At a recent roundtable meeting with a dozen or so PR executives, the conversation eventually turned to team building. When hiring new people, the executives said they look for candidates with sound judgment, the ability to function as a one-person broadcaster, comfort with data, familiarity with annual reports and overall flexibility. No one mentioned the ability to write well, which didn't come as a big surprise. Public relations has always attracted wordsmiths. It should be a given that anyone who works in communications can write well.
Looking back, I wish I had asked the roundtable participants if they had ever had the misfortune of hiring someone who couldn't be counted on to write clean, concise, cogent emails, social posts, articles, blog posts, press releases and marketing copy. I'm sure they've all been there. If you're a manager in any field, you've been there. A candidate might be brilliant in a series of interviews and have every skill and attribute you're looking for, but for that one flaw—a flaw that would have surfaced quickly had the candidate been given an on-site writing test. Writing samples are notoriously inconclusive; there's no telling how heavy an editor's hand was in a given piece. Only an in-person writing test will do.
If you're in the market for a new job in communications, assume that anybody you might be meeting for an interview once made the mistake of hiring somebody without having given that person a writing test (it's a mistake you make just once). Expect to be asked to take a writing test.
A few years back, Andrew Hindes wrote a terrific article for PR News in which he lists five tips for acing a writing test. Here are four more to keep in your back pocket:
- Make note of the time limit for the writing test. If you weren't given a time limit, ask for one and make a point of letting your prospective employer know you've kept to the time limit.
- Assume your writing test is going to be littered with typos, missing words and odd punctuation. Save at least five minutes of the time allotted to proofread your copy. Read your copy backward—start with the last sentence and go to the first sentence. Your prospective employer is not looking to hire Dashiell Hammett; she's looking to hire someone who has an eye for detail and a professional attitude.
- Write short sentences. The shorter they are, the less likely you'll write a run-on sentence. A run-on sentence is usually grounds for automatic disqualification for a job that demands a lot of writing.
- Worry less about the content and more about the form. Your potential supervisor's first concern will be the amount of revision your written material will require should you get the job.
My final recommendation is tangentially related to writing. Always ask for your interviewers' business cards and send each person a thank-you note. Emailing the note is fine—just follow the same guidelines you used for your writing test.
—Steve Goldstein, editorial director, PR News @SGoldsteinAI