By Michele Linn published November 6, 2015

Why Strong Writing Is a Skill to Prioritize in 2016 (And How to Hire Great Writers)


Last week, I shared one surprising stat from our B2B research: Only 44% of B2B marketers know what success and effectiveness look like. Another finding that jumped out at me – having internal content creators become stronger writers was the lowest-ranked priority for marketers. Really?

We took this finding to our B2B research roundtable panelists, and they were surprised too, saying that writing is a discipline that needs to be prioritized and practiced. Read on to get some practical ideas from our B2B roundtable on how to do that and learn what the CMI LinkedIn community suggests you consider when looking for a great writer.

Thanks to the participants: Ardath Albee, B2B marketing strategist with Marketing Interactions and author of Digital Relevance; Vishal Khanna, director of digital marketing for Wake Forest Innovations; Carla Johnson, president of Type A Communications and co-author of Experiences, the 7th Era of Marketing; Jeannine Rossignol, vice president of marketing for Xerox Consulting and Analytics Services; and Linda Crowe, vice president, digital marketing solutions of Brightcove.

The case for good writing

As you can see in the research below, creating more engaging content was a top priority, and becoming a better storyteller ranked in the middle. How can you do these things without becoming a better writer?


Jeannine explains that even though you may have great thoughts, if you don’t communicate them well, they won’t make a good story and your content won’t be engaging.

I don’t know how you can tell your story if you are not a good writer … For instance, things would come to my desk to take a look at, I would get out my red pen and sit there and I would mark it because it wasn’t good writing. It was a good thought. It was a good idea. It would have made a good story, but it wasn’t written well.

Poor writing also reflects negatively on a brand. Ardath cited research from Acrolinx that said the biggest turnoff for more than half of buyers was grammatical errors and bad writing on a website.

Suggestions for becoming a better writer

Why is writing perceived to be such a low priority? There are multiple reasons. Perhaps it’s because everybody considers themselves to be a writer these days. Or maybe it’s because people have other pressing priorities. Whatever the case, the group offered several suggestions on how to become a stronger writer.


Reading was the first tip that sprang from everyone’s lips. While this is not a new idea, it’s so important to read regularly, not only books and articles related to your industry but also classics and any other genres that interest you.

Copy great writing

I loved this idea from Vishal:

I have an MFA in creative writing and the favorite exercise I was given was to start typing Hemingway. Just type Hemingway and when you finish typing the chapter, keep on writing. What happens is you learn to write like Hemingway, because you learn the cadence of the rhythm of the author. I think you can do the same thing with writing good content for the web. Look at what works well and write that and go further and write your own content.

Have a structure

Ardath shared a story about how she trains writers, and she explained the general structure that makes a good story:

They don’t know how to structure things. What makes a good story? What creates a good flow? You need to start with a hook and then prove your premise with three points and then tie back to the hook and wrap it up with a bow at the end. That’s the basic structure. Most people don’t understand how to put those things together.

Have discipline

As with any skill, you need to continually write if you want to excel at the craft. Most of the panelists have seen their roles shift from writer to editor, and Carla and Ardath are big fans of writing something every day, regardless of whether it’s free writing, fiction, or anything else that suits your fancy.

Ideas for teams

Even when you find a great writer (ideas on that below), you need to train that person to write for your specific brand within your style. Here are a few other tips to help you work with your writers:

  • Get out your red pen. Both Vishal and Jeannine quite literally use a red pen with their teams and give a lot of feedback, especially at first, so writers can see what you are changing. Vishal explains:

Going back to the first question on editorial mission – we have a mission that we want to have in all of our work. We train our writers, pretty in depth, to make sure they get it. But, what it takes is a red pen for the first two months. That’s usually what it takes to get a good writer. Then they get it and the red pen gets used less and less then they are on their own. Even great writers have to be trained to write within the narrow confines of your brand.

  • Be nurturing in your feedback. (Ardath)
  • Have a supportive environment where people can ask for help.
  • Let your writers write where they write best. Vishal suggests his writers go home, to a coffee shop, or to wherever they can write.
  • Consider writers to be a strategic part of the team, not just someone who is handed ideas. (Linda)

How to find a good writer

While the B2B roundtable didn’t spend time talking about how to find a good writer, this challenge was alluded to in a situation Ardath described:

My client came to me and said, “I need to hire 10 writers.” I said, ‘Oh great, this is wonderful.’ Then it took us six months and we interviewed a 100 of them before we found 10.

I couldn’t help but think of a recent and active conversation on CMI’s LinkedIn Group that addresses how you find the right writer. Here are several of the ideas:

Amanda MacArthur says to focus on a cover letter instead of a resume:

When we hire, we ask them to nix their resume, and write us a cover letter that explains their experience, passions, and why they want to work for us. This is writing sample No. 1. If they can’t sell themselves with their words, how will they do it for your company?

Doug Rekenthaler Jr. believes you need to find writers who can write specifically for your brand:

The content marketing space is choking on anemic writing that lacks distinction as well as a capacity for grasping a brand’s fit within its space (i.e., they crank out content that could fit you OR any of your competitors, which isn’t particularly useful).

You also need to define your project. As Jan Coopman explains:

First of all, the initial work will be on you. Define what type of work you need, and write an accurate job description. Blogs? Press releases? How much creativity is desired? How much initiative? Experience? Supervision? (You) can ask for samples and links to work.

Kate Eidam adds to this:

Also make sure to clearly communicate the goal, objective, and audience for each piece. In my experience, when this isn’t done from the outset, it’s easy for things to go off the rails.

Ann Gynn (our very own CMI editor) has the following tips:

I also recommend asking the finalist candidates to set up a project if you want to see their approach/creativity. You identify the primary goal or objective and ask the person to come up with some content ideas, distribution, and promotion (depending on the job). Also have them list any questions that they need answered to complete the creative development. This enables you to see behind the person’s approach to content development, etc.

You also need to give writers a chance to refine their work, as Bob Balm shares:

A first draft is rarely spot on, both in content and in tone of voice. Especially if it’s the writers’ first work for you. You may not like a first draft of a text, so if you only give a potential one chance to deliver a good result, you may not get the best piece of work.

Perhaps worse, I think a writer’s ability to process your feedback into the piece of work and, over time, get the hang of your desired tone of voice, is a big plus. And you won’t discover that ability if you just give him/her one shot at spitting out the perfect text. You might end up with someone who was lucky enough to write something that appealed to you that particular time, but ends up not fitting the mold you were looking for in the long run. So in short: Appreciate that content writing is a process, and test your potentials to see if they do so too.

Where to go from here

Are you part of the 19% who consider becoming a better writer to be a priority? Are you a part of the 72% who consider creating more engaging content to be a priority? While fostering stronger writing within your team (regardless whether you have internal or freelance writers) takes time, it’s worth it because you can’t create stories or be the go-to resource in your niche if people don’t want to read your content.

And to all, when you have found that writer you love, hold on tight and treat him or her well.

What other tips do you have to share?


View the other B2C and B2B research videos in these roundtable discussions:

Want to learn more about what B2B, B2C, and nonprofit marketers are doing now and planning for 2016? Download the latest from CMI’s research center.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Michele Linn

Michele is the Vice President of Content at the Content Marketing Institute. She is one of those people who truly loves what she does and who she works with. You can follow her on Twitter at @michelelinn.

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  • carmenhill

    Michele, this post is packed full of so much goodness! It’s quite surprising that the top priority for 72% of folks is to create more engaging content while only 19% prioritize developing stronger writers. As you note, you can’t get more engaging content if the writing sucks. And Ardath, that advice is solid gold.

    • Ardath Albee

      Thanks, Carmen!

    • Michele Linn

      I know — crazy, right? And I learn a lot from Ardath, too!

  • Mike Myers

    Great stuff here, Michele! Writing is such a core competency for storytelling (and content marketing itself) that it’s tempting to ‘just find a bunch of writers.’ This piece does a great job of explaining how difficult that can be, when done well. Thanks for curating these examples and insights for us!

    • Michele Linn

      How fun is my job that I get to learn from both experts at CMW and our LinkedIn group. Thanks for commenting, Mike.

  • Greg Strandberg

    Style, tone and voice.

    Those are the three things that will set you apart from the dreck that’s out there. Most writers aren’t confident, either, so having that is a plus.

    • Michele Linn

      Great additions, Greg. Thanks!

  • Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Amen! Excellent points here. One that jumps out at me is Vishal’s example of writers learning by copying Hemingway passages.

    Language guru Bryan Garner reinforces the value of that kind of exercise in his inspiring essay “Learning to write by sedulous aping” Read this, if only for the pure pleasure of remembering how good good writing can be.

    • Michele Linn

      Thanks for the great essay, Marcia. I think it’s important we all remember in our busy lives how much joy writing can offer.

    • ClassySassy

      “Sedulous aping” – Absolutely brilliant!! I thoroughly enjoyed your essay, Ms. Johnston! Glad you shared it!

      • Marcia Riefer Johnston

        I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • Michele Linn

    As someone who both writes and edits, I really appreciate your comment, Kristen. I, too, loved what Bob Balm said about giving writers the coaching they need. Thanks for commenting!

  • Michele Linn

    Writing is a discipline like anything else. Best of luck as you improve your skills — and thanks for stopping by.

  • Michele Linn

    Thanks, Julia! I definitely see the craft of writing (and design and all other creative skills) rising as we progress as an industry.

  • Dan Stelter

    It’s important to add that, if you go with freelancers, they can’t be viewed as a cheap commodity. There’s a huge difference in skill between freelancers. Experienced freelancers, or ones with strong differentiation within a niche, are well worth the extra $$$ they charge. As Michelle and others have noted, it’s very easy to blend in online with such a low barrier to access and so much content being produced.

    • Michele Linn

      Absolutely, Dan!

  • Deepika Singh

    Completely agreed with you. Read:

    Why Good Content does not come Cheap?

    • Michele Linn

      Thanks Kristine and Deepika!

  • Paul Maher

    This is a good article but I don’t understand why you end up advising that interview skills are not important? Do writers not need to interrogate a brief, or ask questions to get underneath the skin of a business, or probe an internal expert to tap into their industry knowledge? This all requires interview skills. Knowing the right questions to ask is very important. This just seems like an odd thing to say. Maybe you could explain this

    • k. moore

      I think they mean that whether a person interviews well isn’t indicative of their writing skills. Or, that’s the way I took it.

      • Michele Linn

        Paul — K is correct. I meant that interviewing a writer isn’t the best way to find the best candidate. But I appreciate the question!

        • Paul Maher

          Thanks Michele & K, I am being pernickety but only because I believe interviewing ability is an often undervalued skill

          • andrea c

            Some of the best writers are quite bashful and don’t like to boast about themselves. A noticeable ego isn’t always the answer to a fine future candidate.

          • Dan Stelter

            Absolutely true. Writers as a whole are not a confident, outgoing bunch. That includes me. Although some certainly are.

            Interviews are helpful. But the best way to identify the right writer is by – surprise – how they write!

  • Michele Linn

    While there are lessons that can be learned with from all ages, our research roundtables have specifically focused on experienced managers and consultants who are doing the hiring. Thanks for your perspective.

  • Roberta Silverstein

    @Michelelinn so true regarding samples and editing. I once hired a brilliant technical writer only to learn later that all the work samples I had reviewed were edited prior to submission. Hence, I took out my red pen a lot during our work. Had I known that, I would have earmarked funds for both writer and editor.

    • Michele Linn

      This is one of those thing you learn the hard way, isn’t it, Roberta. There is a lot to learn when finding and hiring writers. Thanks for the comment.

  • Janice King

    One skill that is often overlooked when evaluating writers is information design. Especially for complex or technical content, a writer needs to know how to tell a story or convey information with more elements than just narrative paragraphs. Sidebars, infographics, diagrams, pull quotes, checklists, and more are examples of elements that a writer should be able to place in a document for greatest impact. A good writer can also work well with the designer to create clear and meaningful visuals.

    • Michele Linn

      Great point, Janice!