When your website needs content, whether product descriptions or blog posts, you have two options, you can write it yourself or pay someone to write it for you.
Many people don’t realize how prevalent freelance writing is, especially ghostwriting. Since ghostwriting is hidden from your audience by its very nature, it’s easy to forget that it’s everywhere.
The content marketing industry is worth $400 billion; it’s not just some underground technique a few businesses use.
Hundreds of thousands of people are out there trying to build careers as freelance writers. Some specialize in short-form content for product descriptions and social media. Some prefer to write medium-length content like blog posts. Some only want to work on 10,000-word eBooks.
Moreover, some of them are outstanding writers, and some of them are just plain bad.
Since the barrier to entry for writing is “can use a document editor,” many people out there have virtually no skill in the language and no awareness of how online content works, nevertheless still trying to succeed as writers.
The worst part? Sure, some writers have polished portfolios, but many don’t. There’s no way to tell from looking at them, and you’re gambling on any writer you’re considering hiring. How can you figure out who is good to hire and who should be left to find another client?
Interviews can show a writer’s personality but not their skill. A portfolio can showcase their best work, but not the work they’ll turn in every week. It would be best if you had a practical demonstration of their skills. So, a writing test is the best option.
The question is, how can you administer such a test? What should it include?
Know What You Need
The first thing you need to do is understand your own needs and how a writer will fulfill them.
If you need someone to bang out 250 product descriptions on a short-term contract in a month, you need a specific kind of writer. The same goes for long-term weekly blog post writing, or sporadic high-end eBook or whitepaper writing, press release writing, email newsletter writing, writing copy for social media, or writing PPC ad copy… you get the point.
Some writers can do just about anything, and some can do anything quite effectively – others have specializations.
In general, there are three qualities you need to define about your needs before you can start looking for a writer.
- The format. Web writing is very different from sales copy, which is very different from novel ghostwriting.
- The focus. Specifically, you want to define sales versus non-sales copy. You can be more nuanced, but this is the big divide. Many writers are firmly on one side or the other.
- The frequency. Do you need a writer for a few special projects, once or twice a year? Do you need one for ongoing weekly blog posts? Again, different writing styles.
In most cases, your writers will be working with multiple clients. You’d have to be paying very well for them to make a living just from you, and even then, many writers will be very hesitant to put all their income eggs in one basket. After all, if you disappear on them and leave them with zero income, that’s not a good situation for the writer.
Define Good Writing
The key to a writing test is defining what you’re looking for. What makes a piece of writing good or bad in the context of your trial?
The key here is that you’re not just giving your writer a list of grammar questions or “define this word” questions. You’re giving them a practical assignment. We recommend giving them an actual project, even. If you need a writer to write blog posts for you, provide them with a topic and have them write a blog post for you and judge them based on that post.
So, what should you use to judge the writer’s writing?
The vast majority of the time, at least for blog posts, you’re looking for someone who has experience writing for the web.
Web writing is engaging. It’s very different from academic writing, fiction writing, and other content writing – web writing is generally shorter, punchier, and more conversational. It also makes liberal use of subheadings, lists, and formatting.
All of this helps keep a reader’s attention. It prunes unnecessary content or overly dry language to keep the reader’s attention.
Web writing is also tricky to grasp for a writer who is used to academic papers, fanfiction, or short-form content.
You can try to find a writer who specializes in your topic, and if you find one, excellent!
However, if you’re in a less common niche, your options may be limited.
You want a writer who can be given a topic they’ve never encountered before and can do enough research to figure out what they need to write authoritatively on the subject – this can include things like:
- Knowing how to perform analysis online and even offline in some cases.
- Knowing how to separate good sources from poor sources.
- Knowing how to synthesize ideas out of data and verify that those ideas are valid.
- Learning the jargon, terminology, and language necessary to convey authority.
Depending on your industry, this may be a low bar to set or a very high one. Some enterprises may even have special requirements; for example, writing in law, finances, or medicine can be subject to disclaimers and regulations against making specific claims.
Create a Project Brief
A good writing test is a practical test. It’s a simple demonstration that the writer can do the work you’ll require of them.
Everything you would give the writer so that they would produce content you can edit and publish – this includes:
- Title, keyword, and description – this is the bare minimum information your writer needs to be able to produce content on the subject you’re looking for.
- Target audience. Are your authors writing to beginners or advanced practitioners? Small businesses or enterprises? B2B or B2C? Is the audience looking to buy or research? This information can be critical for some kinds of content.
- Specific requirements. Do you need particular links, quotes, or points added to the content? Does it need to hit a particular word count minimum or maximum? Make sure the writer knows.
- Content that your writer should avoid. If you don’t want your writer to link to a specific, otherwise-authoritative or common domain (like a competitor), make sure they know that in advance. Though, it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker that you have to remove a link they didn’t know should be avoided.
Additionally, you might consider including a style guide if you have one. The guide serves as a manual and will specify first versus third person, causal versus formal, and general style points. If you work with multiple writers, a style guide can be a good idea to ensure a consistent voice, tone, and style across all of your writers.
In a typical content production pipeline, you might have outlines for the posts you send to your writers. These are better left out of a writing test (unless you need something peculiar) so you can give your writers more freedom to produce content and see what they come up with.
Once you have all of this down, you can give it to your candidate writer, along with a deadline, and see what they produce.
Deal-Breakers Vs. Minor Issues
Most writers won’t be perfect right away. Sometimes they’ll make mistakes you didn’t even think were errors and didn’t think to add to your style guide. A typical example of this is using or not using the Oxford Comma. It’s relevant to a consistent style, but many people don’t think to specify it. Is it worth not hiring a writer because of it? Not necessarily.
Figure out what your deal-breakers are. Generally, they should be significant issues, such as:
- They are writing off-target content. If the writer violates or ignores a core point from the brief, they probably aren’t going to work out. It’s one thing to let a detail slip now and then, but the test is supposed to be a flagship indication of what they do when trying to impress you.
- They miss the deadline. Yes, things happen in life. You can even cut a writer some slack if you have a backlog or buffer and they communicate with you. But, especially for a test, a deadline is critical.
- They can’t take criticism and adapt – this is a big one. Consider throwing the writer a curveball and asking for a revision within reason. Please don’t change the core of the content brief, and don’t tell them they messed up when you’re asking for a change they couldn’t have foreseen. But, seeing how they adapt to criticism can be crucial.
On the other hand, minor things like not properly capitalizing an industry term, misplacing a comma, or a single overlooked typo is not worth dropping a potential writer over.
The best judge of a writer’s ability is a project where they write something for you. However, you can also test other skills you might want them to have.
- A research test. Pick a semi-complex topic in your industry, develop a prompt, and ask the writer to find information about it. Judge them based on the accuracy of the information and the source they cite for it.
- An editing test. Try writing a blog post, then introduce a handful of errors to it. Ask the writer to review it and itemize the changes they would make. These can be anything from typos and grammatical mistakes to significant structure and logical flow issues.
- A pitch test. If you want your writers to be more independent and capable of pitching their topics, ask them to do so and see what they pitch.
It all depends on what you want out of your writer. Some companies require a writer who handles everything from keyword research to publishing and everything in between. Some companies have full teams to manage the entire process and only need a writer to produce the written content. Both are fine.
Pay For the Test
The most important thing you can do for a writing test, especially for a freelance writer, is paying the writer for your test. It might not need to be the complete rate you would pay for regular writing, but it should at least be reasonable for your expectations and the skill level you’re aiming for.
Freelance writing has long been abused as an industry by companies who will put out a “submit a unique sample” and then turn around and use those samples without hiring or paying the writers. It is illegal and unethical, but it also drives away the best writers, who know better than to submit to those kinds of projects.
The most important part of a writing test for a freelance writer is to make it as close to the real thing as possible. An ideal writing test is just an actual assignment – if they do well, excellent! They’re already on board. If they don’t, you paid for a single piece you might be able to use or might not, and you can move on if they can’t hack it.
Once you’ve found a great candidate, you can then train them in the finer details of your process and industry and bring them up to full speed. Good luck!
Do you have any questions for me on writing tests? Have you used a writing test for your new freelance authors, and if not, have I talked you into using them? Please let me know below in the comments section! I’d be happy to help and reply to every comment I receive.
Shaun Connell has spent his entire career either working as a freelance writer or hiring freelance writers for his many successful publications. Shaun has learned the exact tricks of the trade to hire the perfect writer for almost any niche.