Our 20-year-old PR firm is a company of writers. We believe that writing ability is essential to doing our job. There are other ways than writing to communicate, of course, but because good writing requires you to organize your thoughts, know the rules we depend upon to understand each other and empathize with others, writing is the foundation of all effective communication.
Good writing is really just good thinking. “Hiring smart people” is our company’s No.1 core value. We believe we can teach our hires how to do most anything, but we can’t teach them to be smart. You must have the basic horsepower (well, more than basic horsepower, actually) required to learn quickly.
So, how do you find talented writers?
Well, you could ask candidates during a job interview if they have writing skills, and if they say yes, ask them to prove it by describing what good writing is and how their writing measures up to this standard. If they can answer these questions coherently, then they may, in fact, be writers. Or they may just be glib interviewees. How many people have you hired who were great during the interview but actual duds on the job?
Or you can do what most companies do when hiring writers: Ask to see examples of their published work. The only problem with this approach is you don’t really know how much of it is actually their work. They may have been heavily edited, or they may not have actually done the work they are sharing. While this is not always the case, of course, there are enough instances of this to make it a trend that you must take into consideration.
For example, many college instructors today have their students work in groups to complete assigned projects. Typically, in such a situation, the smartest or most driven student does most of the work, and everyone else in the group gets equal credit. Similar dynamics can pervade professional settings as well. Overall, this bizarre pedagogy could make it much more difficult to judge the capabilities of job applicants.
The only sure way to know if someone can write is to give them a writing test. At our firm, we use such a test as a screener of job applicants. We only look at resumes of those who pass.
How To Create And Grade A Writing Test
It’s really quite simple: Provide job applicants with a page of information, and ask them to write a five- to seven-paragraph story using this information. For example, we provide a page of “facts” about a fictitious city and convention center for our writing test. It does not matter what “facts” you provide; what matters is what those completing the test do with them.
Grading a writing test is the hard part because you have to be a good writer to know what good writing looks like. But if you are not, here are some signs of good writing:
Lack Of Redundancy
People who don’t know what they want to say usually say it several times. Restating things in different words that add nothing to the reader’s understanding is not effective writing. Talented writers say it well once.
Order And Flow
The point a writer seeks to make should be clear, and the argument to support the point should proceed in a logical fashion, with appropriate transitions between each step, such as “therefore,” “accordingly” and “however.” Writers who do not know how to order their thoughts typically just throw a bunch of disjointed facts down on the page in no discernable order and do not attempt to connect them to tell a coherent story.
Proper Sentence Structure
Every sentence should have a subject and a verb. For example, “some boys in the class” is a sentence fragment because it is missing a verb. “Some boys in the class study quite hard” is a complete sentence.
Every sentence should communicate a single complete thought. Trying to cram two to three thoughts into a single sentence can quickly turn into a run-on sentence, which I’ve found to be a more common error than sentence fragments. Here is an example of a run-on sentence: “Thanks to everyone who showed up at the meeting, while it was virtual, we did try to make it interesting and most people seemed to like it.”
Something written in active voice is usually more powerful than passive voice. Probably the most used and cowardly passive sentence is: “Mistakes were made.” An active version of this sentence requires someone to take responsibility: “We made mistakes.” In a passive sentence, the subject is acted on by the verb; in an active one, the subject performs the action stated by the verb.
You may be familiar with the disclaimer “Sorry for the long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.” It is difficult to distill your thoughts down to as few words as possible, but good writers can do it. Poor writers ramble.
Ultimately, creating, administering and grading a writing test just takes experience. After you’ve read about 50 tests, you’ll begin to get a sense of what is good and what is not. The key is to use the same page of facts over and over because this will allow you to compare how different people work with the same building blocks. Some can build beautiful temples of words. Some can’t nail two boards together.
(Originally appeared in Forbes.)