How to Hire a Writer

How to Hire a Writer

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As a managing editor and content marketer, I’ve hired (and in some cases fired) dozens of writers over the years. The best way to learn how to hire a writer is by doing it, but this guide distills some of the hard-won lessons I have learned along the way.

Finding the best people for the job is a critical task. I’m still haunted by a disastrous hire I made years ago. The writer had an impressive portfolio, a strong social media presence and excellent references. I needed someone to start quickly, so I skipped the interview process and hired the writer without a job description, an extensive search for the best candidate or a tryout. I came to regret the lack of legwork upfront and eventually had to let the person go months later.

This systematic approach can help you hire a writer who will allow you to raise your content quality. Given the current state of the economy, brands can find writing talent at attractive prices if they know what they want, where to look and how to screen candidates.

Create a Strong Job Description for a Writer

The thoughtful hiring process starts with a sharp job description. A well-written job description can save you time by signaling to the best candidates precisely what you need. This is not a press release or a jargon-filled brief. You want a clear, concise description of the experience you’re looking for and precisely what you want the person to do. Here are the core components of a comprehensive job description:

Sharpen the Job Title

Sure, this is obvious, but a clear job title can cut through the clutter. Avoid cutesy and clichéd titles, like “content ninja” or “rockstar storyteller,” because they don’t describe what you need. If there’s a specific type of expertise you need, say it in the job title. For example, if you’re a financial services brand wanting to create thought leadership content, ask for a “financial writer” rather than a vague “content writer.” Search on popular job sites, such as LinkedIn and Indeed, to generate ideas about popular job titles on those platforms. Above all, keep it clear and straightforward.

Focus on the Three R’s

Once you have nailed down the job title, you have to create the three R’s of the job description – responsibilities, requirements, and rewards.

  • Responsibilities: Frequently, you are hiring for a project quickly and the exact details of what is needed are unclear. That’s fine as long as you cover all the possible tasks a writer may be doing on the project. You don’t want onboard a writer that can’t deliver the goods if the project changes. Think about the length and sophistication of the articles, whitepapers, guides and other materials you may want this person to create. Are you looking for someone with expertise to hit the ground running? Or would you prefer a generalist who is versatile enough to handle a range of assignments? Answer these questions to develop a clear list of responsibilities.
  • Requirements: You have to think through education, years of writing experience and whether that experience should be strictly focused on your industry. The tighter the requirements, the fewer the candidates. That may not be a bad thing is a loose labor market, but it could limit your options if you set the bar on experience too high. With writing, experience is a tricky thing. I’ve had newbies produce wonderful stories while veterans file duds. I’m more concerned with their clips and how they perform during a tryout, which we will discuss later.
  • Rewards: Even in a labor market favorable to employers, you have to make a compelling offer to attract the type of writing talent you need to complete a project or join your team. List all the perks of working for your brand, especially highlighting any generous leave or retirement benefits. In the post-pandemic world, it is crucial to spell out the expectations for working remotely.

Put It All Together

Here’s a quick example of what a good writer job description may look like:

Financial writer

Rep Cap, a B2B content marketing agency, seeks a full-time writer to produce thought leadership content for its financial services clients.

Responsibilities

  • Develop and create accurate and engaging financial content from whitepapers to blog posts to be used across various digital platforms.
  • Meet deadlines and take the initiative to make editorial assignments the best they can be.
  • Generate compelling story ideas for clients and seek to improve editorial workflow and processes continually.

Requirements

  • Minimum of 3-5 years of full-time experience in marketing, journalism or communications.
  • Experience writing long-form content and an ability to understand and clarify complex topics. Preference for experience marketing within the financial services sector.
  • Familiarity with content management systems, project management tools and social media required.

Rewards

  • 100% remote office
  • Paid time off
  • Health, dental and vision insurance
  • 401(k) with a 6% match
  • Parental leave

Candidates should send their resume, cover letter and portfolio to Tom Anderson (tom@repcapitalmedia.com).

When you are satisfied with the writer job description, you can post it to the plethora of job sites online or target ones specific to your industry. It is also helpful to push out the job description on social media, LinkedIn and Twitter has worked well for me in the past, and reach out to specific writers whose work you like or would be a good fit for the project or assignment. Top-shelf writers are usually booked, but they can distribute your job description to their networks.

Ask Probing Job Interview Questions for a Writer

Your well-designed job description should generate a lot of interest, especially if you’ve done some outreach. Now it is time to interview the candidates. This is my favorite part of the hiring process because you meet new people and learn their work processes. A word of caution: As with anything else, it’s easy to get hung up on a candidate’s personality and lose focus on the work itself. I’ve hired some very charming writers who have produced mediocre work. The flip side is true, as well. I’ve worked with talented storytellers who aren’t that fun to hang out with. I prefer to have the first step of the interview process to be a screening call. In the post-pandemic world, a video chat is an ideal way to screen candidates. But what to ask on the call when you want to hire a writer? Here’s a list of seven interview questions for writers that I regularly ask to gauge whether a candidate should make it to the next step in the hiring process:

What Can You Tell Me About Your Writing Process?

Writers tend to love to discuss writing. They should be able to describe how they take an idea and turn it into a story. In doing so, they demonstrate their depth of thinking, attention to detail, intelligence and storytelling ability. Notice if they mention SEO and focus on how they describe their research methods. Ideally, you want to feel comfortable if you handed this person a clear assignment that they will complete it without a lot of handholding.

What Are Your Areas of Expertise?

This direct question allows the candidate to make their case about their skills. You should come away with a sense of what drives this person and what they are interested in. If their areas of expertise don’t match what you’re looking for, you can gain further insight into a writer’s motivation. Curious people can tackle many assignments that they don’t have expertise in if they ask the right questions and genuinely want to learn. Pass on candidates who can’t describe their areas of expertise well or don’t have a strong desire to learn.

What Story Have You Written That You’re Proudest Of?

A good writer will have an interesting story about their favorite work. You can get a real sense of how they tackle a topic and what they get the job done. If a candidate can’t describe a story that they are proud of, it’s a red flag.

What Story Have You Produced That Took the Most Editing?

Feedback is part of the writing process. This question uncovers how a writer will handle edits. It’s one of the least talked about aspects of writing, though it is perhaps the most critical. Writing is the art of the second thought. You can’t raise the quality of your content program if writers wilt at the first sign of adversity. I’ve seen a couple of rookie writers cry or get upset when they receive a lot of negative feedback. It’s a sign of inexperience. Look for specifics for how the candidate overcame initial difficulties and the grit they had to finish an assignment.

How Can Our Brand Do Content Marketing Better?

This question measures how familiar writers are with your business and its content marketing goals. I like to see how writers think about a brand critically and are willing to give honest feedback about improving. While having someone who says “yes” and “good job” to everything may feel nice, you want to hire a writer who has good judgment and is looking for ways to improve.

What Brand’s Content Marketing Do You Admire?

Game recognizes game. If a writer can explain why a particular brand appeals to them, they usually understand good storytelling attributes and translate those qualities into their content production. I like writers who are aware of their surroundings and have a professional interest in content marketing. Thoughtful answers to this question have helped me come up with better content ideas myself.

What Are Your Favorite Tools to Help You Do Your Job Better?

This open-ended question gets at how a job candidate uses content marketing technology. If a writer doesn’t have a good answer, it demonstrates a lack of tech-savvy. I want writers who are always looking for ways to do their jobs more efficiently. Sure, any qualified job candidate should have some level of experience with the content management systems, project management tools and social media that your brand uses or a willingness to learn. Hearing them discuss their favorite tech can help you evaluate how much training they will need to work with your content marketing stack.

Develop a Fair Tryout

After you’ve screened the qualified candidates and narrowed the list to your top ones, it is time for a tryout. Interviews are great, but tryouts are the best way to measure fit when you want to hire a writer.

The critical decision you need to make is whether you’re going to pay the candidate for a tryout or not. A good rule for me is that I pay for tryouts that could produce content that I will later publish. My standard paid tryout is to ask the writer to develop three story ideas for the brand. Then, I pick the story idea I like the most (or assign them a story that I think will be a good test of their abilities) and pay them the standard rate for the article. This approach works best if you’re producing a lot of content and have the resources to pay candidates. It gives you an excellent sense of how much work it will take for a writer to produce a story from ideation to completion.

If your brand doesn’t have the budget for that, it’s better to focus on asking the candidates to come up with story ideas and recommendations for improving your content marketing program. In this case, my standard practice is to ask a writer for three story ideas and provide a 250- to 500-word critique of the brand’s blog. That’s not a huge ask and doesn’t make candidates feel like they’re being taken advantage of.

Tryouts do require you to provide useful feedback on whatever the candidates produce. Having robust contributor guidelines can make the tryout process easier. Regardless of whether you hire a writer, having a detailed and thoughtful tryout process is good employer branding.

It’s a great time to hire a writer. Growth-focused managing editors can use the labor market to their advantage to upgrade their team and raise the quality of their content by finding and hiring excellent writers by using strong job descriptions, probing questions and fair tryouts.

Tom Anderson is a senior content marketing consultant at Rep Cap and managing editor of Managing Editor magazine. His work has appeared in CNBC.com, Forbes, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Money, Monocle and Wired. He was a 2008-09 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economics and Business Journalism at Columbia University. He was born in St. Louis, but his heart is in New York.

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