Why You Shouldn’t Create Your Own Writing Samples–And What You Can Do to Get REAL Clips Instead
It’s hard to get an assignment from a magazine when you have no previously published articles to show the editor.
And it’s hard to get any article clips if you can’t get an assignment.
Often, when I meet writers like this, they’ll tell me they’ve got an idea on how to break out of this cycle. They’ll proudly announce:
“I’m going to just create a few articles and put them on my website to be my samples.”
Then they put up their samples, reference them in query letters…and nothing happens. No assignments materialize.
The fake sample articles didn’t do the trick.
Which is why I don’t advocate that writers create their own samples, sitting alone by their computers, with no input from anybody.
To understand the reason, let’s look at the difference between your self-created sample and an article that gets published in a magazine.
How articles get published
A real article has an editor.
You pitch your idea and it gets accepted.
Then you research, interview, write and submit your draft.
Then the editor often suggests changes to it. Maybe asks you to call a source back and ask them one more question.
Finally, the publication deems it worthy of including in their magazine and publishes it.
When you put a clip like that in your portfolio, it proves something.
You were able to work with an editor and please them with your writing. This reassures other editors that you will be able to come through on assignments for them, too.
Two problems with your made-up samples
When you write your own article, no one approved your idea, edited your story, or made the decision that it was ready to appear in print.
So it doesn’t prove anything much about your abilities to work as a professional article writer. It does not impress anyone that you could deliver a great article for their publication.
The other reason to not dream up your own samples in a vacuum is a that having an editor will help make your piece better.
I know, a lot of writers hate editors, but truly, it’s rare that I don’t find my piece improved by the editor’s input.
Often, that help starts with refining the idea into a sharper story angle, writing a great headline, and improving the chances that when you write it, people will want to read it.
When you write your own sample, you miss all that — and often, the result is a less-compelling article.
Two ways to get a legit sample
There are two better ways to get samples that will do a much better job convincing prospects to hire you:
1) Mine your past. Many writers tell me they have “no” clips, only to later add that they wrote for the company newsletter for years, or their college alumni magazine years back.
I don’t know why writers think work they did at a day job can’t count as a writing sample…but it does! I use samples from my staff-writer days all the time.
Get those pieces made into a PDF, scan it up on your site, and presto! You’ve got proof you’ve written something for a customer, even if that customer was your full-time boss.
Also, those clips from your long-ago marketing job — or from the newspapers you wrote for two babies ago — are not too old. There’s no such thing! I routinely send out decade-old clips if they show an expertise I need for an assignment.
I hear a lot of excuses from writers about their inability to locate old clips. Be resourceful! You’d be surprised what’s bouncing around the Internet, and how many companies have a marketing morgue where old campaigns or company newsletters might still be lurking about.
2) Do a pro bono project. If you truly don’t have any past writing work that would serve as a good writing sample, then you need to find a client to give you an assignment.
Approach a legitimate market — a charity newsletter, for instance, or a small local daily or business weekly — and tell them you’re looking to add a few clips to your portfolio in a particular topic. You don’t have to tell them you don’t have any samples yet.
What they have to agree to is that they won’t tell anyone you did this article for free. If they like it, they have to promise to give you a testimonial to help you get future clients.
For instance, when I first moved up to Seattle and felt no one knew me here, I wrote a few volunteer articles for the newspaper put out by my regional library system. That gave me local clips and helped establish me as a writer working in the Northwest. I never mentioned the pieces were unpaid, and no one ever asked me.
Put a couple-three volunteer projects under your belt, and the next thing you know, you’re ready to pitch your work anywhere.
It only takes a few articles, and then you’ll never have to be afraid to pitch your dream magazine because “I don’t have any clips” again.
How did you get your first samples? Leave a comment and tell us how you got it done.
Congratulations to Rachel Frank, who won the Renegade Writer contest for $125 worth of free proofreading or editing services from ProofreadingServices.com. Rachel, shoot me an email and I’ll send you the code to claim your prize! And for all other Renegades, ProofreadingSevices.com is offering a 30% discount with this code: RENEGADE30. Thanks to everyone who entered!
Stick figure by W. Eric Martin. Thanks, Eric!
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