Why Is A Writing Sample So Important?! Duh, ‘Cuz You’re a Writer

Why Is A Writing Sample So Important?! Duh, ‘Cuz You’re a Writer

I remember early on in my writing career when I was hunting for work. I was a bubbly 20-something with lots of energy, hope, and ambition (someone completely foreign from me now!). I spent a lot of time networking, going out to mixers, or getting coffee with industry acquaintances.

I spent a lot of time telling people I was a writer but not having much to show.

Folks would ask me, “What are you working on?” And I’d be vague. I didn’t have a professional writing gig, and at the time, I wasn’t working on spec projects either. Why? Because I was too busy networking to actually sit at a computer and write! I had old samples to show, sure, but those pieces needed to be updated and that was something I never got around to doing.

I was having a great time being social, but that never led to any paid opportunities. I couldn’t understand why until my fellow writer friend straight up told me, “You waste too much time marketing yourself, but you don’t spend enough time actually having something worth marketing.”

Ouch. To quote the movie Clueless, “That was way harsh, Tai.”

But I knew he was right. My friend had a strong writing portfolio, but he also didn’t rest on his laurels. He was constantly generating new material, and the combination of his new and old work was what generated buzz. Sure, he talked to people about being a writer, but he actually had writing to show.

After that wake-up call, I stopped networking and focused on updating my portfolio. When I was finally happy with my new pieces, I started submitting for jobs and eventually I landed work. I was finally a full-time professional writer, and then my portfolio from my professional work got me more professional work. No awkward mixers or coffee hang-outs needed.

A young writer asked me recently how I got my writing gigs, and I told her that I found the work through job sites or through referrals, but once I heard about the gigs, I had to submit a sample. If the employer liked my writing, then I got an interview, and if the interview went well, I got the job.

But while how I heard about jobs varied, one constant was that I needed a quality sample.

It amazes me how rudimentary the concept of a writer needing a writing sample sounds, but it took me a while to understand it, and I see many aspiring writers also fail at grasping it.

I remember meeting a girl at a party last year, and she asked me to refer her for a writing job. I asked her what her background was and what writing samples she could send me, and she looked shocked. “Oh? You can’t just tell them I’m cool?” she asked. I wouldn’t hire a surgeon who had never picked up a scalpel, or a hairdresser who had never touched hair. So why would I recommend a scribe who didn’t scribble?

When I got a literary manager, I was connected by a mutual associate, and my manager had heard about my standup from another person. But even with referrals, I had to submit one sample, and once my future manager read and liked that, he asked to read two more things before he would even agree to meet with me for an interview. When I optioned my book to a major studio for a TV adaptation, it was read and approved by at least five people before I was even given a first meeting.

The writing had to stand on its own. Nobody gave a crap if I was cool.

When I talk about standup, I say that the one thing I love most about it is you can’t fake funny. You either make people laugh on stage or you don’t. The same is with writing. It’s your words on the page that matter.

So what makes a good writing sample?

I’d say it should be original, clever, and emotional; but those characteristics are often subjective. Objectively, the sample should have no grammatical or spelling errors and follow the formatting standards of the genre. For instance, if you’re submitting a screenplay, then don’t send over a Word doc.

Never take for granted if someone is willing to read your work.

In the age of 10-second Tiktok videos or wrangling kids or worrying about paying rent, people are busy and don’t often want to read a screenplay or a manuscript for free. It’s a gift if they are willing to read you, so always show your best stuff because you don’t know who they will tell that your writing is good or not.

It’s your sample that will tell them you’re cool. Always remember that before you ask a stranger for a job at a party.

*Feature photo by cottonbro (Pexels)

Writer-comedian and Script Pipeline Winner, Teresa Lo's books were optioned by 20th Century Fox, and her work appears in Yahoo, Hustler, and more. She performs standup across the US.
More posts by Teresa Lo.
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