7 things to look for in a freelance writer

Before you hire a freelancer to write your annual report, make sure he or she understands the business world, communicates well in person, and excels at storytelling.

There are a number of things to look for when you hire a freelance writer for any project. For a once-a-year event like an annual report, the stakes are even higher. A well-written and attractive annual report is a competitive differentiator, helping brand a company by listing past accomplishments and strategic direction.

You know you’ve found a world-class freelance writer when he can show he’s mastered these seven key skills:

1. Simplify large amounts of complex data.

By definition, an annual report covers a company’s achievements for the year. The writer needs to review data sources that include press releases, the company website, competitor’s websites and their annual reports, financial data, research reports, white papers and more.

The writer’s task is to produce copy that summarizes and simplifies the raw material in a way that meets the report’s requirements. In my experience, this requires an ability to sort, organize, prioritize and retain massive amounts of incoming data.

Key skill: You need a writer with the experience to review vast amounts of data from every division in the company, and then turn around and write simple 50-, 100- or 500-word summaries.

2. Communicate as well in person as on the page.

In addition to raw data, content for the report comes from people throughout your organization. While conducting research, I might meet with engineers and product specialists one day, review numbers with the finance team the next, and interview the CEO to better understand his or her point of view.

My writing skills are table stakes, but the ability to communicate with people is just as important. A big part of being an effective writer is talking with other people and gaining their trust.

Key skill: In addition to world-class writing skills, the person you hire needs to be able to communicate with people at all levels in the organization.

3. Be a team player who respects your goals.

No one person will create the annual report. It’s a team effort and time-consuming task. Engaging a freelance writer takes the burden off full-time staff, and brings a valuable outside perspective to the content. A freelance writer must be willing to collaborate on drafts until everyone reviews and signs off on the content. This is often easier for a freelancer, who does not have a stake in the politics of the organization.

The writer needs the ability to handle constant change and the humility to make the full-time staff look good. He needs to check his ego at the door and respect the client’s ideas and values.

Key skill: Like a speechwriter, a freelance writer must be comfortable working anonymously. No writer should expect a byline on an annual report.

4. Can survive in the corporate world.

Many successful writers prefer to work alone. Novelists and poets are often uncomfortable away from their desks. While you need an accomplished writer, a recluse won’t survive in the corporate world. Look for a freelance writer who assumes full responsibility for her commitments.

Key skill: Hire someone who has what it takes to work in a corporate environment, shows up for meetings on time, meets deadlines and respects the chain of command.

5. Be a diplomatic and impartial observer.

Each division of a company would like to be the star of the annual report. A freelance writer can be a fair judge of content that comes from different divisions. In addition to resolving competing claims for column inches, someone from outside can manage style variations and write with a consistent voice and style. The last thing you want is a report that seems like it was written by several divisions with different agendas. Someone has to guard the core message.

Key skill: Asses the writer’s diplomatic skills. She must be comfortable with conflict and have absolute discretion when resolving competing claims for attention from divisional heads.

6. Excel at storytelling.

Stories humanize content. They provide the narrative and context, which heighten interest and help the reader remember the information. Effective storytelling requires command of the language, plus the flair to find ways to differentiate achievements.

I’m impressed by the team at NPR Planet Money who bring dry economic data alive through compelling stories. This should be required listening for budding annual report writers.

Key skill: Beyond the ability to synthesize the facts, a good writer should be able to weave a story from the content so the report is as rich and interesting as possible.

7. Understand the business world.

While a freelancer might lack the deep subject expertise of your employees, he should have a solid understanding of the changing world of business and the major issues of the day. This knowledge base helps calibrate the value of the content and puts the issues your company faces in perspective. It comes from the writer’s commitment to being a student of business.

Key skill: Look for a writer who is well read. Subscribers to the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal or The Economist have the edge.

If you are considering hiring a freelance writer to help produce your next annual report, start interviewing candidates early. Ask for writing samples. Expect to work with a freelancer writer for two to three months to produce the report.

The writer should be flexible about billing, either charging by the hour or a flat-rate fee. If you find a writer who does good work, make sure to lock her in for next year’s report as soon as you finish the current project.

If you can check off all these boxes, your next annual report should be an award winner.

Ian Griffin is a freelance speechwriter and award-winning annual report writer. He blogs at Professionally Speaking, where a version of this article originally appeared.

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