Hiring writers at marketing agencies can be a crapshoot if you’re not careful. There’s really no one path that makes someone suitable to be a writer. But too many times, agencies think they need someone who fits a specific mold.
When they find the mold-fitting writer, they find he or she just wasn’t quite what they were looking for. The problem is, a candidate may look good on paper, but when you get down to it, they’re not even close to being an acceptable fit.
Maybe they studied English grammar, but they suck at story telling. Maybe they’re a brilliant creative writer, but they know absolutely nothing about business. Or maybe they’re a trained journalist, but they specialize in news writing, which isn’t just dry, it’s Sahara arid.
And maybe the best available writer was turned away because they didn’t have the “correct” qualifications.
If you want to find the best possible writer for your marketing agency, here are three questions you should ask every candidate, and one you shouldn’t.
1. When did you first call yourself a writer?
This is a tricky question, because a real writer has struggled with this question for years. (It’s how you can tell the real writers from the poseurs.) And you have to ask it in this way — “when did you first call yourself a writer?” — because real writers have a story about their answer.
We’re not quite sure when we “have permission” to call ourselves writers. For some, it’s when they publish their first book; for others, it’s the first time they sold a story or article. But the point is there’s a journey and a realization that goes along with finally calling ourselves a writer. And if someone has that story, they’re a real writer.
People who call themselves a writer without giving it any thought don’t give writing any thought either.
Don’t worry if a candidate still struggles with calling themselves a writer. That’s a good sign, because it means they take their craft so seriously, and they want to do such a good job, they won’t just slap that label on themselves without proving themselves first.
(In my own business, when I hire freelance writers, this is the only question I really pay attention to. It’s a strategy that has served me well for six years.)
2. What do you do for personal enjoyment?
Regardless of whatever else they say, one of the things they list must be “reading.” If they don’t read for fun, they’re not serious about writing. Every good writer I know does two things: 1) they write every day, and 2) they read every day for fun. It’s a form of practice.
High-performance athletes often use visualization as a form of practice. They imagine certain plays, techniques, or moves, or they watch game film. To sports psychologists, visualization is a form of practice that’s almost as effective as the actual physical practice.
When writers read, it’s like Peyton Manning watching hours and hours of game film: we’re still practicing, we’re still learning, we’re still honing our craft. We’re not just putting words into our brain, we’re absorbing styles, techniques, and new ideas.
3. What kinds of things did you write in college/What kinds of things do you write outside of work?
You want your candidates to have extra writing experience, and not just in the classroom or for work. A recent grad may have worked on the school newspaper, literary magazine, or school comedy troupe. A veteran writer may have a regular column in a sport fishing magazine. But they need to have something else in their portfolio.
Even if they regularly submit work to literary magazines that gets rejected, that’s fine. You just want to know they believe enough in their craft that they put themselves out there with it. You want the person who loves writing so much, they do it as a hobby as well as a job.
A computer engineer once told me the only college grads he hired were those who also did tech — software, robotics, whatever — for fun at home. It meant they were continuing to learn, and didn’t just limit their knowledge to whatever came from the classroom. He said these people knew more about their jobs than those who only did their coursework.
And the question you should avoid. . .
4. Do you have a degree in English, Journalism, or Communication?
These are supposedly the three writing degrees, but having one doesn’t necessarily mean the person can even write. I knew someone who had a journalism degree, but was hands down possibly the worst — and slowest — writer I ever met.
Having a degree does not equal having the ability.
Having one of these degrees could even mean the candidate studied 18th century British literature, specialized in photojournalism, or studied interpersonal communication.
Having a degree does not even equal having the knowledge.
Meanwhile, I have a B.S. in Philosophy and an M.A. in Higher Education, but I have a writing career many trained writers would envy. Yet, some marketing agencies won’t give me a second look because I have the wrong degrees. Don’t let your HR department dictate the kinds of people you get to interview.
Writing is a skill that can be mastered without the benefit of training and “proper” education. Plenty of famous and outstanding writers learned how to write without having a degree in the Big Three. They did it by reading a lot, writing as often as they could for as many publications as possible, and overcoming the struggle of whether to call themselves a writer.
If your marketing agency — a place that most likely prides itself on creativity and thinking outside the box — is looking for a new writer, ask these three questions (and skip the 4th) and you’ll find the best writer for the job.