Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hiring the Right Writer

You already know that it’s more effective and cost-efficient to hire a professional writer to develop your business copy than, say, getting the product manager or designer to do it. But how can you make sure that your content investment pays off? And why do so many professional writers do a lousy job of getting your message across?

Well, the good news is that bad writing is not necessarily the writer’s fault—it may very well be yours. That’s good because it means that great writing is within your control.

Many businesses hire writers because somebody tells them the writer is good or they read something the writer wrote, and liked it. This is a bad approach. There are way too many different types of writers, with different styles and skill-sets, writing for different audiences and business purposes. What’s divine in one instance is deadly in another.

Here are 6 steps to help you hire the write writer:

1. Don’t rely on their title

Writers use many different terms to describe their role: copywriter, web writer, technical writer, marketing writer, SEO writer, and content developer are a few of the most common. But these all mean different things to different people. The title is pretty much irrelevant. Ignore it.

2. Ask for writing samples that demonstrate familiarity with your project type

Just because somebody has written great marketing content on a website doesn’t mean that they have the skills to write user-interface text for your web application. An article writer who was trained in print media may not know how to effectively adapt their skills online, and an ad writer may make a mess of your e-newsletter.

The audience is also important. The skills needed to write for Mr. and Mrs. Everybody is very different than those needed to write for software developers, or the youth market, or research scientists. Is your writer experienced in speaking to your target audience in a natural and compelling way?

Look for strong writing samples that reflect a similar purpose, audience, and communication channel to your project.

3. Make sure they have sufficient subject matter knowledge or good research skills

Many businesses rely on writers to “create” rather than just “write” content. But writers need to get their information from somewhere. Be sure to hire a writer that has demonstrated a solid understanding of the subject, or has excellent research skills. Even if you’re providing all of the content, a writer who has research experience knows how to ask the right questions and can identify and strengthen weak areas in your content.

4. Choose somebody with the appropriate level of experience

If you have a good understanding of the writing requirements, only require one specific type of writing, and have a strong writer’s support system, then a junior writer may be appropriate. Look for a writer who is articulate and eager, has an adaptable writing style, and at least some experience in your specific type of project. It’s ok if this experience was gained through a school project or volunteer work. It’s essential that they know how to ask relevant questions and follow direction and the systems you have in place. I’ll talk about more how you can support your writers next week.

If you do not have a good support process in place, or if you need a writer to develop content for different purposes across multiple communication channels, then you need an experienced writer. Look for a writer who can clearly explain how their writing approach will be different in each context and the processes that they follow.

5. Choose a writer who can articulate and defend their writing choices

With every sentence we write, we make a series of choices. During the interview process, ask the writer to explain why they made the choices that they did, both in terms of language and information design. Listen to see if you think their points are valid in speaking about your business to your target audience. If the project is online, can they explain why their content is easy-to-use and easy-to-read? Can they explain why their content is compelling and effective?

6. Verify the quality of their writing

Get an expert’s opinion of the quality of the applicant’s writing. This is often easiest when you ask each shortlisted candidate to complete a brief writing assignment. This way, you can directly compare writing styles and techniques based on a writing sample relevant to your project. If you don’t have the necessary background to effectively evaluate the quality of the writing, hire a professional editor to provide feedback. For many people, mediocre writing may appear to be great. But the impact of mediocrity on your business can be huge.

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