By Chris Gillespie published May 21, 2018

How to Find a Writer Who Won’t Kill Your Content

find-writer-wont-kill-contentBelow the erupting volcano of content – billions of new articles every month – a secret army is hard at work.

Wherever marketers create e-books, run webinars, promote blogs, and craft events, artisans are hammering, hacking, and whittling the words. These writers make content marketing run. Alas, much of what they produce is junk.

Lots of content goes unread, and not for a lack of bullhorn-blowing. Much of it is poorly written. Eighty-one percent of a group of professionals say poorly written content wastes their time and, in the 25.5 hours they spend reading each week, much of the content they see is “too long, poorly organized, unclear, filled with jargon, and imprecise.”

No matter how much you prepare yourself, your in-house or freelance writers are the ultimate arbiters of content quality. If they mangle the piece, it’s typically for one of two reasons – they aren’t the right writer or you’re feeding them garbage.

Writers mangle #content for 2 reasons. They aren’t the right writer or they were fed garbage. @cgillespie31 Click To Tweet

Here’s how to fix both problems.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: 27 Reasons Why Your Content Sucks

Finding Mr. or Ms. Write

As the chief content creator for Find A Way Media, I’m both a writer and an employer of freelancers. The responsibility for great content lies with the employer; it’s the organization that must deliver results – it’s up to managers to find the writers to do that.

Finding the right writer can be like apartment hunting in New York City: After the 10th viewing, your brain begins to melt and you’re willing to settle for anything just to make it stop. But you can shorten the search if you understand what type of writer you need.

Most writers fall into three broad categories:

  • Journalists – Trained to be precise, journalists are supposed to adhere to a code of ethics and be objective. This makes them excellent fact-checkers and concise writers, but they often dislike self-promotion and find the principles of marketing foreign. Writing content for marketing takes some adjustment.
  • Copywriters – These are writers raised in the marketing world. They’re often bloggers. They understand web writing, headlines, SEO, and marketing, and intuitively grasp what the business wants to accomplish. But, they often lack the fact-checking and literary finesse of journalists.
  • Novelists – This category encapsulates people who write as an art and merely freelance to fund their passion. They are screenwriters, comedians, essayists, playwrights, and novelists. I’ve never found one who cut it as a content writer. That’s not to say they can’t be found, but they are rare.

In my experience, you’re best off seeking someone with experience as a copywriter or a journalist and helping them develop any skills they lack.

Your best #content bet? Hire a copywriter/journalist & train them on the skills they lack. @cgillespie31 Click To Tweet

To further whittle your list, consider the trade-off between writing proficiency and subject expertise. These factors don’t have to be at odds, but they often are. Most writers either excel at their craft but are unfamiliar with your topic or are well versed in an industry but middling writers.

Which is better? That depends on how you plan to support them.


When in doubt, lean toward writing proficiency. It’s better to be read and shared than to expertly shout into the wind and wonder why nobody likes you. You can always have the writer interview subject-matter experts.

If your content topics are highly technical or emotional in nature, however, it can be better to select a subject expert. Real expertise is tough to fake. Writers for an analytics company, for example, will struggle if they aren’t familiar with concepts like regression analysis.

If your organization crafts content for a tight-knit audience whose members share a common experience, such as startup founders, a writer who isn’t an expert may not work well. A writer who has lived that entrepreneurial life and knows the misery of not closing a round of funding is more likely to be convincing.

Where can you find your ideal writer? Broadly consider these four places:

  • Writer job boards: These forums connect writers and employers, and include Problogger, Writer’s Den, the Freelancer’s Union, Craigslist, or LinkedIn groups. Because they’re often lightly moderated, the quality of applicants is across the board. (No pun intended.)
  • Freelancing platforms: Sites like Upwork, Fiverr, and add automation to the mix. You can view the writers’ profiles, client reviews, and past work. But, with millions of freelancers, it takes a lot of dredging to find gems.
  • Content marketing platforms: Content platforms are pricier than other alternatives, but potentially worth the cost. Platforms like Contently, Skyword, and NewsCred curate their pool of writers and sometimes provide an editor who ensures top quality.
  • Referrals and word of mouth: Of all the options, referrals net the best results. As a rule, the best writers rarely look for work. They’re inundated with clients starving for their unicorn-rare mixture of writing proficiency and industry expertise. The easiest way to find them is to simply ask around.

Now, to evaluate candidates, just looking at their past work won’t do. Always ask them to write a test article. According to Brad Hamilton, editor-in-chief of the investigative journalism nonprofit The Hatch Institute, “You can’t tell how good someone is based on something they’ve published – you never know, they might have had a fantastic editor.”

Finding the correct writer takes time. It is work. But unless you’re happy to spend money on content nobody will read, it’s worth it. Once you’re certain you have that writer, it’s your job to give them something worth writing about.

Supply your writer with substance

The first rule of content writing is GIGO – garbage in, garbage out. If you don’t supply your writer with substantive, thought-provoking material, they’re unlikely to invent it. It’s like casting a great actor in a movie with a rotten script. (John Travolta in Battlefield Earth, anyone?)

The first rule of #content writing is GIGO – garbage in, garbage out, says @cgillespie31. Click To Tweet

I’ve been in too many conference rooms with clients who think they should be creating content because, well, everyone else is. They think it’s simply a matter of filling a bucket with words. Sometimes they start the conversation about content marketing services by asking, “Do I need to do anything?” Yes, of course you do. You are the marketer, after all. You’re the one who should have an iron grip on your company’s ideal buyer persona and should feed the writer, not the other way around.

TIP: If your writers don’t understand your buyer persona, they’re writing for themselves. Or you. But certainly not for your customer. It’s how you get bland-as-sawdust content that feels disingenuous or simply doesn’t resonate.

What can you give your writer to improve their writing?

Six-step checklist to help your writers be better

  1. Buyer persona research: The more your writer can get inside your customer’s head, the more precise the writing will be.
  1. Access to your team: Most writers do better work when they feel included. Invite them to the office to meet your team and set up ongoing opportunities for them to communicate with the team.
  1. Access to your customers: For all writers, eventually the well of ideas runs dry. Give them ways to get reinvigorated, such as interviewing customers. It breaks them out of their pattern and gives you a never-ending fountain of fresh, authentic stories. 
  1. Data: Content marketing writers rarely see data on how their writing performs. Sure, they might see the number of shares, but they don’t get to track their engagement from piece to piece or A/B headlines. Subscribe them to access performance reports in your marketing system or Google Analytics.
  1. Feedback: Most writers never get more feedback than “thanks.” If they don’t know how they did, they can’t grow. Always track and share edits in Microsoft Word. Even better, build a style guide together. It’ll save you both a lot of time. 
  1. Structure: If every deadline feels like an emergency, your content quality suffers. “I’ve never regretted waiting until the next day to publish,” says Caroline Vella, freelance content writer and editor. “I can’t say the same about rushing work through. Sleeping on it not only saves you from mistakes, but it also brings a fresh perspective.”

To provide structure to your writers, consider a project management tool like Trello, Asana, or, my favorite, a shared G Suite document with links. Oh, and invest in a written content marketing strategy.

Marketers must remain in writing process

It’s been a journey, so let’s recap. Have research? Have data? Have structure? Great. You’re halfway to effective writing. The next part of the road? Marketers must remain heavily involved in the creation process if they want results.

Writers can't do all the #contentmarketing. Marketers must be involved in the process. @cgillespie31 Click To Tweet

Marketers frequently want to set the strategy then ask the writer to run the content operation. They are abnegating their role as editor. It’s one thing to be creative and ideate, it’s another to call the shots. Rarely can one person do both.

If marketers entrust their writers with the responsibility to do it all, those marketers often develop a case of what the eminent psychologist and author of the book Influence, Robert Cialdini, calls the tapping problem. One test subject, the tapper, is asked to think of a song and tap the beat on the table. The other test subject, the listener, is asked to guess the song.

You can try this with a colleague. You’ll find tappers invariably get frustrated that listeners don’t know the song. “How could you not know,” they may sputter. These tappers fail to realize the song is only obvious to them because they hear the tune in their head.

Marketers who don’t offer clear briefs with suggested outcomes, quotes, links, and statistics to their writers are like tappers. They shouldn’t be surprised when their writers create something different than what they had in mind.

Behind all great content, there’s a writer

Great content doesn’t happen by accident. Neither does great writing. If marketers want to savor the results of content marketing, they must invest in finding and nurturing the writers who ultimately determine its worth. For their part, writers need to see content creation as a partnership in which they receive substantive information to build from and feedback to improve.

When marketers are paired with the correct writers, magic happens. And that’s when you get truly high-performing content.

Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

Ensuring better content also requires ongoing education, fresh tips, and expert insight. Get that and more at Content Marketing World Sept. 4-7 in Cleveland, Ohio. Register by May 31 for early-bird savings and use code BLOG100 to save an additional $100.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Chris Gillespie

Chris Gillespie is a writer and founder of content marketing agency Find A Way Media. After a career in sales, Chris realized he could help brands grow even faster by harnessing the atomic particle for communicating human experiences -- stories. Learn more about storytelling on The Beat, a publication about the pursuit of brand writing perfection. Follow Chris on Twitter @cgillespie317.

Other posts by Chris Gillespie

  • Lisa D. Sparks

    I agree with much of this article as I’m living the pain of finding decent writers to fuel content marketing for our agency. It’s tough because as a former freelancer, I have super-high standards and rarely let writers get away with things that might look good but have little substance for the reader.

    One component I’d like to add to the talent vs. expertise matrix is “eagerness to learn and get it right.” This is a powerful intangible that will make me hire a less experienced writer over someone who has more talent and expertise. We have ongoing content needs. The person who can learn from previous edits and strives to produce client-ready copy will win every time in my book. Again, nice blog. Now, back to work for me (writing an article I’d much rather have hired out but …)

    • Chris Gillespie

      Hi Lisa, thanks for sharing! If you figure that out, I think you’ve discovered a billion dollar business and I’ll be your first hire. The consistency / grit piece is real, but I too am in the process of figuring out what factors can help predict it.
      Through all the interviews I’ve done in the past few years, I have found the only thing that’s actually deterministic is doing work together. Plenty of people are fantastic on the phone and can’t translate thir thoughts into print. Others come across as spastic and are fairly consistent performers. I’ve found that the chart in the article is the best thing I’ve come up with, but then you have to get to know the person, and I would be overjoyed to learn about a better solution

      Thanks for starting the conversation!

  • Renae Gregoire

    YESSSSSSSSSSSS. I have a blog post about this very topic on the back burner. I can’t tell you how many crappy pieces I’ve churned out over the years simply because I couldn’t get access to internal folks and customers–even when I specifically asked! (Crappy, in this instance, means pieces I was unhappy with due to lack of access.)

    I remember one piece in particular, a “field guide” to my client’s industry, which turned out to be a cobbled together rehash of crap already out there on the Internet. Granted, the piece was well-written, well-organized, filled with images, and easy to read. But it would have been SO MUCH MORE powerful if it contained stories and quotes from within the company’s sphere.

    Marketers, if you’re reading this, I BEG OF YOU: give your writers access. We need it to create unique content that no one else on the Internet can replicate. Your stories, insights, and customer wins are the seeds that will become fabulous, fragrant content that stands out in a sea of sameness. Help us to help you! We really want to create FABULOUS content for you!

    Here’s another thing to look for in a writer as well — shining eyes:

    • Chris Gillespie

      Thanks Renae, so good to get a writer’s perspective. Anything else you’d add to the list of asks from marketers?

  • doffbhoya123

    i just have to say that i could not agree less with your depiction of novelist. i’ve worked with many who were “funding their art” and also were fantastic at “content writing.” perhaps the best writer i work with also writes novels and poems and my organization would be worse off for having ignored him just b/c of some arbitrary categories.

    • Chris Gillespie

      Hey Doffbhoya123, that’s an interesting perspective and I’d love to hear more. Where did you find them? What attracted them to writing content?

  • Angie Jackson

    Remember, perhaps most importantly, that although paying a fair rate doesn’t guarantee you a great writer, you very likely won’t get greatness if you’re paying a pittance. And the more substantive and/or technical you want your results, the more it will cost. That means 25 cents to $1 (or more) per word for content that requires research, technical expertise, etc. I recently applied for a freelance writing job with a Boston marketing agency, only to be told that fees started at $4 per page — ridiculous in light of the job description that sought highly qualified candidates.

    And don’t overlook the value of a great editor! He or she can take the mediocre writing of a subject-matter expert and make it highly readable, getting you to the the top right quadrant of that graph!

    • Chris Gillespie

      Angie, such a good point! You definitely get what you pay for, to a degree. In my experience, nothing sells marketers on paying a premium for good content like hiring folks off a freelancing platform like UpWork or Fiverr and seeing what $0.05/word writing looks like.

      Having a great editor is also invaluable. Any tips you can share on finding one of those?


    Thanks For such a great content .As an IT services company . I need such a creative content writer. Who understand our audience or our client audience. I have been conducted lots of interviews and met with lots of content writers. I have been analysed many writer didn’t know about the basic content writing rules. They has been thoughts . They are hire only for copy paste or write something ,which have no any sense .

    • Chris Gillespie

      Hi VA Media Box, it really is a wild west out there. Anyone is a writer if they claim to be. Angie Jackson’s comment below makes a great point: You can weed out a lot of writers on the lower end of the quality spectrum by looking for writers who are confident in their work and can charge more.

      Have you found anything that has worked for you in looking for and vetting writers? Any criteria that you consider critical?

  • Mavis Williams

    Thanks a bunch for sharing.

  • b2b marketing partners

    Great Post !!
    Thanks for sharing this piece of information

  • deena jose

    Amazing article, thanks for sharing this valuable piece of information it’s of great help for a newbie like me.

  • deena jose

    Amazing post, thanks for sharing this valuable piece of information it’s of great help for a newbie like me.

  • Nick shenko

    Good advice, thank you.

    • Chris Gillespie

      Thanks Nick!

  • Arlyne Vanhook

    This is a great post, so clear and easy to follow. All your hard your is appreciated. excellent information is given on this blog.

    • Chris Gillespie

      Thanks Arlyne!

  • B2B Technology Lists

    Thanks for the advice great content. Keep it up

  • T.White

    Chris – Valuable info on several fronts. Distinction between journalists/copywriters/novelist is often missed by inexperienced seekers of writers. Also, need for quality input from the client is essential; well said. While some may sense that finding the right writer is truly the search for a needle in a haystack, the good news is that once you find them, a long-term relationship is often the result. Ultimately you’ll develop a highly efficient work flow, a shorthand and efficient way of moving quality content through the pipeline. One quibble: clients, don’t do unpaid test assignments. Writers, don’t give away your work. Good writing is valuable and should be compensated accordingly. Good writers are out there — go find ’em.

    • Chris Gillespie

      T.White, couldn’t agree more on the unpaid test work. When writers offer that, I interpret that as them telling me that their writing isn’t worth anything. If a writer refuses to work for free, on the other hand, I presume they know a lot.

      I’d love to know — where have you found the writers you work with? Platforms? Agency? Word of mouth?

      • T.White

        Actually, a writer myself (copywriter, creative director, former ad agency partner). To your point, my work is all referral. Some long-term relationships, several newer who value clear communication and agree that it’s worth the investment. They ARE out there.

  • Rhonda Bradley

    As a professional copywriter, I want to say “thanks.” Your 6-point checklist offers the quickest path to successful content and lasting writer relationships. I’ll be sharing it!

    I network with dozens of other writers on a daily basis, and hope you don’t mind my adding one more tip to your list of 6?

    7. Response to writers’ emails within 24 hours, sooner if possible. The #1 pet peeve of writers is when clients don’t respond to requests for information.

    Understand there are a boatload of amateur business owners who disappear for days, weeks, or months on end.

    Good writers dread these clients like the plague, and drop them like a hot potato. Mainly because they have to stick to a structured writing schedule in order to avoid rushing, and also to maintain decent profit margins.

    #7 is an issue I see posted in writer groups/forums on a daily basis. Respond to your writers quickly, and they’ll work harder for you – and likely keep you as a client for a very long time!

    Thanks for the great post!

  • DearMishuDad

    It’s so hard to find a good charismatic (??) one, but I’ll try all the above, thanks for researching and sharing, Chris!

  • Renato Lopez Diaz

    Greetings Chris. Very good article indeed. I have recently hit myself (many times) on the wall because I got rejected for a copywriter gig, among the feedback that I got, said that my writing is “too creative” and not in the “marketing direction”; however I do have been involved in successful ad campaigns and efforts, but due to confidentiality clauses I cannot disclose the full creative process. Are we on a chicken-and-egg kind of problem? what comes first, or what comes with what? What to these recruiters actually want? Seems to me that when companies post a job opportunity sounds more like a “letter to Santa Claus” rather than a proper job offering. Now I do not want to criticize the efforts of my fellow content writers,but most of the time it seems there is a lack of congruence with they are writing and the firm or product they are trying to represent or give a voice to.