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Writers Talk About Writing

How to Ace a Writing Assessment Test

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 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 did the best was widely viewed by staff as difficult and untrustworthy. (Indeed, he was. Fortunately, the company never did promote him, despite his stellar scores.)

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 a poor speller but I'm a pretty good at the task now, because I've worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 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 young 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 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. 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 are 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 a noun.

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 from Inc. One tip the author doesn't mention but that I find particularly important for business writers 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 and grammar is a good way to do that.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.