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


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?

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.
  2. Style. If you are look­ing for a cer­tain style in your writ­ing, be wary of can­di­dates who focus on some­thing wild­ly dif­fer­ent.
  3. Lack of expe­ri­ence. This is kind of a gut-check on whether they match your senior­i­ty needs from Tip #1 above.
  4. Poor fol­low-up. Do they reply quick­ly and are their answers pre­cise and accu­rate.
  5. 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?


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.”

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? 
  2. How did you get into copy­writ­ing? Let them tell their sto­ry.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  2. What edi­to­r­i­al ref­er­ence guides have you worked with? If a writer has busi­ness expe­ri­ence, she should be famil­iar with pub­li­ca­tions such as the APStyle­book and the Chica­go Man­u­al of Style.
  3. 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. 
  2. Pro­vide the nec­es­sary back­ground.
  3. Give the same project to each can­di­date.
  4. 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.

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