I'm a freelance writer. Sometimes people ask me to write samples as a test. I notice that sometimes the test itself takes too long and makes me suspicious. I've had a lot of disappointing engagements. What things should I look for to avoid such a situation?
What a great question. I have been burned many a time by this. This is especially a problem with small businesses and clients who have jobs (lasting less than a week) which they are looking to hire for.
I don't think that employers are trying to exploit job applicants. They just don't realize how time-consuming these stupid writing tests/sample requirements are.
(The hidden problem is that job seekers are under pressure to hide the amount of work they actually have to do on something).
I once had to demonstrate my competence at technical editing by editing about 5-10 pages of hugely complicated text. It easily took 4-5 hours, then I had to write a Scope of Work document (2 or 3 hours). Then I ended up not getting the contract (probably because I did not lowball my bid but gave an "honest" estimate.
I looked at that technical document 2 or 3 times to make sure it was great, and the scope of work -- which I hadn't really done before, needed to be done. (I recommend having a Scope of Work template ready at any time). Even if you have a template ready, it can easily take 1 hour to plug in what you want.
Most recently I had to take a stupid grammar test. It was only an hour long, but a lot of the answers were iffy and required explanation. (The manager just took it from a website and didn't realize that sometimes there is no one right answer and that most people with English degrees already can pass these tests with flying colors).
Here is a rule of thumb: the time to write the writing sample and do the scope of work should not be more than 20% of the total length of the contract.
Let me say that a lot of job applications involve 3-5 hours of work each, so I guess I can live with burning 3 hours of my time on writing tests, etc.
Freelance writing, as a career, is enormously oversubscribed. At the bottom of the market there are far too many writers chasing far too little work, and therefore prices are rock bottom and market conditions greatly favor the client.
At the same time, most freelance writers absolutely and irredeemably suck. Even the ones that can actually craft readable sentences don't really understand that writing is about something much more difficult and complicated than this: that figuring out what to say and how to say it to produce a specific commercial effect is difficult and demanding work. Most prospective clients understand that they want the writing they contract for to deliver specific commercial effects, but have no idea how to measure this or how to hire for it. Many have had multiple disappointing experiences with freelance writers who were cheap but sucked. No wonder they want to test writers, even thought they usually don't know how to do it effectively.
If you want to make a career as a freelance writer, therefore, you need to find a way to set yourself apart from the madding crowd of freelancers. That means, first, that you have to get good at the stuff that actually matters: commercial effect. Second, it means that you have to figure out how to convince potential clients that you have those skills.
But then, once you have those skills, you will be able to use them to convince people you have them. That is, after all, writing with a commercial effect. And at the point, you will actually be able to make a living.