…But Can They Write?

Twenty years ago this June, I stepped from the stage of an auditorium at the University of California, Berkeley, clutching my shiny new bachelor’s degree in English literature. I was one in a crowd of shaggy graduates that day. We were restless and barely listened to our commencement speaker, except for the profanities peppering her speech.

I can only imagine what my parents were thinking. First, there was the motley crowd of grads. At least my parents managed to spot me among them. Then there was the profanity. Well, even though it was 1981, it was still radical Berkeley, and I’m sure it came as no surprise.

And finally, there was the English degree. They probably had more than a few concerns about the employment prospects of someone who’d spent the last four years writing essays on “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained,” not to mention “Paradise Missing in Action” and “If We Pretend We Don’t Miss Paradise, It’ll Return on Its Own.”

I’ll admit, I also had my doubts about finding anything more interesting than the mind-numbing clerical positions available to new grads at the time. (Think Wite-Out, IBM Selectrics, and carbon-copied memo pads.) But I did have one slight advantage over all the other newbies. I was reasonably competent at putting two sentences together, and I had a clip book of published pieces from my hometown and college newspapers. In other words, I could write.

I am forever grateful that Suzanne Maricich, the first person who hired me for a real job, recognized the necessity of hiring a marcom person with decent — or, at least, trainable — writing skills. She didn’t care that I had the business demeanor of an intent salesman on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue or the political acumen of a college kid who spent too long debating the merits of Yeats. I suppose she figured the dress, the demeanor, and the political savvy would all come in time. Knowing exactly what she wanted, Suzanne gave me a writing test, studied my clip book, and gave me an office with “Public Relations Coordinator” on the door.

Twenty years later, I’m still in the same profession. And guess what? Even though my salary is higher and my responsibilities are broader, I still spend a good part of my time doing what I did the first day on the job — I write. I write speeches. I write marketing plans. I write reports. I write newsletter articles. I write Web site content. And I spend an awful lot of time rewriting and editing.

Anyone who’s been in marcom for a while knows that writing is essential. So why do we get sidetracked into hiring people who do not possess writing skills? New software programs can be learned. Contacts can be made. And even though strategic thinking takes some time to hone, it does come in time. From day one, however, you’ll want a person who can wield a keyboard with confidence and style.

How do you tell the writers from the wannabes? There are some fairly simple ways to test the creative juices:

A writing test. Put together an assortment of facts — some critical to the story, some that any good writer would know to trash. Have your candidate write 1,000 words. Look for the basics: sentence structure, decent grammar, and spelling and paragraphs that start with a coherent thought and expand on the idea. Then, look for the mark of a good writer: compelling leads, artful turns of phrase, and prose with personality.

Clips. A marcom candidate, Web site content writer, or anyone wanting a position in marketing or public relations — no matter how green — should have published material, preferably with a byline. A series of articles in the same publication indicates that the editor felt the writer was worthy of return appearances.

An appreciation for good writing. No, ideal candidates don’t have to be English majors. (Perish the thought!) But they should know drivel when they see it. And they should have an appreciation for great writing. (Hint to future job seekers interviewing with me: A familiarity with Woolf and Nabokov will get you points!)

Editing chops. Can your candidate cut, embellish, rewrite, and polish… and be nice about it? If so, hire that person.

This June, when all of those shiny new grads across the land leap from college auditorium steps, think about the skills you really want in an employee for the long term. I say give the writers top consideration. I was sure glad someone did that for me. And, as I’ve come to learn, so were my parents.

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