5 Tips for Hiring Great Copywriters

If a marketing team’s job is to do anything, it’s to communicate. That means we need people who put our message into words; and they need to be good at it. So how do you find and hire great copywriters? Here’s how.

11 min read

how to hire copywriters

Here’s some of the best advice for hir­ing great copy­writ­ers.

It’s com­mon for mar­ket­ing lead­ers to be pret­ty good writ­ers. That’s not always good.

A decent writer can hood­wink them­selves into think­ing that they don’t real­ly need to hire writ­ers. I’ve made the mis­take of wait­ing before myself.

This delay can thwart the mar­ket­ing team’s abil­i­ty to scale and real­ly impact rev­enue growth in a way they oth­er­wise could. That’s just unac­cept­able.

So if you’re in that boat, need­ing to hire copy­writ­ers, here are some of the best tips for get­ting it right.

1. Decide what you want

Not all writ­ers are cre­at­ed equal, even the real­ly great ones.

Before you start look­ing, you owe it to your­self to be clear about what it is that you want from this hire. For exam­ple, is your team large and you need addi­tion­al band­width for a pro­gram that is large­ly devel­oped and run­ning? Or, is your com­pa­ny small and you’re look­ing for some­one who can wear mul­ti­ple hats, is skilled at many types of writ­ing, and who has the poten­tial to man­age a team in the future?

hire the right copywriter

What­ev­er your needs, set them out clear­ly first. Lau­ra Seri­no of eCom­merce Fuel says, “Before you can hire a great writer, you’ve got to know what you want them to write… Make a list of the pri­or­i­ties your intend­ed copy­writer will take on once they get the job. If you have a clear idea of the types of con­tent you need cre­at­ed, you’ll be able to bet­ter nar­row your search.”

As you con­sid­er the writ­ing you need done, is a spe­cial­ist or a gen­er­al­ist required? For exam­ple, do you need some­one who is a savant just at direct response email writ­ing? Or do you need a writer who can move seamless­ly from blog posts and print col­lat­er­al to case stud­ies and e‑books? What is the bud­get? Are you look­ing for top-dol­lar senior-lev­el skills, or will a more junior entry-lev­el writer do?

When can­di­dates come through the door, look out for match­es between the work you need done and their inter­ests. Annie Pilon writ­ing for Small Busi­ness Trends says, “For some copy­writ­ers, their per­son­al styles and pref­er­ences can make a big dif­fer­ence in how much care they put into their work. So when vet­ting copy­writ­ers, con­sid­er ask­ing them about what types of sub­jects and for­mats they enjoy the most.

2. Find those most likely to succeed

In What Does it Take to be Cre­ative? 7 Tips from David Ogilvy, the authors at Choco­late and Caviar tell this sto­ry: “William May­nard of the Bates agency said that “most good copy­writ­ers fall into two cat­e­gories. Poets. And killers. Poets see an ad as an end. Killers as a means to an end.”

Poets and killers. Which is right for you?

David Ogilvy said, “If you are a killer and a poet, you get rich.”

The fields of cre­ative work are full of peo­ple who tend to express a more dom­i­nant pref­er­ence for either the cre­ative or the ana­lyt­i­cal. In How to Build a Mar­ket­ing Team: Start­ing with the CMO, I point­ed out a sim­i­lar dual­ism all the way at the top of the orga­ni­za­tion with artists and sci­en­tists, or a leader focused on brand or demand.

Sonia Simone of Copy­blog­ger says if you’re already a poet, “You’re lucky—the strate­gic part is much eas­i­er to learn than the poet­ry bit.”

Easy or not, some artists are none too keen to gain the skills of a killer.

Lau­ra Seri­no in The 7 Secret Steps to Find, Hire & Keep a Killer Copy­writer (iron­i­cal­ly) says, “Don’t Ask a Writer About Con­ver­sion Rates. Or ROI. Or A/B test­ing results. Or any­thing else ana­lyt­i­cal. Copy­writ­ers write – they don’t ana­lyze data.”

She’s specif­i­cal­ly talk­ing about free­lancers here, but if you need some­one who is both poet and killer, you should know that there is a seg­ment of writ­ers who don’t believe in doing both. In How to Find a Writer Who Won’t Kill Your Con­tent, Chris Gille­spie goes a lit­tle deep­er when he says “most writ­ers fall into three broad cat­e­gories:” He describes these three as,

Jour­nal­ists, who write well and are good at the dis­ci­pline of doing research, meet­ing dead­lines, and writ­ing pro­fes­sion­al­ly. They some­times strug­gle in mar­ket­ing because being sub­jec­tive and per­sua­sive can go against their jour­nal­is­tic ethos.

Copy­writ­ers who get writ­ing for mar­ket­ing, but some­times lack the artistry with words, the finesse, or the fact-check­ing scru­ples of jour­nal­ists.

Nov­el­ists who are pure­ly artists that write for mon­ey. They sup­port their writ­ing habit by tak­ing paid writ­ing jobs. Notably, Gille­spie says, “I’ve nev­er found one who cut it as a con­tent writer. That’s not to say they can’t be found, but they are rare.”

So who is right? Are you bet­ter off as Simone sug­gests find­ing a poet who can be taught the killer skills like SEO, ana­lyt­ics, and key­word research? Or as Gille­spie implies, steer­ing clear of pure artists and “seek­ing some­one with expe­ri­ence as a copy­writer or a jour­nal­ist and help­ing them devel­op any skills they lack”?

I’d say steer clear of poets who are unwill­ing to gain the skills of a killer, or in Gillespie’s par­lance a nov­el­ist who views mar­ket­ing skills as dis­taste­ful and a qua­si “sell­ing out” of the pure artistry they want to be mak­ing.

Hir­ing great copy­writ­ers means find­ing some­one who either has both skills or who is hun­gry about learn­ing the parts they are miss­ing. Ulti­mate­ly you want to avoid hir­ing a writer who puts out bad con­tent. The world is already awash in con­tent lit­ter­bugs.

Avoid hir­ing a writer who puts out bad con­tent. The world is already awash in con­tent lit­ter­bugs. #con­tent­mar­ket­ing #mar­ket­ing­writ­ers Click To Tweet

3. Hire for strengths

I think it’s impor­tant to dis­tin­guish between skills and abil­i­ties.

A can­di­date has skills if she can exe­cute the things right now. She has abil­i­ties if she can learn to do a thing in the future. And you need some­one with both. You need exe­cu­tion ASAP, plus the abil­i­ty to grow and work around your needs in the future. In the pre-inter­view screen­ing, you should keep in mind whether what you are see­ing is a skill or an abil­i­ty and whether you need this skill now, or can devel­op an abil­i­ty into future skills.

It’s also a good time to remem­ber that you want some­one bet­ter than you, and to do that you need to hire for strengths, not lack of weak­ness. In If You’ve Nev­er Done the Job, How Do You Hire Some­body Good?,author and ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Ben Horowitz says,

The more expe­ri­ence you have, the more you real­ize that there is some­thing seri­ous­ly wrong with every employ­ee in your com­pa­ny (includ­ing you)… As a result, it is imper­a­tive that you hire for strength rather than lack of weak­ness… Hir­ing for lack of weak­ness just means that you’ll opti­mize for pleas­ant­ness. Rather, you must fig­ure out the strengths you require and find some­one who is world class in those areas despite their weak­ness­es in oth­er, less impor­tant domains.”

Screening resumes

The cor­po­rate blog for Raven Tools sug­gests these five things to watch for when screen­ing writer resumes:

  1. Mis­takes. Osten­si­bly this job is impor­tant enough to the can­di­date to proof­read for spelling and gram­mat­i­cal errors.
  1. Style. If you are look­ing for a cer­tain style in your writ­ing, be wary of can­di­dates who focus on some­thing wild­ly dif­fer­ent.
  1. Lack of expe­ri­ence. This is kind of a gut-check on whether they match your senior­i­ty needs from Tip #1 above.
  1. Poor fol­low-up. Do they reply quick­ly and are their answers pre­cise and accu­rate.
  1. Lack of effort. Have they done their home­work on your com­pa­ny, you or your senior man­age­ment team? Do they show that they care about where they will be work­ing?

Interviews

There are lots of lists of ques­tions out there. Annie Pilon rec­om­mends “Head­lines and calls to action espe­cial­ly can make a big dif­fer­ence. So put spe­cial empha­sis on those in your search for copy­writ­ers.”

hiring the best copywriters

Favorite inter­view ques­tions from Lau­ra Seri­no include (com­ments are my own),

  1. Have you ever come up with a line/story/headline that you thought was bril­liant but the com­pa­ny you worked for didn’t love?
  1. How did you get into copy­writ­ing? Let them tell their sto­ry.
  1. What’s your favorite brand for copy inspi­ra­tion? This helps you get a sense of how they con­sume their craft. Ask­ing about books they’ve read recent­ly can also shed light here.
  1. Is there a prod­uct cat­e­go­ry you pre­fer to write for? This informs the bridge between what they would write if they were just doing it for them­selves, and what they will write for you.

She also clev­er­ly rec­om­mends request­ing before and after drafts of port­fo­lio pieces.

Accord­ing to Raven, “These three sim­ple ques­tions will serve as a basis to help you iden­ti­fy can­di­dates with the appro­pri­ate busi­ness writ­ing skills.

  1. What is the dif­fer­ence between imply and infer? This type of ques­tion enables you get a han­dle on a candidate’s under­stand­ing of gram­mar and usage.
  1. What edi­to­r­i­al ref­er­ence guides have you worked with? If a writer has busi­ness expe­ri­ence, she should be famil­iar with pub­li­ca­tions such as the AP Style­book and the Chica­go Man­u­al of Style.
  1. Describe three impor­tant SEO copy­writ­ing prac­tices. Search engine opti­miza­tion is a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of con­tent for web pages, blog posts, online press releas­es and HTML ver­sions of white papers and brochures. If your writer doesn’t under­stand the fun­da­men­tals of SEO copy­writ­ing, kiss your rank­ings good­bye.”

They also rec­om­mend you feel con­fi­dent writ­ing can­di­dates can,

  • Meet dead­lines.
  • Take crit­i­cism.
  • Work on teams.
  • Fol­low direc­tion.

4. Take a test drive. Moving beyond interview questions.

You can’t tell how well a can­di­date will do just from review­ing port­fo­lio writ­ing sam­ples. “To eval­u­ate can­di­dates, just look­ing at their past work won’t do. Always ask them to write a test arti­cle,” says Gille­spie. And again from Brad Shorr, “The best way I’ve found to screen copy­writer can­di­dates is to give them an actu­al assign­ment.”

So what makes an effec­tive test assign­ment?

You want to see how the can­di­date will work with your com­pa­ny process­es, so make the assign­ment as real as pos­si­ble. Accord­ing to Shorr, “When an assign­ment is ready, the copy­writer needs a prop­er cre­ative brief.”

By prepar­ing a cre­ative brief as you would for any oth­er assign­ment, you’re increas­ing the real-world nature of the test assign­ment.

When assign­ing the project, Raven states it’s very impor­tant to:

  1. Pro­vide clear and ade­quate instruc­tions.
  1. Pro­vide the nec­es­sary back­ground.
  1. Give the same project to each can­di­date.
  1. Pro­vide a real-life dead­line. If the mate­r­i­al is sub­mit­ted late, it’s a deal-killer.

Test assignment part 2

After you have received the test assign­ment back, Seri­no rec­om­mends a thought­ful fol­low-up step. She says, “I’ve only ever had one com­pa­ny take this sec­ond step when find­ing a copy­writer. But it’s a step that will make all the dif­fer­ence.

Once you receive a com­plet­ed test back, offer feed­back on what they can do bet­ter. Have them go back to the draw­ing board and see how they can alter their writ­ing accord­ing to your sug­ges­tions.”

This sec­ond test is designed to high­light attrib­ut­es men­tioned in tip three. Can they take crit­i­cism and fol­low direc­tions? Can they work on your team? Are they col­lab­o­ra­tive about the job? Can they adopt your company’s tone and voice?

Note: Most experts agreed that if the work was usable in the wild, that the can­di­date should be paid for it even if you didn’t hire them.

5. Do your part to help them succeed

Final­ly, onboard­ing a new team mem­ber the right way can help you cap­i­tal­ize on the invest­ment you have made in them so far.

Some of the best sug­ges­tions are to get them out in the field with your sales team as soon as pos­si­ble. Shorr says, “If you have a field sales force, the very best train­ing for a copy­writer is to have him or her spend time in the field with your sales reps.”

Gille­spie gives the fol­low­ing advice for pro­vid­ing the pre­req­ui­sites for your new writer to thrive.

  • Buy­er per­sona research: The more your writer can get inside your customer’s head, the more pre­cise the writ­ing will be.
  • Access to your team: Most writ­ers do bet­ter work when they feel includ­ed. Invite them to the office to meet your team and set up ongo­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for them to com­mu­ni­cate with the team.
  • Access to your cus­tomers: For all writ­ers, even­tu­al­ly the well of ideas runs dry. Give them ways to get rein­vig­o­rat­ed, such as inter­view­ing cus­tomers. It breaks them out of their pat­tern and gives you a nev­er-end­ing foun­tain of fresh, authen­tic sto­ries.
  • Data: Con­tent mar­ket­ing writ­ers rarely see data on how their writ­ing per­forms. Sure, they might see the num­ber of shares, but they don’t get to track their engage­ment from piece to piece or A/B head­lines. Sub­scribe them to access per­for­mance reports in your mar­ket­ing sys­tem or Google Ana­lyt­ics.
  • Feed­back: Most writ­ers nev­er get more feed­back than “thanks.” If they don’t know how they did, they can’t grow. Always track and share edits in Microsoft Word. Even bet­ter, build a style guide togeth­er. It’ll save you both a lot of time.
  • Struc­ture: If every dead­line feels like an emer­gency, your con­tent qual­i­ty suf­fers.

He also strong­ly cau­tions against the mar­ket­ing team drop­ping the entire con­tent strat­e­gy in the lap of a new copy­writer or leav­ing writ­ers with­out clear direc­tion and strate­gic input. “Mar­keters who don’t offer clear briefs with sug­gest­ed out­comes, quotes, links, and sta­tis­tics to their writ­ers… shouldn’t be sur­prised when their writ­ers cre­ate some­thing dif­fer­ent than what they had in mind.”

If you’ve had hit or miss expe­ri­ences in the past, keep this list handy to increase your chances of hir­ing great copy­writ­ers for the future.


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P.S. Arti­cles cit­ed in this piece include details on places to find copy­writ­ers, and appro­pri­ate com­pen­sa­tion ranges.


@cmo_zen is a blog of micro med­i­ta­tions for mar­ket­ing lead­ers, designed to help them find clar­i­ty and peace in the mar­ket­ing mael­strom.

Published by Chad Jardine

@chadjardine is the CMO @goreact, an edtech company making game film for the classroom. He teaches graduate finance course @uutah and is the coauthor of Pillars of Inflection: Seven Fundamental Strategies for Explosive Company Growth. He accepts a limited number of consulting engagements each year.