Hiring a Content Writer: What to Look For, and Six Big Red Flags

The marketing industry is saturated with writers-for-hire. But how do you know you’re getting your money’s worth?

Date: 01/02/23 | Author: Whitney Slightham

Modern content marketing involves multiple forms and distribution channels, yet its success is always based on one thing: the ability to tell an engaging story. That’s why hiring a content writer who is experienced, highly skilled, and accountable is so important.

Professional content writers need to be knowledgeable, precise, efficient, and able to write for different audiences. But they also need to be good storytellers and understand what will engage readers.

There are around 9,000 professional full-time website content writers working in the U.S., according to a Zippia estimate. And a quick peek at Indeed.com indicates that more than 3,000 organizations nationwide are hiring writers right now.

Despite the growing demand for skilled copywriters, hiring a content writer isn’t always easy.

Take it from someone who has led communications and content creation efforts for 13 years: not everyone who calls themselves a professional writer on their resumé is actually worth hiring.

Inexperienced writers ultimately lose organizations money, resources, and productivity by requiring extra direction and time working through revisions.

Thankfully, there are some key criteria to seek out – and six huge red flags to avoid. Here’s my go-guide for hiring a content writer.

How to Hire the Right Content Writer For Your Brand: What to Look For

Hiring a content writer isn’t cut and dry, and the process usually involves trial and error. For this reason, it’s best to start with a small writing assignment and go from there with subsequent contracts. Remember: there are lots of content writers out there, but just a fraction of them are worth your time and business.

Here are some of the steps I’ve taken in the past to hire all-star content writers who require minimal hand-holding, meet deadlines, and craft compelling content:

1. Portfolio Review

Most professional writers will prepare a tailored portfolio with writing samples that reflect your specific project’s needs. Others will try to show the breadth of their experience writing for different audiences and mediums.

When reviewing portfolio submissions, don’t just skim. Look for grammatical and spelling errors. Analyze how they structure content for clients. Would you buy what they’re selling? Is the messaging powerful, or muted and confusing?

The bottom line? Professional content writers show; they don’t tell. If your content writer doesn’t have a portfolio or is “building their portfolio” – pass.

2. Editorial Skills

If you like what you’re seeing in their portfolio, make sure to ask your content writer applicant pointed questions about who edited the pieces they submitted.

A former journalist, for example, should have stellar writing samples. But they may also be accustomed to multiple layers of editorial review and polishing. Without an editor, can they submit content that’s ready to publish?

To find a content writer who is also a skilled editor, ask applicants about their typical writing and review process. How many editing passes do they take? Do they have a fine-tuned process for catching mistakes? Are they used to receiving frequent changes from clients, or is their content typically ready to publish?

Remember – a great content writer is also a skilled editor. Don’t settle for any writers who make you clean up their messy drafts.

3. SEO Knowledge Base

Hiring a content writer with basic SEO knowledge is especially important if they’re working on website content and articles meant to drive traffic to your site.

Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to tell if a writer has ever taken the time to learn about basic on-page SEO best practices.

If they submit portfolio items that are meant to target specific keywords, ask them about their strategy to incorporate that keyword. As a rule of thumb, content writers should know to place the targeted keyword or phrase (verbatim) into the headline H1 content, subheading H2 or H3 content, the URL slug, image alt text, page title, meta description, and throughout the body content. Good web content writers will also strategically place links to related content throughout their copy to help improve time on site metrics.

4. Industry Familiarity and Fit

Industry knowledge is an invaluable content writer asset. The more familiar your writer is with your organization’s subject matter, target buyer personas, and sales funnel, the more efficient and useful they’ll be.

Let’s say you have a direct-to-consumer retail brand, and your applying content writer’s portfolio shows that they’ve mainly written B2B copy for industrial engineering companies. While you’re looking for someone to craft social media content in your brand’s voice, they are experts in writing technical case studies and sales cut sheets. In this case, I’d probably pass and hire a writer with more experience creating B2C content for retail brands.

Ask your content writer candidate about their preferred verticals. What is their favorite type of content to write? You want to hire a writer who is enthusiastic, curious about the topics they’ll be writing about, and who has experience writing for similar brands in your field.

5. Years of Experience

Twenty-year-old me (who started copywriting for clients straight out of university) would definitely object to what I’m about to say. But it’s a point worth emphasizing. Please don’t hire your friend’s nephew who is a recent English major grad.

Do your business a favor, and hire an experienced professional. I have high standards and expectations when it comes to hiring content writers, so I only hire writers who have worked in communications, marketing, public relations, or copywriting full-time for at least five years.

Some of the best writers I’ve worked with are middle-aged and boast decades of experience writing and editing content for a wide range of brands. The sheer ability to recognize writing patterns after cumulative years of consuming content alone makes veteran writers extremely valuable. They may charge more, but I guarantee your content will be of higher quality and will require less editing on the back end.

Remember: You get what you pay for. If you have the resources and time to invest in mentoring a writer who is just starting out, go for it. But if you want your content to be done well with minimal oversight, don’t settle for a less experienced or cheaper writer.

6. Accountability

Last but not least, hire somebody who is eager and accountable. Are they late for meetings? Do they take weeks to respond? Are they prepared and polished? And most importantly – can they consistently deliver quality content on time?

Accountability and professionalism are unfortunately harder to spot before actually hiring a writer. That’s why I start by assigning a small project or “trial period” before committing to larger agreements. If they can’t hit their deadline or submit sloppy content, then I find another writer.

Hiring a Content Writer: Six Big Red Flags to Watch For

1. Sloppy Communication: Do their website, portfolio, or email correspondence have spelling and grammatical errors? Then they probably aren’t great editors or aren’t paying attention to detail: two traits you don’t want in a writer.

2. Inconsistent Job History: Do they jump between content agencies or employers every few months? That probably means there’s an underlying performance issue, or that they’re a real flight risk.

3. They Don’t Read: Top writers are usually avid readers. If you ask them what news media they consume, their favorite blogs, or what books they’re reading, and they don’t have a good answer, then they may not be as apt to model powerful writing styles.

4. Signs of Desperation: Seasoned content writers know what they’re worth. Amateur writers, by contrast, will often agree to underpaid gigs just because they need the money. Hire someone who respects themselves as a professional. Believe me, it’s worth it to pay more for accountability, expertise, and experience.

5. Lackluster Portfolio: I mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again: if they don’t submit a portfolio, walk. If they submit a portfolio, but it has errors or doesn’t impress you, walk.

6. No Experience Writing In Your Medium: In the words of famed communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message.” If you’re hiring a web content writer, make sure they know basic SEO fundamentals. If you want a great B2B case study, don’t hire a writer who has mainly written social media copy for lifestyle brands.

Struggling to hire the right writer? Let me handle your content copywriting and editing.

At Mesa, we’re experienced, versatile, and have a proven track record of crafting engaging content that:

  • Generates leads.

  • Gains international media exposure, including coverage in the BBC, CBC, NPR, and the Washington Post.

  • Goes viral (3 million + views) on social media.

Author Profile: Whitney Slightham has custom-developed WordPress websites and led strategic communications initiatives for 13 years. Her digital marketing and public relations campaigns have earned 11 national and international recognitions. Slightham has a proven track record of driving revenue and elevating technical stories in prime media markets. Raised in Toronto, Canada, she now lives in Flagstaff, Arizona with her husband, son, and husky.

Mesa Marketing founder Whitney Slightham Cripe in Flagstaff, AZ