What to look for in a content writer

In his post What to Look for in Freelance Writers, the “content marketing evangelist” (his words) Joe Pulizzi advises content marketers and digital publishers on finding the right type of content writer for their specific need.

Joe comes from the US. I’m European. So there might be a cultural disconnect of sorts here, but having read the article linked to above, I felt compelled to add my two cents.


Talking about hiring an external content writer, Joe’s number one bullet point talks about the writer’s personality trumping industry expertise. I have an issue with that.

If you’re an industrial company, the right personality will be nice to work with, sure, but be aware that you will have to spend a considerable amount of resources—time if not money—to train your new-found writer in the intricacies of your industry, your competitive situation and your goals. Are you prepared to make the investment, or would you rather go with someone hitting the ground running?

No professional content writer would have attained his or her status or kept alive if they had constantly been at loggerheads with their clients. “With whom you can’t stand to be in the same room with” is, pardon me, ridiculously far-fetched. At least here in Europe, we writers can’t afford to have egos larger than our competence.


Joe quite rightly emphasises that when you’re hiring, you should hire the type of writer who is best suited to the project at hand. Where I see it starting to go in a strange direction is “Understand that copywriters work very differently and have very different sensibilities than do journalists.”

It looks like someone is trying to squeeze us writers in far too small pigeonholes here. “If you’re looking for someone to write blog posts for you, a copywriter is probably not your best bet” leads me to assume Joe’s idea of a copywriter is someone with a dose of arrogance and high-flying “creativity” that is best suited for aggressive consumer advertising.

It’s a common mistake to understand “freelance copywriter” as being some kind of a hack between jobs or a moonlighter. A serious, professional copywriter will naturally adapt to the circumstances, take into account on whose behalf he or she is writing and to what kind of audience. Let me give some examples of what I personally have written about:

  • Customer magazine articles for an oil refining company
  • Article on deep-sea submersibles
  • Brochures and print ads for paper mill condition monitoring system manufacturer
  • Marketing material about cast iron, particleboard and building restoration
  • Direct mail campaigns for an aircraft manufacturer, industrial security company, internationally operating construction company etc
  • Website copy ranging from one-woman footwear company to Northern Europe’s largest IT services company
  • Email campaign for a business gift company
  • And so on

As you can see, this spectrum calls for persuasiveness, the ability to grasp complex technical issues and the competence to write about a wide range of topics in a human-understandable voice. It looks like the niches on this side of the pond are more flexible.


Under “Develop the right business relationship” it seems the client gets to dictate the terms of the assignment. Sure, the client must always get what is required when it’s required, but what works when dealing with content farms won’t fly with a serious, professional writer. An assignment is always a two-way street. The writer commits to fulfilling his side of the deal, and so should the client. For example, if your piece is required in 2 days, it’s unfair to expect the writer to consent to payment in 90 days.


The pay-for-performance model is a double-edged sword if there ever was one. The online success of any piece of content is dependent on so many factors outside of the writer’s control that it’s a professional suicide to accept payment based on performance.

What I wholeheartedly support is Joe’s last subhead: Before Diving In… Test. Yes. Because it will very soon reveal whether the work relationship is going to be a long-term one, taking into consideration both the personal chemistry and the quality of writing aspects.

What’s your view? As a content writer or someone hiring a writer? It would be great to have a comment from you.



  1. Tom Albrighton - 2011-12-17 @ 22:47

    I haven’t read the article you’re responding to, but I certainly agree with all your points.

    Personally, I have a big problem with anyone adopting a ‘master and servant’ stance when they work with me. It creates the same awkwardness as someone being rude to the waiter in a restaurant. Like most writers, I have the best interests of the client’s project and brand at heart – I’m not trying to con anybody. I might disagree with the client, but that’s about getting the best outcome, not my ego.

    So while I don’t mind being flexible and explaining what my price covers, I don’t like being made to jump through hoops. Free samples, payment on approval and payment for performance are three good examples of such hoops.

    Pay for performance I could maybe go for on a sales letter or a landing page, with decent measurement in place. But as you say, there’s still a lot outside my control that could nobble my chances of success. Also, I’d have to get final cut – there’s no way you can accept payment for performance when someone else has the right to futz with your copy.

    I totally agree with you about labels. Although it’s arguably a bit pretentious, there’s a case for all of us being known as ‘writers’. We could still have specialisations if we wanted to. As regards ‘sensibilities’, I think that’s something to be determined by actually talking to your guy, rather than asking him what label they give themselves. When I started out, with a publishing background, it took me ages to dare call myself a copywriter. Once I broke free of that mindset, things started to happen for me. Clients should also break free of it, even if they use the term (search term) ‘copywriter’ as a stepping stone to working with a writer. Categories close off opportunities.

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