So…you’ve come to the conclusion that words matter. Maybe you suffered through an embarrassing mistake. Or (and this is even worse) you made what should have been an embarrassing mistake but nobody noticed because nobody’s paying attention. Making a humongous error and not hearing a single peep from anyone has to be one of the most humbling moments in business. No matter how you got here, you finally realize that you need to hire a writer to communicate on your behalf. But what if you don’t know enough about good writing to know if you’re hiring a good writer?
I’ve been a writer, and I’ve hired writers. I’ve worked for bosses who were excellent writers (one wrote for the WSJ), and I’ve worked for bosses who couldn’t put a decent paragraph together if you offered them a gazillion stock options for the next blockbuster IPO. So…pull up a chair, and let me tell you a little about how to hire a writer.
- First, internal clippings/links don’t mean much. And I say that as someone who spent 12 years in internal communications. It’s not that the work isn’t worthwhile or just as challenging as external communications; it’s that you don’t know how much editing went into the final product. Few external editors (by that I mean web sites, magazines, content providers, etc.) would put up with sub-par work, but internal writers tend to get a lot of leeway. I can’t tell you how many times I did two and three rounds of edits for one-page documents. So don’t completely discount internal work, but realize that you have no way of knowing how much editing had to be done.
- If you really want a raw, honest look at a writer’s abilities, read their personal blog, if they have one (and, if not, why don’t they?). That will give you a good preview of what their unedited work will look like.
- Don’t read writing samples as a hiring manager; read them as a reader. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes, and ask yourself whether you’d read past the first paragraph.
- What can be taught: knowledge of the industry, technical details, business practices, etc. To some degree, writing skills can be taught, but if you’re not a writer…you’re out of luck on that one. You can’t teach what you don’t know.
- What can’t be taught: A sense of the language, for how words fit together. This is one of those things that’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. The best I could come up with when I was editing a team of writers was “muddy”. “Hmm…I guess that’s OK,” is not the kind of writing you want. Writing doesn’t have to be just OK; great writing should make you want to shout, “Yes! That’s it!”
- One of the most priceless traits a writer can have is the ability to write in different voices and tones. You’ve heard about musicians who can play a song on the piano after hearing it only once? Good writers can reproduce voices that easily, too.
- If it’s decision time, and you’re trying to narrow your options, do an on-the-spot writing test. Show the candidate a short document from your company files. Tell them they can write on any topic they want, but it has to be in that voice. A good writer ought to be able to knock out a short document in about 15 minutes, and you shouldn’t be able to tell from the style that it was written by a different person.
The bottom line is, put yourself in your audience’s shoes. You’re always going to have people like me, who will stop reading in disgust after the second grammar error, but most people want to read writing that makes them forget they’re reading. I know that’s convoluted, but here’s what I mean: You don’t want your readers to be thinking, “OK, now I’m reading about conveyor belts.” You want them to be so caught up in what they’re reading that the process itself becomes invisible. When you find the writer who can do that, snap them up fast, because you won’t find a more effective business writer.
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