How to choose a freelance writer: an image of a barefoot man sitting in a chair in the middle of a dirt road with paper falling all around him and the article title overlaid (How to choose a freelance writer)

How to choose a freelance writer

  • K. M. Wade 
  • 21 min read

So you’ve decided to outsource your content creation to one or more freelance writers. Congratulations! That can be a hard decision to make. Now, of course, you need to figure out how to choose the right freelance writer for your brand. This is a fairly detailed look at just how you can do that.

The decisions you need to make when hiring a freelance writer

Before we get to how to choose a freelance writer, there are three main things you need to get sorted out:

  • your goals
  • the type of content you want to use to achieve those goals
  • how much you can afford to spend to get the result you want

Know your goals

Before you can make any headway in choosing a freelance writer, you need to clarify what you want to achieve with your content. The clarity of your goals is the factor that will most strongly influence the success of your project.

Clear goals will help you choose the right services and writer for your project. Clearly communicating your goals will also help your chosen writer produce content that has the best chance of helping you achieve those goals.

Your goals should be well-defined and measurable so you can objectively assess the success of your project and measure your return on investment. Don’t just define your goal as ‘increase sales’. Instead try something like ‘increase revenue by 10%’.

If possible, include the mechanism by which your goal will be achieved. For instance, your goal might be ‘increase revenue by 10% by increasing the average life time value of existing customers by 2%’ or it could be ‘increase revenue by 10% by attracting 500 new customers’.

These last two examples should give you an idea of why more specific goals are better. The strategy and content that would be useful in improving customer lifetime values is very different from that which would help with attracting new customers.

Think about the kind of content and associated services you want to invest in

Once you have one or more clear and measurable goals, you can investigate the types of content that could best contribute to achieving that/those aim/s. This article about the types of content that work best at each stage of the sales funnel has some great ideas to get you started.

Don’t get too hung up on this stage of choosing a freelance writer. The idea here is to develop enough of an idea to enable you to choose a writer with the right skill set. As an example, there’s no point choosing a blog post writer if a white paper writer is what you need. So, you need to know enough to narrow down the types of content that you need so you can approach writers that are in the right ball park. A good writer will then be able to take your goals and provide you with specific recommendations as to exactly what kind of content would best serve you

You also need to have at least a rough idea of your content requirements so that you can set aside an appropriate budget. And that leads us into the next thing you need to consider when choosing a freelance writer.

Know your budget

Determining an appropriate budget for a writing project can be tricky when you’ve never hired a freelancer before because you probably don’t know what the going rates are and you don’t want to overpay. But you need to know how much you can afford to pay (or how much you’re willing to pay if funds are plentiful) in order to avoid wasting time during your hunt for a writer.

To get an idea of how much you’ll need to budget for your writing project, check out this article on freelance rates.

There’s lots of detail in that article but to cut a long story short, freelance writers cost about the same as in-house writers in the grand scheme of things – they just seem more expensive because freelance costs include all the overheads that are in addition to the salary for in-house employees (e.g. superannuation). So, have a think about how much you would expect to pay an in-house writer to do the job you have in mind. And, think about how long you would expect an in-house employee to take to complete the work. Make sure your estimates are realistic and take into account the level of skill and experience you’d ideally want the writer to posses. Then calculate how much that imaginary in-house employee would need to be paid to complete the work. Multiply that by two to get the lower bound of your project budget and by three to get the upper bound of your project budget.

If you can afford the amount your calculations yielded, you can look for a freelance writer with your ideal skill set. If you don’t have the funds, you’ll either need to lower your expectations and compromise on the quality/experience of the freelancer you choose (in other words you’ll need to choose a cheaper writer) or you’ll need to find creative ways to make the best use of your budget by doing some of the work yourself or spreading the work out over a longer period of time.

For instance, if you want one blog post a week, maybe you could start out with one a fortnight or one a month until you achieve enough of a return that you can afford weekly posts. As another example, if your main reason for hiring a writer is that you’ve run out of email newsletter ideas, maybe you could purchase a strategy or a set of ideas to guide an in-house writer.

Both of those examples are compromises because they’ll slow down the rate at which you achieve your goals but they are likely to produce better results than you’ll get if you hire a cheap writer. Unless you’re exceptionally lucky and hit on an inexperienced but talented writer, a cheap writer will most likely produce a poor result that’ll cost you more in the end. Even if you can’t afford the services of a top of the market writer there are plenty of middle of the range writers that can likely help you. A good freelancer should be able to put together a package of services that will make the best use of whatever budget you have available as well as your existing skill set. You just need to find one that’s a good fit for your business.

Whatever budget you come up with, be upfront about it. You’ll avoid wasting time discussing options with a writer you can’t afford and if any unscrupulous cheap writers approach you, a few key questions should enable you to quickly and easily weed out unsuitable writers. There’s a section on this later in this post.

Qualities to look for in a freelance writer

Once you’ve sorted out your parameters, you can start searching for a great freelance writer. Of course, a writer that’s great for one business isn’t necessarily great for another but there are some general characteristics to look out for.

Great writing skills

Ok, this one is pretty obvious. If you’re going to hire a writer, you obviously want them to have great writing skills. But not all writing skills are created equal and you need to be able to identify the writing skills that are relevant to your business.

If that all sounds a bit academic, let me give you a few examples to illustrate what I mean.

Example 1. Let’s say your brand sells hair care products for tween girls and you want to hire someone to write social media posts that improve brand awareness. With a target audience like that, you need a writer that can get into the headspace of an 11-year-old girl and produce bubbly, conversational text that uses the same language that’s popular with that age group. Chances are, a 70-year-old technical writer isn’t going to have the skill set you’re after no matter how good that freelancer’s writing is.

Example 2. Your business is now focussed on selling time-saving gadgets to busy middle-aged mums and you want a writer to produce high-converting product descriptions and landing page copy. This target audience needs to see content that’s quickly read and easily consumed in the face of crying babies, screaming toddlers and incessant older kids. You need someone with an excellent knowledge of inbound marketing tactics who can write short, snappy text. You’re not likely to find a sci-fi novel writer to be a good fit for your business.

Example 3. For this final example, your business sells big-ticket, highly specialised equipment to universities and research laboratories and you’re in the market for sales emails and brochure copy. You need someone who can write academic-friendly copy and ideally has a scientific background. A 21-year-old, newly graduated arts major is probably not going to have the skill set you’re after.

So, with those example in mind, think about the types of content you want and your goals and then draw up a list of the writing qualities that might be a good fit. Then you can investigate prospective writers to see if they have sufficient command of the English language and the skills you’re after.

Assessing writing skills

To assess how well prospective freelancers write, take a look at any publicly available writing you can find. This could include their freelancer website and/or blog, writing samples they provide and their social media posts if they have at least one social media account. Depending on your requirements, you might also want to take a look at other writing projects the writers have completed. This could include academic pieces (such as journal articles) and books (anything fictional might be useful if you’re particularly keen on creative writing). If the writer has any relevant awards to their name, that may also be a useful indicator.

If those look promising, send them an email or message through another platform. This is very important. You can do most of your communication with your chosen writer on the phone if that’s your preference but you should exchange at least one email with them so you can see their writing skills in a more ad-hoc setting. If they’re smart, most if not all of a writer’s publicly available writing will have been edited to remove most errors. When they respond to emails and direct social media messages etc., they’re unlikely to send their words to an editor first so you’ll get a sense for their inherent writing skills. This is a great way to weed out writers who don’t have a good command of the English language.

When assessing a writer’s writing skills, you’ll benefit from focussing on:

  • the writer’s command of the English language
  • whether the writer use the tone of voice and writing style that matches your brand – or whether the writer exhibits the ability to write in a range of voices and styles (indicating that they might be able to match your brand style)
  • how engaging the writing is (or how engaging it’s likely to be for your target audience)
  • the writer’s creativity
A note about samples

Be aware that some businesses require non-disclosure agreements so freelance writers can’t always share lots of writing samples. You probably don’t have time to read pages of sample material either.

You want to see enough of your prospective writer’s writing to assess their skills and style. But don’t get hung up on seeing heaps of samples from your specific niche. Instead, ask about the results the writer has delivered. If a writer doubled a client’s email open rates, do you really need to see 10 sample emails? Similarly, you don’t need to see a whole eBook to assess a writer’s book writing skills.

Consider asking your prospective writer to provide short excerpts, example outlines, sample subject lines or other relevant samples. It’s also a good idea to ask how a prospective writer has helped previous clients. This kind of information is much more useful than a bunch of samples with no context.

Marketing skills

Regardless of your goals, the ultimate purpose of content marketing is to market your business. As such, the best writers will have a good marketing skill set and will understand how to produce content that contributes to marketing aims.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the right writer for you needs to have a marketing-related degree. They should have experience writing content that markets brands, however.

If you have limited funds and a marketing background yourself (or strong marketing skills in in-house employees), you might consider looking for a writer that has excellent writing skills but limited or no marketing experience. This can be a good way to save money if you’ve got the time to teach your chosen writer the marketing side of the process.

If you can afford to hire someone with good writing and marketing skills, however, the content creation process will be a lot quicker and smoother for everyone involved.

Assessing marketing skills

As I said, writers with good marketing skills haven’t necessarily got marketing degrees. In fact, I would argue that professionals who are well suited to marketing degrees are probably less likely to have the creative writing skills some projects require.

So, how then can you tell whether a prospective writer has good marketing skills? There are three main ways:

  • Certifications. Writers who know the value of having some marketing skills will often complete one or more marketing courses. If your prospective writers have done this, they’ll likely have that information listed on their website and/or LinkedIn profile. This is useful information to know but you have to treat it with some caution. After all, anyone can do a course (or say they did) but whether they can understand and apply the course material is another story. Some writers will go to the extra effort of getting marketing certifications. These are much more useful as they give you confidence that the writer does actually know and understand the principles and techniques included in the certification. Particularly relevant certifications for your purposes would be an inbound marketing certification and/or a content marketing certification. HubSpot offers the premier inbound marketing certification. HubSpot also offers a content marketing certification but so do many other organisations like the American Marketing Association.
  • Results. Regardless of whether your prospective writer holds any marketing certifications, you’ll be able to make a much more informed assessment of their marketing skills if you can learn about the results of at least one of their previous projects. I recommend looking for writers that display case studies, testimonials or other portfolio evidence that demonstrates that their past projects have achieved relevant goals. For instance, what kind of open and click rates have their email campaigns delivered? How have their blog posts impacted on website traffic and search rankings? Not all writers with excellent marketing knowledge will be able to provide hard evidence of these kinds of results because many businesses are reluctant to share this kind of information. But if you can find a writer with this kind of evidence of good results, that writer could be a really strong contender.
  • Ask the right questions. Once again, carefully selected questions can help you determine whether prospective writers have the marketing know-how you need. Keep reading to get a list of useful questions for this purpose.

Industry knowledge or strong research skills

Excellent writing skills and a good marketing knowledge are the highest priority skills for a good writer. If you can find a writer like this who also has a good knowledge of your industry, don’t let them slip through your fingers!

But a writer doesn’t need to be an expert in your niche in order for them to be a great fit for your business. You’re an expert after all and you can provide as much guidance as necessary in that arena.

The more important skill is an ability to quickly research unfamiliar topics, identify the most salient information and then use that to inform a great piece of writing.

Assessing strong research skills

There are a number of ways a writer can demonstrate strong research skills:

  • Their writing samples might demonstrate that they’ve really thoroughly researched the topic of the piece. Look for pieces that contain lots of well-positioned references.
  • The writer might have one or more qualifications that require strong research skills. This could be a research-related degree or a certification.
  • Past work experience or past writing projects may also give insight into the extent of a writer’s research skills.

If all else fails, you could hire the writer to produce one piece of writing that requires a lot of research and assess what they produce. If you’re going to go down that path be honest about what you’re doing and don’t ask the writer to write a sample for free. That’s unprofessional, insulting and just plain unfair.

Additional skills

Depending on your content needs, there may be some additional skills that could make a great writer ideal for your business.

  • Project Management – If you’re planning on hiring a writer for a complicated, big or prolonged project, project management skills and perhaps a certification could be a real asset, especially if you don’t have time to closely manage the project’s timeline yourself.
  • Graphic Design – Very few writing projects wouldn’t be enhanced by the addition of some imagery. A writer who can also provide graphic design services or who partners with a graphic designer could save you having to worry about sourcing visuals.
  • Data Analysis – Does your project involve translating complex data into words that your audience can more easily understand and digest? If so, a writer with strong data analysis skills could be just what you need.
  • Journalism – Does your project involve interviews? If you want your writer to prepare case studies, staff bios or articles that include expert opinions, journalism experience could come in handy.
  • Tool-Specific Knwledge – It can be time consuming to upload content into a content management system and some content tools require a reasonable amount of technical knowledge to use effectively. If it will save you time and hassle to have your writer deploy your content on your behalf, you’ll likely benefit from choosing a writer with experience using relevant tools. Examples include:
    • Blog platforms: WordPress, Shopify, Wix, Blogger, Medium
    • Website and e-commerce platforms: WordPress, Shopify, Wix, SquareSpace, WooCommerce, Magento
    • Email platforms: MailChimp, Klaviyo
    • Social media management tools: Hootsuite, Buffer
    • Cross purpose tools: HubSpot
  • Keyword research – This can be time consuming too. This kind of expertise is necessarily for high-performing web content. If you can’t do keyword research in-house, finding a writer who can would be a massive win.
  • Strategy – Writers who also provide content, promotion or brand strategy are worth their weight in gold if you don’t have these strategies already.

Freelance professionalism and business fit

Have you ever visited a doctor who really knew their medicine but had a terrible bedside manner? If so, you would’ve had to decide whether it was worth it to put up with the poor patient support in order to benefit from the medical expertise or whether you were better off looking for a nicer doctor who was nearly as knowledgeable. Usually in these situations, the longer a patient has to keep consulting a doctor the more likely they will be to switch to a doctor they feel more comfortable with.

The same is true for freelance writers. If you have a small, once-off project, it’d be nice to hire a freelance that you enjoy working with but if you end up with a grouch, it’s not the end of the world. If, on the other hand, you’ve got a bigger, longer-term project, your life is going to miserable if the freelancer you choose doesn’t operate professionally and/or isn’t a natural fit for your business. Some red flags to look out for include:

  • taking a long time to provide a quote or respond to reasonable queries (like how you would work together)
  • unprofessional communications
  • unreasonable work practices
  • not providing clear information about what’s included in their services (e.g. have they stated whether revisions are included in their quote?)
  • a mismatched style (for instance, you might find an awesome writer but if they’re really formal and your brand is really bubbly, they may just not be a good fit for your business)

Some things you can expect many (although not necessarily all) good writers to do:

  • require a deposit (often this is 50% of the total project fee) and/or milestone payments
  • provide a contract or written agreement (or be willing to take a look at yours if you have one)
  • ask questions about your business and goals
  • ask questions about your project requirements

Things good writers won’t do:

  • provide free samples
  • give away strategy for free
  • engage in questionable or unethical behaviour

Questions to ask prospective writers

I’ve mentioned a few times in this article that you can use a few targeted questions to help you choose the right freelancer for your business. Here are my suggested questions but feel free to modify them to suit your brand.

  • What do you know about my business? (If relevant) If a writer approached you, they should have done their homework.
  • What types of content do you create? Note the types of content they emphasise and the range they provide. Some types offer more transferable writing skills than others.
  • Which industries do you specialise in writing about? If they have strong research skills not specialising in your industry isn’t necessary. If they do specialise in that area though, expect to pay higher rates.
  • What does your research process look like? The process isn’t so important but how well they answer the question is. If they struggle, chances are they don’t do a lot of research.
  • What are your go-to sources of information when researching a piece? Steer clear of those who use disreputable sources.
  • What tones of voice and styles do you prefer to write in? Look for a good fit with your brand style, especially if you’ve already got a content style guide.
  • What do you think makes a great piece of content? Look for a focus on the target audience, SEO (if relevant) and quality writing.
  • Can you write in [US/British/Australian etc.] English? You’ll need to invest in extra editing if they don’t.
  • Can you give an example of how you helped a past client with [insert relevant type of content]? This is perhaps the most important question you can ask. This answer can give you a sense of the writer’s approach and the kind of results they can achieve.
  • Are you comfortable conducting interviews?This is particularly important if you’re looking for a long-term hire.
  • How do you make your content SEO-friendly? (If relevant) You’ll want someone who isn’t interested in keyword stuffing and who can write good SEO titles and meta descriptions.
  • How do you layout [insert the types of content you want to purchase]? Look for answers that conform to industry best practices.
  • Are you happy to come up with content ideas? If you have lots of ideas this mightn’t be necessary. But if there’s a chance you’ll need help, this could be a key offering. Be prepared to pay for pitches in some way and have a process for dealing with them.
  • Do you offer other services that complement your writing?
  • What are your freelance hours? (If relevant) If you are likely to need content produced within quick turn-around times, to capitalise on breaking news for instance, you’ll need someone who tends to work when you’re working.
  • What’s your revision process like? Look for clues they take revisions seriously. Do they provide the number of revisions you require in a timeframe that works for you?
  • What’s your editing process? Do they self-edit by re-reading content after letting it sit overnight or for a few hours? Or do they partner with a 3rd party editor? Or do they expect you to organise editing?
  • What’re your timeframes like? Some writers are booked weeks or months in advance.
  • Would you be willing to write a paid trial piece? This answer should be ‘yes’.
  • Do you have a standard contract I can see? OR Would you be willing to consider my standard contract?
  • Can you provide references or can I see testimonials? Many businesses don’t have time to provide references so don’t expect them. You’ll want to see one of the two though to get a sense of how the writer has performed for previous clients.
  • What do you need from me so that you can produce the best content? This doesn’t tell you a huge amount about the writer but it does allow you to prepare for working with your prospective writer if you choose to hire them.

Ready to hire a writer?

Now you know how to narrow down the field of prospective writers and choose the one that will work best for your business. To get you started, check out my portfolio if you’re in the market for any of these services or forms of content:

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Dr Kelly Wade

Dr Kelly Wade is a marketing specialist (strategist, copywriter, content writer, researcher) and author at K. M. Wade. She performs research and crafts content, copy and strategy for the entire sales funnel to help businesses win more sales and generate sustainable growth. She’s also a scientist, gardening enthusiast and mother of two young children.

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