You Know You’re a Good Freelancer, So Why Take a Writing Test?

A festering sore plaguing freelance writers is that of the demand for proof of competency as a condition of employment.

I always have trouble producing such proof because I can’t hide the fact that I’m a lame-o freelance writer.

All jesting aside (oh, was I jesting?), there seems to be an ever-greater number of potential clients who insist you take a writing test to prove your chops.

Yeah, they’ve seen your resume. But you could have made up all that glowingly positive stuff about your skills set and talents. Sure, you’ve shown ‘em your portfolio. But you could have had those clips written by a ringer you brought in from out of town.

So, basically, they don’t trust you to be telling them the truth about yourself. So they want you to take a writing test.

WHAT’S INVOLVED

The test usually involves giving you a routine writing task, like crafting a press release or an email campaign piece. Depending on the client’s preferences, you may be permitted to work on it in your Good Freelance Writer garret, or you may be compelled to produce it in the client’s office.

A time limit usually applies. Could be a couple of hours; rarely is it more than a few days.

The burn is that taking the test eats up valuable time which could instead be spent making money as a good freelance writer. Worse, you take the test without hope of payment for that work.

Worse still, you get no guarantee that the job will be yours after you complete the test. Thus you risk being hosed twice over.

Many freelance writers wonder how they should handle this situation.

Well, refusing to take the test will likely mean your candidacy for this particular freelance writing gig ends right then and there.

The Hobson’s choice you face is this. Take the test and make the potential client happy, but run the very real risk that you’ll fail, allowing someone else to pick up the gig instead. Or, tell the prospect to take a hike and make it a near-certainty that a competitor snares the job, not you.

SOUND ADVICE

There’s a blog out there called Ask The Headhunter. A guy named Nick Corcodilos writes it. Two years ago, he heard from a reader miffed by tests a prospective employer wanted him to take.

This reader was a software geek, so the only writing he faced in his test involved coding. However, his situation was perfectly analogous to those encountered by freelance writers. Corcodilos offered him some pretty good advice. Here, in relevant part, is what he told him:

“My approach to situations like this is not to say no. It’s to set terms you are comfortable with, and then let the employer say yes or no. If your terms are prudent and reasonable, and they say no, then you know something funky is up — and that you’ve really lost nothing in the bargain. You merely avoided wasting your time.

“I’d tell [the prospective employer’s Human Resources screener] you’d be happy to comply with their request, but your busy schedule precludes you from [taking tests] until you and the manager [who will make the actual decision to hire] ‘establish good reasons to pursue the possibility of working together.’ In other words, no testing prior to meeting the hiring manager. Why invest your valuable time if they won’t invest theirs?”

Corcodilos also supplied suggested language you might use to politely pull this off. According to his blog, you should say this:

“I get a lot of requests to do such tests but I judge how serious an employer is about me as a candidate by whether they will invest the time to meet me first. I always go the extra mile for a company that demonstrates that level of interest. In fact, if you have time to meet, I’ll be glad to prepare a plan for how I’d do the job — and we can discuss it.”

RICH SMITH PROPOSED SOLUTION: I used to object to taking writing tests for all of the abovementioned reasons. Now, I gladly take them because I’ve figured out an easy way to profit from test writing, even if I never get the gig afterward.

Once I hand in my completed test, that product – a press release, for example – automatically becomes part of my portfolio.

Yes, it was only a test-writing. Yes, it wasn’t published (at least not to my knowledge).

But the fact remains that a business organization requested it and I wrote it. I believe it is therefore fair to show it off to other potential clients in the future.

This is a great way to fill out a freelancer portfolio that may be thin on certain kinds of writing or writing specific to certain industries you’re trying to break into.

Bottom line comes from Corcodilos: “Be polite, be professional, but don’t be a sucker.”

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Good Freelance Writers Prefer Use of ‘Active Voice’ Sentences

Good freelance writing requires that you choose a voice for your message or narrative.

Voice refers to the relationship between two particular components of each sentence – the verb and the subject.

OK, let me be right up front with you here. I hate grammar lessons. I started writing professionally 40 years ago and, to this very day, I know next to nothing when it comes to language mechanics.

For instance, ask me to explain the difference between a noun and a pronoun. In response you hear the sound of crickets.

I bet, though, you can tell the difference because you’re a good freelance writer. (Oooh, did you like the way I sneaked the keyword phrase in there? No? You think I harmed the dignity of the profession by doing that? Well, we can talk about SEO another day, my good freelance writer friend. For now, let’s stick with the topic at hand.)

So, anyway, as I was saying, I hate grammar lessons, and I am determined not to get all technical on you here. That said, I still need to explain this business of voice and its importance.

Up until this sentence, nearly every line I uttered used “active voice.” Dictionary.com defines active voice as a situation where the subject performs an act. Example:

“Joe parked the car.”

Dictionary.com defines passive voice as a situation where the verb acts on the subject. Example:

“The car was parked by Joe.”

Dictionary.com adds that “it is usually preferable to use the active voice wherever possible, because it gives a sense of immediacy to the sentence.”

I completely agree. That sense of immediacy gets readers of good freelance writing turned on and begging for more.

Granted, there is a time and place for passive voice (like in this sentence). One place it works poorly: a press release.

Let me show you what I mean. This morning, I grabbed two press releases hot off the wires. One used active voice. The other used passive. Passive first:

You may know The Savings Bank Life Insurance Company of Massachusetts (SBLI) as the company that has provided generations of families with affordable, dependable life insurance and annuities. Now, SBLI is going above and beyond by offering a product to customers which they can use long after they’ve purchased their coverage.

Now the one with active voice:

Synagro today requested a building permit to develop its Slate Belt Heat Recovery Center tying directly into the Green Knight Energy Center and within the township’s solid waste zone….Synagro expects to spend up to $26 million constructing the facility.

Basically, your sentences speak in passive voice if they contain the words “has,” “was,” or “is.” You need to use those constructs sparingly if you want your readers to really engage with your writing.

So, a tip of the hat to the folks at Synagro for speaking in active voice.

Meanwhile, Savings Bank Life Insurance Company of Massachusetts must see me after class. I want to show them how to convert passive voicing into the active form of it.

Heck, let me just demonstrate it now in front of everyone.

RICH SMITH SUGGESTED REWRITE:

Known for providing affordable, dependable life insurance and annuities to generations of families, The Savings Bank Life Insurance Company of Massachusetts (SBLI) now goes above and beyond by offering a product designed for use long after the purchase of coverage.

In addition to giving crisper tone and pacing, this active voice conversion also makes the key points of this narrative much more accessible to readers.

That’s really important, so let it sink in. Accessibility to information counts for everything in writing.

BOTTOM LINE: Use active voice in your freelance writing whenever possible. Use passive voice sparingly. Active voice commands reader interest and encourages engagement (plus sparks action) better than passive voice.

A Good Freelance Writer Marches to the Beat of a Different Drummer

Like I say at my website, a good freelance writer should not only march to the beat of a different drummer but should in fact BE that different drummer.

This advice makes sense only if you recognize that you, as a freelance writer, make music with your words.

OK, wait. Let me clarify that. You make music, yes, but not a melody. The music you make with your writing is purely rhythmic.

PERCUSSION INSTRUMENTS

It’s my opinion that words are a type of percussion instrument. There is a beat that sounds out as a word is read or spoken. When you string words together they form a rhythmic pattern.

If you string the right words together the right way, the rhythmic pattern is pleasing to the brain.

If you string the wrong words together (or string the right words together but in the wrong way), the resultant rhythmic pattern is unpleasant.

So, basically, a good freelance writer is like a drummer.

A drummer uses sticks to strike the drums (and cymbals) to produce a pleasing rhythmic pattern. A good freelance writer uses words the same way – and to the same effect.

It’s important that you, as a freelance writer, think of yourself as a musician of sorts because readers and listeners get thrilled being immersed in words that rock. Indeed, the more the words rock, the more immersed the audience becomes.

This is why I’ve counseled freelance writers who want to be really good at their craft to forget about learning the difference between a preposition and a participle and instead concentrate on learning the difference between a paradiddle and a pataflafla.

RUDIMENTARY DRUM BEATS

Paradiddle and pataflafla are rudimentary types of drum beats. People who take drum lessons learn to do paradiddles and pataflaflas not long after they learn the proper way to hold a set of drumsticks.

I learned how to execute a paradiddle and a pataflafla when I was a kid (that’s when I took drum lessons). I never played drums professionally, but I do like to jam a little to recorded music every now and again to keep my skills intact.

However, one thing drum lessons did is they gave me a strong appreciation for the music that words make. That appreciation has practical application in that it gives me an ear for how a sentence, a paragraph, and entire story should be constructed in order to maximize reader or listener engagement.

Engagement is key. Engagement is the name of the game these days because your clients – the editors and companies that retain you – want you to give them writing that audiences will truly dig.

You can go a long way toward satisfying their wants if you think of yourself not just as a wordsmith but also as a drummer.

HERE’S WHAT TO DO, FREELANCER

After you write a sentence or a complete graf, go back and read it over to yourself. As you do, try to hear the beat those word strings are making.

You know you’ve got a potentially great sentence or graf if you like the way the beat grabs you. It’s probably a piece of smokin’-hot prose if it has a pulsating feel to it.

Bottom line: a good freelance writer has an ear for the rhythms that words make and knows how to string those words together in a way that will get audiences dancing to the tune being played.

A Good Freelance Writer Pays Attention to Spelling, Grammar

A bad freelance writer is one who spels words incorectly.

Freelance writurs who make typoz or who make garmatical erors on there werk are deserving of all the ridicule that can be muster on thim.

What’s that you say? I’m a hypocrite because you spotted spelling and grammar mistakes in this post, and here I am telling you that you stink as a freelance writer for making spelling and grammar errors? You say you’ve never been angrier?

Well, then, just imagine how your freelance writing clients feel when you deliver copy riddled with defects.

I’ll save you the energy required to imagine it by revealing that your spelling and grammar errors make them angrier than you felt a minute ago when you saw all my spelling and grammar errors and decided I was a hypocrite (which, naturally, I am, so congratulations to you for being such a perceptive person).

I know spelling and grammar errors make freelance writing clients mad because I’ve upset many of my own peeps by turning in less-than pristine product time and again.

Having been guilty of multiple counts of this crime myself, I’m perfectly positioned to tell you why spelling errors and grammar mistakes don’t get corrected before the client receives your work.

There are three reasons. They are:

• Laziness
• Haste
• Over-confidence

I’m tempted to add ignorance to the list, but let’s not go there. Anyone smart enough to be a freelance writer isn’t likely a dodo when it comes to spelling. Unless you’re me.

So let’s go through the three reasons cited above, one by one.

LAZINESS

You get to the end of the assignment, you bang out the final word, you lay down the ending punctuation mark. You’re done. That’s all, folks. The body-positivity lady has sung. Put your feet up on the desk.

The last thing you want to do now is go back to the beginning of the story and read it with an eye toward catching all the mistakes that are guaranteed to be in there, even though you had your spell-checker or grammar-fixer software running live as you wrote.

You want nothing more at this point than to pack up this story and ship it over to the client. Being done is gratifying. Lifting not a finger more is heavenly.

But you’re not done – and should take no gratification or pleasure – until you’ve double- or even triple-checked your work for accuracy of spelling and grammar.

If you don’t feel like doing it right away, it’s OK to put it off until tomorrow (unless you’re right up against the deadline).

In fact, if you do have the luxury of time, you should put off your copy proofing until morning for the reason that you’ll be looking at your story with fresh eyes. You’ll be amazed at how many mistakes you catch in a piece you thought perfect at bedtime if you edit it after an overnight break. You’ll spot other things too, such as choppiness of transitions, flaws in organization, and weaknesses in sentence construction (those that cause the reader to abandon the story because they’ve been confronted with an impenetrable word jumble).

HASTE

This is a problem when you do a Sonic the Hedgehog impersonation to speed you through the assignment.

Maybe you hate the assignment and want to wash your hands of it ASAP, so you race to complete it. In the process, you make spelling and grammar mistakes – and don’t really care because your magical thinking leads you to believe the client will be glad to receive it in whatever shape you submit it.

Maybe you’ve got other, higher-value freelance writing projects clamoring for your attention, so you dash this one out in order to attend to those awaiting you in the queue.

Or maybe in a classic Rich Smith move you goofed off for the first 14 days of a 15-day deadline and now, suddenly, the due date is at hand. If you had started the project when or soon after you received it, you wouldn’t now be in this bind. But here you are, racing to play catch-up. The ensuing haste is bound to make waste.

OVER-CONFIDENCE

It’s possible that you’re submitting work with mistakes in it because you’ve completely convinced yourself that you were sufficiently careful as you typed.

I’ve done that one. A lot. And am endlessly surprised to see how many goofs that I was sure I wasn’t making were actually made.

I can’t stress this enough. It doesn’t matter how careful you think you are being as you assemble the product. You are going to make spelling and grammatical mistakes.

Also, don’t put total confidence in your real-time spell-checker to keep your copy mistake free. You may have noticed that it doesn’t catch all the misspelled words. This is especially true of homonyms – words that sound identical but have different meanings and, hence, different spellings. The problem is your spell-checker may not be able to figure out from the context of your writing which of two or more possible meanings you intend.

Bottom line: you should make it a habit to carefully review your freelance writing copy for spelling and grammar errors. Take your time in working through the text – proceed word by word, line by line. This is important because clients don’t like receiving work pockmarked by typos and grammar errors.

Use Humor to Attract Freelance Writing Clients

Rummaging around the other day in the cobwebby back of my freelance writer portfolio, I came across a campaign I used to drum up freelance writing business.

I thought I’d share it with you as an example of how humor can be used to promote your own freelance writing services.

This was a direct-mail campaign. However, it can be easily refashioned into an email outreach.

COUNTDOWN LIST MAINTAINED INTEREST

The strategy was to deliver to targeted prospects five mail pieces over a two-week period. The pieces had similar dimensions and formatting (which allowed recipients to recognize that the five pieces were related to one another).

As for content, each mailer featured to two main paragraphs of text. The first graf was humorous; the second was a features-benefits pitch played straight.

The two grafs were set up as part of a larger countdown list.

The countdown list started at 10 and ended with 1. The idea here was that recipients would look forward to receiving each subsequent mailer just to find out how the countdown would proceed and ultimately end.

Atop the two grafs of each mailer was a header. The header never changed from mailer to mailer. The header read: “Top 10 Reasons to Hire ME!”

Immediately below the header was a deck. The deck was different each time. It described a specific freelance writing service that I could provide.

Here’s a sampler of what appeared on each mailer.

MAILER 1

Top 10 Reasons to Hire ME!
For on-demand newswriting

Reason 10. My parole officer says a long-term freelance writing relationship with you should – repeat, should – help rehabilitate me and smooth the way for my eventual reintegration with society.

Reason 9. Communications developed by you and me as a team will penetrate people’s brains deeper than you ever thought possible.

MAILER 2

Top 10 Reasons to Hire ME!
For on-demand brochure writing.

Reason 8. Your expectation of receiving completed freelance writing projects electronically will force me to switch from technologies with names like Crayola and Ohio Art.

Reason 7. Writing you request will land on your desk way faster, in remarkably cleaner condition, and at a surprisingly lower cost compared to what you may be accustomed to receiving.”

You get the idea. So, let me end the demo right there.

I know. “Awww, Rich Smith is a meanie. Show us the rest of it, you fink.”

Actually, I’m ending the show here because I think those examples make clear what I was talking about earlier: each mailer making the recipient eager for the next one to arrive.

The reason the recipient will be eager is because he or she wants to see if the subsequent reasons are funnier than the ones that came before.

It doesn’t matter if they are or aren’t funnier. What matters is that the recipient is in the thrall of anticipation. That’s a very good place for a sales prospect to be, whether you’re selling aluminum siding or freelance writing (which, of course, some people view as the functional equivalent of aluminum siding).

Bottom line: Humor can be an effective technique for promoting one’s freelance writing availability and prowess.

Your Freelance Writing Should Brim with Wit, Not Snark

Every freelance writer wants to be known as a witty wordsmith. You’re no exception.

At least I hope you’re no exception.

There are benefits galore associated with being a witty freelance writer. Popularity is the biggest one.

Popularity as in everyone wants to hire you.

It’s completely understandable why there would be demand for witty freelance writers. They craft writing that is engaging, challenging, rousing, and satisfying.

Witty freelance writers deliver for their clients copy that gets read. And copy that gets read – start to finish – is copy that stands a better chance of generating response from target audiences.

WHAT IS WIT?

The problem for many freelance writers is they don’t know how to be witty.

Or, more precisely, they don’t know how to be witty because they don’t know what wittiness is.

Over at dictionary.com, they define wit as “the keen perception and cleverly apt expression of those connections between ideas that awaken amusement and pleasure. Synonyms: drollery, facetiousness, waggishness, repartee.”

You’ll notice that missing from the synonyms list is the word “snark.”

Dictionary.com defines snark as “rude or sarcastic criticism.”

That’s totally different from “amusement and pleasure.”

My friends, I’m here to tell you that snark is to be avoided in your freelance writing – especially if you’re churning out content for a corporation or other entity that needs to speak temperately.

(I make an exception for snark in an autobiography or Hollywood tell-all. It’s OK in those settings for the reason that readers are expecting rude and sarcastic.)

Notwithstanding that lone exception, you don’t want to peddle snark because it’s a turn-off to a lot of people. My sense is that the ranks of those hostile to snark are growing. (Why are they growing? That’s a discussion for another day.)

If you’re writing to help your client gain friends, attract customers, win buy-in, and so forth by showing how cool and hip your client is, then you can’t afford to write to alienate – and snark alienates.

Show cool and hip by instead being witty.

AN EXAMPLE OF WIT

Right about now you’re probably going, “Hey, Rich Smith, quit stalling. Give us an illustration of witty writing.”

You want it, you got it.

NBC News at its website posted this story March 9. Here’s just the first three elements.

Headline: “Lawyer’s Pants Catch Fire During Florida Arson Trial”

Lede: “It seemed like a set up to a tired joke: A lawyer’s pants caught on fire in court.

Body graf 1: “But on Wednesday, it was Stephen Gutierrez’s reality when the Florida defense attorney’s pants began smoking during an arson trial, Eleventh Circuit Court Public Relations Director Eunice Sigler confirmed to NBC News Thursday.”

Some blogger somewhere reposted the headline and lede but teased them in what I consider to be a reasonably witty way:

“WELL PLAYED, UNIVERSE. WELL PLAYED”

This was witty because he created amusement in and pleasure at the poetic justice served upon a lawyer – a guy in a profession with a reputation for making the most outlandish claims.

But although the blogger’s tease was good, I think the writer of the original post at NBC News blew a chance for some potentially very witty writing.

RICH SMITH PROPOSED HEADLINE REWRITE:

“Lawyer’s Pants Catch Fire as He Pleads His Client’s Innocence”

The NBC headline laid an egg because it left out a crucial piece of information readers needed in order to derive amusement and pleasure. I imply that missing info in my rewrite – it’s that the lawyer’s pants caught fire while he was engaged in the very act of spinning his yarn about the cops catching the wrong guy.

Irony? Much.

Bottom line: Freelance writers need to know the difference between wit and snark, and to strive to infuse their writing with wit, not snark.

Take Your Foot Off the Gas to Speed Up What You Write

Freelance writers looking for work – you’ll improve your chances of being hired and making the client happy if you write sentences short and sweet.

I don’t care if it’s your resume or a proposal or what have you. It needs to be brisk and breezy. You do that by writing as few words as possible to get your point across.

That’s not to say you can’t toss a long sentence into the mix here and there. You can – and you should – to enliven the pace.

Write Tight

In the main, though, write tight.

Do that, and you help ensure your message – in whatever form it takes – gets read and has impact.

With a press release, for example, your goal is to both inform and persuade. Encouraging readers to stay with your narrative, start to finish, and to accept your framing of the message requires crisp and understandable writing.

The best way to be crisp and understandable is by keeping your foot off the gas.

Gas in a sentence is bad news. What do I mean by “gas”? Gas is any extraneous words you plop into a sentence.

Some freelance writers hit the gas to pad the length of their sentences. The more gas, the higher the total word count of the completed piece.

That can be helpful if you have little to actually say and need to impress the client or the search engine, but it’s otherwise counterproductive from a reader persuasion standpoint.

Other freelance writers pump gas to give the appearance of greater erudition. Consider: which of these two sentences sounds brainier?

“See Dick and Jane run.”

Or…

“With proper and well-focused visualization, it is possible to observe the multivariate rates at which two citizens of the world, the charming and delightful Jane and her loyal but unfortunately-named companion Dick, engage in a peculiar form of locomotion, with concomitant increases in respiratory, heart, and biomechanical load.”

But which of these two sentences are you more likely to read to the end and readily understand? I thought so.

(OK, just to be fair, sentence No. 2 was something I once heard Mr. Spock say to Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy on the way to the transporter room during an episode of the original “Star Trek” series.)

Anyhoo, where was I? Oh, yes. Reasons why some freelance writers gasify their sentences.

I’m A Lazy Slob

The third reason is one I’m guilty of: putting gas in sentences because you’re an undisciplined lazy slob and it’s just easier that way.

Let me show you what I mean about gas in sentences.

I pulled a press release a few minutes ago from the free distribution service PR.com. It was issued by a company called Hubb. They make software for simplifying the management of big meetings.

Here’s the lede graf.

“Hubb is proud to announce that CEO Allie Magyar has been named a 2017 Smart Women in Meetings Awards winner. Designed to honor and celebrate all women in the meetings industry, The Smart Women in Meetings Awards recognizes the industry’s top female meeting professionals in five prestigious categories including Industry Leaders, Innovators, Entrepreneurs, Doers, and Rising Stars.”

PROBLEM: Gasification. I have identified the following 24 words (in order of use) as unnecessary to tell this story:

1. is proud

2. that

3. has been named

4. Designed to honor and celebrate all women in the meetings industry, The Smart Women in Meetings

5. prestigious

6. including

SOLUTION: Delete those unnecessary words. Deletion leaves you with this:

“Hubb announces CEO Allie Magyar is a 2017 Smart Women in Meetings Award winner. The award recognizes top female meeting professionals in five categories: Industry Leaders, Innovators, Entrepreneurs, Doers, and Rising Stars.”

Now you’ve got a piece readers can traverse faster and understand easier. And because of that, readers will be more inclined to keep reading beyond graf 1.

Added benefit: the shorter form makes it more convenient for readers to share on social media.

Still, though, this graf is rough around the edges. Here’s one way it could be remedied.

RICH SMITH PROPOSED REWRITE:

“Allie Magyar, CEO of Hubb, is a 2017 Smart Women in Meetings Award winner. The award recognizes extraordinary women achievers in the meetings profession.”

I’ve deleted the “in five categories: Industry Leaders, Innovators, Entrepreneurs, Doers, and Rising Stars” bit. Not so much because it’s gaseous (which, in this first graf it is), but because it will better serve the story if it appears in a lower, supporting graf.

Bottom line: Crisp writing is writing that gets read – and, by being read, is more likely to accomplish its mission. You make writing crisp by purging it of unnecessary words.