How familiar is this situation? You hire a content writer after months of searching. They start work. Hmm. You tell yourself they’ll get better in a month. The second month you think they’re still learning the ropes. By the third month, you know you’re in editing hell. You’re stuck with a content writer who just doesn’t fit the bill!

I don’t know how many people have asked me for references to good content writers! There’s no doubt that the demand is high. All the good writers I know are booked ahead for months.

I also hear clients bemoan the quality of content most writers churn out. And these are not the writers who’re paid pennies. (That’s an industry shame but more on that later.) I’m talking about content writers who’re charging a good sum. They write but without passion or involvement. And it shows in their writing.

How then, should an employer judge the skill of a content writer? How do you know that this is the one?

Here are a few suggestions.

The ability to grasp requirements

Many recruiters jump on to the “writing” aspect too fast. A big challenge clients face with content writers, especially freelancers, is effective communication. You share a requirement. The writer jumps on to it and sends you copy (a content piece) that’s way off the mark!

A good content writer does not write till she is fully informed. They are quick to grasp details as well as nuances. They ask questions – about the goal of the copy, the target audience, takeaways, tone, length, and more. They articulate their thoughts and ask for confirmation of their understanding. This is an excellent habit that you grow to appreciate.

Getting the starting point right is elemental to effective content writing.

Content writers must ask questions

Sample of questions for a case study

Previous content development experience

Even if content writers are new, they’d have some content to show as their own. It could be their personal website or blog. It could be a portfolio that includes content such as a case study, article, product description, whitepaper, etc.

Sample portfolio of a content writer

Sample portfolio of a content writer

Some content writers ghostwrite and they provide the links to the articles as proof of work. I prefer to judge the quality of writers by copy that displays their authorship. Beautiful ghostwritten articles can often be the result of a very good editor. Sometimes a content owner changes the copy to suit her own style. In the process, the voice of the ghostwriter is lost. This intervention also leads to errors creeping into the final copy. It’s not the best example of a content writer’s skill.

Instead, I’d go with personal blogs, Linkedin articles, published content in media, guest posts or voluntary work.

Vet their work like a surgeon

Since you’re taking the trouble to ask for their previous work, give it due attention. If you’re not good at judging content yourself, find someone who is. If you’re expecting domain expertise from a writer, get a subject matter expert to check out the copy.

But that’s not all you check.

Look at the structure of the content. Does it read easy? Is there a flow of thoughts? Or does it seem jarring and abrupt? Copy the content into the Hemingway Editor tool to check readability.

Hemingway Editor to check readability of content

Hemingway Editor to check readability of content

Is the content engaging? Did you read 300 words without realizing it? Does the content roll like a story?

Since you’re hiring a content writer for business, look at how they’ve used and placed important terms or keywords. Have they used headings and subheadings? Have they linked to other content on the website or blog? Does the research have links to the original report? Is the anchor text well-built?

Anchor text should be meaningful

Anchor text should be meaningful and readable

Do you get a glimpse of the writer’s personality? Or is the copy banal and plain? Of course, the content format is a key factor here. Technical specifications are facts. But blog posts are about opinion, authority and personality.

Usually, the more factual, instructional or process-oriented content is developed by technical writers, not content writers. But the lines are blurred. Content writers are expected to come up with anything if I go by the job roles I see.

Talk to references

It’s always advisable to talk to people the content writer has worked with before. That’s the best way to discover potential landmines that a resume doesn’t expose. Linkedin is a great platform to do this as you can see common connections who’ll introduce you to the referrer. Of course, you can also ask the writer to provide references.

What should you ask? Talk about the aspects that make for a good working relationship. This means timeliness, accessibility, openness to feedback, communication skills, ability to go the extra mile, strengths and weaknesses.

Request for a sample

Before you seal the deal, you could ask for a sample. Provide a topic from your line of work but nothing too technical. Asking for a short article can be good enough unless you have a very specific need. Give a reasonable timeline.

This is a good way to analyze the content writer’s approach to writing copy. Do they come back with questions? How thoroughly do they understand the requirement?

The big question many employers ask here is if they should pay for the sample. You should. This ensures that the content writer gives the sample the same love as paid work.

The sample is for you and you can use it if you want. It’s only fair that you pay for it. Let’s say the content isn’t good enough. You’re still saving money down the road, aren’t you?

Some employers don’t pay. That’s their loss. Good writers are usually overworked, and they may not take this up for lack of time. And these are the very people you want.

Don’t skimp on content writers

I see no point in hiring content writers who will do the work for pennies. You get what you pay for. No amount of content marketing is going to make bland, low-value content move. It just won’t happen.

People share content that is engaging, unique and valuable. If your content is missing these elements, you’re pouring money down the drain.

Hire good content writers. Quality content has a long life and wide reach. Get the content in front of the right people and they will share, refer and link back. That means greater engagement on your website, better rankings and improved business outcomes.

Do you have a formula to vet content writers? I’d love to hear your suggestions!