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I was on vacation in Vancouver with my family last week. We went to the famous public market on Granville Island. There’s a lot to see and do there. The market seems to offer every flavor of everything.

I would have enjoyed it more if my sinuses were not a stuffed-up mess. When I decided to give my throbbing head a break and sit down and listen to a busker play guitar, my family headed back into the market for tea.

When they came to rally me again, they presented me with a tea specially blended to kick colds. The concoction included ginger and cayenne pepper. I took a sip, gagged, and tossed it in the trash. The tea was nastier than my head cold.

It wasn’t the highlight of my trip, but it’s not an experience I’ll soon forget. I’ll remember where I got it and how it made me feel.

Who the hell puts cayenne pepper in tea?

The answer is a tea specialist, a tea specialist who wants to make someone feel better… a tea specialist that wants to make a bold statement… a tea specialist aiming to get a response from her customer.

For all the same reasons, I submit great copywriters mix in cayenne pepper too. They may not use pepper in every paragraph they serve. They may choose to forgo the pepper in favor of different flavor. But trust me on this: they shan’t shy away from peppering their prose with spice.

Everyone’s a web content writer now

The gold rush of 1849 produced the term 49er, meaning a person who had gone to California to mine gold.

I just did a Google search for “web content writer.” In a half-second the search engine returned 115-million results. From my POV, it seems today’s mother lode is content marketing, the treasure trove that connects customers to companies.

Will the legions of new web content writers earn the nickname 15ers?

I’ve written this post to help you understand wordsmiths are cut from different cloths. I hope to tool you with insights to spare you from the headaches symptomatic of hiring the wrong writer.

20 signs of a wussy wordsmith

Metaphors aside, a helluvalotta’ people will claim to offer you the writing skills you need to create new content. Few will have the skills to make you stand out among the relentless trash heap that is today’s web.

Media (old and new) is cluttered with cautiousness. The irony is thick: the more careful your content is, the greater the risk of anonymity.

So beware of the wimpy web writer with a flexible little plastic pencil. Find one who wields a pen of pure steel. Look out for some of the signs suggesting the writer in question will fail to create content that cuts through the crap.

  1. Clichés. Feeble writers love clichés. Readers loathe ‘em.
  2. We-we. The more times the page says “we,” the less anyone will give a damn.
  1. Everythingitis. When you find every conceivable idea crammed into a home page, landing page or post, it’ll be the one and only page you read.
  2. Emotionless. Pain, frustration, anger… Excitement, anticipation, joy… If you’re not feeling anything, it’s because the prose has no pulse.
  1. Jargon. Weak writers are full of it.
  1. Yes man. “Yes sir, yes ma’am, yes boss.” The writer who never challenges any of your ideas probably doesn’t have any.
  1. Doesn’t dig. Don’t trust a writer with all the answers. The smart ones ask smart questions.
  1. Keywordless. Be wary of the “SEO copywriter,” a bogus term in my book. That said, don’t allow your writer to wimp out on keyword planning.
  1. Keyword krazy. Keyword stuffers aren’t keeping up with the modern ways of the web.
  1. Formulas. You don’t have a formula company, so don’t let a writer fool you into believing some generic formulaic approach to writing forwards the cause.
  1. Bargains. Take a pass on the overly eager writer who will meet or beat anyone else’s fees. You’re likely to get even less than you bargained for.
  1. Punster. Use a pun, go to jail. Excessive wordplay equals weak web pages and content.
  2. Feature fanatic. Features will fail you. Benefits bring the buyers.
  1. Industry expert. Be skeptical of the industry expert. A copywriting and storytelling expert is what you really need.
  1. Under construction. Hiring a web content writer who has no website sounds as scary as trusting a doctor who smokes.
  1. Mr. Positive. Subtract points for the writer who fears negativity. The contrarian angle is positively powerful.
  1. Recycler. Look out for the copywriter whose idea of creativity is to recycle concepts.
  1. Humorless. Your scribe need not have a standup comedy act, but he or she should have a good sense of humor.
  1. Exclaimer. Watch out! Writers who lean heavily on exclamation points tend to lack a knack for knocking you out with exciting ideas.
  2. Fraidy cat. Too many writers try to comfort readers with cushions. They don’t want to be wrong—or challenged. So instead of throwing hardballs, they lob safe and soft Nerf balls.

Your “right writer” checklist

Okay, so you have a fairly extensive crap filter working for you now. You know wussy writers will only help you blend in amongst the noise.

Now, I’ll try to help you identify the qualities of fierce scribes capable of getting readers to click, read, subscribe and rock out to Queen’s anthem We Are the Champions.

Read their writing to determine:

Can your writer tell a story? Almost any writer can craft a list or guide you through a how-to. The great ones weave compelling stories into their work in a variety of ways and make the experience fun and emotional.

Learning anything? One of the most important goals for your content is to teach, to share expertise, to make your brand the go-to source for industry insights. Your writer should answer questions and skillfully lead a lesson.

Are complex ideas getting simplified? There’s probably no more important writing skill than having the ability to translate complex challenges into simple strategies for overcoming them.

Tripping on mistakes? You want to find solid work. Perfection, perhaps, is too much to expect, but if you find content littered with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, you’re looking at the work of a writer who rushed through the process. They’re not saving you time and money; they’re burning it.

Web savvy? Even strong writing will chase you away if you’re faced with a wall of copy. Your content writer should demonstrate web savvy by using the tricks of the trade: subheads, bulleted lists, images and captions, great pacing, shorter and punchier sentences and paragraphs.

100% credible. Web content writers are often tasked with tackling topics outside of their area of expertise. The subject matter expertise might come from someone else or be based on various resources. You need to be convinced the advice you’re getting is useful. Be sure the copy cites sources and backs up its claims. 

Do some research to determine:

Level of experience. Looking for an experienced wordsmith? It should be easy to determine if he or she has it based on his or her website and LinkedIn profile.

If you like their samples. Every writer should offer a portfolio of some sort. “The cobbler’s kids have no shoes” excuse doesn’t cut it. It’s up to you whether or not they have to bring you experience in your field. I don’t believe it’s vital. I do believe a great writer will be eager to show you their work—and you must like it to proceed.

Social media skills. In addition to finding someone with writing chops, you’ll likely want a writer to help promote the work and connect with readers. Click around a bit to learn if your writer’s using social media to connect.

Communicate with your potential hire to determine:

Does your writer want to collaborate? Some don’t. Some might tell you, “I got this.” Red flag. You need to find someone who wants to bounce ideas around to find a great storyline.

Will the journey be fun? A chemistry test is always in order. Sure, when you’re talking or exchanging emails with a prospective writer, you want to make things happen, but don’t allow it to be painful. Find someone you enjoy working with and your efforts will be far more fruitful.

Do they get marketing? I’m not going to tell you a traditional journalist can’t help you develop web content. However, the word (and idea) that follows content is “marketing.” Does your writer get that? Think conversion. Your writer should be capable of helping you achieve marketing goals.

A quick study? I told you not to fixate on subject matter expertise. But… As you’re talking about the subject matter, you should feel comfortable knowing your writer’s not shaking in his boots (or sandals). Look for indications the writer’s interested in your topic, happy to learn more, and apt to get it. The best sign: you’re hearing smart questions. The scariest sign: you’re not hearing any questions.

Will they make it happen? Some writers are followers. Some are leaders. You decide which you need. If you want to see things happen reasonably fast and don’t have a process in place, hire a writer that will suggest processes and platforms. Do you get the sense the writer’s organized? Does he or she take a proactive stance to determining schedules, establishing milestones and meeting deadlines?

Is the passion there? Great writers dig writing. Great content marketing writers dig marketing. An obvious passion for both will be blatantly obvious if you’re talking to a great content marketing writer.

Hang in there to determine:

The professionalism factor. You spoke to or exchanged emails with your potential web content writer. That person should have concluded the last communication with an action plan. Then they must follow-up. Insist on this level of professionalism. If your project’s lingering in mystery land due to a lack of follow-up, you’re dealing with an amateur.

Listening skills. The correspondence you get after exchanging thoughts with a potential content writer should indicate they listened closely to the needs and challenges you described. If you find the need to repeat yourself, keep looking.

And finally:

Don’t go cheap. This post is about cutting through the crap. After reading nearly 2,000 words, I hope that’s your goal. If so, I encourage you to carefully consider your budget. If you’re looking for a blogger at the rate of $50 – $100 per story, my lesson here today failed.

Yes, you can find someone to write your content on the cheap. It’s not what you want. Or at least, it’s not what you need.

You need a voice

You’re with me still. You get it. Millions of blog posts, infographics, eBooks and such will be published today. Most will find a miniscule audience or none at all. Most shouldn’t. The content was created in the name of content.

Trust me, you’ll be a content marketer for a short period of time, if you aim to publish fast, often, and in the interest of more.

You don’t need more content. You need great content.

Great content has a powerful voice, which can only come from powerful writing, which can only come from killer writers. They’re a minority.

Don’t rush this process.

Review these ideas. Recognize crap for what it is. Learn how to identify and hire the right writer. That writer will have point of view. The prose will be peppery. It’ll make some spit. But some will salivate.

That’s what you want.

Would you like tips for hiring a freelance writer? Check out this post I wrote for Demand Media published by Content Marketing Institute. 

Are you building a content marketing team?  This eBook will be tremendously helpful. 

Tool Your Content Marketing Team - eBook