The Secrets to Samples
Many of us who write for educational publishers are very familiar with samples. These are the bits of writing publishers use to judge whether you’re a writer who can do the job for them. If you’ve never handled writing samples, they can be scary.
How do you know if the sample you’re sending will wow the publisher?
What about reading levels?
The questions and fears can build to the point that you let a great potential opportunity pass simply because you were too scared to try. So let’s tackle samples and how to handle them.
But I don’t know the rules!
Yes, it’s true that the publisher is going to look to see that your sample matches your targeted reader age in content, style, and interest level. The thing they’re not going to be looking for is whether the sample exactly matches their rules for leveling. The reason they won’t be expecting you to match their rules is that they haven’t given you their rules yet. No publisher expects you to simply magically know everything. They’re aware that you would have written the sample differently if you’d been given the full guidelines. So don’t panic about whether you know how to do it their way. You don’t. And it doesn’t matter.
Having said that, you do need to produce a sample that generally matches the age level you tell them your sample is written for in tone, subject, and general style. For example, elementary kids like humor, action, and dialogue where each person’s speech is short. So if you’ve got your main character launching into a 35-word explanation of something, that isn’t going to impress the publisher. If your whole sample takes place in the character’s head or half of the example is your backstory where you tell the reader all about the character, that’s not going to impress the publisher.
Now, older readers will be more patient with longer dialogue, and humor, action, and pithy dialogue is never a bad idea. But humor can be tricky. Things teens find funny and things third graders find funny aren’t usually the same (unless it’s physical humor which is practically universal). Very early elementary (first and second grade) can have serious problems figuring out wordplay humor but they like physical humor and they like sound effects (Crash! Tinkle! Flap, flap!). Fluent readers like wordplay humor but are less amused by the sound effects humor that enchanted the little kids. And sound effects in teen novels tend to be met with eye rolls, so you really don’t want to do that.
Being mindful of word choice for each age won’t hurt you, but don’t fret over much about this aspect. If you’re showing that you can write something that the age group can connect to, you’re already doing the thing most samples don’t do. So think about your reader.
Write dessert, not vitamins
Samples are also not the time to do anything even slightly preachy or didactic. Here’s the thing. Anyone can write a lesson. It’s actually not hard. It’s just a matter of putting the purpose of the piece ahead of anything related to the reader. So publishers know that if they ask, you can inject a lesson into your writing. They know that. So what don’t they know? They don’t know if you can engage and delight a reader. They don’t know if you can write lively dialogue. They don’t know if you can write clear and interesting action. They don’t know if you can capture sensory detail in a way that is both evocative and brief. They don’t know if you can create engaging characters. Those are the things they’re looking for in a sample.
Imagine they’re looking at two samples. In the first, the publisher reads through and says, “It looks like we’re going to have to help this one with leveling, but she sure can tell a story.” And then they read the next one, “It’s amazing how well this one matched our leveling system; too bad she can’t tell a story.” Now which one do you think they’ll hire? If you said the one who can tell a story, you got it! The publisher can match their system, but they’re looking for someone who can grab readers and delight them.
How to get started
One great way to prepare for writing a sample is to create two characters who are the target age of your sample. Make a list of traits for each and make sure the traits conflict. For example, if Joey is hyper, funny, friendly, and loves superheroes, then you might make Mike into a kid who is very calm, serious, a bit sarcastic, with a passion for bugs. Now that you have the list of traits, begin to picture the kids in your head. Is Joey rumpled with crazy hair? Is Mike very neatly dressed or is he the kind of absent-minded child who doesn’t even notice what he puts on? Think about them. I like to either sketch them (because I draw) or look for photos online to “represent” my kids.
Then take these two kids and put them into a tight situation that they can’t get out of easily. Lock them in the janitor’s closet. Put them in on a broken down school bus, where all the other kids were dropped off before it broke down. Stick them in a row boat on a lake. Do whatever you need to but force them together and then give them a problem. They have to get out of the closet before the buses leave them behind. Mike tries to get his homework done on the broken down bus whereas Joey is bouncing around. Mike can’t swim and the boat is leaking. Some kind of problem that will up the tension and give them something to focus on. Now you might not be able to overcome the problem in a brief sample, but you’ll be able to show tension, conflict, and (if you’ve chosen your characters well) plenty of personality and maybe a bit of humor.
Don’t worry at all about the backstory of how the kids got into the tight situation. This is a sample, not a book. Stick them in it and let them struggle in lively and amusing ways. And keep your cast of characters very small in a sample. A cast of two lets you focus on the story and characters and less on the logistics of moving a bunch of kids around. And above all else, relax and have fun with it. Your enjoyment will transfer to the sample.
I actually make sample writing a kind of writing prompt for myself on a regular basis, using my basic sample writing parameters. I set my “level” when I choose the age of the characters facing the “stuck together” situation. Since I don’t have to craft complete stories, I can stick them into pretty wild situations. I can explore different genre. And sometimes I end up with a sample that eventually turns into a story I sell or a full-blown idea that I use for a book proposal. So don’t let samples stall you. They’re actually more freeing than full story writing and if you have fun with them, you’re likely to produce a piece that makes the publisher sit up and take notice.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.