In March, I celebrated my sixth anniversary as a full-time freelance writer. Before I was a freelance writer, however, one of my jobs was to hire them. I know from experience, therefore, that hiring freelancers is like throwing darts: Sometimes you hit a bull’s-eye, and sometimes … well, sometimes you hit the wall (which is really, really embarrassing, by the way). Either way — darts or writers — the secret to hitting your target is good aim. Although the following tips won’t guarantee a winning score, they’ll ensure that you’re throwing in the right direction.
Set clear goals.
Even the best writers can only do good work when they receive good assignments. Before you hire a freelance writer, therefore, dedicate some time to developing a clear and complete assignment letter. In my opinion, the best assignment letters have a few components.
First, they should have a working headline or title that effectively communicates — at a glance — the assignment’s subject. This is especially important with complex subject matter; boiling the assignment down into a bite-sized title makes it easier for the writer to digest. Second, they should include a thorough abstract that summarizes all the particulars of the project. If you’re assigning an article, for instance, the abstract should clearly state the article’s angle, any specific questions the article should answer and the article’s desired outcome (i.e., what the reader should know or do after reading the article). On a related point, assignment letters should include explicit — and realistic — word counts. If you want your writer to succeed, you can’t ask him or her to answer 20 questions, and only assign 500 words with which to answer them. Likewise, assignment letters should include a clear deadline, as well as explicit source requirements — and perhaps some source suggestions — if the writer is to conduct research or interviews. Finally, the very best assignment letters include a thorough description of the publication or company that explains its voice and includes a profile of its readership and/or customers.
In short, think of the assignment letter as a map; you can’t expect a freelancer to reach their destination if you don’t give them good coordinates.
Separate amateurs from professionals.
Some professions — doctors, for instance, lawyers and engineers — require a certain threshold of education and experience before one can enter them. Freelance writing is not one of those professions. As such, anyone who writes and qualifies as an independent contractor can call themselves a freelance writer, regardless of their background or skill level.
Ultimately, the best and only way to qualify a writer is to read their writing. However, looking at a few line items on a freelancer’s resume can simplify the process of separating amateurs from professionals. One such line item is education. Although some of the best writers lack formal education, as a rule, the most qualified candidates have a college degree in English, communications or journalism. Likewise, look at the freelancer’s work experience. Often, the most qualified candidates have previously held staff positions as writers, reporters or editors. Others may have spent their entire career freelancing, in which case they should have a list of prior clients.
Typically, candidates who have not been previously employed as a writer — full-time or freelance — are hobbyists, not professionals.
Ask for clips.
As I said above, the best way to qualify a freelance writer is to read their writing. You should therefore ask potential freelancers for three to five writing samples. This accomplishes two things: One, it allows you to confirm that they are, in fact, a professional by verifying that they are a published writer. Two, it allows you to assess firsthand the quality of their work. Although they often are the work of a sloppy editor — not a bad writer — spelling, punctuation and grammar errors in published clips should raise a red flag. Generally, though, if you like what you read, you can feel confident that you’ll like what they write.
One note of caution: Unless you require it for a good reason — an article for a medical journal, for example, will likely require a credentialed medical writer — clips with subject matter relevant to your assignment shouldn’t always be requisite; the best writers can write about any subject and have the reporting skills necessary to quickly learn what they need to know.
Budget for quality.
Some writers will work for peanuts. Good ones won’t. That said, a professional freelance writer will negotiate his or her rate to work with your budget — provided your budget is realistic, not insulting.
Simply put: You get what you pay for.
Sweeten the deal.
Speaking of budget: If you don’t have a big one, you can still attract a solid freelancer by using good old-fashioned bartering. In addition to their fee, you can offer writers a byline, promotional post-script (for example, a blurb at the end of their article that links to their website or Twitter handle) or a link exchange. Likewise, many writers will accept a lower pay rate if clients can promise them consistent, steady work (e.g., one article every week). You can get a deal buying toilet paper in bulk; why not writing?
Matt Alderton is a Chicago-based freelance writer, editor and journalist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.