How I hire writers

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Good, creative writers are the backbone of our business. We try to hire and retain the best of them.

Our interview process is aimed to make the process efficient and objective. This ensures that we do not have to waste time in our hiring process and get back to real work ASAP. I outline the process below; in case someone else is interested.

Resume Screening

We offload this responsibility to HR. It is easy enough. We let HR know the keywords we are looking for (lifestyle magazine or sports column), typing speed needed etc. and they do the short listing for us.

Phone Screen

We spend a quick 10-15 min assessing if the candidate deserves our time and next interview round or not. My favourite questions include:

  • spelling of conscientious
  • explain oxford comma
  • repeating a tongue twister; I like the “Betty Botter bought a bit of butter” one.

Once I am convinced of their hold on words, we move to round 3.

The Interview

Here we take a deep dive into the writer’s command over the intricacy of the language. Sample questions:

  • Questions about rules in ‘Elements of Style
  • More spellings and grammar questions.
  • A few puzzles to test their creativity.
  • Some domain related question, for e.g. ask sports writer, the dates when the last football world cup was played.
  • Question on lexical roots of some words.
  • Google for ‘English interview questions’ and use some questions from there.

The Result

We have found that we are able to hire great writers from this process, who are able to create award winning content, whether it is a short article or a book.

How does it sound to you?

If you find the above useful, you can stop reading now, and go back to hiring creative and talented writers using the above method. Good luck.


For the naysayers

If you are not convinced, or worse your blood is boiling, you know what I am really talking about.

If we cannot hire writers using the above process, how do we, time and again try to hire developers using this very process?

Good spellings and knowledge of grammar rules does not indicate a good writer, and there are tools (spelling/grammar check) and (editorial) processes to take care of that. What’s important is: can the writer weave an interesting story? Can she take a vague story line and give life to it? Has the writer played with different styles of writing and know when to use what?

Similarly knowing information that is readily available and does not need to be committed to memory, does not reflect on one’s programming ability. What is important is can the programmer create good, bug free, long lasting solutions within the environmental constraints? Is she creative and has a knack at technical problem solving. Is she passionate about it?

My favourite question is normally mimicking or generalizing a real problem we have and then doing a deep dive to see what approaches the person takes at solving it. The type of questions she asks, the assumptions made, the pros and cons of the solutions presented.

This tells me the difference between someone knowing all the words and spellings but unable to write a coherent column vs. a person who knows how to write a best seller and maybe even tell me that a best seller is not the right thing for the current needs.

About Hitesh

Hi, I am your host, Hitesh. I am a tech enthusiast and dabble in a variety of subjects. To read my professional journey so far, head over to my LinkedIn profile.

53 comments

  1. We spend a quick 10-15 min accessing if the candidate deserves our time and next interview round or not. My favourite questions include:

    Don’t you mean?

    We spend a quick 10-15 min assessing if the candidate deserves our time and next interview round or not. My favourite questions include:

      1. Hitesh, I cannot agree with you more. I am a 23 year old female writer living in a one bedroom apartment with my two brothers. They are self-taught programmers with approximately 2 years of learning experience from YouTube tutorials, W3Schools.com, and Learnable.com. Recently, they just landed their first six-figure job. They create a great product, not perfect code.

        I am much the same. I write a great essay, article, or short story utilizing the editing tools that exist at my fingertips. However, there is one difference between them and me. Developers are highly regarded while graduate writers are not. I would love to have an opportunity to write for you at Citi N.A. I can weave an interesting story from a vague storyline and breathe life into the characters, setting and conflict. Please, give me an opportunity. Otherwise, my brothers will leave me and I’ll be sleeping on a pull-out couch with two roommates that I found off of craigslist!

        By the way, an Oxford Comma is also called a Serial Comma and is the comma used immediately before a coordinating conjunction preceding the final item in a list of three or more. You can find it in my first paragraph after the word, “W3Schools.com”. [email protected]

    1. “a quick 10-15 min”

      Rather than a long 10-15? I’d previously believed that all minutes were the same length.

      1. “I’d previously believed that all minutes were the same length.”

        They are. But apparently these “min” things are more flexible.

        (A pet peeve of mine is the use of abbreves and TLAs that make things easier for the writer but more difficult for the reader. Who’s serving whom?)

      2. Shows you wouldn’t pass even the writer’s interview described here.

        Modifiers can be prescriptive or descriptive. Prescriptive ones specify the type of thing being talked about (“a green grape”). Descriptive ones merely talk about the thing that has already been specified (“the cold Russian winter” — there’s no *warm* Russian winter!)

      3. I would’ve presumed that the “quick” was a general description, but by very dint of its vagueness, the “10-15″ was added to constrain the vagaries of the term into what the author intended to convey in this context.

        1. “quick” provides context. 10-15 minutes in the context of a TV show is a long time. 10-15 minutes in the context of a week, on the other hand, is much shorter.

  2. Interesting idea.

    Maybe not that practical but how about bringing forth a pen and paper and asking him/her to “write me a story about [subject]“

    1. If you have not realized, this post is not about hiring writers, but hiring developers. You could argue the same applies to developers, write a sample program to do ‘x’, fizzbuzz for instance. But that’s the difference between writing code in college and writing code that ‘lasts’. I’d rather hire and the assess. That’s what the temp or review period is for.

      1. I find using the temp/review period for this to be unfortunate. If you have to reject somebody, you create a very significant cost for the candidate and a significant cost for your company.

        Yes, review periods are necessary. However, it is better to make sure as possible that the people you have enter them are good enough to pass.

      1. In the UK (and other non-US English speaking nations), ‘spelt’ and ‘spelled’ are both correct, and interchangeable.

    1. Am I right? Pop music or pop fiction get no respect by intelligencia. However, those are the most competative businesses to be in! A youngstir programmer would have no respect for pop, but an old person stands in awe and gives a slow clap. Except for Bollywood :-)

  3. I found a fun solution for qualifying programmers and you should review and see if you think it is worth making one for writers? Actually you can set your own challenges up so this one might work for you as is . . . cullio

    From Twitter @dotjinks:
    Because multiple choice tests and resulting certifications suck!. Prequalify candidates for an interview http://goo.gl/TufWp @_ksat

    1. cull.io is an interesting experiment. But my experience says write actual code is 20% of the work. So if you are using cull.io to assess only that 20% and use other means to assess the rest (design, communication, thoughts on software usability, etc.) then it’s fine.

      1. Great article. I like your comment on coding being a fraction of the work. I think assigning any specific % is highly questionable. However, I do agree the most valuable programmers add value more with non-coding than coding. Their coding knowledge is often very important to the value they create but it may well involve things like changing the scope to something else before coding starts. Also their understanding of the business, how to influence the thought process in the organization… play big roles in the value they provide.

        One trait I think of most junior programmers (or to be mean code monkeys) is a much higher percentage of their value is directly coding (they have to be told much more specifically just code x).

    2. Assessing code “quality” or “smell” is all well and good – but that’s something the tools will assist with, and experience [should] improve.

      I agree with @Hitesh wherein he states “write actual code is 20% of the work”.

      I am far more interested in everything “else” a candidate will be doing – coding can be taught, analytical thing may not be, and certainly is not a skill for which the time can be devoted if the opening is for a mid-to-senior level engineer.

  4. Pretty amusing that this article isn’t an example of good writing. The person writing it, however, is professing to be able to tell a good from a bad writer. I love it… what a hilarious joke :)

    1. An IQ test that a middle manager can administer in a job interview is not even close to a reliable or valid indicator of a person’s intelligence. We stopped using them to categorize people in the US like 30 years ago. Where have you been?

      There are some intelligence tests that can give more valid results but they are complicated, require a psychologist to proctor, and take several hours or even several sessions. Intelligence is not easily defined and categorized, according to the people who study it.

  5. Marriage among equals works best, otherwise, one dominates the other.

    If you both know your worker is underpaid, he will dominate you. If you both know he is overpaid, you will dominate him.

    Life is just.

    If a cheater gets a job, he will be in over his head. Nobody likes not being qualified for their job.

    1. Ironically, there are a whole class of people who revel in the fact that they can do any job they decide they want to do, learning just enough to scrape through the interview and learning enough quickly enough to stay ahead of anyone ever finding out they have no idea what they’re doing. It’s a lot of work, but it’s much more rewarding than doing a job you’re comfortable in and you learn things at a rate you never realized you were capable of. On the flip side though, it can get a little stressful unless you find a solid strategy for staying ahead of the game.

      1. That’s the kind of career advice I often give to new college grads and novices in a profession. What you describe is precisely how I spent the first 15 years of my writing career – applying heavy effort, experimentation, and Google to get the job done. Now that I am accomplished, my work becomes less impressive when I slide into a “good enough” mentality. What works for me is to always work out of my comfort zone.

      2. ” whole class of people who revel in the fact that they can do any job they decide they want to do, learning just enough to scrape through the interview and learning enough quickly enough to stay ahead of anyone ever finding out they have no idea what they’re doing”

        Yes – they’re called “consultants” ;)

  6. Having worked as a journalist I have to agree with you. Grammar and spell-checking are typically handled by ‘subs’ (who also proofread your article). If you know how to get a story – and can string a sentences together you are more than halfway there. Although a journo who can submit an article that is factually correct, and free from spelling and grammar errors, will always be noted by the powers that be.

  7. God says…

    2:20 The children of Gibbar, ninety and five.

    2:21 The children of Bethlehem, an hundred twenty and three.

    2:22 The men of Netophah, fifty and six.

    2:23 The men of Anathoth, an hundred twenty and eight.

    2:24 The children of Azmaveth, forty and two.

    2:25 The children of Kirjatharim, Chephirah, and Beeroth, seven
    hundred and forty and three.

  8. Hilarious article and never a truer word spoken. What I am amazed at is the number of people who a) thought you were serious and b) actually believed this is how you intended to hire writers (or even developers).

    I am amazed at the amount of fail in the reading comprehension of the comments. :)

  9. The problem with software is that there are too many idiots out there who try to get a job as a software engineer. If of the 100 writers 98 couldn’t make coherent sentences or hold a story beyond a paragraph you’d be seeing the same thing for writers.

    1. From my observations, a majority (maybe not 98% of “professional” writers, but probably 98% of all writers (bloggers, journalists, speech writers, etc)) cannot “make coherent sentences or hold a story beyond a paragraph”.

      And it’s truly sad.

  10. The trick is to ignore the technicalities – they should show that they have done writing/programming, but the details are not important – and look at their approach. Somebody who spends more time worrying about Strunk & White-compliance than on whether the writing is fluent and evocative would not make a good writer. Hire the one cares about the character’s background, not the one who vacillates between putting the comma here or there. Similar reasoning goes for programming interviews. The process is important, not the result.

  11. Don’t forget to write a short paragraph on the board for them, and have them walk you through the structure. Make sure to include a few mistakes they can correct.

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