Editorial Note: After a few months of feeling sad because the dillweeds at GoDaddy destroyed my blog and all my content—and the compounded sadness from realizing I wasn’t important enough for the Wayback Machine to have indexed more than a few posts—I’m committing to regular writing again. Here goes…
Like most people who think they’re good writers but don’t actually submit a ton of stuff for evaluation by professionals, I probably have an inflated sense of how good non-parental humans think my writing is. And it was with this naive but not entirely baseless confidence that, in the winter of 2011, I submitted an application to be a member of the zany brotherhood of Groupon writers.
At the time, I was pretty strapped for cash. And I had spent enough time groaning and rolling my eyes at Groupon’s schlocky Dad-humor that I finally decided to demonstrate I could do better or just shut up about it. I can’t remember precisely, but I’m sure there were elaborate fantasies of being the Groupon equivalent of Michael Clayton. I would get called in at inflated rates to pen 4 coruscating paragraphs selling a Brazilian Wax to a community of genetically hairless Iowans or some such.
As a second job, it was close to ideal. I could work remotely and do as much as I had time for. And because I tend to write quickly, I was fairly certain I’d be making a mint in no time. Step 3: Profit!
I even had relevant blurb-writing experience. Back when I worked at The Prague Post (The World’s Most Respected Czech Republic-based, English-language newspaper), I spent a few hours each day surveying the Czech newswire and writing 50-word briefs. I also have photographic evidence of having, on at least one occasion, uttered a sentence amusing enough to make another person laugh with their whole face. And while Groupon insists that “[a]chieving Groupon Voice [ed: incidentally, how creepy and corporate is "Groupon Voice," all capitalized and without articles] is not about being inherently funny,” it seems that their writers use most of the real estate not dedicated to boring deal details for swing-for-the-fences attempts at being funny or quirky.
The Groupon application consists of a mock write-up for a deal and an online quiz that has both fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice sections. The quiz, which you can find online here, comprises both grammar/style/diction questions and questions designed to ferret out if you can determine what is funny and what is not. Or, more accurately, which choice conforms to the “Groupon Voice” and which does not.
A sample question (and answer key) from the NYT article linked above:
The kitchen is statistically the most dangerous room in a home because it contains the highest concentration of knives, open flames and …
A. cereal killers
B. spoiled fruit
D. pots of semi-living lobsters
Nearly half the writers pick A, but the correct answer is D. Puns are not allowed, spoiled fruit isn’t even remotely funny, and defaming mothers-in-law could irk mothers-in-law.
This question, like many of the questions, can cause problems for applicants that either haven’t adequately internalized the Groupon Voice or are actually funny and as a consequence lack imaginative access to the elusive GV. On the quiz, as with my sample deal write-up, I tried to put myself in the headspace of someone writing the reviews I’d been reading in my inbox for months. I thought I could achieve the appropriate tone by submerging my head in ice water for 7 minutes and then composing my response by trying to conjure Woody Allen on his worst day.
At the risk of sounding like that high school classmate that maintained he did poorly on certain SAT questions because “there were no good answers,” those answers all suck. And it’s not even close to obvious why one sucks less than the others. “Cereal killers” is an atrocious pun; “spoiled fruit” is wimpy and dumb and yet may be so wimpy and dumb that it’s actually funny; “mothers-in-law” is hackneyed, and mean without any payoff; and “pots of semi-living lobsters,” the supposed right answer, is aggressively stupid. And not because lobsters aren’t funny, or because the idea that pots of lobsters already submerged in boiling water would be dangerous is nonsensical and also unfunny. It is actually, I think, a candidate for the worst answer because of “semi-living.”
Maybe this is a personal bugaboo, but I see a lot of writing—mostly from folks under 40—in which people use ”semi-” and “quasi-” carelessly and with really lame results. These modifiers usually just make the intended thought less precise and/or more confusing. Here it just makes me want to poke my eyes out. It sounds like a lazy teenager describing lobster-zombies. Except less funny than that.
The idea behind D being the correct answer is presumably, if you’ve read that NYT piece by now, that it is “incongruous” that “semi-living” lobsters would be dangerous. And so even if it’s not funny, this is the correct answer because of the incongruity. Or something.
Here are a few other questions from the actual quiz I took. See if you can pick the right answer. I actually can’t help you out here since I don’t have my responses to the multiple choice. I scored an 82, for whatever that’s worth. I believe that’s out of 100? Which strikes me as not terrible but also was not enough to get me the job.
Select the most compelling, verifiable descriptor.
D. licensed and certified
Which is the most interesting way to describe a 4,700 pound chandelier?
A. blinged out
B. more brilliant than a studious Christmas tree
C. a death trap
D. really big and shiny
Select the most enticing descriptor for a devil’s food cupcake.
B. sure to go straight to your hips
And here are the questions and my answers to the fill-in-the-blank section, followed by my mock write-up for a kayaking tour. I tried to ape the Groupon Voice while demonstrating a bit of originality as well. I was actually pretty pleased with how the deal write-up turned out, and especially so given that I wrote it in under 30 minutes. It seemed slightly stupid, mildly and occasionally funny, and it contained all the relevant details for the deal I was asked to sell.
18. Complete the sentence with an engaging verb:
[titillate] taste buds with the tangy ceviche.
19. Complete the sentence with an engaging verb:
The soft caramel light of two fireplaces [radiates] across the oak dining area.
20. Add an adjective:
The lights on the dance floor are set to a/an [subterranean] dim.
21. What are three synonyms for ‘customer’ that you might use when describing a boating tour?
passenger, client, Gilligan-wannabe
22. In one sentence, describe the décor and ambiance of this restaurant’s dining room:
ed: My answer here gave me douchechills, but I bravely submitted it anyways. [With lush brown drapery, elegant overhead lighting, and a regal burnished wood table, [X restaurant]‘s interior is so nice one would be forgiven for not taking in the beautiful floor-to-ceiling views of the city at dusk.]
23. Humorously complete the sentence:
A hand-written note has the capacity to change minds, break hearts, or [elicit a sizable ransom].
ed: Full post-mortem disclosure: I thought “elicit a sizable ransom” alone was going to get me the job.
24. Humorously complete the sentence:
Black Magic Salon treats toes with the respect normally reserved for fingers and fingers with the respect normally reserved for [Oprah].
Kayaking Deal Write-Up
Do you resent the internal combustion engine? Think motor boats are for chumps? By taking advantage of today’s Groupon from Sea Kayak Georgia you can live out your Luddite water transportation fantasies with a half-day, all-levels kayaking tour for $25 (a $55 value). The 3-hour coastal tours are available year round and are offered every day. From March through October you have the option of 9am -12pm or 1:30pm -4:30 ; choose November through February and you’ll be spared the early morning wake-up with an 11am start. Orientations takes place 30 minutes before the posted start time.
Sea Kayak Georgia has been owned and operated by locals Marsha Henson and Ronnie Kemp since 1994. Both are ACA (American Canoe Association) and BCU (British Canoe Union) certified instructors and actually live on Tybee Island, the area you’ll be touring. You can develop your paddling skills, if you have them, or simply get out into what your Eastern European friends may call “The Nature” for a relaxing flatwater jaunt. Most trips go to Little Tybee Island, an undeveloped State Heritage site complete with beautiful, craggy trees and the occasional lighthouse.
Sea Kayak Georgia provides everything you need and no experience is necessary, although they do specify that you must bring your own clothes, shoes and snack/water. You’ve been warned: no showing up naked.
So there you have it. The point of this post was not to dwell on the rejection, which does still feel raw and commensurately stingy. And it was not to try and articulate why Groupon’s writing is actually kind of lame. Because that is both obvious and boring. The main idea was to leave a record of my abject failure so historians and/or Deities can make a fully informed judgment of my worth as a human, and so anonymous Internet commenters can call me a no-talent assclown. Which I quite enjoy.
At some point I may write a longer post with some actual substance that more directly addresses why Groupon’s whole schtick (distinct from their business model) is bad for businesses. Which reason is, in part, because it lacks sincerity, which is the fundamental element of good sales and why I would not want my business associated with the company. Unless I was in the unfunny Ironic T-shirt business. Which I am not. Yet.