What I’m Really Looking for in Writing Samples

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little girl, aspiring writer, editing

Right now, I’m in the middle of the submissions process for the second volume of our Rescued anthology. Every so often I get a question about the writing sample requested as part of the submission package. I’ve asked for the first three paragraphs of the story, and I always tell writers that I’m looking for voice and writing style.

That’s not completely true.

I’m also looking for what I’ve increasingly come to call “the secret sauce,” the thing that separates one writing sample from the rest that come into the submissions email box. I don’t see it very often, but when I do, the feeling is electric. I get excited and inspired and it’s one of the reasons I love what I do.

It’s not talent. I get lots of submissions from talented writers. It’s something more. Best of all, it’s something that can be learned. It’s part of the craft of narrative writing and can be practiced and mastered. When I see this in a submission, I almost always move it into my Accepted folder. It’s that important to me.

So what is it? It’s the theme. I want to know from the first three paragraphs that the story has a theme that will pull the whole story together, from beginning to end. That’s what I’m really hoping to find in those first three paragraphs.

Of course, if I was looking for a whole novel and not just a three to five thousand word short story, I’d look for the theme in the first chapter. In that case, it’ll probably take more than three paragraphs for the theme to reveal itself. And not every style of narrative may want to hit you right away with where it might be taking you. But for my purposes, seeing a strong voice, good style and the theme all together and ready to take me on a ride — that’s what I call nirvana as both a reader and an editor.

I am pretty sure I’m not alone in this as an editor. So if you are submitting a narrative writing sample to anyone, anywhere, I’d recommend not just trying to pump out your best writing, but to look at your story as a whole, dig out the deeper aspect running underneath all of it, and see how you can express that. I’m not saying to be obvious with it. A foreshadowing, a promise of things to come, is much more effective. Your theme is what’s going to leave your reader feeling satisfied at the end of your story, and I want to know that you have a plan. And I want to see it in your writing sample, not just in your synopsis. Because when someone buys the book on Amazon or from her local bookseller, she’s not going to see the synopsis — she’s going to (hopefully) read your whole story. And you had better have something there that’s going to keep her reading.

I’m only mentioning this right now because after going through the submission process for two anthologies, I’ve found that even some very good writers don’t do this… and with a little bit of extra effort, they can. And they should.

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  1. This is great advice, Janiss! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Mark Watson says

    Thank you, it is great to have such insights. It is something I had never considered until now, but it is important to have direction to help steer what we write and how others see it.

  3. I love this blog! You get straight to the heart of the matter and to the heart of good writing. I actually printed this so I can refer to it when doing any future writing. This is some of the best advice I’ve ever read. Thank you so much.

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