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In the past few weeks a number of people have asked me about the key characteristics of a good writer. How has this changed in recent years? What do we want to see when hiring writers?
I thought I’d outline my views in a handy cut-out-and-keep list. I’ve probably forgotten a few things but I hope you’ll be able to see where we’re coming from...
Writers need to be able to convey meaning to the reader, as directly as possible, especially when the subject matter is complicated.
An awareness of George Orwell
His six rules for writing should be part of the national curriculum.
Words are music, as far as I’m concerned. There is a natural pace and rhythm to language, and varying the speeds can ease digestion. Short sentences increase readability speeds, whereas longer ones slow things down. A writer is a composer. Know when to cut to the bridge…
Great listening skills
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” – Ernest Hemingway
The ability to ask the right questions
And the wrong ones too, but leave those until the end of the interview.
A distinct voice
It can take a little time, but all writers need to discover and cultivate their own tone of voice. A conversational tone can work very well in blogland. I like to read articles with verve, and which convey passion.
An objective approach to subjectivity
There’s nothing much wrong with having an opinion and I encourage writers to express themselves, so long as the basics are all in place. Articles need to be grounded in facts and evidence, however anecdotal, rather than pure opinion (vastly overrated).
If you are going to share an opinion then you’d better make sure all of those facts are correct. Otherwise you might end up looking incredibly silly.
A wide vocabulary
I don’t agree with the idea of ‘writing for an intelligent 11 year old’, something that trainee news reporters are sometimes taught in journalism school. We’re all adults, after all, and the ‘define: word’ function in Google is very handy if you’re not sure of the definition. Writers should love the richness and diversity of the English language. And this isn’t about discovering the next Will Self, it’s just that we don’t want to patronise our (often smarter than we are) readers. No need to overdo it, but let's not fear words with more than two syllables in them!
A real boon for any journalist, the ability to analyse and make sense of complicated subject matter is an invaluable talent. Econsultancy is in the business of research... we try to make sense of best practice. It can be complicated at the best of times, and more so when things are new and unexplored. As such chin-stroking pipe smoker types are welcomed around these parts.
A fearless approach to data
This follows on from analytical skills. Many people think that writers love words and hate numbers. This is – or certainly needs to be - a misconception. We live in an age of boundless data and the best writers can do a wonderful job of turning numbers into articles by making sense of them, and highlighting trends.
A hatred of PRspeak and associated guff
Leverage those market leading synergies, baby. I’m no fan of PRspeak, and no self-respecting writer will be either.
I don’t need writers to sit next to me. I’m busy enough and really don’t want to have to micromanage writers, and neither does anybody else at this end. Writers, like all staff, need to be able to work autonomously, especially if they're working from home!
Our hiring policy can be summed up as follows: “Hire brainy people and trust them to get on with things.” It has worked a treat so far (our staff retention rate is very high).
If you’re not fundamentally curious then you shouldn’t be a writer, or a cat. More often than not the back story is more interesting than the main story. Carry a shovel and dig it up. Find and mine the gaps. Avoid becoming a 'me too' writer at all costs.
A thick skin
Some articles will polarise people. Sometimes you’ll mess up and a cacophony of bad noise will erupt. People will call you out. It happens: get over it.
Many people are distrustful of writers, even when they’re not out to dig the dirt or unearth dastardly exclusives. A little charm can go a long way in making people feel more comfortable.
Content marketing sklls
Writers absolutely need to have a solid understanding of how and why articles become popular. Timing matters. Seeding matters. Headlines matter. It’s not just about having a good story, it’s about being tactical in terms of how it is positioned and promoted. The best bloggers have become experts in content marketing.
What do your social networks look like? Are you active on Twitter? Who are you hooked up with on LinkedIn? All of these things matter a great deal, especially if it comes to a coin toss when choosing between two writers for one role. Moreover, they show an understanding of a) content marketing and b) networking skills. It’s not just what you know, right?
I have written extensively about the need to break up the page for the reader, to help anchor the eye, and to ease digestion. Formatting plays a big part in online writing, and much more so than in print. Be aware of how to write for the web.
We don’t need you to code, but experience of blogging platforms such as Wordpress goes a long way. What else? Just simple things: writers should be able to crop and tweak images, fix up basic HTML issues, and make sense of Google Analytics tracking codes. These things can be picked up on the job if necessary, but existing knowledge is preferred. Sidenote: if you’re new to online writing but can operate MS Word then you can easily navigate content management systems to upload articles to the web. Have no fear.
The ability to learn fast
I have a three strike rule. I’m totally happy to explain something once. I’m cool about being asked again for a reminder. If you haven’t taken a note or remembered it the third time around then I will silently judge you / ask why you don’t remember / wonder why you don’t take notes / point you at Google to find the answer / lose the will to live a little.
The desire to react
A blog is not a one-way messaging platform, unless you are Seth Godin and have your comments turned off. Most writers care about the reaction to their articles. They want to see if people agree or disagree. They like to hear “great post” much more than “what a load of bollocks”. Writers should stay tuned in and respond to any relevant comments, on the blog, or on Twitter, or wherever the conversation is taking place. I’ve learned so much from taking note of reader’s comments, and not just on my articles. The community feeds the brain. Cherish it.
This is a basic ‘skill’. It can be best summed up as ‘giving a shit’. It applies to sub-editing (no typos). It applies to formatting (no weird line breaks / extra spacing). It applies to facts and figures (“I assume you meant billion, not million?”). It applies to listening and reaction and much more besides.
Have courage, use your best judgement, and be an astronaut.
Footnote: Econsultancy is always on the lookout for new talent so if you match the above criteria and are interested in writing for us then please email firstname.lastname@example.org.