Hiring great content writers: 30 traits to look for
Good content is good business.
If your business is dependent on organic traffic, this is a sentence you can probably relate to.
In the world where SEO, content, and inbound play a key role in generating traffic, leads, and sales, content writers are an essential ingredient for growth.
Well, good content writers, anyway.
Thanks to the boom in content marketing, many writers have started to gravitate towards this field, especially as a freelancer.
What’s more, they all have varying degrees of backgrounds. From experienced journalists, self-taught bloggers to marketers with vastly different skill sets, there’s now a plethora of different content writers at your disposal.
But while it’s always good to have options, how and where do you begin? Here are some questions you should be asking:
- What should I consider when hiring a content writer (freelance or otherwise)?
- What sets a good writer apart from the rest?
- How high a rate is too high?
- How can a content writer help me reach my objectives?
Finding a content writer is easy. But finding one that’s a good fit for your project, business, and objectives, is a challenge.
And this isn’t where you should skimp. The difference between a good and a bad content writer is evident in the results of their work and the consequential business metrics — which is what matters in the end.
If you’re looking for content writers and are serious about reaching your objectives, the ideal writer you need will need to know more than just… write.
Take it from a writer who manages writers.
In this article, we’ll list 30 traits of good content writers and how to spot one.
30 characteristics of a good content writer
Oh yes, you read that right: 30.
A web content writer doesn’t need to fulfil each and every one of these 30 traits to be good. But good writers do meet many (or most) of these requirements. The more they do, the closer they are to being the content writer you need.
Ready? Let’s dive into what a good content writer is and does.
1) Is a master of technique
A pâtissier makes pastries, a designer designs, and a writer writes. It’s these basic rules of the trade that makes the world turn.
Regardless of their field, these masters all have one thing in common: their impeccable technique.
And that’s only achieved through training and/or experience — in some cases, they come in the form of a gift. But the sad reality is that we can’t all create heavenly desserts, despite binging through season after season of Master Chef.
This is a sine qua non.
Not mastering the technical aspects of writing — grammar, syntax, and spelling — doesn’t make one a bad writer, just perhaps not one that can be considered professional.
To be a master means going beyond just understanding the rules and knowing how to apply them. There are other skills that are needed, which are acquired from hours of writing and editing.
Here are a few:
- The ability to project a unique voice that can be adapted to the company’s voice as needed
- A fluid writing style (to facilitate smooth transitions between sentences and paragraphs)
- The capacity to grasp logic and argue reasonably well
Pro tip: When hiring content writers, have them edit or correct a text as part of your selection process. Include errors — both common and uncommon ones — to evaluate their technical skills.
A freelance writer’s spelling and grammar need to be flawless and must be able to deliver the highest standards as possible, be it for a personal portfolio or a writing test.
2) Has experience in your sector
This is especially important in B2B sectors that produce specific and technical content for very specialised audiences.
The more experience a writer has in writing for topics related to your industry, the easier it will be to:
- Understand and illustrate the essence of a story
- Identify the best angle for the piece
- Express himself as an insider
- Understand industry jargon when researching
- Make the article relevant and relatable for readers by adjusting to their knowledge level
- Find reliable and apt information sources
That doesn’t, however, mean that a content writer with no experience in your sector isn’t capable of creating spectacular content. He or she may simply take longer to produce content when starting out.
3) Is creative
Content writers, like journalists, often use expressions and idioms to embellish their writing.
It’s almost as if they had an entire library of expressions in their heads ready for them to pick from. This is actually what allows them to churn out thousands of words over a short period of time.
A good content writer not only has the ability to do this but also does it with creatively. Creativity is a fine line that separates a good writer from a great one.
You can spot creative content writers by:
- their use of original metaphors, analogies, or examples
- their use of unconventional words naturally
- their ability to express an idea clearly without using clichés
4) Knows how to research
Expressing data and ideas in words is just one of many jobs of a writer. But words are just one way to transmit a message.
Before even beginning to draft, you need an idea. And to obtain that idea, you need to conduct research.
A particular topic may seem interesting, but the story only really comes alive when all the right sources, references, and opinions have been collated, broken down, and packaged.
To do this, a writer needs to compare sources, analyse and interpret data, and ask the right questions to source for the right material. This is why journalists make good web content writers.
5) Is a good interviewer
Certain content writers may have experience writing about your sector, but that doesn’t necessarily make them experts.
This is where Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) come in. These are the maestros who know the ins and outs of a topic and can provide the content writer with the information needed to produce a real masterpiece.
Conducting an interview may look like a walk in the park. But there’s more than meets the eye. The writer, or interviewer, in this case, must know exactly the kind of questions to craft to prompt insightful responses.
Otherwise, the SME’s true knowledge will remain unearthed as their answers provided will likely be too simple. This makes it difficult to put together a piece that’s any different from those that have already been done by your competitors, thus losing it in the masses along with its objective.
Pro tip: If you’re a B2B company in a very specialised or niche industry, your content writer will probably need to constantly pose questions to SMEs. In-house or freelance, make sure your content writer has experience with interviewing experts.
6) Has a keen eye for detail
Good content writers don’t just have a keen eye for detail, their eyes should also have X-ray and microscopic capabilities.
This helps them with being meticulous and allows them to
- Avoid careless typos and spelling mistakes
- Emphasise text with bold and italics when appropriate
- Spot repeated words or double spaces
- Correct typographies, text sizes or inconsistent formats
- Be consistent with style, acronyms, abbreviations, style (eg. US vs USA, color vs colour, etc.)
- Detect abrupt jumps from one argument to the next
7) Has a sense of humour
Humour is, unfortunately, undervalued in content marketing.
And that’s a real shame because it does a good job of introducing familiarity, breaking down barriers, and above all, constructing a tunnel that connects you with the readers on an emotional level.
Not to mention, a dose of fun and laughter facilitates learning, absorption, retention, and just makes everything better.
It’s not something natural that everyone has and neither is it easy to inculcate.
So, if you come across a content writer who not only meets most of the requirements but also has a rich sense of humour, pull out the contract immediately.
8) Understands human psychology
A good content writer understands human psychology as much as a good salesman does. After all, the ultimate objective of sales and marketing (or smarketing) is one and the same: to sell.
That said, it’s important to know what motivates readers, holds them back, and spurs their decision making.
That is why content writers who understand the basic principles of behaviour tend to be more persuasive in their writing. Their pieces also do a better job of capturing and holding attention because that’s exactly what understanding human psychology permits them to do.
Knowledge of human psychology aside, a good writer is also constantly thinking about how to apply it to their writing.
Look for writers who constantly pose these questions:
- Why do people behave as they do?
- How does this affect my audience and my objectives?
- How does my writing affect their behaviour?
9) Is assertive
For a writer to perform, others involved in the process must also do their part, too.
Be it collating information, collecting data, requesting for comments, etc, to get what’s needed to produce good content, a writer must be assertive.
To do his or her job, constant interaction is needed with subject matter experts, fellow marketers, CMOs, and even specialists from other departments. A writer needs to be assertive enough to handle revisions, doubts, questions, comments, and follow-ups.
Plus, there’s always a deadline to be met.
If a content writer isn’t able to articulate what he needs, deadlines and objectives will be missed.
10) Knows SEO
A writer’s main job is to convert raw and hard information into relevant, attractive, and comprehensible content.
There’s no keyword analysis involved.
Strictly speaking, anyway, especially for teams blessed with an SEO specialist.
So, knowing how to conduct basic keyword analysis and having basic knowledge of SEO is a great plus — and sometimes even a necessity — for a content writer.
Ideally, a good web content writer should be able to:
- Identify appropriate keywords for a particular topic
- (Or vice versa) come up with an interesting content topic and angle based on high-volume keywords
- Understand the different factors that determine ranking: keyword difficulty, potential for backlinks, how competitors currently rank for this keyword, and how to present the information in a way that hasn’t already been done by others
- Know how to do internal linking
11) Introduces keywords naturally
From title and meta description tags to the text itself, introducing a keyword in a piece of content so it reads naturally is more art than science.
Good content is naturally good SEO content. If it smells like SEO, it’s probably a case of keyword stuffing. And worse yet if it doesn’t even include keywords.
This is especially important if your main goal is to generate traffic with content marketing.
Experienced content writers know how to balance text naturally with keyword density. Extra points for those who use relevant synonyms adequately.
12) Adjusts content to objectives
To achieve your objectives, a key part of your content strategy must include defining just one well-defined goal for each piece of content.
Even though this is your responsibility, the writer should be able to work on the content without deviating from this goal.
For example, if a piece of content is meant for digital PR and to generate media coverage, it must be written objectively and focused on news-worthy content.
Likewise, copies for landing pages aimed at conversion must be persuasive enough to build trust by including verified and reliable data, case studies, and expert quotes that support testimonials.
Pro tip: When working with a new writer, make sure to clearly define the end goal of each piece of content. Consider including this goal in your content calendar or any other task management programmes you use.
13) Is analytical
The ability to analyse data and extract conclusions is another key trait all marketers should have, regardless of whether they handle the more technical or creative aspect of marketing.
For content writers, it helps them understand the results of their content so that they can act accordingly. Plus, with an analytical mind, they can explore trends, understand topics, exploit data sets, and conduct tests.
A data-driven content writer will constantly be thinking about the following:
- What sort of titles work better in this industry?
- Will listicles or in-depth analyses produce better results?
- How will storytelling affect engagement for this piece?
- Do my readers prefer jargon or layman terms?
14) Has experience with different content types
Content marketing priorities are anything but static.
You may need content for a blog post one day, and an ebook, press release, or landing page the next.
It’s good for a writer to be specialised in a certain topic. But place priority on those who — speciality or not — a portfolio of the different types of content.
Otherwise, you may find yourself on the search for specialised content writers constantly depending on your content needs.
15) Is a good seller
This is a key trait of any content writer, even though the pieces produced may not come seem sufficiently promotional or “sales-y”.
In fact, it’s precisely that that makes a writer a good seller.
Good content writers, particularly copywriters, can convince you to sell your soul to the devil without you even realising it.
And that’s because a writer is always selling and promoting — subtly or otherwise. Some examples include:
- Content proposals and ideas to their bosses and/or clients
- Arguments that convert into ideas that readers think are their own
- Inherent benefits of any product/service
16) Has basic design skills
The ability to design isn’t so much a ‘must’ for a writer as it is a ‘nice-to-have’.
If you don’t have a professional designer on your team, having a content writer with basic design skills is a huge advantage.
This is what makes a web content writer a multi-purpose creator: the ability to adapt information into different formats to produce anything from blog posts to PDF guides for leads generation.
In the era of Canva, Piktochart, and the likes, it’s no longer absolutely fundamental to have design training or knowledge of or experience with designing programs to create a professional-looking graphic.
But there are different levels of design work. It’s one thing to create a simple image to promote a blog post on social media, and a whole other game trying to optimise the text and graphics of infographics as well as the folks at Visual Capitalist.
A content writer simply needs to understand the basic rules of visual composition and be able to navigate around visual editing tools.
17) Has a sense of aesthetics
This is similar to the abovementioned point. It isn’t about creating graphics, but having an aesthetic sense that allows the writer to enhance the piece of content.
Consider the importance of images and infographics in a blog post. A writer with a basic aesthetics sense will look for quality graphics and be consistent with the use of icons so that they’re of the same style.
The design and feel must also match the tone of the piece. Otherwise, it’d be like reading the New York Times in Comic Sans MS… which is just… off.
Plus, think about the multitude of formats a text can have to make it more legible.
As long-format content continues to prove effective and becomes increasingly popular, it’s essential for a content writer to know how to separate sections with the various resources and formats available.
For example, a badly formatted infographic or accompanying image can destroy an article — however interesting it may be. In this case, a good writer will know how to optimise:
- White spaces
- Paragraph and sentence length
- Text separation in sections and subsections
- Bullet points and numbered lists
- Citations and other relevant sections
Pro tip: As a test, provide content writers with a long text and get them to format it into a PDF ebook or guide. Make sure the end product they turn in is visually easy to consume, and that there’s a good variety of elements such as images, quotes, titles, subtitles, lists, etc.
18) Is a good teacher
A good writer is like Whoppi Goldberg in Sister Act II — able to take a mundane topic and present it in a way that’s attractive, interesting, and even motivates you to stick around till the end.
This is inherent in good teachers, who know how to make complex topics comprehensible — be it with the use of examples, analogies, images, or metaphors, etc.
Plus, they structure their lessons according to the level of their students by:
- adapting the material to their students’ knowledge level
- giving just the amount of context needed to understand the topic
- knowing how much detail to go into so that the content is relevant
19) Knows how to write a good introduction
Think about how many blog posts you’ve read that begin like a Wikipedia article — one that starts off with basic data and information.
Everyone can write introductions. But not all can produce hard-hitting and impactful ones that hook you in from the get-go.
It may be from having to churn out blog post after blog post, an exercise that sometimes places more value on quantity rather than quality.
A good writer must grasp the underlying emotions of the topic, connect with them, think like an insider, consider the readers’ pain points, and be able to comprehend the context. With that comes the ability to recognise a rare opportunity to hit hard from the start.
Pay attention to your content writers’ introductions, especially the first few paragraphs and their ability to connect with the reader.
If you find yourself having to choose between two similar profiles, this should be the ultimate deciding factor.
20) Is a good editor
Beyond the world of writing, little is said about the role of an editor.
The editing process is an important and vital one in content production. In fact, it’s common for marketing teams with very developed and sophisticated content strategies to have an editor whose sole job is to edit, edit, and edit.
Don’t be mistaken. It is, indeed, a full-time job. It involves a lot of correcting, rephrasing, and asking: Is there a better way to illustrate this?
It’s kind of like sculpting — polishing a piece of raw material until it’s in its smoothest form.
That said, a good content writer can play a double role and be an editor by
- Removing repetitive or uninteresting text
- Adding details and context where necessary
- Shifting paragraphs or sentences around so that the content flows
- Looking for original, unique, and/or simple ways to put an idea across
A true ability of an editor shines when having to edit comments of an expert to ensure it’s phrased as a hard-hitting quote.
Pro tip: Take a relatively well-written text and ask the writer you’re evaluating to edit the text. There’s no need to rewrite it, he/she just has to annotate changes, improvements, and/or edits.
21) Identifies problems (and solutions)
What’s in it for me?
This is what your audience and prospects ask when they come across your content — be it a landing page, ebook, or blog post, etc.
Good content writers answer this question well because they have two marketing concepts deeply entrenched in their writing process: pain points (problems) and benefits (solutions).
They never begin crafting their content before first answering the question: What is the main problem that the piece is trying to solve?
Or, when writing copies for conversion: What are the benefits of the product/service and what problems do they solve?
This isn’t a ‘good-to-have’, but a ‘must-have’ trait. A good web content writer be able to incorporate this into her content production process.
This concept may be more ingrained in some than others. Hire writers who speak the language of pain points and benefits at a native level.
22) Is serious
Being serious doesn’t mean no laughs, no smile, or no jokes. What ‘serious’ here refers to is their working style. It sounds simple but it’s absolutely critical.
A writer may be able to craft words as beautifully as George Orwell, Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens. But if deadlines aren’t met or the pieces go off-topic, your content strategy is pretty much moot.
Plus, seriousness also translates to dependable and professional. The last thing you want is a writer who plagiarises, isn’t methodical, or doesn’t fact-check.
Double-, or even triple-check their work when they’re just starting out. But as soon as you begin to pick up signs of an unprofessional writer, take that as a warning sign and start looking for alternatives. Otherwise, the constant checking and doubting will end up being extra work for you.
23) Goes the extra mile
A content writer can simply follow orders or be proactive and go the extra mile.
- Including a relevant section in an article that even though wasn’t in the outline, complements the piece
- Going beyond the resources provided to quote more updated and relevant data/statistics
- Taking the initiative to conduct his/her own analysis for other keyword opportunities
A motivated and committed content writer doesn’t limit him or herself to black and white instructions. He/she goes above and beyond to enrich the piece, regardless of the extra effort required.
Pro tip: Freelance writers could also provide their two cents’ worth on what has or hasn’t worked in other similar projects that they have taken on previously. For smaller teams or those with little or no content marketing experience, a senior freelance writer can be of great value.
24) Is open to criticism
Good content writers tend to be perfectionists and can be quite critical of themselves. But besides self-criticism, it’s important for them to be able to receive negative feedback graciously.
This also means being humble, having an ability to listen and an open mind that helps them understand and see the shortcomings of a piece of content.
That said, it’s important to take into account the writer’s personality. Many studies suggest that creativity, introspection and the ability to communicate better in writing are common traits of introverts.
They are often perceived as being more sensitive, and in large part, they are — which explains their artistic and creative abilities. But that doesn’t mean they are able to handle criticism well, constructive as it may be.
They are, however, known for their ability to listen, empathise and concentrate on an objective at hand. So, any constructive criticism they receive will be used as feedback to improve.
A humble and eager writer may even take the first step of being proactive and ask for feedback.
25) Can defend an opinion
It’s one thing to accept criticism, and another to be able to defend an opinion or point of view.
Marketing and/or business managers tend to try and include their product or service’s value proposition in every single piece of content published.
But there’s a place, time, and format for that. And it’s not uncommon to forget the customer journey and end up producing pieces that are a messy mix of educational and promotional content.
As Gary Vaynerchuk puts it, companies should be the television channel that draws audiences in with their programs and not the annoying ads between program blocks that everyone avoids.
Too many CTAs can be annoying for a reader, as can a repetitive keyword that impedes the flow of the article.
Content writers have a vision that’s less contaminated by the sales instinct. This is where they can influence — by standing up for his point of view and defend what audiences are interested in instead of conforming to the promotional messages.
26) Looks for the best angle
There are thousands of vantage points from which to tell a story. But not all are of equal value.
It’s important for a content writer to know how to find the angle that best suits the piece’s objectives.
If the main objective is to generate organic traffic, a unique angle is needed, and preferably one that’s never been tackled before as the angle can sometimes be as important as the keyword itself.
Plus, an editor with the ability to tell stories from the best angles can also craft impactful digital PR content and content aimed at generating engagement.
27) Grasps the art of storytelling
A writer who can hook readers, awake their emotions, and make them feel as if they are a part of the story, is worth more than a hundred who can’t.
But even though all marketers understand the power of storytelling and its ability to connect with audiences, not all can apply it to their writing.
Good storytelling involves certain elements — both technical and emotional — that can help enhance its effect. But the truth is, storytelling is as much science as it is an art.
28) Is curious
Curiosity may kill the cat but it does something quite different for writers — it enlivens their writing.
The best writers view the world differently. They don’t simply accept.
They question. They challenge.
And it is this piqued curiosity and their constant ‘why’s that allow them to gain new insight and form unique observations from which they tell exceptional stories.
Pro tip: When hiring a long-term writer, check out their hobbies and interests. Atypical profiles (like those who have travelled a lot or out-of-the-norm experiences) may be indicative of a curious and restless soul.
29) Doesn’t stop reading
Fiction? Non-fiction? Romance? Self-help? It doesn’t matter.
A good writer is always reading.
This may seem like a rather superficial trait. But behind every great writer lies a passionate reader.
This may be key when hiring an intern or a writer with little experience. In such cases, their aptitudes and attitudes are much more important.
Pro tip: It may be out of the ordinary, but ask them about the current or latest books they have read and what they thought of them to get an idea of how much and the kind of books they read. Extra points if it’s related to marketing or your industry!
30) Has empathy
The foundation of every marketer’s job is to understand his audience like the back of his hand.
It isn’t enough to simply know a buyer persona’s age, experience, education background — basically anything collected from data.
A good content writer not only knows how to work with data but must also know how to trigger emotions. And that’s where empathy plays a big role. Good writers must be able to put themselves in the shoes of the reader.