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.
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.
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.”
“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
3. has been named
4. Designed to honor and celebrate all women in the meetings industry, The Smart Women in Meetings
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.