How to Check Writing Skills Before Hiring


How to Check Writing Skills Before Hiring

Your team is hiring customer service agents, and you want them to be good at responding in written channels: email, chat, social media, SMS, and ratings and reviews.

But it’s not easy to figure out whether an applicant has excellent writing skills or even competent ones, and it’s painful to discover after you’ve made an offer that your new employee is a poor writer.

Take heart. If you learn to review an applicant’s resume, ask writing-focused questions during the interview, and administer a meaningful writing assessment to applicants who seem right for the job, you won’t be in the dark about whether you’re hiring someone who can write.

Review an applicant’s resume to gain insight into how well they write

Many employers have lost faith or interest in reviewing applicants’ resumes. They consider resumes outdated; they suspect applicants inflate (or even lie about) their experience and skills.

Applicants dislike resumes, too. Qualified but new-to-the-workforce applicants may find writing a resume a huge enough hurdle that they fail to apply for the job. Other applicants suspect that the automated technology some companies use to screen resumes will exclude them unfairly.

…it’s not easy to figure out whether an applicant has excellent writing skills or even competent ones…

If your company is still requiring them, resumes can reveal some useful information about an applicant’s writing skills:

  • Do they have “small picture” writing skills, such as spelling, punctuation, and grammar? If the resume is error-free, the applicant probably has good small picture writing skills, or they cared enough to find a good-at-proofreading friend to check over their work. If the resume has errors in it, how serious are they? One misplaced comma isn’t a tragedy; multiple misspellings are.
  • Do they have “big picture” writing skills, such as the ability to group and sequence information? Did they provide useful details about their responsibilities?
  • Did they write a believable, specific career objective statement? Or did they write something generic, like this: “I seek to utilize my lifelong skills and experience to become an asset to any industry.” If they can’t write a good career objective, they’re not likely to be able to freetext in an email. Both of these are high-level writing skills.
  • Have their writing responsibilities grown over the course of their career? People who like to write and are good at it usually do more of it over time.
  • Do they mention outcomes of their writing? Did their customer service writing cause anything? Did their email responses improve CSAT scores over time? Did their chats help retain customers?

Here’s what a resume cannot tell you about an applicant’s writing skills:

  • Must they rely on spellcheck and Grammarly to proofread their work? There’s nothing wrong with needing software to check your spelling, punctuation, and grammar, but if you want to know whether an applicant is good enough at these skills to check others’ work, the resume won’t be able to tell you that.
  • Do they like writing? You’ll need to discover this during the interview.
  • Do they receive writing coaching well? You can’t learn from the resume whether an applicant is coachable. You can try to learn this during an interview, though.

Know how to ask an applicant about writing skills during an interview

Budget a good amount of time during the interview to ask the applicant about their writing skills and experience. It will pay off by helping to ensure that you have selected the best individual for the position.

Here’s a list of nine writing-related interview questions. Pose one or two of these questions, and you’ll learn what you need to know about the applicant’s writing skills, problem-solving strategies, and experience helping colleagues with their writing.

  1. Do you like to write? Why? Liking to write isn’t a prerequisite for on-the-job success, but it’s one good indicator. The Why? follow-up should give you some indication of whether the answer is sincere.
  2. What are your writing strengths and weaknesses? Of course, you’ll want to know what an applicant is or isn’t good at, but the best reason to ask this question is to get a sense of how well the applicant can talk about writing, which is an important skill of its own.
  3. How much writing have you done in your previous jobs? Use a specific measure. Good writers know how much they produce. “I wrote four 250-word articles for each issue of our monthly newsletter” or “I answered between 20 and 30 emails to customers each day” would be good answers to this question.
  4. How do you measure the success of one of your writing projects? This question helps you assess whether the applicant has a results-oriented approach to writing. Do they think, as you do, that good writing accomplishes something?
  5. Can you describe three different writing tasks you had on your previous job? Can you arrange them in order of difficulty, listing the easiest one first? There’s no right or wrong answer to this question, but it will reveal a lot about the applicant’s writing experience.
  6. Can you cite one grammar or punctuation rule you are absolutely certain about? A job interview is stressful enough; you probably don’t want to torture the poor applicant with a grammar quiz. But asking a prospective employee to cite just one rule will indicate whether this person is comfortable with the mechanics of writing. It’s a fair question, not a tricky one.
  7. Have you mentored or helped anyone else become a better writer? If so, what steps did you take to help? While not a writing skill per se, mentoring other writers does involve the ability to explain what’s wrong with a draft document and help the writer make it better. These are important skills for anyone who will be part of a writing team.
  8. When you have problems with your writing, what steps do you take to improve? This question may help you get a sense of whether the applicant will take writing feedback well or—even better—seek it out.
  9. What changes could have been made to the workflow at your last job that would have improved the quality of the email, chats, documents, or content you produced? Applicants who can answer this question well will be real assets to your team because they understand that writing well is a process. Improve the process and the quality of the product will improve too.

Use an open-ended scenario-based writing assessment

To get an authentic view of how well a prospective customer service agent writes, you must use an authentic assessment tool.

Assessment tools fall into two broad categories: close-ended, in which applicants choose from a set of pre-defined responses (a multiple choice test, for example), or open-ended, in which applicants are given a customer’s email and must write a response to it. Open-ended assessments are more authentic because the assessment activity matches the writing task the agent will do once they’re on the job.

For open-ended scenario-based assessment, you provide an incoming email from a customer plus a fact sheet, which includes information the applicant can use to build an accurate response. Together, the incoming email and the fact sheet constitute the “scenario.”

Using a fact sheet is better than having an applicant invent facts for the response. After all, they won’t be inventing info when they’re on the job. They’ll use a knowledgebase article, email template, or other resource to build an accurate response.

Also, use a customer question and fact sheet that are specific to your company or industry. If you’re hiring agents for a national hotel chain’s contact center, don’t use a scenario in which a customer is requesting pricing for installing custom window shades throughout their home.

Writing assessment: Incoming email + Fact Sheet

In this box is an example of an open-ended scenario-based assessment. The incoming email is from customer Lisa LaPorta to landscaping company Green Grass Now, Inc. The Fact Sheet provides information the applicant should use to write a response.

Customer’s incoming email to Green Grass Now, Inc.

To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

Subject: Need information about lawn mowing services

Dear Green Grass Now,

I am interested in your lawn mowing services, but I want to know whether I can afford your service. I can probably afford about $75 per month. Do you have a limited service option for people like me who are on a budget? I have a small yard with several trees and three flower gardens and a large vegetable garden.


Lisa LaPorta

Fact Sheet

1. Three pricing plans:

  • Full summer of lawn mowing (April through October) for $650.
  • Monthly fee (weekly mowing) of $100.
  • With the "Mow As You Go" pricing plan, you pay for each mowing. The cost is $35 per mowing for quarter-acre lawns and $50 per mowing for half-acre lawns.

2. Green Grass Now, Inc. offers the following services in addition to lawn mowing:

  • Renovate overgrown gardens.
  • Install decks and fences.
  • Design and install garden lighting.
  • Install automatic irrigation systems.
  • Build water gardens and install fountains.

3. If you call Green Grass Now, Inc. for a free estimate, we will give you a free lawn analysis complete with a soil test, a $30 value.

4. Customer can reply to this email or call 1-800-123-4567.

Consider scoring the writing assessment holistically

A close-ended assessment (true/false or multiple choice) is easier to score, but it won’t tell you much about an applicant’s writing skills.

And while you could score this open-ended writing assessment in a detailed way—by assigning a point value to every writing skill you’re looking for and totaling up the points at the end of an exacting scoring session—you could simply choose a set of three or four must-have skills.

For this writing assessment, an applicant must show they have these four writing skills, or you won’t make them an offer:

  • Omit the additional services listed in item 2 on the Fact Sheet. Lisa didn’t ask about these services, and she doesn’t have the budget to cover them. A good writer won’t include info the customer doesn’t need even if it appeared on the Fact Sheet.
  • Mention Lisa’s $75 monthly budget when offering pricing details. A good writer will mention the $75 to show Lisa they’ve read her incoming email. They’ll also offer only those pricing options she can afford, so they will probably omit the $650 full summer price.
  • Use correct spelling. It’s OK if they use spellcheck. Everyone uses spellcheck.
  • Write a friendly greeting and closing. Include the phone number.

I’m not suggesting that—in this tight job market—it’s easy to hire customer service agents who have great writing skills.

It is, however, possible to know how good an applicant’s writing skills are before you hire them. It’s no mystery! If you review that resume carefully, interview thoughtfully, and assess skills authentically, you’ll avoid “hirer’s remorse.”