Hiring tip 21 Apr 2005

39 comments Latest by Diana Larsen

If you are trying to decide between a few people to fill your position, always hire the better writer. I don’t care if that person is a designer, programmer, marketer, salesperson, whatever. Assuming your candidates are fairly equally skilled and qualified overall, always hire the better writer. This is especially true with designers since copywriting is interface design (more on that soon).

39 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Cameron Barrett 21 Apr 05

I agree with this. A better writer means a better communicator. A better communicator means that there will be fewer problems when it comes to understanding project scope, requirements and functionality.

Now, the problem I have is that my clients sometimes have a hard time communicating well. Some of the emails I get from them are positively cryptic, as if they expect me to be able to read their mind as they are writing them. It sometimes takes many back-and-forth emails with the client before it’s clear what they want or are asking for.

There are also the clients who refuse to send any emails whatsoever and instead want to spend 4 hours a day with you on the phone talking talking talking talking, assuming everything they are saying makes sense. They never read your project plans or look at the functional specs document, ignore emails from you reporting that x-functionality will double the cost of the project and triple the amount of time it will take.

What to do about clients like this, except fire them and find better clients?

Daniel Morrison 21 Apr 05

I have a similar problem as Cameron where a client bombards me with emails all day each with a small change or two.

First, it tends to break my concentration, so I have resorted to ignoring all new messages from the client until I have time to mentally switch gears.

The second problem is that I have trouble reconciling the (often contradictory) instructions, and the number of disjointed changes leaves me spending a lot of the client’s time trying to decipher them.

Very frustrating.

Philip King 21 Apr 05

Can someone tell me what “good communication skills” are?

Stuart Willis 21 Apr 05

If you have good communication skills then you know how to be clear *and* concise - but clarity shoud never be sacrificed for conciseness. Making another person -understand- what you are saying is the goal. Like good UI design, good communication should be intuitive to the end-user.

Ramin 21 Apr 05

“Good communication skills” is writing a blog entry and having people not ask what something means! I’m of course only joking and pointing out the irony with that comment. Ha ha ha… ahem.. I need to get out more.

Dustin J. Mitchell 21 Apr 05

Totally agreed.

Good writers are hard to find. Good writing skills are an indicator of an organized mind which is capable of arranging information and argument in a systematic fashion and also *helping* (not making) other people understand things. It spills over into code, personal communications, instant messaging (for those long-distance collaborations), and even such esoteric concepts as professionalism and reliability.

Of course, this may be just another attempt by those in the ivory tower to keep it to ourselves. Who knows.

Eamon 21 Apr 05

Fill your position.

And I’m already employed, but thanks!

Grammar Slammar 21 Apr 05

“fill you position”

The lay-ups are not satisfying. :)

nate 21 Apr 05

I agree, wholeheartedly, though I’m in no position to hire.

If anyone’s looking for a former spelling bee champ, grammar tutor, aspiring Ruby nerd, and long time Mac geek, please let me know.

Faith 22 Apr 05

I’m reading an excellent book on writing style, called Clear and Simple as the Truth, by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner. I’m far enough in to know that I would recommend it. They examine the thinking and reason that lead to good writing - particularly the good writing that falls into the area of classic style. They say that “writing is an intellectual activity, not a bundle of skills.”

Turner has worked in both cognitive science and English lit, so I imagine he knows of what he speaks…

Jeff Werner 22 Apr 05

Hey, that sounds like sense to me, and not just because I’m a fledgling designer with a degree in professional writing. I’m sometimes amazed at the lack of writing skills among people I’ve worked with…from unversity profs to the head of an art gallery.

Case in point, an educational site for Grade 6ers on the history of Japan, using an art gallery collection as means of exploration. The copy was written by a director at the gallery and a univserity art history student. Some of read like a 1st-year essay…a 1st-year University essay.

JonB 22 Apr 05

Helping another person -understand- what you are saying is the goal

I totally agree. Writing for interface design requires real empathy for users. The structure, labels, words, grammar and tone we choose replace the more natural situation of a person and an organisation having a conversation.

I also believe that it is important to check for understanding (especially during a client conversation). I think this goal is harder to measure with interface design. An example that springs to mind is the “Did this article help you?” call to action you often see on technical support web pages.

Interface text elements need to be as useful and usable as the graphical elements. I would consider someone who excels in both interface text and graphics to be a very wholesome interface designer. A team of such people who share ideas and quality-check each other’s work - even better.

JonB 22 Apr 05

Was my post easy enough to understand?

Tomas Jogin 22 Apr 05

Wow, that is just amazingly spot-on. I’ve had a nagging feeling regarding what it is about a person that tells you that this guy/gal is intelligent and capable, but I’ve been unable to poinpoint what is exactly. I think you just did — he/she can write.

I too share Cameron’s experience with clients (and other people) whose writing is incoherent and disorganized, as if their words are mere scribbles and notes of whatever is going on in their heads. I’ve noticed that some people are also this way when they talk, for instance when they order food or otherwise interact with strangers; too many a times have I stood beside someone ordering something and realized with certainty that a misunderstanding between these two people just took place (which was later confirmed).

Eileen Foster 22 Apr 05

Good writers are storytellers who organize information in order to communicate a message. A big part of “good writing” is editing, distilling the message and clearing away the extraneous clutter. The “good communicator” also has the ability to experience the work through the target audiences’ point-of-view.

In video editing, I’ve noticed those with good writing skills are the better editors. More attention is paid to the organization of material, the flow of the story and the technological details.

Michael Ritchie 22 Apr 05

Wow! This is spot on for a software developer. I can rephrase Elieen Foster’s post just a little.

Good software developers are storytellers who organize information in order to communicate a message. A big part of �good coding� is editing, distilling the information and clearing away the extraneous clutter. The �good developer� also has the ability to experience the work through the target audiences� point-of-view.

Krista Stevens 22 Apr 05

Writing skills are very important and highly undervalued in today’s work world. No doubt about it.

However, good writing skills do not equal effective communication. Writing complements communication. Effective communication persuades the audience to act out the desired behaviour - i.e., buy the book, register to receive an update on the new product. Effective communication can be measured. Well written copy is just one tool essential to effective communication.

Chris S 22 Apr 05

Well, as a former writing prof I couldn’t agree more.

I always emphasized three foundational elements, not all of which can be taught, of good writing/writers/communicators:

1. Ability to think critically and analytically
2. Functional knowledge of usage, style, and grammar
3. Knowing who the audience really is, and understanding and using the relationships between the communicator, the subject and the audience:

(what does the audience know about the subject? what do they need to know? what is their attitude likely to be? what are the best communication elements (text, visuals, etc.) to deliver the message?

(what do I know about the subject? what do I need to know?)

(what is my (or my client’s) relationship with the audience? is the relationship antagonistic, congenial, or neutral? what is the credibility level? what does my message tell them about me? what do they know about me? what do they need to know?)

stp 22 Apr 05

…spend 4 hours a day with you on the phone talking talking talking talking….
What to do about clients like this…

That’s easy — bill ‘em for it. Telephone consultation is legitimately billable time. Do you think a lawyer would yak on the phone with you all day long without billing you for it? Why should your clients expect that of you?

Jim Walls 22 Apr 05

As a copywriter, I’m frequently called upon to “wordsmith” simple things like a creative brief or an e-mail to a client. The excuse is always the same: “Jim, you’re a writer, can you help me with this?”

Make no bones about it: It’s lazy thinking. Writing and communicating are basic business skills, and those who fail to master them deserve the mediocrity they’re likely to achieve.

Don Schenck 22 Apr 05

I think a person’s ability to convey a point by using a analogy is a good gauge of their overall communication ability.

Kind of like being able to tie your shoes with gloves on while eating pork.

In the rain.


Brad 22 Apr 05

This is good advice in general, although there are exceptions: I know a few people who are brilliant speakers and thinkers, and yet their writing is fuzzy or wooden. Some people seem susceptible to a sort of “stage fright” when it comes to putting words on paper. Clear writing is a good indication of clear thinking, but clear thinkers are not always clear writers.

Chris S 22 Apr 05

That stage fright can often (but not always) be corrected by helping the person refine their expectations. In almost every case, they are paralyzed because they expect it to be perfect or nearly perfect the minute they put it on paper, but the truth is that writing is a process that leads to a product, just like interface design, and getting the folks to put something, anything down on paper so that they can begin to objectify it often helps.

It may take 20 or 30 iterations (drafts) before it works, and even then it may need to be passed off to someone else, but most of the time the problem tends to be lack of interest or laziness (I don’t want to spend two days rewriting this) than lack of ability.

Darren James Harkness 22 Apr 05

I’d add to this by saying “always hire the one with the English degree.” People with an English Lit degree are almost always more critical in their thinking processes, and will pull in ideas from radically different disciplines. It’s got a lot to do with our research processes. Lit students have to pull in ideas from history, social theory, and the sciences to analyze texts - as a result, a habit of looking in odd places for novel ideas emerges.

(anecdote: At the University of British Columbia, my alma mater, companies stopped headhunting students in the commerce faculty, and moved to the Arts for their recruiting)

beto 22 Apr 05

Agreed - and not just because I happen to be the copywriter (plus IA strategist, designer, code monkey and coffee brewer) at our firm…

Good writing is an acquired habit. Anyone who masters the art of writing is likely to be an innate investigator, someone who doesn’t depend on others to get answers - someone who simply goes and does research on his/her own. And someone who gets his/her thoughts in writing is likely to have an structured, organized mind too. Those skills are worth its weight in gold for it is too hard to find people with those gifts. The sheer number of designers I’ve seen who have their mind on pretty pictures but can’t write a bunch of words to save their lives is simply appalling.

sloan 22 Apr 05

The problem with writing is that the rules sometimes get in the way of the communication. Punctuation and grammer be damned, if you can understand me clearly, that is what matters to me. What it really comes down to (for me) when hiring are three things:
1) Are they smart?
2) Do they care about their work?
3) Can you get along with them?

The first is because no matter what the current state of the world or your industry is, it is going to change. People need to be smart to be able to adapt. The second, I think is pretty self explanitory and evident when dealing with people who are “just doing a job”. The third determines whether they are really a good fit or not. The first two don’t matter if you think they are a jerk or nut in some way. A colorful personality is great, but each person has their own judgement of how much color is too much.

If they are these three things you can always work on the communication issues.

Andy Crouch 22 Apr 05

You know, I’m not sure I agree—and I’m a full-time writer and editor. One of the first casualties of becoming a magazine editor was my long-taken-for-granted equation of intelligence and writing ability. In fact, there are brilliant people who for whatever reason don’t communicate particularly well on the page. Woe to the organization that passes them over because they don’t write well.

One of the brightest designers I’ve ever met, founder of a company many readers of this blog would know, couldn’t write at all. (I mean for publication, obviously—he was able to read and write comprehensible emails. :) ) Another acquaintance of mine is a widely collected artist. He can write, but not well (again, I mean not publication-quality well). What he does amazingly well is paint.

I suppose this doesn’t contradict the advice in the post about “assuming your candidates are equally qualified … overall,” but my experience has been that writing is not a good proxy for other kinds of talents—much to my surprise. Is it a helpful additional talent? Of course. For those who don’t have that talent, though, well, that’s why the world needs editors.

Snickda 22 Apr 05

Sloan writes, “Punctuation and grammer be damned.” Apparently spelling be damned as well.

Jonny Roader 23 Apr 05

As Andy says, there are many brilliant people who can’t write, and just as many charlatans who can.

Writing is important in almost every job role, but to suggest that it’s a critical difference to consider when weighing up the merits of a “designer, programmer, marketer, salesperson, whatever,” is just tosh. For most jobs other skills are much more important than writing.

As for Darren’s point (“always hire the one with the English degree”)…even as an English grad working among other (very clever) English grads I would very much disagree. If you’re gonna hire anyone on the basis of their degree, philosophy and maths graduates are a much safer bet.

Cody Lindley 25 Apr 05


Dan Boland 25 Apr 05

I couldn’t agree more, and not just because I consider myself an above average writer. =D

A couple of you have said that there are many intelligent people who just can’t put their ideas down on paper. But I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who could write really well that I didn’t think was a genuinely smart person. Maybe I just haven’t met enough people in life, but it seems like it’s one of those “a square is a rectangle but a rectangle only might be a square” kinds of things.

And I also disagree with the “hire the English grad” idea. No additional input on that one.

Jim 02 May 05

My dad (sorry) has a tourist company, and his main secretary can’t write properly. Still, he’s been at the company for 5 years and is my dad’s most trustable and best working employee.

Joe 19 Jul 05

Samsung D600

Laura Shape 18 Aug 05

Wow! I’ve never thought about my job this way before, though you’re completely right. As a graphic designer, first in print but mostly in Web, I’ve felt it necessary to rewrite the content of a customer’s ad/webpage/interface button hundreds of times. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a few very good copywriters and perhaps their skills have rubbed off on me, but I’m always amazed with so much of the writing I come across not being focused on the readers’ needs.

I’m looking to hire a couple of web designers for my team (interested? send your resume and examples to [email protected]) and this is something I’ll definitely screen for in the future.

Chris Yeh 25 Nov 05

Being a writer, it warms my heart to see such importance being placed on writing. But I think that there is another, often overlooked reason why writing is such a necessary skill.

Good writers also understand their audience. Good writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is a product of understanding both your subject and your audience.

To write well, you must listen well and understand other points of view. That may be just as important as the ability to organize one’s thoughts.

The ability to both read/listen and write/speak lets you close the communication loop, and persuade your audience of your point of view.

Diana Larsen 28 Jan 06

I agree. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to read and make sense of something when it is not well written.