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.
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.
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.”
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 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:
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.
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).
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.
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.
You landed a freelance writing job. A big one.
Extra effort went into delivering a great finished product. You sweated long and hard to get it just right.
Then, disaster. The client told you she hated what you turned in. Said it sucked.
Ouch. That smack across the ego left a wound so deep your descendants six generations into the future will feel it.
I know, because that’s the legacy of pain I’m leaving to my own great-great-great-whatever-grandkids.
To be perfectly frank, I don’t like having my work torn apart.
But over the years I’ve developed ways to make criticism of my freelance writing sting less. A lot less.
They’ve worked so well for me that, today, a client can rip my stuff to shreds, grind the remains into the floor with her heel, set fire to what’s left, then spit on the ashes, and it’ll barely cause a ripple in my sea of emotional calm.
Here’s how you too can make criticism of your writing less damaging to your psyche.
1. HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOURSELF AS A WRITER. Criticism of our writing is upsetting because deep down we’re unsure of our talent. We’re afraid the critic is justified in her nose-in-the-air sniffing at our labors.
The trick is to recognize you have what it takes to be a truly great freelance writer.
This isn’t self-delusion I’m peddling here. The fact of the matter is people can criticize you all day long but you’re still who you are – and who you are is a skilled practitioner of your art, and getting better at it all the time.
Always remember that.
2. ACCEPT THAT IT’S POSSIBLE TO DISAPPOINT. This is the flip side to Tip No. 1 above.
As good as you become at writing, you’ll never be perfect. None of us will. So, it’s inevitable you’ll hit sour notes some of the time or even a lot of the time (worry only if you’re misfiring all of the time).
Being aware of your potential to screw up can help the criticism go down easier. When the day comes that you actually do screw up and are ripped a new one for it, you won’t feel like there’s been an extinction-level asteroid impact somewhere on the planet. You’ll just go “Meh” and then sally forth to future success.
3. KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE. Maintain at least some detachment toward your work product. Start by acknowledging that your writing is nothing more than words on a sheet of paper.
There are approximately 230,000 words in the English language. A client tells you she hates the 400 you used in the piece you offered her? Say to her, “No problem. I’ve got 229,600 others we can try instead.”
The point is, don’t overinvest in your writing.
4. ASK FOR A CHANCE TO CURE THE DEFECT. The worst thing you can do when your work is attacked is limp off to a corner and sulk. What you should do instead is take action.
The way you take action here is by promising the client you’ll make things right if only she’ll give you another shot at it.
Clients will usually grant such a request because they’re decent people who want to be fair.
You’ll likely only get a “no” if the job you did was so horrible that the client has lost all confidence in you, or if there isn’t enough time to cure.
If the former, then admit defeat and move on, bearing in mind Tip No. 1 above.
If the latter, then don’t just sit there – get cracking!
5. COLLABORATE WITH THE CLIENT. This one’s hard because, after being blasted by her for what she says is subpar work, the last thing you’re going to feel like doing is being on the same continent with her, never mind being in the same room or on the same phone line.
But collaborate you must. By that, I mean you’ll fare better if you reach out and say to the client something along the lines of, “I’m committed to giving you the absolute best possible product. Can we together explore what went wrong and come up with a solution?”
This is a smart move, and not just for the reason that it’s a step toward correcting the problem.
For one, it helps reduce the client’s incentive to unceremoniously kick you to the curb. For another, it shows you’re a team player. It also shows you to be honorable – and worthy of repeat business.
Bottom line: criticism of your freelance writing can hurt less if you have confidence in yourself, you keep things in perspective, and you take action aimed at satisfying the disappointed client.