Hiring Content Writers: Part Three - Screening Candidates

8 minute read


Screening writing candidates requires you to make decisions with limited, imperfect information. This section explains what qualities to look for, which red flags to avoid, and how to contain the damage when you accidentally make a poor hire.

Evaluation criteria

Until you hire a writer, you can’t tell how well they’ll write for you. Their profile and portfolio provide a narrow set of signals, most of them weak. Below, I’ve outlined standard hiring criteria for writers and how to evaluate them in your hiring decisions.

Hourly rate

If you find a writer who charges $60/hr and another who charges only $30/hr, you might naturally assume that the $60/hr writer is better. How else could they command a wage that’s twice as high as their competitor?

Surprisingly, I found this to be untrue. In my experience, a writer’s asking rate was almost wholly unrelated to their skill level. In fact, the best writer I found on Upwork was also the one who billed the lowest rate, at $20/hr.

Bio

If the writer has a profile on a freelancing site or, better yet, their own website, they’ll have a bio that explains a little about themselves and the work that they do.

Screenshot of Morgan Province's Upwork profile
Morgan Province’s profile on Upwork is simple, clear, and to the point.

The bio tends to be the best glimpse you have into a candidate’s writing ability. Articles from their portfolio often go through a layer of editing that the writer can’t control. On their bio, the writer has ultimate authority, so it’s the purest sample of their writing you can find.

A profile with spelling or grammatical errors is an automatic no-hire. If they can’t manage correct grammar in their bio, they’re never going to get it right in their work for you. Similarly, watch out for profiles that are convoluted or unclear. The writing in their self-description is likely the best that they can do, so if it doesn’t meet your standards, move on.

Writing samples

All professional writers should provide you with writing samples, but they’re not always an accurate reflection of their ability. A strong published piece might be the result of an adept editor rather than a proficient writer. Conversely, a dull, convoluted article might be that way because their client demanded a 2,000-word essay on a 500-word topic.

When I read writing samples, I look for writing that’s either extremely good or extremely bad. I reject when their samples are especially weak. If the writing samples in their public portfolio are so-so, I ask if they have a sample that’s closer to my site’s style.

Ratings and reviews

Sites like Upwork publish reviews for freelancers. In my experience, reviews have been the least meaningful indicator of quality. Some of my worst hires had dozens of perfect five-star reviews.

Negative reviews are a stronger signal. It’s not a big deal if the candidate has a couple blemishes on an otherwise solid track record. Many clients are just jerks and have unreasonable expectations of freelancers. But if you see consistent patterns in their bad reviews, pay attention.

Screenshot of Morgan Province's Upwork profile
Example reviews on Upwork

Publication credits

Sometimes, a writer has fancy credits to their name, such as publications on well-known websites like Forbes or The Huffington Post.

In my experience, prestigious writing credits were not a meaningful signal. It never hurts to see that another publisher liked their work, but I’ve seen several writers with impressive credits and no ability to write.

Pitfalls to avoid

Steer clear of fluff factories

The Internet is experiencing an epidemic of fluff writing. Site owners think that they’ll rank higher in search results if their articles have a higher word count. Further, many clients pay by the word, so long-winded pieces earn more money. As a result, instead of learning to write well, many writers have learned to write fluff.

Fluff writing sounds like a book report from a fifth-grader who forgot to do the reading. Below, I’ve included an example of fluff writing. I wrote the passage myself, but it’s depressingly similar to writing samples I’ve received:

Fitness is important. We all know this! A recent study found that people who exercise are better than people who don’t. So you don’t have any excuse not to hit the gym and start working on those extra pounds!

But fitness won’t just happen. You have to WORK for it! The first step is making a commitment that will force you to keep a regular gym habit. It can be a pact with a friend or sessions with a personal trainer. Anything that will keep your butt off the couch!

Don’t overdo it either! Many people start working out and push themselves past their limits and injure themselves. Make sure to know your limits and always stay hydrated.

When hiring, avoid “fluff factories” — writers who produce only fluff. Signs of a fluff factory include:

  • Desperate grabs at the reader’s attention
    • Hyperbole
    • ALL CAPS
    • Exclamation points!!!
  • Long stretches of text devoid of useful information or analysis
  • Irrelevant details or tangents

Beware the jack of all trades

Good writers tend to focus exclusively on their craft. People who are “amazing” content writers and “expert” WordPress designers, in reality, tend to be weak in both.

If you were searching for someone to perform brain surgery, you’d probably avoid the doctor who says, “I’m an expert neurosurgeon and an accomplished auto mechanic.” Apply the same logic when hiring writers.

Screenshot of Morgan Province's Upwork profile
Upwork freelancer with a suspiciously high number of non-writing skills

Resist the temptation to “fix” bad writers

It takes weeks or months to find a writer that produces content you want. During that time, it’s easy for desperation to set in. Several times, I found mediocre writers and thought to myself, “Their writing is rough, but I can coach them to improve it.” This never worked.

Writing improves slowly — at the scale of years. If a professional writer produces D-grade writing, they’ll remain a D-grade writer for years to come. Remember that when you see an enthusiastic but mediocre writer offering to work at bargain-basement rates.

Proactively invite freelancers to apply

You can find higher-quality candidates if you reach out to them proactively instead of waiting for them to apply. The best candidates are generally too busy with their existing clients to check job boards aggressively for new postings.

Writers receive spammy, generic job solicitations all the time. A personalized invitation distinguishes you as a client who respects their work. Mention specifics about their writing and why they seem like a good match for the job.

Make it clear that you’re not hiring them right off the bat. You should exchange a few messages to gauge your chemistry together before making a formal offer.

Interview candidates

When hiring writers, my top priority is evaluating their published content. It’s impossible to learn this by asking them lots of questions, so I keep my interviews short and quickly hire the writer for a paid trial (see below).

Still, the interview does give you a glimpse into what it’s like working with this person. Do the two of you communicate well, or does it take several back and forths before a question is sufficiently stated and answered? Is their working style compatible with yours?

Signs of a bad candidate Signs of a good candidate
They ask questions that you already answered in your invitation letter or job description. They demonstrate that they’ve spent time learning about your project.
They respond to your personalized invitation with a generic form letter. They express genuine interest and enthusiasm about the work.
They ask questions that are ambiguous or poorly-worded. They ask questions that are thoughtful and relevant.

Start a paid trial

In my experience, the best way to evaluate writing candidates is to hire them on a trial basis. A lengthy, unpaid screening process drives away top writers who have plenty of options.

When offering a paid trial, I specifically avoid terms like “probationary period” because it sounds like I’m waiting for the writer to screw up. The trial period serves both of us: I get to see how the writer produces content for me, and the writer has the opportunity to see what I’m like as a paying client.

A paid trial is part of the candidate search. Many of your trial hires won’t last, so you can hire multiple writers in parallel even if you want only one writer long-term.

Working with writers

Now that you’ve hired a writer on a trial basis, it’s time to evaluate whether they’re the right long-term match for your business.



Thanks to my writer, Morgan Province, for offering insight to help me create this guide. Special thanks to Alexis Grant of The Write Life for volunteering her time to provide me with feedback.

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