Write2Market president Lisa Calhoun was interviewed by Sarah McAdams, a contributor for the Journal of Employee Communication Management, on hiring, training and working with corporate writers.
What makes top business writers different?
Sarah McAdams: What skills, background and requirements–if any–must writing job candidates have/meet coming into a job at Write2Market?
Lisa Calhoun: At Write2Market, we have one unusual requirement–we need our writers to grow two heads, and use them both simultaneously.
You see, most writers, even very good ones, write from their own voice and point of view. Creative writing classes even teach this–developing one’s own voice and style is the focus of a variety of workshops, classes, and writing clinics. But to succeed as a professional or business writer, you need to get out of your own head.
The skill we look for is the ability to put on the character and cloak of the intended reader, and feel their feelings, sense their needs. Only when a writer does that can they then use their “writing head” to write directly to the reader’s needs.
We have a large team of writers and a deep bench of experienced, seasoned professionals. Once they reach Write2Market, they don’t need grammar lessons or pep talks about sentence structure.
Keeping up with content development technology
But what they do need is ongoing training in the technologies they can use to make their writing more effective for the business world. So for example, we send them to classes on writing for search engine optimization, writing calls to action, and writing for the web–topics that hone their natural abilities to more technical media.
We receive dozens of writers’ resumes a month, and the skill most of them lack is business intelligence–it’s not enough to string sentences together well, at least in positions at Write2Market. Writers have to have enough business acumen to realize their writing is meant to provoke a behavior—and understand the large economy and context their work exists within.
Writer or newbie? Which makes more sense?
Sarah: We’re seeing many nonwriters hired for corporate writing jobs–why do you think this is?
Lisa: Because it’s easier to teach writing to someone who understands business than to teach business to someone who thinks they only need to understand writing.
Sarah: In a dream world, what is the No. 1 quality/skill all beginning corporate writers would have?
Lisa: All beginning corporate writers should have a driving passion for connecting customers with the services and products they want through compelling copy. If they are driven both by the customer’s needs AND the company’s, they’ll be able to write copy that honestly connects both in relevant ways. In fact, with that passion, they’ll be driven to seek emotional as well as economic details that connect the dots between sales and shopping.
Sarah: Is it more important that they understand the business/strategy side, or can interview and write clearly and succinctly?
Lisa: You see, it’s a fallacy to disconnect these ideas for the corporate writer–they are the same thing. How can you interview succinctly if you don’t have the business background to know how to ask the right question?
Improving the quality of business writing
Sarah: Would be the top 3 or 4 pieces of advice you’d give to harried communication managers/editors about the fastest way to improve the quality of writing in their internal publications?
1) Immediately outsource your most challenging assignments to highly qualified freelancers (or, if you have several assignments, consider leveraging a business writing agency like Write2Market).
Why? Outsourcing your most challenging writing assignments to highly qualified experts may be costly in the short term, but it will free your time for the next two steps.
2) Template rote copy. Everyone has those columns, newsletter items, case studies, or direct mail pieces that seem to take up too much time–and yet have to be done again and again. Spend some of your expert time templating an approach and samples so that more junior writers can work on content instead of structure.
For case studies and stories, even template questions so there is always a model to follow, and samples of good work. Wondering what they are supposed to do takes up most of the mental effort of younger or less experienced writers, and doing all you can do to remove that for them helps them produce more for you.
3) Outline. Most writers hoped the outline was over in grammar school, but even professional writers at Write2Market use outlines. Consider making assignments in outline instead of narrative form if you have strong managers who know what they want–that way, your writers have a map and can fill in the blanks as they write. Or, if you find yourself often revising or not liking research they’ve done, have writers turn in outlines to you for approval before you ok final drafts.
Another good tip: separate feature development (finding topics), from writing (developing those topics through interviews and evidence), from editing (making sure corporate style guidelines are followed). These are highly specialized areas of expertise and separating them allows the team to focus and standardize.