Selecting the Right Freelance Writer

(And why it might not be me)

Good.  Bad.  And ugly. 

What qualities should you look for in a writer?  And who should you avoid like the plague?

Here are some thoughts, based on my 20+ years in the business and on some heart-to-heart discussions I’ve had with creative directors, corporate marcom managers and others who hire and manage outside writers. 

The Basics

When considering a writer, the most fundamental question is:  does this person have the experience and capabilities needed on your project?  To answer that question, ask for and review samples of the writer’s work, or request references from corporate or agency clients.  If the writer cannot provide those, there’s usually a reason. 

Often, a detailed discussion of your marcom project – during which you pose direct questions about the writer’s initial grasp of the topic matter, approach to processes and understanding of your communication requirements – will tell you a lot about the person’s ability to handle the writing assignment.  If the writer cannot talk the talk, they can’t walk the walk. 

Availability can be an issue.  You should give your prospective writer an honest assessment of the scope and scheduling requirements of your project.  Then demand that your writer give you a firm commitment on bandwidth and their ability to meet specific deadlines. 

Clients pay for freelance projects in a variety of ways:  set fee-per-project, on an hourly rate basis and occasionally on monthly retainers.  Assuming you can describe the scope of a project, a writer should be able to give you a firm quote on the total cost of a writing assignment, including research, interviews, outlines, writing and revisions. 

In my own writing business, I am well compensated, but believe I charge very competitive fees for the level of marcom quality my clients expect and deserve.

Specialist vs. Generalist?

Do you need a writer with years of experience in your specific business or technology niche?  Possibly, but not necessarily. 

It’s true that some projects, such as system documentation or integration manuals, require a degree of specialization that calls for a true Technical Writer with a degree in engineering and very specific domain expertise.  There are fewer of those kinds of writers, and they are expensive. 

The vast majority of business-to-business communications, however, can be tackled by a competent writer with a solid grasp of marketing fundamentals, who is comfortable with strategic and technical topics, and who can deliver phrasing that informs and motivates business decision makers. 

In my experience, the highly specific knowledge needed to drive most good B2B marcom is in the heads (and on the hard drives) of the engineers, product managers or executives who are creating or selling those solutions.  In fact, when a company is truly on the bleeding-edge of innovation, internal personnel are often the only possible source of the strategic, technical and market insights that form the basis of many articles, white papers and other business communications.

But because their time is typically too valuable to spend days pounding out a paper or a piece of collateral, smart companies partner with competent, experienced business writers.   You may indeed need a specialized Technical Writer.  Or you may get the results you require, more quickly and at less cost, with a solid B2B generalist. 

Writing for B2B

There are obviously many types of marketing communications, from television or radio commercials and consumer print ads to more business-oriented lead generation programs, collateral materials and technical materials. 

Mass market advertising requires exceptional creativity and flair to break through the clutter, and to reach and sell busy consumers. 

Business-to-business communication by nature tends to be somewhat more formal, a bit longer, more technical, and focused on those values sought by organizational buyers:  cost and savings, utility and functionality, productivity, and how the product or service can make the organization more competitive, profitable and successful.

A few writers may excel at every type of communications, but most find a niche somewhere along that continuum where they are competent and effective.   When selecting a writer, an agency or company should first understand the type of communications it needs, then evaluate writers to find the right set of skills and experience. 

As for myself, I fit neatly on the more technical, B2B side of the marcom spectrum.  I enjoy researching new business and technology topics.  I’m comfortable interviewing business executives, product managers and SMEs.  My writing style lends itself well to the B2B environment, whether it is an executive bylined article, an annual report, a technical white paper or a lead generation program.


We shouldn’t even have to talk about basic professionalism, but we do. 

Anyone can hang out a shingle and call themselves a “freelance writer”, but that doesn’t mean they have the experience or commitment you need on your project.  It does not guarantee they will meet agreed-upon deadlines, that they will respond to your questions and work to resolve any problem, or that they will conduct themselves appropriately when dealing with your clients or associates. 

Yes, a writer must know how to write, but they should also be versed in the manners and ethics of business.  Most professionals consider these fundamentals to be basic table stakes.  Before you start a marcom project, be sure your writer can ante up.

“The Fit”

When it comes to pitching myself for a particular writing project, I strive to be honest about both my strengths and my limitations as a writer.  It doesn’t help my client, or me, to accept an assignment for which I am not absolutely qualified.  My particular strength lies in the business-oriented, somewhat-technical end of the marcom spectrum. 

As I once told a prospective client:  If you need five words to revolutionize your sector, Jon Kemp may not be the writer for you.  But if you need 500 words, or 5,000, to move a capital system or service a big step along the B2B sales cycle, I’m your guy. 

The bottom line is, you should understand your true marcom needs, then find the best possible writer for each project.  Best wishes on your search.

 Jon Kemp