Need a copy or content writer? Here’s what you should be looking for.

Good writing evokes all sorts of emotions. But not all writers can trigger the urge to buy what you’re selling. If you’re looking for a writer to engage your audience, make sure they’re a copywriter. We’ve worked with all types of writers and know what to look for. Here’s our advice.

Struggling to write engaging copy for your brand? We’d say you need a copywriter – it’s no surprise we’d be big advocates of outsourcing, but that’s not just because we quite like getting work. We also get to see how awesome it is for our clients when they hand over that big scary bit of copy-work that’s been lumbering around their to-do list for months into safe hands.

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For some, it’s the relief of knowing someone else is doing it. Delegation plus! For others, they’re ready to bite the proverbial, stop DIYing content creation and produce something that adds real value to their business. Either way, we give hiring a copywriter four thumbs up.

What makes a good copy or content writer?

As in any trade, not all copy or content writers are created equal. A love of language and the ability to string words together is a baseline. So what else should you be looking for when you’re on the hunt for a copywriter?

We’re not just copy and content writers – we hire and train them too. Some have been amazing, and some… much harder to work with. In the process, we’ve started to spot some patterns. Here’s our list of questions to ask when you’re looking for a copy or content writer, so you end up with a goodie.

1. They’re a great writer, but are they a copywriter?

Some of the most exquisite writers I know make truly rubbish copywriters. Why? Because when you’re writing for a business, you can’t write like you. Your job is to set your own style aside and work out what’s best for the brand and audience. It’s text that’s designed to create action. Copy and content writers do that by telling stories and being clever with words, but those things aren’t the goal in themselves. It’s why I wouldn’t hire a novelist – we may use the same tools (words), but the disciplines are completely different. Unless they’ve had the opportunity to retrain, asking a fiction writer to craft sales copy is like asking an artist to paint a house (or vice versa). Same tools, entirely different job.

2. Have they asked lots of hard (read: annoying) questions?

When you hire a copywriter, you’ll know what their writing should do (get more sales! Make people love your brand!) but you may not have thought about how to do that. That’s where the content writer should step in. If they haven’t asked these questions (and drawn out the answers), they don’t have everything they need to write you an effective piece. They’ll be taking a stab in the dark – and that could mean a lot of expensive time-wasting for both of you.

Here are the questions copywriters should be asking (and getting the answers to)

- Who are you targeting?

- Okay, but what one person are you targeting?

- What are you trying to get them to do?

- How do you think we can do that?

- Why will they care?

- No, but really, will they care about that?

- What do you think they really care about?

- If your business was a person, how would he/she speak?

- So if your business has “personality” – what is that “personality” exactly?

3. Do they question your brief?

So many times, I’ve had clients brief me on something that sort of, well, doesn't make sense. You’re a company that sells mostly to business people – does it make sense to run a Facebook competition? You’re a corporate that sells to other businesses – is a billboard campaign your best marketing spend? You might have a really brilliant strategy to back up that decision – if that’s the case, then awesome. But your new copywriter should be cocking an eyebrow and asking “How are you going to use that?” and “Have you thought about using <insert way brainier media idea here>?” If you don’t get those questions, you’re almost certainly working with a Yes Person. Someone who’ll happily create gorgeous text for a doomed marketing campaign. The good copy and content writers will say “No” (politely).

4. Do they say they can write anything?

Believe me, writing a billboard campaign is a completely different kettle of hoki from an email campaign. Both use words, yes, this is true. But the strategy, approach, limitations, styles and opportunities vary wildly. Be wary of copywriters who say they can write a LinkedIn profile because they’ve written staff bios, or a prospectus because they’ve written a company profile, or a proposal because they’ve written a report. Ask about similar projects they’ve worked on. If it’s a new kind of writing for them, that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker – it’s more about their attitude. Switching codes is a big deal. Someone who doesn’t recognise that is likely to unconsciously deliver less-than-ideal copy.

5. Does their past work all sort of… sound the same?

Copywriting is an exercise in humility. When I’m writing for brands, I have to murder my clever turns of phrase, destroy my wittiest headlines, dumb stuff down and even (HORROR) use exclamation marks. Most of the time, there’s nothing in there that’s me. Nothing that I can use to show off to my friends. It’s all about the brand – its tone and its audience. When I’m writing, I am the brand. So most of my work looks like it’s been written by different people. Because it sort of has.

So when you’re considering a copywriter, ask to see some of their past work. Does it all have a similar flair? A similar style? No matter how beautiful the text, if it all sounds the same, it’s a hint that your copywriter is actually just… a writer. They write like themselves – and that means they’re not going to write like you or your brand.

Now you’re ready to choose

Copywriting crunch time – not all writers are good copy or content writers, so get your questions ready.

-      Is your hopeful applicant really a copywriter able to write like you, or a tapped-out novelist looking for a change?

-      Have they asked you the challenging questions about your company and brand and the specific brief, so the job they do is what you really need?

-      If they tell you they can write anything, can they prove it?

-      Does previous work show that they can put aside their own style, slip your company mantle on and be you when they write?

Of course, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by contracting a specialist copywriting company, with a team of writers who can cover all types of copywriting. Hi.

Helen Steemson

The lead copywriter and creative director at Words for Breakfast. She spends much of her time working with the copy writing team across a variety of projects.