By Grant Butler published January 8, 2014

How To Hire Effective Content Marketing Writers and Editors

drawing-man deciding among head shotsWe’ve all heard the theory: It’s easy to hire good content writers because so many are being fired from traditional media, such as newspapers and magazines. Unfortunately, this just doesn’t seem to be the case.

I’ve run a corporate writing agency for 15 years, and hired many writers and editors. During this time, the media industry in Australia (where my firm is based) has been imploding. Australia’s largest newspaper publisher alone has cut hundreds of journalism jobs in recent years. Despite many of those people being among the finest writers in the country, few have become content marketing writers. And there’s good reason why.

How do you evaluate an effective content marketing writer/editor for content “newsroom” positions? How can you determine whether a journalist with a strong portfolio can generate material that’s engaging to customers, appropriate for your organization, and unlikely to create legal or other headaches? I use a methodology I call WRITE: Write, Rapport, Interest, Trust, and Edit. 

Write 

First, be sure your candidates can write. That may sound trite, but you’d be amazed how many people present well and have appropriate resumes, but lack a real aptitude for writing. And be warned, journalists can be published for years and even rise high despite having mediocre writing skills. Their saviors are the bosses and copy editors who fix their spelling, grammar, and even facts.

To avoid getting caught out, ask candidates where they believe their strengths lie; give them short writing, editing and proofreading tests; and ask their references what the person’s first draft copy is like. And be sure to verify they can write quickly enough to meet your needs. 

Rapport 

Hire people who will play nicely with others, in your newsroom, throughout your organization, and with external parties. To succeed in journalism, you need to be fast, independent, and good at dealing with people, passionate about delivering valuable information to readers, and at least a little bit ruthless (as the press baron William Hearst allegedly said, “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising“).

These attributes can be usefully redirected to writing successful content marketing for your organization. But many journalists simply can’t or won’t make the transition from the high “church” of journalism to the “state” of business copywriting.

Make sure candidates understand what’s expected of them and can explain whether they see themselves doing this type of work for the long haul. Also be sure they’re happy to go from having their name in lights to being a ghostwriter for others, if that’s your model.

Interest 

The most effective content marketing writers are genuinely interested in the material about which they write. Check that your candidates are interested in more than a paycheck. They should have an infectious enthusiasm for your field to draw out the best from their sources, build resonance with readers, and go the extra mile for you.

Trust 

It’s vital to hire writers you can trust to produce copy that is not only engaging but also on-brand and low-risk —and to do so as autonomously as possible. This means they must be alert to legal issues as well as myriad other considerations — from your organization’s sales objectives to political sensitivities. This is especially true today, given the fast pace of social media.

However, trust is a two-way street. Having found writers you can trust, it’s important your organization empowers them. You need a newsroom that has a strong say over what is ready to be published — and what isn’t.

Empowerment is also important if you want to retain writers. Many journalists in particular will happily transition to writing content marketing material, especially if they’re coming from commercial environments such as consumer or trade publications. But they’ll become frustrated if they can’t create strong content that’s consistent in style and messaging. (There are many ways writer frustration can take hold, including letting executives make arbitrary changes that ruin the tone or flow of copy, sanitizing content to suit corporate agendas or making content transparently self-serving, and being so slow to approve material that it gets published too late to interest readers.)

Edit 

A strong writer should be just as capable at editing material written by others as writing their own. This is a key skill within a newsroom because so much content is first drafted by others (whether subject matter experts inside the organization or freelance writers).

You want writers who can grasp the overall shape and logic of written material, and help refine it by restructuring sentences, paragraphs, or whole documents. They should also have a strong knowledge of spelling and grammar such that they can leave copy in good shape after editing — but don’t expect them to be quite as eagle-eyed as dedicated copy editors.

Reaching critical mass

Once you’ve hired great individuals, the final piece of the puzzle is to focus on how they’ll work together as a team. News organizations offer useful models here. First, they tend to feature three layers:

  •       Editors (leaders) who come up with high-level ideas and ultimately control what is published
  •       Writers who produce the bulk of new material and may edit contributions from others
  •       Copy editors who ensure final material is high-quality and aligned to brand and style rules

The other tip is to focus on building a “writerly culture” within your newsroom. You’re bringing together a group of people who love words and enjoy things like writers’ festivals, Scrabble, and storytelling over red wine. So indulge them.

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our quarterly magazine. 

Author: Grant Butler

Grant Butler is managing director of Editor Group, a leading corporate writing firm based in Sydney that helps top brands deliver content marketing campaigns globally. He is also author of the book Think Write Grow – How to Become a Thought Leader (Wiley, 2012) and a former senior journalist with The Australian Financial Review, Australia's major business newspaper. Follow him on Twitter.

Other posts by Grant Butler

  • PI

    “To succeed in journalism, you need to be fast, independent, and good at dealing with people.”

    Have you ever worked with an actual journalist? Replace that last phrase with “sociopath” and you’re on the money though.

  • http://jayacunzo.com/ Jay Acunzo

    Love the idea of indulging writers’ quirks, Grant. Our team will often throw around bad grammar examples and cackle madly…only nobody else in the room knows wtf we’re talking about. So yeah, there’s some writer nerdom to embrace :)

    I’d also add to your solid list: Use company-specific assignments. It can be hard to translate past assignments and roles over to success in your company, so assign the final few candidates a very short piece and see who “wins” (or assign each a different, fully blown piece and pay each for their time — you get content and examples of their work in practice)

  • Mike Myers

    Awesome summary. We are going through this process now and I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for sharing.

  • Wolfgang Digital

    Great piece. We find it so difficult to find and hire great writers. Does anyone have any tips for making the hire? What kind of practical exercises do you set them? Or do you just rely on published work they have done in the past?

    • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

      Hi,
      Personally, I think you need writing that is created for you. While published pieces provide some insight, the best way I have found to hire a writer is to have them write on your topic and for your audience. You’ll also see how easy they are to work with in your process. As Grant mentions, lots of things go into the hire.

      For CMI, when we look for writers, we often use people who have blogged for us to get a sense if there is a fit. If that is not an option, I would have a writer do a test piece (paid) before hiring him/her for ongoing work.

      • Wolfgang Digital

        Hi Michele,

        Yes I agree. As an agency, we need people who can write for lots of different audiences.

        For our last hire, we built and idea generation session into the interview. So we gave her background to the client, allowed her to take some time to look around the current blog, and then 15 minutes to come up with a month-long content calendar (just for blog posts). This just gave us a sense into her thought process, imagination, creativity, and ability to take on a new persona quickly.

        We then brought her back in for a half day to write some short pieces for different clients, so we could see how well she switched personas.

        For another candidate (who wasn’t successful), we gave him “homework” to complete over a couple of days which included a content calendar, writing, and social media plan. This gave us a sense for what his strong points were.

        Our issue is just finding talent which is good enough!

        We’ve looked at freelance platforms but the samples of content we got from there just didn’t cut it when it comes to quality.

        • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

          These are great suggestions!

        • JourneyMan

          And I’m sure you paid those candidates for their efforts, as any ethical employer would. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  • Dan Levy

    As a content writer for hire, I really appreciate what you’ve posted here, Grant. Great stuff. While it’s the shortest of your points, I’ve found ‘interest’ has made me the most valuable to my clients. It enables me to contribute more from a strategic/editorial standpoint, makes for more engaging native content, and inspires better craft.

  • http://workado.com/ Justin McGill @ Workado

    Great advice Grant – curious if you actually have some ideas on where to actually find them? Have you had any luck going through sites like oDesk or Elance? Most of them provide really low quality stuff it seems.

    • Grant Butler

      Hi Justin and thanks for the feedback. We don’t tend to use those freelancer sites at Editor Group – there are some great writers list but it’s a bit random for us and as you say, the quality can be variable. If you’re after a writer in a particular subject matter area, one idea is to look at who is contributing to media publications or sites in that area (e.g. computing, medicine, etc.). You’ll probably find that the staff writers can’t help you, but freelance contributors to those outlets may well also be happy to write commercial material. Or if not, they should be able to point you in the right direction – good writers in a field tend to know each other so it’s worth a few emails or calls. Grant

      • http://workado.com/ Justin McGill @ Workado

        Good stuff Grant – thanks for the suggestions!

  • ronellsmith

    I’m liking this piece, Grant.

    I’ve found it’s just as important for writers to vet the agencies as well. We’re all swimming in a sea of content, and agencies, too, are struggling to make sense of the way forward.

    As a writer coming in to such a situation, you need to ensure the fit is correct and that you will be able to provide the level of service needed, which is often not something agencies can see at the time a writer is hired.

    Today, especially, companies hire writers when what they really need are writers and strategists. Unfortunately, they are prone to hire the former, then make every attempt to force them to become the latter.

    RS

  • Spellswell

    Sometime all you needs are a writtter whom knows’ goodish gramar! Hire them!

  • M. Sharon Baker

    Grant,

    Great points!

    I agree that the advice to hire a journalist for content marketing is a bit simplistic. Not all journalists are created equal, and making the transition from being a journalist to a content marketing writer requires a certain mindset.

    One who wrote about the environment or movies, for example,
    will have a much harder time than one covering business.

    Many who didn’t understand the relationship between editorial
    and advertising or the impact it had on their paychecks and others who viewed
    public relations professionals as company shrills will have a hard time as
    well.

    One of the reasons companies aren’t seeing more journalists becoming content writers is because many aren’t pursing corporate work but are looking for freelance magazine, blog and trade press work because that’s more closely aligned with what they wrote previously.

    • http://sapotle.com/ Kabolobari Benakole (Chase)

      Absolutely.

  • http://sapotle.com/ Kabolobari Benakole (Chase)

    This has been a great read for me. As a writer personally and budding content creator in Lagos, I have found all 5 points very useful – they point me toward the directions an employer may be looking for a writer that I may be prepared to fit these.

    I especially believe Interest – which sits at the middle of your WRITE methodology – is the mot important metric, the crux of it, because it ultimately decides whether the targeted audience will relate with a story or not. Our interest transcends our stories.

  • Jennie Linnett

    From a marketing communications perspective this provides a great perspective on how to develop a sustainable content management strategy. If you don’t have the right skills who are ready and able to keep delivering the strategy will fail. This is a new concept for a lot of large professional organisations. The article provides some good pointers while they consider how they want to address this.

  • Vince

    This is a great article, but I’m curious as to how much a company is willing to pay for someone with such a wide variety of skills. It’s been my experience, in general, that content writers are paid much like their journalist counterparts–not much.

    • http://sapotle.com/ Kabolobari Benakole (Chase)

      You know, Vince, you’re not entirely wrong!

  • Maureen Monfore

    I think strong content writers come more from a marketing communications background than a journalism one. Traditional journalists stick to the facts. Content marketing requires storytelling. Journalists may know how to ask the right questions, which is hugely important. But it’s more than that. Content marketing requires the ability to pull a story out of the interviewee. I’m a writer who has transitioned from marketing communications to content marketing. For a case study, for example, I want more than just challenge, solution, and results. I want anecdotes and quotes that make the product shine. And I know how to pull that out of the people I interview. Plus, those of us who come from a marketing communications background have the corporate and industry experience to see content marketing from the client’s perspective.

    • yann jones

      True.

      • Debbie Pelzmann

        I kindly disagree with your assessment of traditional news journalists, Maureen. It’s true, we’ve been trained to report on facts. What’s not true is that news journalists aren’t skilled at crafting a story around those facts that is also emotional and compelling.

        To your point about those who’ve studied marcomm generally having more corporate or industry experience: I get behind that statement. But what I’ve found time and again is that businesses largely need (and benefit from) those arbiters of fact and non-salesyness (totally a word, right?)—a trait frequently found in news journalists.

        The point: Both backgrounds offer necessary skills for effective content marketing. I wouldn’t advise picking one over the other.

        • Susan Cormier

          Debbie and Maureen –

          I have to agree with Debbie that journalists can craft a
          story. Not all journalists write hard news. Many write human interest or feature stories as well. The best feature writers – and even some news writers – are great at pulling stories out of interviewees. They can get those anecdotes and stories Maureen mentions.

          As a former journalist who is now engaged in content
          writing, I believe the greater issue is exposure to the world of marketing and sales, and even content marketing strategies. After all, the point of writing a case study is to make a sale at some point. But the sales pitch should be extremely subtle. It shouldn’t be a blatant sales piece.

  • http://www.it-sales-leads.com/ Barbara Mckinney

    Great article. I agree with you, the employer should not only based their decision to a strong portfolio of the applicant. They should also make sure that the person they eyeing for having the ability to write an engaging article and really know their role in the company.

  • Lily154

    I wish this wasn’t so true: “…you’d be amazed how many people present well and have appropriate resumes, but lack a real aptitude for writing.”
    I’ve found that a LOT of career writers lack a true understanding of the mechanics and flow of good copy!