Here it is, the ultimate guide to hiring remote and freelance writers — with a twist. I didn’t want to give you the same obvious and common sense tips on hiring writers you’ll find everywhere else. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, as every writer you meet will bring different circumstances and perspectives to the table.
So, in this guide, I’ll cover the underlying principles of hiring and working with quality writers — what to look for, common threads that apply to most situations, and the more enduring factors that don’t change suddenly with the fashion. This should help you make smarter decisions about finding, acquiring and keeping good talent.
Before we dive into the whats and hows, let’s look at why writers are so valuable in today’s commercial market. Understanding these reasons can highlight what to look for in your hiring process, while helping you plan to get the most value from the writers who eventually come on board.
Even if you have good writers in your team already, if they don’t get enough time to put their skills to use, your content will end up incoherent, inaccurate or irrelevant to your target audience. Hiring a dedicated writer — who isn’t distracted by client liaison, art direction, account management, project management, or the other vital aspects of running a business — means you’ll have a resource who can focus exclusively on preparing optimal content that’s fit for purpose.
Most people are capable of putting words to a page. But only few will write something that conveys a message succinctly and unambiguously. Of these writers, only a handful will have the skills, experience, empathy and craftsmanship to really speak to your audience in a way that shows them your brand can be trusted. Whether it’s sales copy or system documentation, this benefit will apply to all forms of your written communication.
Hiring writers that are really good may sound like a pricey venture, but the cost of lost conversions could easily amount to more. Especially if you lose out to the competitor who did invest in creating respectable content to better serve their customers. This doesn’t mean you need to run out and hire the world’s most expensive copywriter. With the wide availability of writers on the market, offering different levels of service at a variety of rates, it’s easy enough to find one who’ll meet your needs for the right price.
Of the many types of writers out there, here are the most common ones you’re likely to encounter. Or at least, here are the buzzwords you’re most likely to hear in your search for good remote writers.
Keep in mind that many freelance writing professionals come with a combination of skills, and will be able to help out with more than just one type of writing.
Even in this day and age, there’s still the misconception that writers only look after words. Sure, wordsmithing is a big part of what writers do, but behind the words, you’ll find intelligent processes and complementary skills you can draw from to benefit your business.
Of course, if you are only looking for talent to clean up the words you write yourself (or that your clients write), you may be in need of remote or freelance editors, rather than writers.
Let’s start by saying there is no one absolute, ultimate ideal for a writer. And no ideal that holds up as a constant over time. Depending on your brand, product, clientele and audience, you may need a range of writers, each contributing unique skills and perspectives to the work. As your business evolves, your criteria for what fits may change too.
But across the board, you’ll find key markers that determine whether a candidate is a good fit for your needs, both in terms of skills and the level of service that gives you the best value for your time and money.
A writer doesn’t necessarily need to be a native speaker, but must be able to write well enough in the language of your target market. Readers don’t always notice or care if what you publish isn’t “the Queen’s English”, nor will perfect grammar matter if your brand style requires a more casual tone of voice. Plus, if your business targets specific locations or subcultures, you may find one region’s dialect unsuitable for another’s residents.
Is your brand formal and professional, or casual and contemporary? Whatever your style, a writer must be capable of expressing your brand’s personality through copy. This is typically less important for technical and academic writers, though harnessing an audience-appropriate tone is a foundational skill you’ll find in any good writer. Look through a candidate’s prior work, particularly if they’ve written for your industry, or for brands you consider competitors or peers. Don’t be disheartened if a writer doesn’t have matching examples on show — asking for a demonstration piece should give you enough to tell if they can get the job done.
Writing is more than expressing information in a nice way. To really speak to an audience, a writer must be able to write with empathy. That is, an appreciation for your reader’s context and needs when they engage with your brand. Writers high on empathy will write copy that holds up under scrutiny. Whether a reader glazes over the text, or really takes the time to understand its message, they’ll get the gist of what they’re reading, see you as trustworthy, and feel like they have enough information to take the next steps. Empathy can be difficult to measure during the hiring process — most of the time, you’ll just know it when you read it.
Onboarding new writers is just as expensive for you as onboarding new clients is for them. So both of you stand to gain from knowing up-front if you can work together. In the early stages of your engagement, look at the services your writer offers vs your business’s needs. Observe how they communicate with you, how they go about getting information from you, how they manage deadlines and, most importantly, how they keep you in the loop of whether a deadline may be missed. As the bulk of your interaction with them will be around planning, negotiation and ideation, don’t be afraid to invest in a writer who’s easy and enjoyable to work with. They’ll prove their worth time and again.
You know your business better than anyone. But your writers know how to translate that knowledge into something audiences will read and respond to. Going hand in hand with great communication skills is the ability to handle a professional ‘back and forth’ during the planning and editing process. If you’re looking for a writer who’s more than just a pair of hands on a keyboard, keep an eye out for those who take the time to understand your overarching objectives, who can then share their recommendations of how to reach them.
Though the details of the process may vary from writer to writer, almost all the professional writers you hire will adhere to a similar workflow:
Your writer and coordinator/editor/manager will discuss the brief for a piece of work. In copywriting, the discussion might be about the key message and call to action for a web page. In article writing, it might be about the topic and relevant outlinks. Once the ideas are agreed upon, the drafting can begin.
The writer will research and write a first draft of your content, based on the constraints outlined in Phase 1. This draft may be suitable for publishing if no changes are needed. If content was already provided by a third party, your writer may be able to skip this step and perform the role of an editor.
A collaboration between writer and coordinator/editor/manager to ensure the final product is fit for your audience. Depending on your contract agreement, this phase may only include a fixed number of edits before incurring additional fees.
The piece is signed off and the writer invoices you for the work. Payment is required regardless of whether or not you publish the content, unless you’ve previously negotiated a “kill fee” — ie. an agreement to pay only a percentage of the cost if you don’t end up using the work, where rights are transferred back to the writer.
Creative communities may often house the industry’s finest and most enthusiastic writers out there. Whether in your local area, on the other side of the country, or abroad, once you have a connection within the group, you’re likely to encounter more professionals that come reliably recommended by peers in their field. This is an effective route for startups and small businesses with little cash to spend on recruitment and listing fees, but plenty of time for personal and professional networking.
Talent platforms will offer you a quality assured experience, not too dissimilar to going through an agency or recruitment middleman. Usually for a fixed fee, the talent company will invite their network of writers to pitch a response to your brief. Depending on the terms of the platform, you may or may not get to speak directly with the writers doing the work, but at least you’ll know you’re choosing from premium professionals.
Freelancer marketplace platforms put you in touch with the people who’ll be doing the work. For a fee or percentage rate, you’ll have access to a wide talent pool, a highly diverse specialty mix, a convenient communications and work management environment, and opportunities to brief and negotiate directly with your creative resource. Though marketplaces typically lack a vetting process (ie. they’ll let anybody in!), almost all of them make up for it with a rating and review system to help you decide who’s suitable for the job.
Job boards (classifieds) are a more open alternative to the marketplace ecosystem. They too make your positions available to a wide talent pool, but allow you to use your own pathways for recruiting and communicating. Some boards let you list for free, while others may charge a small fee. Again, you’ll be vetting applicants yourself, but on your own terms and in your own time.
This is a sticking point for any industry that draws on the efforts of creative people. If you deal with writers, designers, programmers or artists, you may at some point run into a skills shortage that can’t be organised away. This problem is so prevalent that, as a business owner or hiring manager, you can be forgiven for thinking you don’t have the power to do something about it.
The reality is creatives are constantly on the lookout for work that offers a sense of reward, whether it be in the form of pay, working conditions, location or even just colleagues they work well with. Creatives aren’t a special breed who require precious treatment, but performing consistently in a creative role does require meeting certain conditions. For example, Y Combinator founder, Paul Graham, outlines how something as simple as the timing of a meeting can have a significant impact on creative output.
The list goes on for how you can make your business an attractive option for experienced writers, but at a pinch, here are a couple of considerations to include in your hiring and retention strategies:
Be careful when asking for spec work. Spec, or “speculative” work, is any request where you expect to see the finished piece before agreeing to pay for it. As every form of creative work takes time and effort, some professional remote and freelance writers will turn down spec work, as it encroaches on the time they could otherwise spend earning an income. After all, you wouldn’t ask painter to paint your house before agreeing to pay for it.
If you must ask for spec work, place reasonable limits on your request. Rather than asking for a whole feature article, ask for an introductory paragraph or high level outline. Rather than asking for a page of content, ask for a paragraph or teaser copy. This should give you enough insight into a writer’s work, while showing you respect them as a creative professional.
Be clear whether you’re hiring a remote employee or a freelance agent. Sometimes, over the course of the job, those lines can get blurred. Maybe your project managers start expecting your freelancers to be around during business hours. Or maybe you decide don’t want your writer doing work for other companies in your industry.
Some requests that are perfectly appropriate for employees actually attract additional legal and tax obligations if you’re dealing with a freelancer — at least in the US. But no matter where you do business, setting the expectation early means a writer applying for your job can decide from the outset if your terms are ones they’ll stick around for.
The advice in this guide is aimed primarily at businesses on the lookout for quality — those who are ready to regard their content as an investment in their brand and customers. Of course, not every business adopts this approach. If you base your content and brand strategy on quantity, many of the leads and value markers noted in this article may not apply to you.
About the Author:
Mike Hanski writes and creates content strategies for various online businesses. He studied human psychology behind purchase decisions to make his copy convert, which often happens.