By Jodi Harris published July 20, 2014

How to Find the Right Writer for Content Creation

fortune-telling machine-your fortuneAccording to CMI’s 2014 B2B Content Marketing research report, 55 percent of B2B businesses are challenged with producing enough content, and 47 percent are struggling to produce the kind of content that engages.

While many considerations factor into meeting these challenges, it’s a safe assumption that the need for skilled writers is near the top of the requirements list. In fact, 64 of the B2B organizations surveyed are already outsourcing content creation to stay in step with consumers’ voracious appetite for relevant news, information, and advice. And, one topic that came up repeatedly during CMI’s Executive Forum was the challenge that content marketing leaders had with finding great writers to create original content or translate ideas from subject matter experts.

The issue is not in finding a skilled writer (or at least one who knows enough not to commit any of Weird Al’s “Word Crimes“) in so much as it is finding a skilled writer who is right for your project. While basic writing skills are, of course, essential, more important are often those intangible qualities such as having a conversational yet useful tone or the ability to tell a story in an uncontrived way. As with great design, it can be challenging to express what you need until you see it, but this can be a very frustrating process.

As the content manager for the CMI blog, I’ve seen firsthand just how difficult it can be to find the right writer to craft a particular piece of content. Insight and writing skill both play a part, to be sure; but in truth, it’s not always about talent and knowledge. Producing quality content also involves communicating information in a unique and compelling way. As I often tell writers, “What makes a post work for us often has more to do with the approach it takes to making insights actionable than with the insights themselves.” So every organization will likely have its own criteria for identifying the perfect candidate.

To get some additional perspectives on the topic, I asked a group of our blog contributors, Online Training instructors, and Content Marketing World speakers to answer the question, “How do you vet new writers before hiring them, and how do you know if a pitch from a writer will translate into strong content that is right for your organization?” Following are some of the best advice points they shared:


mug shot-acunzoOne of the best hires of my career was a bartender for the 10 years prior, so I just won’t believe anyone who says hiring great writers is like hiring other marketers.

To adjust, I try to focus on four criteria, in no particular order:

  • Their portfolio: This trumps the resume, and it’s not even close.
  • Culture fit: If your company does content right, writers will end up working with tons of people across the entire company.
  • Adaptability: At Google, we used to talk about hiring the best “mental athletes.” That absolutely applies when hiring writers. Being great at research but not SlideShares, or advice columns but not interviews is a deal-breaker where I’ve worked. Content marketing changes too often to succeed without being adaptable.
  • Attention to detail: This is huge. It’s hard to test for, so I try to bury small tests somewhere deep in the job description. My last one said, “Attention to detail test: Use [word I’d chosen] in your application.” If they missed it, that told me they don’t pay close enough attention to important assignments.

After testing for all this, I’d end by assigning a relevant written project. If I published it, I’d pay the writer regardless of whether we hired them. #DontScrewWriters. Jay Acunzo, Director of Platform & Community, NextView Ventures | @Jay_zo


Ardath AlbeeI vet new writers by giving them a writing assignment. Even if they show you a portfolio with great content, you have no idea what it took to get it that way. I want to know if they can follow directions, write to a persona, and can show me solid structure. And I want to know how much editing they’ll require and how well they take and respond to editorial feedback. If the content turns out to be something that can be used for a client project, I’ll pay them for it and hire them to produce the rest of the content for the project. Ardath Albee, CEO, Marketing Interactions, Inc. | @ardath421


mug shot-baerOfficially, we don’t accept unsolicited guest posts or new writers, but unofficially we sometimes plug in new writers with interesting new angles. We look at previous samples of the writer’s work, of course, but mostly we’re interested in finding digital marketing approaches and ideas that haven’t been beaten to death elsewhere. Our perspective is that if we’ve read it before, we rarely run it. Now, that’s certainly not the perspective that everyone should take, but we’ve found it to be a good guideline for us.  Jay Baer, Author; President, Convince & Convert  | @jaybaer


mug shot-crestodinaIdeally, they came as a reference and I can read their work before talking to them.

I also look at:

  • Formatting and quality of writing: If they hit me with a wall of text (long paragraphs, no subheaders, etc.) it’s over before it begins. This means they don’t understand web visitors. If the formatting and headers draw me in, then I can judge the quality of the writing itself. This part is about connecting and converting.
  • Search and social hacks: Next I want to see how they craft content that drives traffic. Do they understand keywords and rankings? Ideally, the writing is search friendly (or already ranking) and uses internal linking properly. Do they understand emotions, visuals, and collaboration? Ideally, the writing has social potential, using strong visuals, tweet-able soundbites, and quotes from socially active collaborators. This part is all about traffic.
  • Working style, deadlines, and personality.

Finally, nobody likes a jerk. So they must be a nice, empathetic human. I also can’t work with slackers, so they have to be motivated, punctual, and a lifelong learner. This part is about working with a happy team. Andy Crestodina, Principal, Strategic Director, Orbit Media | @crestodina


mug shot-davisI try to find writers who think. I want writers with a unique perspective and voice. Most importantly, I look for writers who have a unique hook: a simple twist of a familiar theme that can entrap or ensnare my audience. I’m looking for someone with Rachael Ray’s 30-Minute Meals, or Gary Vee’s “Sportscenter for Wine.” I want someone interested in creating unique content. I don’t need another writer. I need real talent. Andrew Davis, Author, Brandscaping | @TPLDrew


mug shot-dietrichWe vet by reading what they’ve written. And a lot of it. If someone isn’t writing a lot, then they don’t yet have the skills required to create top-level content. They also have to read a lot. Magazines. Newspapers. Fiction. Non-fiction. Writing is an art form. A well-honed craft. Sure, you can take any bit of research and craft a 500-word article out of it. But is it interesting? Creative? Does it grab the reader? Make them want to continue reading? Or is it just a bunch of regurgitated ‘business speak’? The latter comes from a person who had a love for language, and storytelling. And that person is the person who would get a shot writing for, or with, Spin Sucks. Gini Dietrich, CEO, Arment Dietrich, Inc. | @ginidietrich


Sarah_Mitchell-Use-This-2014One thing I’ve learned over the years is rates often don’t reflect talent when it comes to writers.

The most expensive writer I ever hired had awesome credentials but couldn’t string a sentence and had to be heavily edited or rewritten before publishing. Conversely, I’ve had amazing writers who asked for very little in the way of compensation. This is especially true of traditional journalists, although they’re waking up to the reality they can earn good money from brands. I always ask to see references and then I make sure I read them with an editor’s eye. Ideally, I like to see writing samples from more than one place so I can gauge how much is the result of good writing or whether it’s good editing.

One of my tips for making sure the pitch meets requirements is to ask for the call to action before the article is written. If a writer can’t provide that information, chances are they haven’t thought the topic through. Sarah Mitchell, Content Marketing Consultant, Global Copywriting | @globalcopywrite


mug shot-rajaramanAt Scripted.com, writers are vetted through our custom English proficiency test, which includes word scrambles, idioms, and multiple choice questions. Additionally, they’re asked to submit their best writing samples and are given a timed writing prompt.

In regards to knowing if a pitch will translate into strong content or not, it’s important for the pitch to be narrow and focused. The writer should include the core summary of the story, along with potential sources and an idea of how the story will be presented (for example, article format and type). Once all of that information is provided, a content marketer should have a good idea if the pitch will pan out to be high-quality content or not. Sunil Rajaraman, Co-founder and CEO, Scripted | @subes01


Summary 

While writing skill and technical proficiency are certainly prerequisites for success as a content creator, it’s equally important that writers practice their craft often, and know how to apply it to the task at hand. Content creators must be able to work in multiple media platforms and formats, and need to be comfortable with the latest tools and technologies, so creativity and adaptability are also particularly desirable qualities to look for.

Certainly, few writers can be expected to excel at every format and style, so the best content creator for your needs will ultimately be determined by the specific functions they will need to serve within your organization. Fortunately, as you can see from the advice above, there are some strategic ways your business can approach the task of sourcing writers, including:

  • Testing their skills with a writing assignment: This will help you gauge how well equipped they are to handle specific types of content they will likely need to create.
  • Looking for variety in their writing samples: Specialized skill is great, but if you only see white papers, or the writer only covers one vertical industry in the work shared on their website or portfolio, you have no way of knowing whether their skills will translate to other formats or topics.
  • Examining the “meta-information” contained within their work: Does the writer “practice what she preaches” — i.e., do her samples demonstrate that she has embraced content marketing best practices, such as using strong calls to action, engaging subject lines and titles, links to other relevant content, and compelling visuals? 

Looking for more insight on building content marketing capabilities? Microsoft’s Chief Storyteller, Steve Clayton, will take the stage at Content Marketing World 2014 to deliver his keynote on Creating a Digital Storytelling Experience Team. Register now. 

Cover image by Joe Kalinowski 

Author: Jodi Harris

Jodi Harris is the Director of Editorial Content & Curation at Content Marketing Institute. As an experienced content management consultant, Jodi focuses on helping businesses analyze their content needs and resources; build infrastructure and operations; and create and distribute relevant, engaging brand messages across multiple media channels and platforms. Jodi has developed and managed print and digital content projects for marketing, entertainment, automotive, health care, and biotech publishers, as well as for entertainment industry and media brands. Follow Jodi on Twitter at @Joderama.

Other posts by Jodi Harris

  • Kirsten | 8.31 Productions

    This writer thanks you for the insights. I am also curious where potential clients might begin their search for qualified writers. Any thoughts?

    • Kathy Smith

      What about “seeing the potential” in a writer that may not have a sizzling portfolio that meets your needs but has a good, solid diverse one? Even if that writer has not tackled a particular medium, who knows with a couple quick instructions and minimal mentoring what could come of the venture?

      I like to think there are many out-of-the-box thinkers who maybe just haven’t been given the right opportunity to create something really good. They may take to it like a duck to water. And who would know unless given the chance? Maybe they’re just dying to do something different, something edgy. I always like to think of Erin Brockovich in that she knew nothing about law and look at what incredible hidden talents she was able to bring to the fore after the door was opened to her.

      • http://www.thespiritedwriter.com/ Wiseseeker

        Right on, Kathy. In addition, a writer who is new to a medium or subject can often bring the freshest new ideas and approaches!

    • Nikko

      Services like Hubstaff’s content writing teams excel at
      tasks like this. They have a qualified team of writers, marketing specialists
      and SEO experts working together because they know that content writing is more
      than just creating good content. Check them out at – https://hubstaff.com/staffing_packages/content_marketing

  • Neal Taparia

    Hey Jodi, and recommendations on how to hire great full time writers?

  • the1stefania

    I am absolutely with Ardath Albee on this, forget CV give mock assignments!

  • Scott Frangos

    Great article, Jodi – thanks. When we have hired some new people recently, I usually ask them an open ended question: “What is one great weakness you are working on”. Everyone has one, but some don’t like to admit that (we rule them out). The answer will lead to some interesting discussion and a focus area for training that may be needed.

  • Chuck Kent

    Andrew Davis hits something that too often gets missed in content marketing, and, I think, could well limit its future. if not made a higher priority” I want someone interested in creating unique content. I don’t need another writer. I need real talent.” I would simply add two words to the last sentence ” and fresh ideas.” Any analytically-driven form of writing runs the risk of dying of “me-too-ism” – the content marketing industry will do well to look less for verbal technicians and for more conceptually-minded artists who materialize fresh concepts through words.

  • Jodi Harris

    Thanks for all the great feedback and questions. Unfortunately, there aren’t many shortcuts when it comes to sourcing the right content creator for the job. There certainly is no shortage of fantastic talent available, but not everyone who is good at writing is going to be able to capture the right tone, master every format, or approach every topic from the unique standpoint of a particular brand. Ardath’s advice is definitely a good start. I would add that you need to do your due diligence — start by searching your LinkedIn network and groups to see who is posting insightful, well-written articles — and be willing to pay for the level of skill you want to tap into.

  • NenadSenic

    Ardath’s and Sarah’s views are closest to mine. I have one question though. How much editing is too much? Better, how much editing after a person is still acceptable as she may have “a unique perspective and voice” as Andrew says?

    • http://www.globalcopywriting.com/ globalcopywrite

      Hi Nenad,

      That’s a great question. An original thinker merits a bigger investment in editing if they need it. If you find one of those and they just can’t string a sentence, I’d say it’s better to have an editor rewrite the content to make it readable. I’d still prefer to do that over having content that’s technically correct but bland or more of the same old stuff.

      If I’m working with a professional writer and they require a lot of editing, I’m probably not going to have a long association with them.

      It’s a balancing act, for sure. It’s also important to keep your budget in mind. As an old boss of mine used to say, “Don’t give them a Cadillac if they’re only paying for a Volkswagon.”

      • NenadSenic

        Oh, I am gonna use this quote somehow. Like it. :)

  • http://it-enquirer.com Erik Vlietinck

    Are we talking copywriting here or genuine content marketing — the form of marketing which dictates you write about other stuff besides the hyperbole that is meant to boost sales of your own product? Copywriters are bad choices for genuine content marketing. (Ex-) Journalists and freelances are better.

    I have been an advisor (and writer) for the content marketing campaigns of companies such as HP, Ricoh Europe and EFI for over 20 years and I have never been cheap.

    “Don’t give them a Cadillac if they’re only paying for a Volkswagon (sic — the brand is spelled “Volkswagen” actually) may be a wise motto, but “YGWYPF” is equally true.

    A good content creator is someone who is familiar with the industry and who can empathise with the users of the product and extrapolate that empathy to stories that make the product more appealing to potential buyers.

    My two cents.

  • http://www.ExpandTheBrand.net Tia Dobi

    Astute. One in a million read right here.

  • David Coyne

    I strongly disagree with some of the advice given in this article.

    Why do supposedly professional business people (entrepreneurs, consultants,
    etc) ask other professional business people (copywriters, journalists) to work
    for free by writing a sample assignment? But only pay if it meets with their
    approval.

    Would you say to your accountant, “I’ll only pay you if you get X
    amount of money back on my tax return” Would you say to your attorney,
    “I’ll only pay you if you get me a not-guilty verdict.” Probably not.
    And more than likely they would tell you to go “get stuffed” if you
    did. You have to pay for services rendered. Writing is a professional service
    like any other.

    Yes, it’s great if you like the content that a writer has created. But
    it’s often subjective. If you show a piece of content to two different clients,
    one may like the writing and one may hate it. But why should the writer not get
    paid for it? They still did the work.

    If you’re not sure if a writer can take direction, then simply ask the
    writer to supply a customer’s contact information so you can ask the question
    directly.

    Professionals asking other professionals to work for nothing or to engage
    in “try before you buy” assignments only denigrates the skills we all
    bring to the table and offer our clients. In the end, we all get damaged by it.

    • Andy Crestodina

      I appreciate your input, David. I don’t agree with unpaid “spec work” and I’ve never asked anyone to do it. But any qualified content marketer should be able to provide a ton of publicly available writing samples.

      If they’re really good, the samples rank. If they’re great, they can show the Analytics and outcomes from the work!

      But I’ve never asked someone to work for free. I even believe in paying interns. Getting paid for value is a immutable law of capitalism…

      • David Coyne

        Thanks, Andy. Yes, any good writer should have a publicly accessible portfolio so a potential client can judge whether the writing is the right fit for their project.

  • Sister Shirley

    Absolutely fascinating! It’s nice to read about a facet of communication and how difficult and complex it can be when one is not involved personally.

  • Jitendra Padmashali

    Very good topic to discuses that its very important to find any content writer for our own need. Its better to choose as per your requirement and also effects your content.

  • http://www.thespiritedwriter.com/ Wiseseeker

    While I understand the strong desire to vet a writer before making a permanent hire, I believe that if the existing portfolio of work shows obvious ability to write in a tone and voice that is appealing and engaging, and reflects a smart intellect, wit and creative guts, a writing “test” is unnecessary. Also, hiring managers need to understand that a good writer is also an excellent researcher and quick study and should be able to write well on just about any topic or industry that inspires their passion. Aside from relevance, grammatical accuracy, information value and SEO, passion is the bottom-line for evaluating quality content.