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Freelance copywriter – passing the copy test

As a freelance copywriter, when was the last time I was asked to do a copy test? Let me think… probably never.

That was, until last week when I received an email from another freelancer:

‘I met with the client this morning. He has asked me to set a little task to determine the tone of voice he is after… In essence he wants his points made into a conversational tone that is understandable. He therefore would like you to “Describe what shark tastes like?”, in no more than one paragraph. He is looking for a style that injects some life into a dull subject.’

There is so much debate amongst the creative community about working for free or doing free pitches. As a freelance copywriter I fully support the ‘sorry I don’t work for free’ school of thought, but the client wanted just one paragraph and what a brief – I couldn’t resist.

How would a vegetarian know what shark tastes like?

I’ve never eaten shark and never will, but then again I’ve never taken a pregnancy test, installed a fire alarm, done a gym workout or owned a cat, but that’s never stopped me writing about these and a squillion other alien subjects.

So, as ever I set about the task with gusto and within a few minutes I was immersed in a new and exciting sharky world. Yes, the client only asked for one paragraph (a bit like tasting one olive before buying half a kilo at a French market), but I got carried away.

There are so many different angles I could take – do I like shark meat or hate it? Am I talking to non-fish eaters or preaching to the converted?

Against my better judgement, I ended up writing six versions.

Ranging from just one snappy paragraph (the actual brief) to mini food blogger-type pieces, the love of writing got the better of me. I’m a freelance copywriter, give me a break! So, what does shark taste like? Here’s what I sent back.

What does shark taste like? The long, fairly balanced, but ultimately pro version for foodies:

The poor old shark gets some pretty bad press. Not just because of Steven Spielberg’s ‘70s cinematic masterpiece, but because many people simply don’t like the taste. However, before you reach for another sea bass, let’s give this much-maligned creature another chance.

Firstly, you can’t eat any old shark. Mako, thresher and dogfish (yes, they’re sharks too) are the most popular species with aficionados. How you prepare the meat is also hugely important. Many non-shark lovers complain that it tastes of ammonia. Well, that’s because sharks pee through their skin and if not pre-soaked, admittedly it can be a bit iffy.

Hopefully I’ve not put you off at this stage because if treated with a bit of TLC, shark can be absolutely delicious. It’s great battered and deep-fried and perfect for kebabs, but here’s how to prepare the best shark steak ever:

Trim off the skin, soak your steaks in cold milk, cover and leave overnight in the fridge. Pour away the liquid and pat the steaks dry before marinating in soy sauce, minced garlic, sea salt, black pepper, chili powder and fresh thyme. Cover and leave for an hour or two, then brush the steaks with olive oil and place on a medium-hot griddle or barbecue for about 5-6 minutes on each side. You can tell if the steaks are done when the meat is opaque but still moist and flaky.

So, how does it taste? Well it’s meaty (without being chewy) like tuna, but much more delicate in flavour; like a subtle version of cod. If you’ve ever had swordfish, it’s similar, but shark isn’t quite so dense.

What does shark taste like? The shorter version for someone who’s not keen on fish, thus needing some persuasion:

Shark is enjoyed the world over for it’s meaty texture and subtle flavour. At just 102 calories and containing only 1.1g of fat per 100 grams, it’s also a much healthier option than chicken, beef, lamb or pork.

Deep-fried, cut into steaks or turned into yummy kebabs, shark is so versatile and such great value you’ll wonder why you hadn’t tried it sooner.

Shark, like tofu, takes on the flavour of herbs and spices beautifully. Marinate and grill with your favourite veggies and in a matter of minutes you’ve made one of the tastiest meals imaginable. Simply put, this is the fish that non-fish-eaters love to eat. Bon appetite.

What does shark taste like? The short, pithy version that tells it like it is:

In the wrong hands, shark tastes downright disgusting. Heavy with ammonia and tough as old boots, it can be just as bad for your palate as it was for Chief Brody in Jaws. However, if it’s fresh, soaked overnight and marinated in soya sauce and spices, shark steaks offer a cheaper alternative to swordfish. It doesn’t taste of much, but like many sources of protein, it’s how you cook it that makes all the difference.

What does shark taste like? The somewhat cheeky, chatty and very pro-shark version:

You know what people say about any meat they’ve never actually eaten  – “it probably tastes like chicken”.

Firstly, let me tell you that shark is nothing like chicken. The shark is the undisputed monarch of the ocean, the stuff that legends are made of. Chickens are funny little feathery things that scratch about in the dirt!

If you’re a shark virgin, you’re in for a treat. Fire up the barbecue and get ready for a meaty, man-sized mouthful with all the flavour (but half the fat), of pretty much anything else you might be tempted to throw on the grill.

Is that greasy burger as packed with vitamins, minerals and Omega-3? I don’t think so. Does that sausage have such a healthy, ocean-fresh flavour? I seriously doubt it.

A word of warning: if you’re planning on catching your own shark, be careful or it’ll be telling its friends how you taste.

What does shark taste like? The massively positive version from a shark evangelist:

Have you ever eaten shark? If you haven’t and you want to give it a try, then may I suggest you give Googling ‘what does shark taste like’ a very wide berth.

If I’d let the web tell me whether or not I was going to like the taste, I’m pretty sure I’d never have had the pleasure of savouring a juicy, freshly barbecued shark steak on a Caribbean beach, washed down with an icy Red Stripe. Mmmmm…

As you might have guessed, I love shark. It’s not as beefy as tuna and not quite as dense as swordfish, but it gives both a run for their money. It’s low in calories and fat and it’s ridiculously versatile. Kebab it, serve it battered with chips or for purists like me, keep it simple with a citrusy or spicy marinade and put it on the BBQ.

However, if you really want to know whether shark is for you, you’re going to have to dive in and find out for yourself.

What does shark taste like? The ‘never again in a million years’ version:

So, you’ve never eaten shark before? Well brace yourself, because you’re heading for stormy seas. The first and only time I‘ve eaten shark was in Florida. The sun was going down, we’d found a delightful fish restaurant – Boon Docks on the west bay of Panama City Beach. Then I went and spoiled everything by ordering one of the worst meals of my life.

The skin was so unforgiving, by the time I’d battled my way into it with a steak knife, I felt like I’d actually wrestled the beast ashore. Then it got a whole lot worse – the taste and texture! Think dry pork, but with the porkiness replaced by a muddy mix of urea, mercury and salt. How something manages to be both flaccid and tough at the same time is beyond me.

Of course, it could have been the chef’s fault, but this was a famous seafood joint that everyone was raving about. Either way, my encounter with a shark left me traumatised; I will not be entering the water again.

Freelance copywriter or mad man?

So I’d broken the ‘don’t work for free’ copywriter’s code, ignored the fact that the client only wanted one solitary paragraph and spent far too long on something that wasn’t helping to pay the bills. And I’d enjoyed every minute of it. I was starting to have doubts, had I gone ever so slightly mad?

Then yesterday I received another email:

‘I’ve heard back from my client who said… “it’s gotta be Jonathan:)  A very good effort and showed versatility and thinking about it from different angles”
So the job is yours!’

Now, I won’t be making a habit of doing copy tests or free pitches (and I definitely won’t be eating shark), but where there’s mutual respect and a great creative challenge, anything’s possible.

For more on copywriting, read:

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Jonathan Wilcock (that’s me) is a Senior Freelance Copywriter.
You can drop me a line here, or email