“You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?”
A challenge made by many movie tough guys and many a job interviewer. While the former group usually finds out in some epic fight, competition or dance-off, the job interviewer is left with only one way to learn what their candidates are made of – the writing test.
It’s easy to get caught up with a job candidate, freelance writer or marketing agency that looks good on paper, but their past experience and credentials mean nothing if they can’t actually write – and write for your business. (Sure, the writing test will also be on paper…but you get my point.)
According to Aberdeen, Best-in-Class organizations are 45% more likely (71% vs. 49%) than All Others to use pre-hire assessments. When it comes to who will support or manage your content creation, whether it is a content marketing agency or a freelance writer, putting them to the test before making a commitment is the best way to ensure you’re satisfied with the end result.
So what does a writing test include? How can you make sure you’re getting the most out of the tests you’re sending out? Here are some tips based on the tests we’ve received from our clients, and from the tests we give our freelance writers and in-house employees.
Give Them a Clear Prompt
Start by clearly defining the type of content you’d like to receive. Depending on your needs you may want to send them a few different pieces of content. Include a topic and a brief abstract describing the purpose of the content. Also include any information you have about your company and audience.
You could leave it open-ended and allow them to send you a topic they have come up with and tailored to your brand, but we’ve found this less effective for a couple of reasons:
- It’s possible for them to send you something they have already created. It pays to see writing samples during the screening process, but you never know if these samples were really written by them or how much editing was required to get to the finished product they are sending you.
- It keeps them in their wheelhouse. If you allow them to pitch you an idea, they will pitch you something they are very comfortable with. Part of the evaluation should test the range of their technical knowledge and ability to research new topics.
- You can’t easily compare candidates. If you are evaluating several different freelance writers, giving them the same topic allows you to compare them side-by-side.
Define What a Successful Test Looks Like
While there are some pieces of content you can look at and immediately tell whether they are a fit for your business, most will need a more careful and objective review. That’s why Best-in-Class companies are 2.1 times more likely to create success profiles of top performers.
What does a successful writing test look like? Here are a few parameters you may want to judge on:
- Technical Expertise: Do they have a firm grasp of your industry? Are they expanding on simple ideas or are they merely parroting back their research sources?
- Writing Style: Is their writing engaging? Is it grammatically correct?
- Brand Fit: Are they able to match the style and tone of your brand? Did they effectively weave in your company’s value prop and messaging?
- Turnaround Time: How long did it take them? For our writing tests we ask for a turnaround time that matches how quickly we’ll expect assignments from them on a regular basis. For freelance writers this limit is days, for in-house writers it’s hours. Set a limit that matters to you. If you’re working with a content marketing agency and you have a set editorial calendar, you may want to give them additional time to get you a truly polished draft. If you plan on requesting quick-turnarounds on a regular basis, test them on it right away so you aren’t surprised later on when they aren’t able to handle the demand.
Make it a Blind Review
If you are interviewing multiple freelance writers or considering a couple different marketing agencies, you are probably going to go into the writing test with some favorites and some biases. Avoid this as much as possible by comparing their writing tests blind.
As we said earlier, this is made much easier by giving them the same assignment. When we evaluate new writers, we give them all the same test and then pass those tests around the office (labeled only A, B, C, etc.) to get the opinions of as many people as possible.
Only after you’ve completely reviewed the content on its own merits should you remove the blindfold, add the test to everything else you know about the candidate and continue the evaluation process from there.
A writing test won’t tell you everything you need to know about a potential writer or agency, but in my opinion, it tells you the most important thing. 1) Can they write? and 2) Can they write for your business?
For more information on evaluating content marketing agencies and freelance writers, check out our new whitepaper, “Freelancers vs Agency: Options for Scaling and Augmenting Content Creation.”
Do you use writing tests as pre-hire assessments? Let us know your experiences in the comments!