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.”