How to ace a writing assessment test

Reading time: Just over 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 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 almost 90 percent of firms that do testing say they will not hire job seekers deficient in basic skills, 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 used during elections in parliamentary democracies, and “bellwether ridings” are close contests — that might easily go any way. In such a riding, however, 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. The 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 to 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.

And, while you’re examining your use of its, make sure you’ve used it correctly. It’s, with an apostrophe, MUST BE an abbreviation for “it is.” The possessive (e.g. The dog strained at its leash) NEVER takes an apostrophe.

Even if you never 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.

This post first appeared on my blog on Oct. 6, 2015.

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 April 30/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of Crucial Accountability by Kerry Patterson et al. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.