire consequences to the publisher; they could lose their place in the printer’s queue, they could be forced to find a substitute article to fill the number of pages they’ve sold to advertisers, they could have to pay editorial and layout staff overtime, and you will upset a very carefully constructed schedule. Don’t assume that fame and notoriety will buy you tolerance for lateness. For a writing sample, late is also unemployed.
Don’t be afraid to ask the editor what they are looking for. If, for instance, you are writing for beginners, how often should you break up the text? If you are writing for developers, what is a good number of steps to be in instructions?The publisher has done this sort of thing lots of times and will have some guidelines for you to follow, even if they’re verbal instructions. In another blog, I’ll talk about how to analyze a publisher’s work to determine whether your idea fits into their line, but for now, no question is silly if it prevents extra work on the other side. Editors are used to walking people through the process and will consider your questions evidence of your interest in getting it right and in being a member of the publishing team.