How to ace a writing assessment test

writing assessment test tips

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Does the mere thought of a test make your stomach clench? Here are some basic writing assessment test tips…

I once failed a personality test.

OK, to be honest, it’s not technically possible to fail such a test because we all have personalities. But I didn’t do well on it and it really didn’t capture anything significant about my skills or character. When the consultant (not a psychologist, incidentally) looked at my results and earnestly suggested I join a Toastmaster’s club, I knew he was way off base. The test hadn’t ascertained that I’d been a championship-level debater and had no fear or trouble with speaking in public.

That’s the problem with these tests. Depending on how they’re written and who conducts them, they often over-extrapolate and may come to particularly whacky conclusions. In my series of tests — which were designed to gauge suitability for future promotion — the person who earned the highest score was widely viewed by staff as a difficult and untrustworthy. (Indeed he was. Fortunately, the company never did promote him, despite his stellar marks.)

A big part of succeeding at testing is knowing how to take it. Given that job testing seems to be growing, and that more than 60 percent of organizations with more than 100 employees  do it, here is some advice on how to ace a writing assessment test.

First, such tests are likely to examine spelling. I know, this says nothing about intelligence — instead, it relates strictly to visual memory. (It’s also not a particularly useful skill if you use Spellcheck and know your homonyms.)  I was born without many spelling skills but I’m pretty good at it now, because I’ve worked as a writer and editor for more than 35 years. I know that accommodate always has two Cs and two Ms and that gauge is spelled with the A first. For several years as a reporter I spelled definitely as “definately” until an editor told me I definitely had a problem with definitely, and his stern reminder has stuck.

If spelling doesn’t come naturally to you, get some help. To make the task more manageable and because tests typically don’t go much beyond the obvious, focus on the most commonly misspelled words. Here’s a good list of the top 100. Learn them!

I reviewed this chart and discovered an error that I’ve been making my entire life: bellwether. I had always thought it was bellweather, with an A. (This word is being used in my country right now as we’re in the midst of a federal election and bellwether ridings are ones in which the winner typically belongs to the party that wins the entire election.) Whenever I heard the term, bellwether, I’d always pictured a buoy floating in the water, changing direction with the wind or tide. Thus the connection to weather made sense to me. Turns out, however, that a wether is a gelded (castrated) ram that wears a bell and thus leads his flock. I’ll never forget this and never make that mistake ever again.

Grammar is another skill that writing tests are likely to examine. Again, don’t stress yourself out trying to become another William Strunk or E.B. White. Save time by focusing on the most common grammar errors. Here’s a good list,  and another one. Between them they highlight 45 grammar errors. (Some of the items on the two lists are the same but many are different.)

The most common error I spot in business writing relates to the misuse of affect vs. effect. Grammar Girl,  Mignon Fogarty, suggests an interesting way of learning the difference. Memorize the following two sentences, she suggests: “The arrows affected Aardvark. The effect was eye-popping.”

Here’s her reasoning: Affect is almost always a verb and effect is always a noun. “It should be easy to remember that affect with an A goes with the A-words, arrow and aardvark,” she says. “And effect with an E goes with the E-word, eye-popping.” If you can visualize the sentences, it’s easy to see that affect with an A is a verb and effect with an E is (usually) a noun.

Another aspect of writing that assessment tests are likely to measure relates to proofreading. How much skill do you have at that? Here’s a link to my own article on 10 ways to become a better proofreader.  The best tips for testing purposes are likely 6, 7 and 10. This last one — reading your work aloud — is the most important and useful. This is because we all read faster when we read silently. Making yourself read aloud forces you work at a pace better suited to proofreading.

Ironically, many so-called writing tests may never ask you to write (because they will be time consuming to mark), but if they do, you might want to consult this article. One tip the writer doesn’t mention but that I find particularly important to business writing relates to unclear use of the word its.

Its is a pronoun, and this means it must refer back to a noun. The trouble is, writers often use the word so far away from the original noun that the meaning isn’t clear.

Avoid this problem by checking your document for every time you’ve used its. If the meaning isn’t clear, repeat the noun instead.

Even if you never ever have to take an assessment test (lucky you!), you still need to ensure your boss is happy. Brushing up on your spelling, grammar and proofreading are good ways to do that.

Have you ever had to take a writing assessment? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.


Posted October 6th, 2015 in Power Writing

  • Carol

    These are super tips. I like to say if I draw a picture I don’t have to know how to spell the object in any language . I can just let the viewer figure what to call it and how to spell it.

    • I’ve never been able to draw so I had to learn how to spell….

  • LJ

    Thanks for more great ideas and resources! I think reading aloud is incredibly valuable–not just for improving the flow but for catching errors that spellcheck might miss.

  • HayMow

    Also found the reading aloud tip useful – thanks.
    But I think the affect/effect distinction should be: Affect is virtually always a verb, whilst effect is usually a noun but can also be a verb.

    • Yes, you’ve summarized the affect/effect distinction very well.

  • Wilhelmina Frogwatcher

    I’ve got advanced writing skills, but I always perform miserably on the GRE essays.

    • Those sorts of tests are hard and they don’t always reliably show the smartest students…

  • George Hume

    While you are chasing ‘its’,look for misuse of it and ‘it’s.’

  • Clarke Echols

    I’ve long wondered how someone is “smart” enough to figure out how smart
    you are in an IQ test. IQ=100 only means you’re as intelligent as the
    average person in the population being measured. The rest is academic

    I once took the MInnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory because I did something a dumb teen would do, and learned how easy it is to con a college dean with a psychology background. 🙂 They learned that I was perfectly normal and not a dangerous psychopath. 🙂 That was many decades ago, and my kids have turned out well… My wife keeps accusing me of being ADHD, though. She should know. We have 9-1/2 months until our 50th wedding anniversary (9 kids, 16 grandkids, and expecting great-grandkid #6). Marrying her is the best decision I ever made in my life.

    I’d question the wisdom of personality tests for hiring, but I’ve only gone job hunting a few times in my life.

    Here’s how I remember affect and effect: When you affect something, you cause an effect. If you don’t like what’s going on, you can effect (cause to happen) a different result. But if you are affected (adjective, not past tense verb), others may question your mental competence. But you can be affected by a life-changing experience. The effect may be you become a better person.

    Years ago I told a local newspaper editor to lock his staff in a room and not allow them to come out until they could use affect and effect six times in a single sentence without error.

    When I lead (rhymes with reed) a horse to water, he drinks, and we leave, I can truthfully say I led (rhymes with red) him to the trough. But I can’t say I lead (rhymes with red) the horse to water because that kind of lead is a heavy metal. I wish journalists could fix their brain on that one. I see lead used instead of the past-tense led all the time, even in major publications. It drives me nuts.

    As for its vs. it’s, just remember the apostrophe represents a missing letter, and you’re choosing its versus it is.

    “Him and me” versus “He and I”? My mother taught me to take one word out and it’s obvious: Him went to the store, or he? He hit it or I hit it? I got it from he or I got it from him? Same with she vs. her. Problem solved.

    To master spelling, if you haven’t learned to read using PHONICS, go invest some time and master it. “Whole-language and whole-word reading is a travesty and a crime against generations of pupils and students. Learn syllables and how they work and ingrain it into your reptilian brain. I was a senior tech writer at HP for 20 years and got caught twice spelling a word wrong that I though was right. Then Drayton Bird caught me mis-spelling “Merriam-Webster”. It’s not Miriam. He must have landed a huge laugh over that one.

    Knowing and thoroughly understanding phonics will also make you a much better proofreader. Take a look at these words in sequence as I change only one letter, and pay attention to the pronunciation (not pronounciation like so many people use): tough, though, through, trough. A person who does not read phonically, but by word recognition will have great difficulty with that one. But show some empathy to someone learning English as their second language.

    • My hunch is that you’re a born proofreader, Clarke. Wish I’d been born with that gene!

  • Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman

    It is time to take a test! Thank you for all the valuable links Daphne!

  • George Mitton

    I’ve been a reader of your blog for some time and always enjoy it, so I hope you won’t resent a moment’s pedantry.

    Effect can be a verb, albeit an old-fashioned sounding one, as in the phrase “to effect change”.

    Thanks for the continued good advice, which I’ve found invaluable.

    • Yes, effect can also be a verb. But that use is quite unusual and for people who struggle with affect vs effect it’s likely enough for them to see them as nouns vs verbs.

  • Patricia

    A typo in the Grammar is another skill … paragraph: (Some are the items …) should be (Some of the items …)

    • Patricia

      Whoops! Another in the second last paragraph – “to ensure your boss happy”

      Sorry, I don’t mean to be picky, Daphne. I just love reading your columns and dream of one day actually earning some real money out of my writing. Your words are always interesting and inspiring.

    • Thanks. Will fix the errors shortly. I’m out of town right now and wrote four columns before leaving. Hence the unusual number of mistakes.

  • Sole

    As a student of English as a second languaje, I am specifically trying to improve my writing skills. There are two tools that I’d like to recomend:

    – A great (and even funny) book: Paul Brian’s Common Errors in English Usage:

    – A tool I’ve already mentioned in this blog:

  • Wendy Kalman

    The trick a junior high school English teacher taught us for affect vs. effect…the word VANE, which stands for Verb Affect Noun Effect.
    Have a nice weekend!

  • Nena Snyder

    Thanks for the tips. It never hurts to reviewthem, in case of persistent errors one thought were correct.

    • You’ve said the magic phrase, Nancy: “It never hurts to review.”

  • I have to say that yours is one of the most helpful series of articles I have ever subscribed to. Thanks so much for all the time you take to really teach writing, editing, and publishing.

    • So glad you’re finding this useful. Thanks for your kind words!