This week I've been looking for new writers to contribute to our blog. This process always fills me with dread, because every time I do it, I get--without exaggeration--hundreds of applicants in my inbox. I have to give everyone a fair shake, so I end up spending a week sorting those messages, reading through people's writing samples, and trying to rank them in some useful way.

I have a few rules and tricks to try to help cope with the flood of people. I want to share them with you here in case any of you decide to apply for a freelance writing job in the future. Any hiring manager is going to get overwhelmed with applicants fast--just like I do--and they probably use tricks like mine to help keep things manageable.

1. Read the job description very, very carefully, and do precisely what it asks.

I always ask for at least two things from a potential applicant. The first is for them to include a writing sample that they feel is representative of their style. Pretty easy, and to be expected, considering what the job is.

The second is a little trickier. Near the bottom of the ad, I ask that in their email to me they use a certain subject line that I specify. Also pretty easy to do.

When the emails start coming in to my inbox, I immediately delete about 50% without even reading them.

Can you guess which ones I delete? That's right: the ones that didn't use the subject line I specified.

Why am I being so cruel? Surely every starving freelancer should get a fair shake if they go through the trouble to email me?

I do it because not using that subject line says something about the person who emailed me. It says: "I don't fully read instructions", or it says, "I read instructions, but I don't always do what they say."

Both of those things are instant deal-breakers for potential contractors. When I hire someone to write for me, I need to be able to give them basic instructions and I need to trust that they'll read and follow them. I have better things to do than breathe down their necks to make sure they're doing things right. If a freelancer can't be bothered to read the complete job description and do something as trivially simple as use a certain subject line, I'm not going to trust them with something as complicated as following style guides and using Wordpress.

You can bet that recruiters at bigger companies go a step further and set up email filters: emails matching a specific subject will go straight to the "in" pile, while others will go to the trash.

2. Don't make me work to see your qualifications.

I mentioned that I ask each applicant to include a very short piece of writing that they feel is representative of their style. They can attach it to the email or include it directly in the body, I don't care. But you'd be surprised how many freelancers ignore my request and send me to their personal blog instead!

I get in a bad mood as soon as I see someone sending me to their blog for two reasons:

  1. You're already making me work by making me click a link instead of seeing your writing sample immediately. When I have 200 other applicants waiting to be read, every little bit counts. If I like the sample you included, I'll definitely click through to see the rest of your links. But I'm not going to do that before I at least get an idea of your skill level.
  2. A blog is not a portfolio! I don't want to read your personal musings about what you ate yesterday. I want to read one, at most three, of the pieces of writing you're the most proud of. They should be front and center, and if I have to go digging around through tag clouds, blogrolls, categories, or any other blog bullshit to find them, I'm leaving and deleting your application. This makes me so mad that I even started a service to make professional online writing portfolios easy.

I can't emphasize this enough. Your blog is not your portfolio!!! There is almost nothing more unprofessional than being sent to a personal blog to see "writing samples". Get yourself a real portfolio (and if you think you can't afford one, just buy one less latte at Starbuck's per month or cancel that Netflix subscription) or at least wrangle your free Wordpress site into something simple, navigatable, and professional.

3. Triple-check every bit of copy that you send or link to.

Your job is to write. If in the second sentence of your writing sample you use "it's" instead of "its", or "your" instead of "you're", you're getting deleted.

Is this a little harsh? I don't think so. After all, writing is your job! I can't be looking over your shoulder to make sure your grammar, spelling, and punctuation are correct all the time. I need to trust you to get it right the first time and without my oversight. If you can't be bothered to proof the very content I should be hiring you for, then you're probably not going to do good work on the job.

Yes, people make mistakes--but there are some places where, given the circumstances, mistakes just aren't excusable: Nuclear reactor safety procedures, the transport of construction-grade high-explosives, and the writing samples of a professional freelance writer.

4. If possible, tailor the writing sample to the subject--and don't be scared of sharing.

This isn't always possible, but if you have some writing that's directly applicable to the job you're applying for, send it over. Don't be scared that it's going to be stolen and that you'll get screwed--you won't. But it'll go a long way to demonstrating that you're the right person for this particular job.

In one of the job postings I made, I asked applicants to send one or two sample titles for blog posts they might write for us. Just the titles! And I had two people respond that they didn't want to include titles because they were scared that I'd steal their gold-plated ideas.

Don't be silly. If someone is posting to a job board, that means they're looking to hire someone, and there are easier ways to screw people than composing a highly-targeted job ad. Fear of having something as ludicrously mundane as a blog post title "stolen" tells me a lot about the applicant too.

Bonus: Tailor your email to the job.

I know that finding freelance work is hard, and to cope, a lot of freelancers write a single generic introduction email and send it with every job application. I understand that, and that's OK.

But you'll get a lot of brownie points if you go that extra inch and tailor just the first sentence of your email to whatever the job is. Are you applying to write about the weather patterns over Thailand? Then go ahead and send your generic email, but in the first sentence, mention that you love traveling and that meteorology has been your passion for years. It signals to the recipient that you took the time to talk to them personally and that you're not just spamming 100 different job applications. (Even if you secretly are!)

Alex, you're a cruel taskmaster! I hope I never work for you!

Actually, I think that as far as bosses go I'm pretty laid-back. Ask any of the past writers for our blog and I have no doubt they'll tell you that I pay on time, I'm laid-back about the occasional missed deadline, they have extraordinary freedom in their choice of topics, and that I almost never bug them about anything.

But when I'm hiring, I want to be sure I hire the best people for the job. Hiring someone is easy, and firing someone is not.

I also need a way to filter out the best candidates from a pool of hundreds. These simple rules might seem capricious and unforgiving, but that's the reality of the hiring environment. If you want the job, you have to be spick-and-span to compete against the hundreds of other people who want the job too.

Stand out by doing what's asked

Getting hired is hard, but if you do precisely what the job ad asks for, you've already beaten 50% of the other applicants. If you do that and you also have a professional portfolio (like the ones at Writerfolio, my service for freelancers) then you've beaten 85% of other applicants. Make sure your writing samples are top-notch, be persistent, and you'll be rolling in jobs in no time!