Updated: Sep 21, 2018
INTRO: MARY-MARGARET NETWORK BLOG POST #4 This fourth post in my series was published 10/7/09. See the intro to post #1 for the what and why of this whole naive memoir.
THE AUDITION Performers open doors with headshots, demo reels or press clippings, but eventually they must audition for the gig. And writer auditions? Strange as that sounds, people are sometimes uncomfortable hiring a writer without a skills test. Or so they say. Maybe they want something for nothing. Maybe it just turns out that way despite everyone's best intentions. While I can't offer much empirical data, I can share my experiences of writing auditions.
Show Me What You Got Before I launched my writing career, I worked for someone with an interesting typing test for new office hires. She'd listen to their hands on the keyboard to gauge their relationship to the process as well as checking their work for accuracy. I believe there's a similar principle at the core of writing auditions, even if someone isn't grooving to the rhythm of your keystrokes. Your strong resume, glowing references, and drop-dead portfolio simply aren't enough. Some clients' projects or processes are so unique (to them) that they're compelled to test your skills before committing.
To you, it feels like a failure of imagination, a slap at your integrity, or another silly hoop to jump through. So do you gamely give it your best shot? Do you risk the opportunity by demanding pay-to-play or a signed contract? It depends on your hunger, your confidence in your chops, and how much you enjoy exceeding critical expectations. It also depends on your gut level of trust.
We Regret/Forget to Inform You... When I first approached the professional writing market, I had my eye on game development. Games require characters, scenes, and stories, and if that's what a prospective client wanted in an audition, that's what I was delighted to give. I recall writing a profile about a magical blue dog, falling in love with the character and believing in the creative adventures he and I would surely have together. But... sorry, no deal. And no follow-up, either. Someone else sent me grotesque cartoon sketches of three animated fruits, for whom I wrote bios and suggested story-rich situations. More deafening silence. I really bent over backward for one well-known trivia game, studying the brand, working my connections within the company, and crafting snappy multi-choice Q&A's from my storehouse of arcane knowledge. Again, nothing. Rejection is always a possibility, but even worse is the cold shoulder from people just too darn busy for a quick "thanks but no thanks."
When your would-be clients explain after the audition why they actually won't be your clients, at least you learn something. For example, after whipping out a fun little soap opera scene for an audio products site, I got a grinning thumbs-up from the creative director, who soon apologized that, unbeknownst to her, the marketing director had other plans. Just another useful demonstration of the budget moving in mysterious ways. More recently, I was groomed as a dramatic scriptwriter of audio tours, but much as the producers loved my sample, the writer they expected me to replace showed no signs of retiring. This was four years ago, and he might be there still. And who could blame him?
Who Benefits? One would-be client (not a game developer), dangled a lucrative web-copywriting arrangement, auditioned me with a completely unrelated assignment, said we'd be in touch, and acted surprised when I called him back. He definitely got something for nothing, but I benefited, too -- that little bait-and-switch taught me about him!
To be fair about legitimate auditions, though, you're taking a chance with your time and skills, but someone else is taking a chance by sharing their intellectual property with an unknown writer who promises them the moon. And if you don't measure up, does your writing sample also become their intellectual property? I don't have an answer, but it's a good question to ask before shaking a hand or signing a non-disclosure.
Here's one more thing to ponder. Nobody who requested an audition for a creative gig ever hired me. Is there a correlation or is it just my luck? I can't answer that, either, but I will continue in this vein next time with a few humbling tales about learning the hard way.