10 Questions You Must Ask Before Hiring a Content Writer – 2017 Update
About three-and-a-half years ago, I wrote a simple post about questions to ask when seeking a top-notch content writer, at the request of my lovely friend and master recruiter Raegan Hill. To this day that post is one of my most popular, and it’s probably time for a refresh.
When I wrote the original post in July 2013, content marketing was still a new-ish concept. Raegan mentioned to me that a few of her clients were dipping their toes into the content marketing pool and looking to staff up, hence the need for some hiring advice.
Now, of course, content marketing is a household word in just about any organization. (I no longer get quizzical looks and questions like “You mean content management? You mean, like Sharepoint? So you’re in IT?”)
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that these days, just about anyone who’s ever written a coherent sentence (and even that criterion is wavering) is now calling him or herself a content writer. I’ve spoken to a handful of colleagues who were thrilled to find the “perfect” writer for their teams … only to find out that the “hero” was actually a zero.
Our needs have changed as well. Content marketing is more fast-paced than it was three years ago, even as audience expectations have increased. We function in an overcrowded universe where the competition for eyeballs (and earballs) has escalated to cutthroat levels. The “snackable content” craze has given way to demand for more in-depth, journalistic-quality content.
So, as we forge ahead in building a team that’s up to the challenge, here are a few questions to help us separate the wheat from the chaff.
1. “Why Did You Become a Writer?”
This question will help you separate the Johnny-come-latelys (egad, is that even a term any more? Lord, I’m getting old …) from the bona fide writers.
It’s not that your ideal candidate must have decades upon decades of experience. What you’re looking for here is a love of words and a fire-in-the-belly for communication, for building a community around learning, interaction, and engagement. When you ask this question of a true writer — whether she’s been at it since college or she’s a recent convert — her eyes will light up and she’ll gladly pour forth a spontaneous ode to the source of her passion.
- “Umm, I dunno. To make money, I guess.”
- “I read a lot of fantasy football blogs, and I figured, ‘how hard can it be?’”
- “Didn’t get a book deal for my novel, so this is Plan B.”
2. “Tell Me About the Last Book You Read”
Stephen King once said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
I find that writers who read books — real books, not 12-page e-books — tend to have a passion for in-depth knowledge that blog posts just can’t convey. It takes patience and commitment to read a whole book, both excellent qualities in a content writer.
And it doesn’t have to be an “industry” book either (although if he tells you he’s read The Content Marketing Coach, hire him immediately). We want teams made up of well-rounded individuals with an innate curiosity about the world around them … and who can always set aside some leisure time to curl up with a good story.
- “Books? Nah, don’t have time, too busy reading blogs. And Snapchat.”
- “Who reads books anymore?”
- “If you can’t say it in 140 characters, it doesn’t need to be said — am I right? Fist bump …”
3. “Which Blogs Do You Read Regularly?”
I don’t mean to imply that reading blogs isn’t important. For content writers, text-based blog posts are our bread-and-butter, and to get better at writing them, we need to see how the superstars in our industry do it, day in and day out.
The ideal candidate will be able to immediately rattle off two or three blogs she reads regularly — bonus points if she mentions top-tier content marketing sites like Content Marketing Institute, Neil Patel’s Quicksprout, Jay Baer’s Convince and Convert, and Darren Rowse’s Problogger. She may also mention blogs outside the industry — blogs about sports, travel, kung fu, country music, whatever. Welcome those additions to the conversation. It tells you she’s a human being and not a content-generating robot.
- “Oh, I don’t read blogs. Too busy being a Type A overachiever working for my clients/my team.”
- “Blogs are so 2012.”
- “Blogs? Nah. I watch a lot of videos, though.”
4. “How Would You Describe the Difference Between Content and Copy?”
True story: Back when I worked as a senior copywriter for a large ad agency, we hired a writer who was ridiculously talented at creating ad copy. She was hip, she was fun, she was ridiculously clever … but that all she could ever be. We once put her on an annual report, and her introduction read like a late-night infomercial. She just couldn’t turn off that “hey, how ya doin’, lemme lay some cleverly packaged selling points on you” voice and simply communicate with the reader.
In other words, she was brilliant at copy, but she just couldn’t get the hang of content.
Copy is sales-focused. Content is, as Joe Pulizzi puts it, focused on communicating with your audience without selling. It can inform, entertain, inspire, and/or educate, but it can’t sell. (Not overtly, at least.)
A good content writer must know the difference between content and copy and must be able to write both … and most importantly, he needs to know when to turn on which faucet. The plagiarism checker at https://copyleaks.com/ will help you tell the difference.
I use this question in my own organization when interviewing freelancers and have received an interesting assortment of answers. If I don’t get the answer I’m looking for, but the response is intelligent and thoughtful, I’ll take it.
- “Aha, trick question — they’re the same thing.”
- “Copy … isn’t that what you do before you paste?”
- “Content is, like, for blogs and stuff, and copy … what was the question again?”
5. “How Do You Approach a Brand-New Project?”
A good writer knows exactly how much time and effort good content requires before a single word is written. To create a brilliant piece of content, we need to know precisely:
- Whom, specifically, the content is being written for, what their needs are, and how this content will make their lives better
- Who the “speaker” behind the content will be (the company as a brand? The CEO? The VP of Product?) and what that style entails
- What we will convey, and which resources are at our disposal (subject matter experts, third-party content, industry reports, etc.)
What you’re looking for in the answers to this question are words like research, interviews, kickoff, due diligence, and maybe even audience personas.
- “I start writing immediately — no time to waste!”
- “I wait for them to send me everything I need.”
6. “What’s Your Proofreading Process Like?”
Content moves at such a blindingly fast pace these days that sometimes it seems proofreading has become a lost art. “Get it written, click Publish, move on to the next thing” seems to be the mantra of the day.
But if we’re going to reap the benefits of content marketing — earning search traffic, building thought leadership (a.k.a. respect), keeping audiences coming back again and again — we have to proofread.
Will a single, teeny-tiny typo buried in the fourth paragraph of a blog post trash your credibility? Probably not. But when mistakes add up — and when they start creeping into high-value areas like headers and subheads — they start making us look sloppy. And, as anyone who’s read this poem knows, spell checkers — and grammar checkers, for that matter — can only help so much.
By the way, a good proofreading is about much more than just spelling. We’re looking for grammatical boo-boos like (unintentional) sentence fragments and subject-verb disagreement, inconsistencies in terminology, unexplained abbreviations or acronyms, and a host of other issues. A good writer has a solid process for seeking out all of them.
- “Oh, I don’t need to proofread. I have this app …”
- “We always had a dedicated proofreader on the team, so she always took care of it.”
- “Oh, yes, I always give my content a quick read-through before I click Publish.”
7. “How Do You Optimize Your Content for Search?”
Any good writer knows that the most brilliant content will do you little good if no one can find it. And while we pride ourselves on creating beautiful content designed to connect with human beings, we can’t ignore Papa Google and his rules for getting found.
So a good content writer is constantly aware of the importance of search. We need to know which keywords — both long-tail and more general — give us the greatest chance of being found by our specific target audiences, and we need to know how to use them. Even if you have an SEO expert on your team, your writers need to be well versed on the world of search and their role in creating findable content.
- “We don’t need search — that’s why we have social media!”
- “I just can’t keep up with all the changes in SEO, so I just wing it.”
- “Ugh, I have no patience with keywords. I’m a writer, not an SEO guru.”
8. “Which Content Formats Have You Written For?”
Back when I wrote the original post, the written word was the indisputable king of the content marketing universe. And while text-based content still reigns supreme, the universe has diversified considerably, and each format has its own set of norms and best practices. Think infographics, mini-graphics (single-fact infographics), presentations, video, podcasts, interactive elements (quizzes, assessments, etc.), apps, webinars, the list goes on.
While we aren’t necessarily looking for writers who can handle the technical elements of these other formats (graphic design, video production, etc.), we do need people who can write engaging, impactful content for them. Ask your interviewees which types of formats they’ve written for, and how they learned the best practices for each. And if they haven’t written for these other formats (not everyone has the opportunity), ask how they would approach them if requested.
- “I’m a writer, not a graphic designer.”
- “The written word is the only format that helps your SEO, so why bother with anything else?”
9. “What’s Your Biggest Grammar Pet Peeve?”
I don’t know of a single writer worth his or her salt who doesn’t have a litany of grammar pet peeves, with one to rule them all. (For me, that one is the brutal and ceaseless abuse of our dear friend the apostrophe.)
This question also adds a lighthearted note to the interview, so feel free to throw it in if your interviewee starts looking nervous. Give her space to vent about the epidemic that is the they’re/there/their mixup, dangling modifiers, comma splices, or savage misuse of the word “literally.” Feel free to throw in a few of your own, too.
- “No real pet peeves. It’s all good, as long as you have good intentions.”
- “I don’t really read that much.”
- “I don’t really notice mistakes.”
10: “Oxford Comma: Yes or No?”
Okay, I caved in and removed the “Which style guide do you prefer to go by?” question that graced the 2013 edition of this list, but by gum, the Oxford comma deserves a place at the table. Every writer I know falls on one side or the other of this issue — I’ve even been to conferences where we voted on it.
If you’re wondering what I’m talking about (and which team I roll with), here’s a handy visual:
Actually, this is one of those lighthearted questions that can kick off a lively discussion. And while there is no right or wrong answer, having an opinion on the issue says something about how serious of a writer you are.
- [blank stare]
- “I’ve never been to Oxford.”
- “Comma? Yes, I do use commas. Frequently.”
As the demand for content continues to grow and audience expectations continue to rise, we need proficient writers on our teams, and there’s much more to a good content writer than the ability to spell and punctuate correctly. Ask the right questions at the outset and you could be saving yourself a heap of time, energy, money, and yes, heartache down the road.
Okay, your turn — What are your go-to questions when you hire a content writer?
Find out why Joe Pulizzi, Founder of the Content Marketing Institute, had this to say about The Content Marketing Coach: Everything You Need to Get in the Game … and WIN:
“A simple yet effective guide to an approach that most businesses get flat out wrong. Do yourself and your business a favor and take a deep dive into this book. You won’t regret it.”
About the Author
A self-described geek who can recite entire episodes of South Park by heart, Rachel Parker has had a passion for content ever since she was old enough to hold a crayon (purple, please).
As Founder and CEO of Resonance, Rachel helps businesses publish content that connects with their audience … and converts those followers into customers. She’s also the host of the Content Marketing Podcast and author of the book The Content Marketing Coach: Everything You Need to Get in the Game … and WIN!
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