You see a job ad on a popular jobs board and you’re instantly excited — it seems like a perfect fit for your skills and experiences.
You give the listing a quick once-over and get your application materials ready.
Finally, you click “Send” — confident that you’ll have the job in no time at all.
And yet, days later… crickets.
No response. No rejection letter. What gives?
I’ve been on both sides of this frustration — as a writer who’s seen job applications go unanswered and as a hiring agent who sees applicants making the same mistakes again and again.
Today, I want to take you “behind the curtain” on the hiring side of things, showing you the mistakes I see all too often and how you can avoid them to increase your odds of landing the gig.
Ready? Let’s go…
How I hire writers
As the owner of an agency that produces $15,000 to $20,000 in monthly work, it’s safe to say that I’m pretty much always in need of writers.
If I don’t have a good match within my database of preferred writers, the first thing I do is head to ProBlogger to post a listing. There are other job boards out there, but I’ve tried plenty of them and this one sends me the highest quality writers again and again.
When I’m constructing my listing, there are a few different things I’ll do:
- Depending on the response I expect to receive, I’ll either ask candidates to apply via email or by filling out a Google Form. It’s not uncommon for me to receive 200+ applications to each job I post, and sorting through that many emails is a nightmare. If my job posting is fairly general, it’s much easier for me to review applications via Form.
- If I have candidates apply via email, I’ll typically request that they use a specific subject line. I’ll do this because I set up email filters that direct messages about an individual listing to a designated folder for easy review. If you don’t use that exact subject line when applying, there’s a good chance I won’t see your message at all.
- In either case, I’ll often ask applicants to follow a specific instruction. One of my favorites is, “Applications sent without rate requirements will not be considered,” though sometimes it’s something silly like, “Tell me your favorite joke.” It sounds pithy, but I need to know upfront whether or not an applicant can follow instructions. Don’t blow it in this early stage by blowing me off.
Generally, I’ll let a listing run for at least a day or two before I begin reviewing applications (unless it’s a client emergency, in which case I need help — and I need it fast!). This typically results in at least 50-100 applications that I can review all at once, saving me time over checking out candidates piecemeal, while also giving me something to compare different applicants against.
Here are a few of the specific things I’m filtering candidates on as I go through the applications I’ve received:
From time to time, I’ll post a general writer listing (something like “Junior Bloggers Needed”) to help fill out my writer database. In these instances, I’ll typically use a Google Form application including a field for “specialty” where I’ll ask writers to describe the different subjects on which they can write proficiently.
When a client approaches me with a new project, naturally, the first thing I’ll do is look for people who have entered this specialty into their application. For instance, if I’m filling a spot for a tire manufacturer, I’ll look for writers with automotive experience.
*Pro tip – If you encounter a situation like this, enter as many keywords as possible. Obviously, it isn’t feasible to include every topic you could write on (I recently had to fill a spot for a shipping container company, and — shockingly — nobody wrote that one in!), but the more keywords you enter, the more likely I am to find your application.
I hate that price is such a necessary filtering factor, but it’s still usually the second step in my process.
I’d love to pay writers incredibly generously for their time, but although I still commit to paying a minimum of $50 per article, I’m limited by what my clients are paying me. I simply can’t afford to take on a writer if it makes the project unprofitable for me and my company.
Whether I’ve requested applications via email or Google Form, reviewing the content writers have submitted tells me a lot about what they’ll be like to work with. A surprising number of issues crop up in this stage of my review process, including (but not limited to):
- Applications that aren’t addressed to me.
I don’t hide my agency when I’m posting jobs, so all it takes is a quick search for my company and it’s clear who I am. I’ll let generic addresses slide (though, obviously, it’s preferable to personalize your application to me so I don’t feel like I’m receiving one of the thousands of generic queries you’re sending out), but addressing me as “sir” automatically puts you in the “no” pile.
- Applications that don’t meet the criteria I’ve specified.
If I’ve included certain criteria in my postings (“English as a first language required” is a common one), it’s because it’s necessary for me to deliver the kind of work my client is expecting. Applying to positions for which you don’t meet the required criteria wastes both of our time and leaves me with a negative impression of you.
- Applications that don’t follow required procedures.
If I sound grouchy writing all of this, I’m sorry; I swear I’m just trying to save us all some time and energy. If I ask for applications via Google Form and you email me instead, you’re standing out — but not in a positive way. Similarly, if I include in the listing that applications without rate requirements won’t be considered and you don’t send your financial expectations, please don’t be surprised if you don’t hear back from me.
Oh, and it should go without saying, but obvious spelling and grammar issues in your application will shut the whole thing down at this stage. You’d be amazed by how many applications I receive with typos. Proofread, proofread and proofread some more!
Typically, after reviewing applications, I’ll have about 10-20 candidates that I’m interested in pursuing further. At this point, the next stage in my process is to review the portfolio samples that each finalist has sent over.
Obviously, portfolio pieces that are on the subject I’m hiring for are best (I can get a feel for how you’ll write on digital marketing topics from your health and fitness writing samples, but it’s not ideal). It’s also best to have your portfolio samples consist of live articles published on reputable sites, versus simply sending Word docs or PDFs.
But some of the other things I filter for at this stage aren’t quite as expected:
- Does the portfolio piece violate ghostwriting agreements?
Nearly all of my projects are ghostwriting contracts, and my clients rely on me to maintain confidentiality in order to protect their perceived authority. As a result, any candidate who sends me an application with the disclaimer “Some of these were ghostwritten, but I’m sharing them with you anyways,” is an automatic rejection.
- Does the portfolio piece demonstrate an understanding of web writing best practices?
Running a high volume agency means that I don’t have tons of time to edit each piece that goes out the digital door. That’s why I rely on my writers to do a good job the first time around — and part of that is understanding the kind of writing that works best on the web. If you send me portfolio pieces with giant blocks of text and no discernible formatting, I’m going to conclude that it’ll take me longer to whip your work into shape than I can afford.
- Is the portfolio piece on a religious or political subject?
This isn’t a deal-breaker for me, but I’ll admit that receiving portfolio pieces that take strong stances on religious or political subjects makes me uncomfortable. Unless you’re applying for a position that’s explicitly hiring for a religious or political website, I’d recommend including only neutral pieces in your portfolio to avoid the risk of offending the hiring manager.
As with the way I review applications, correctness matters here. There should be absolutely zero spelling or grammar mistakes in your portfolio pieces. If you aren’t 100% sure your work is error-free, hire an editor to review it for you.
From the portfolio review stage, I’ll typically have whittled my list down to 3-10 candidates that I want to do a test project with (always paid; be especially wary of job listings that ask you for a free test!).
If I’m very, very lucky, one of those writers will work out. If not, it’s back to the drawing board for me — it’s not uncommon for me to have to repeat this entire process several times to find the right writer for a job.
And now, since this article has been mostly negative to this point (as the hiring process is, inherently, one based in rejection), let’s end on a happier note with a few sample applications that actually resulted in hired gigs for the writers that sent them. Don’t copy them word for word, but do try to learn from what these applicants did well to improve your own queries:
Application example #1
This was a ballsy move by an editor candidate, but it’s one that worked well (I really did have errors on my website, and I appreciated the heads up!). I love the way the candidate made a personal connection and backed up her confidence in her skills with a challenge to find typos on her site.
Application example #2
There are two things I loved about this application. First, the candidate demonstrated immediate competency as an editor by sending me a document with tracked changes included. And second, the social proof of including the logos of past satisfied clients made me feel more comfortable giving this candidate a shot.
There’s nothing fancy about this application, but I appreciate both its clear, concise writing and the way the candidate’s past experiences aligned with the particular specialization I was looking for.
If you’re looking at these applications (or the list of “don’ts” I described above) and wondering why you still aren’t getting hired — even though it feels like you’re doing everything right — I get it. I’ve been through the endless cycle of applications before, and now that I’m on the other side of the hiring table, I want to help you be the one who stands out among the hundreds of other writers you’re competing against.
Back in July, Sophie was kind enough to let me recruit a handful of Be a Freelance Blogger readers to help beta test a writer training course I put together to help address these issues. Over the summer, I got some great feedback from participants on how to make it even more useful, and now I’m proud to release the full version of my course, Higher and Hired.
The course includes four weekly core training modules and two bonus modules that contain even more of the kind of content you just read — an inside look into how the people hiring freelance writers work and what you can do to stand out to us. There’s even an option to have me review your application and portfolio pieces for some no-holds-barred feedback on what might be holding you back.
As a “THANK YOU!!” for Sophie’s help with the course, I’m happy to offer you, her reader, a special $50 discount that you can claim with the coupon code BAFB50. If you’re sick and tired of feeling like you’re always being overlooked — or of scraping away at $5 an article in the content mills — I hope you’ll take a minute to check it out:
Or, if you have a question about how I hire writers, I’d love to hear it! Leave me a comment below and I’ll respond with my best answers.