The Way We Work

It can be difficult to hire someone for a position you aren’t well acquainted with. For example, if all you’ve ever known is software development, hiring an accounting clerk might be a challenge. That’s why we’ve developed The One-Click Interview series — to help make hiring outside your skillset even easier.

Consider these must-ask questions and can’t-be-ignored red flags the next time you need to hire a writer:

1. “Is _________ your first language?” If not, you will need to see proof of her proficiency in the language you need. While it is possible to have better written grammar in your second language than the average native speaker, it’s not common. Make sure your writer is proficient in the desired language. (Even if it IS her first language!) See #3 for an easy way to do this.

2. “Would this be your first paid writing gig?” Few people want an untested newbie, but if you like the writer and his demonstrated skills enough, go ahead and give him a shot. But if you aren’t confident in his professionalism, go forward with caution. It’s one thing to be a talented writer, it’s another to be a professional writer.

3. Give the writer a brief editing test. The thing about published writers is that it’s tough to know how much talented editors have enhanced the writers’ original texts. What gets published is sometimes exactly not what was turned in, so be sure to hire a writer who can self-edit. Check the writer’s scores on writing and editing proficiency exams, or test him yourself by presenting one or two sentences by email or instant message that contain common errors and asking him to spot them. Here are a few suggestions of test sentences when interviewing for an English writer:

Sentence A: When hiring a writer, make sure their grammar skills are sharp.

Problem: The sentence shifts from a singular subject “a writer” to plural pronouns, nouns, and verbs like their, skills, are. It’s an easily missed error in everyday language, but any professional writer with great English skills should be able to recognize the problem.

Sentence B: The sentence got it’s grammar correct and its spelling wrong.

Problem: The first time its is used, it is spelled it’s — which is always and only a substitute for the words “it is” and not the possessive of it.

4. Ask the writer what his or her interest is in the subject topic. If you are going to get clever fishing-focused text on your fishing supplies website or the blog attached to it, you need a writer with experience and interest in fishing. Always look for enthusiasm and signs of familiarity with the subject matter. Whenever you can, hire a writer who has already written in the desired area of expertise.

5. Ask the writer to name her writing-related weaknesses. With writers, common weaknesses might be a reliance on spellcheck (not the end of the world, as long as they remember to use it!), hating research (not good if it will be necessary), difficulty handling changes made to their original texts (some writers may balk at this, but you have to be free to make changes — the work is for your business, not the writer’s ego), or difficulty meeting deadlines (sometimes creative types thrive on the tension of the last minute). Is the writer’s area of weaknesses something you can live with?

6. Carefully read the sample work submitted. Check for the following red flags:

  • Is the sample work plagiarized? Use a site like Plagiarism Checker (or one like it) to find out if the author is legit or stealing someone else’s work.
  • Is the sample work written in the right style for your needs? For example, good bloggers usually write in a casual, conversational manner. Marketing copywriters are typically concise and can pack a lot of information into short sentences. Hire a writer who can show you skills in the right field.
  • Does the sample work contain factual, grammatical, or spelling errors? The writer is giving you his finest work. If it’s unimpressive, kill the interview process and move to someone else.

7. Be sure the writer is proficient in the software or program you’re using. Hiring a blogger? Find out how much experience the interviewee has with the platform you’re using. Need someone who knows html codes? Make that requirement clear up front. Writing today is about more than creativity and sentence structure.

8. If you decide to hire the writer, pass her one assignment at a time. Starting off slow will allow you to weed out the bad hires. Writing happens to be a field where you may not know how good your writer actually is until the first assignment is turned in. Sometimes the work will be a disappointment, and you’ll be glad you only took the writer on for one small project. Other times, especially if you’ve paid attention to tips 1 through 7, the work will be fantastic, and you’ll be pleased to give your writer more projects over the long term.

Ever made any big mistakes hiring a writer? Share what you’ve learned about interviewing writers in the comments below.


Tamara Rice

Freelance Writer and Editor

Tamara Rice is one of several freelance writers on the oDesk Blog team. She joined the oDesk marketplace in 2009, after more than six years on staff at an award-winning national magazine.