Anybody can hire a copywriter, but few can hire the right copywriter. Having been on both sides of the equation—selling my services as a freelancer and hiring staff and freelance writers for our agency—I know, up close and personal, how frustrating the process can be.
There are at least three reasons why firms and entrepreneurs run into trouble selecting copywriters:
- They are not familiar with the craft of writing, so they don’t ask the right questions.
- They focus too much on writing and not enough on the other skills the writer needs to be a successful contributor.
- They don’t have a good methodology for screening writers, making the hiring process haphazard and unreliable.
In this article, I’ll offer tips pertinent to these three areas—asking questions, skills to look for and methodology—that should help you make the right hiring decision.
Why is it important to hire the right writer? This is not a rhetorical question: you’d be surprised how many people think writers are interchangeable parts. They only find out how wrong they are at the end of a project—when their newly launched website is incomprehensible, when their $10K a month PPC campaign generates a 0.5% click-through rate or when their e-mail campaign’s conversion rate hovers slightly north of zero.
Ask the right questions
These three simple questions will serve as a basis to help you identify candidates with the appropriate business writing skills.
- What is the difference between imply and infer? This type of question enables you get a handle on a candidate’s understanding of grammar and usage. If you’re looking for other questions along these lines, refer to my list of commonly confused business words and phrases. I wouldn’t expect a writer to know all of these, but the higher the score, the more solid the writing will be.
- What editorial reference guides have you worked with? If a writer has business experience, she should be familiar with publications such as the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style. When a writer is in the habit of conforming to a particular editorial style, the writing will have greater consistency and discipline.
- Describe three important SEO copywriting practices. Search engine optimization is a critical component of content for web pages, blog posts, online press releases and HTML versions of white papers and brochures. If your writer doesn’t understand the fundamentals of SEO copywriting, kiss your rankings goodbye. Here is a quick SEO copywriting reference guide to help you prepare for the interview.
OVER TO YOU: What questions can you add to this list?
Skills to make sure your writer possesses
With demanding clients in industries ranging from video content delivery to glass block windows, I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) that “good writing” is only half the battle. These are characteristics that I consider essential for a business writer:
- Can meet deadlines. Business writing is one component of a complex project, and few firms will tolerate bottlenecks caused by missing content. If a writer can’t meet a deadline, you’re the one who will feel the heat.
- Can take criticism. If you get the feeling you’ll be walking on eggshells every time you critique a writer’s work, don’t hire that person. Edits are inevitable, and they will come from a variety of sources for a variety of reasons. A writer has to roll with the punches.
- Can work on teams. I suppose a novelist can work in a vacuum, but a business writer has daily interaction with editors, clients, designers, SEOs, PPCcampaign managers, project managers, researchers, etc. Uncooperative players tend to weaken overall team performance and morale.
- Can follow direction. If you ask a writer to incorporate three key points into a product web page, will the writer incorporate two, three or 14? If you need 300 words for a blog post, will you get 200, 300 or 500? Business writing requirements may be loose or stringent, but you need a writer who can execute as required. I’ll get deeper into this issue upcoming section.
OVER TO YOU: What other skills would you add to this list?
Testing and hiring methods
“An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson
The best way to determine whether a writer can meet your needs is to give her an actual assignment. We’ve used this approach on a few occasions, and I love it: it eliminates most guesswork and gives us a high level of confidence in our hiring decision.
First, a few words about screening. When you post a job, you’re likely to get a ton of resumes and inquiries. These filters help you narrow the field:
- Mistakes. Misspelled words or grammatical errors in the cover letter or writing samples.
- Style. A writing style wildly inconsistent with your needs.
- Lack of experience. Of course, if you are ready, willing and able to train a writer, this is not an issue.
- Poor follow-up. We look for writers who respond quickly and accurately.
- Lack of effort. If a candidate has taken the time to research our agency and speak to how his skills match up with our requirements, I’ll give him consideration. Interest, effort and enthusiasm count for a lot.
When we narrow the field to two or three candidates, we assign them a real project involving the type of content they would write if we hired them. In our case, it might be a blog post and a press release, or a set of PPC ads. (These items can be produced in a reasonably short amount of time; if you’re hiring someone to write a white paper, you will have to narrow the scope of the trial assignment.)
When assigning the project, it’s very important to:
- Provide clear and adequate instructions.Our online press releases are somewhat formulaic in structure, so I define word count, keyword placement and a number of other specifications. In contrast, blog posts are more free flowing, so I provide looser guidelines in order to evaluate how creatively the writer works with the topic.
- Provide the necessary background.Enable the candidate to focus on the writing. It’s your job to provide the theme, the key points, a description of the audience and the purpose of the content, and links to resource materials the writer can use to research the assignment.
- Give the same project to each candidate.This is A/B split testing 101: too many variables undermine the test.
- Provide a real-life deadline. If the material is submitted late, it’s a deal-killer.
When we use this approach, we pay the candidates for the work if it is publishable, whether or not we hire them. This is only fair: since they are doing real work, they should earn real money.
When I evaluate the submitted work, I’m not as concerned with accuracy (our writers may have years of experience with a client or topic, whereas a new writer is coming in cold) as with clarity, concision, persuasiveness, grammatical correctness, precise execution and style.
To more fully evaluate those non-writing skills, I review the work product with each candidate. I want to see how they respond to my critique because it gives me further opportunity to interact with the candidates and evaluate their communication style and overall attitude.
This method is not foolproof, of course, but it’s the best approach I’ve found. It takes a fair amount of planning and organization, but like anything else, you get out of it what you put in.
One bonus tip: You can use similar criteria when evaluating writers with Raven’s content ordering tool, powered by Textbroker. The Textbroker writers’ SEO and quality skills have already been vetted—and Raven supports only the best—so all you need to do is find the right fit for your content. A 300- to 500-world article will cost as little as $15-$25, so it’s an inexpensive way to A/B test candidates.
OVER TO YOU: What creative hiring techniques have worked for you?
Brad Shorr is Director of Content & Social Media at Straight North, a Chicago Internet marketing agency. He has written and edited Web copy since the late 1990s. An experienced SEO copywriter and popular blogger, he has written on marketing topics for industry leading sites including Smashing Magazine and Search Engine Journal.