How Writers Can Work with Job Recruiters

David Sherwin | February 2000

Can creative writers use recruiters, staffing services, or headhunters to find jobs in the business world? The question comes up often at AWP, as we hear from friends, colleagues, or AWP members. Sometimes it's unclear what specific headhunters and recruiters do, as opposed to staffing services or career counselors-which results in resumes being mailed to the wrong people, at a great cost of time and money. In other situations, recruiters may move to place you quickly, without consideration to your career path. But in this high-pressure job market, are there special staffing services and recruiters that can ease you into a writing job? And what do we need to know, before we begin our search?

Before we can answer these questions, we need to elucidate the differences between headhunters, recruiters, staffing services, and career consultants.


Headhunters are recruiters employed by corporations. In advertisements, you may see them called executive recruiters, executive search firms, even management consultants. Richard Nelson Bolles, in the 1992 edition of What Color Is Your Parachute?, also nicknames them "body snatchers" or "flesh peddlers":

(Employers) want these firms to hire away from other firms or employers, executives, salespeople, technicians, or whatever, who are already employed, and rising... The average Executive Search firm will get as many as 1,000 such unsolicited resumes, or "broadcast letters," a week. Your chances of surviving? Well, if you currently make $75,000 or more per year, and if your resume and cover letter look thoroughly professional and well thought out, and if you send your resume to one of the larger executive search firms in this country, experts say you have a one in ten chance that they will contact you.

Bolles goes on to note that the job market is changing radically, and that certain headhunters will help job seekers. But headhunters shark the currently employed, not unemployed job-seekers, unless a job-seeker's credentials looks promising for a current job opening.

A headhunter may not be your best bet.

Recruiters, Staffing Services, & Temp Agencies

Recruiters, on the other hand-not executive recruiters, but those that are interested in placing job seekers in information technology (IT), publishing, marketing, management, Web design, etc.-find temporary and permanent employment for practically any qualified job-seeker. For the majority of them, their livelihood depends on resumes and demonstrated skills.

Recruiters are also known as staffing services, and they place permanent and temporary employees. Today, the temporary market has ballooned to support many larger corporations, often at the expense of the permanent employee-similar to the adjunct/tenure-track trend in higher education employment. As of this year, the largest employer in the world is Manpower, Inc.-a staffing service-because workers today have less job loyalty; because corporations try to save money by eschewing benefits for contract and temporary employees; and because today's employees often have to move to new jobs to receive substantial raises.

Staffing services such as Manpower succeed because they fill most of the lower-level cogs in the corporate machine, but there are other staffing services and recruiters for those of us who seek writerly employment. In many industries, such as IT, marketing, publishing, and communications, you can find smaller, individually-owned employment agencies that may help you into a job.

The benefit of smaller staffing services: they are paid to find smart minds for publishing, marketing, and technology jobs. If you work on a temporary basis, they cover your taxes and provide you with a paycheck. If you send them a resume and writing clips that pertain to specific fields (i.e. direct mail letters, newsletters, feature articles, techincal articles, whitepapers, Web pages, etc.), they'll keep your resume on file for up to 6 months or longer. Depending on your experience, you can be considered for a wide array of jobs. If you work in high-demand markets, such as Internet-related work and direct mail writing, your hourly rate will be more than substantial.

The downside of the big, corporate staffing services: The jobs may be purely menial. You're at the whim of their staffing pay rates. If you work at a company, they may want to keep you temporary instead of "buying out" your contract, which could cost them tens of thousands of dollars.

And the downside of all staffing services: Their placement rates many not keep up with the demands of their stable of job seekers-you may not qualify for jobs they are currently fielding. Benefits may be scarce. And on-site, you're always at the whim of the customer.

Career Counselors

If you're going to seek out a recruiter, please don't confuse them with career counselors. Counselors charge thousands and thousands of dollars to help you orient and motivate yourself in today's job market-often doling out advice that you could find in a bevy of books at any campus career center. You don't send career counselors resumes, unless you want them to call you with a sales pitch. For most job-seekers, career counselors are not an option.

Finding the Right Niche

Most recruiters and staffing services wouldn't call your creative writing skills an asset directly.

Just because they don't cater exclusively to writers doesn't mean they're bad companies. They may be small, "boutique" agencies which need to cover as many bases as they can, simply to stay afloat.

Take, for example, Seven Staffing in New York City. They call themselves "attitude-free, satisfaction driven!" and their "dedication to your (i.e. the client's) happiness is nearly pathological." They even offer "a no-hassle, no argument 100% money-back guarantee. Call us for details! (Is it us, or did we just sound like a Ginsu-knife commercial?)"

Seven can afford the tone because of their size. Their office is small. They're open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They offer lower headhunting fees than their competition (as they're run by a smaller staff, which makes for lower overhead). They screen applicants heavily, accepting less than 10%. And they offer help in the New York media market, which deals equally in creative savvy and technological know-how of software such as QuarkXPress, Adobe InDesign, Flash, Photoshop, Director, et cetera.

Seven Staffing isn't an abberation-staffing services can be pathologically friendly, as a general rule-but they do fill a specific niche. When seeking an agency to help with your job search, you're most likely to find companies that specialize in a wide range of "staffing solutions," or that focus on business and administrative staffing. But if you focus in a little closer (and you live in or near a big city), you should be able to find a few niche recruiters and staffing agencies that cater to those with writing skills.

For example: Art Links is a recruiter and staffing service in the San Francisco (SF) Bay Area that focuses on staffing for creative management, design and production, and writing and editing. Marti Stites, the owner and sole proprietor, fills a need for creative professionals in a technologically-driven market. "Because we're in the SF Bay area, most of our clients are technologically oriented, so most of the writers we place are involved with technology in some way," Marti says. But they aren't limited to technical jobs. "We look for people that have been involved with our market-the business world. That may be ad firms, Web design/development firms, publishers," and other companies that develop technology products, but require employees skilled in old-world marketing practices such as direct mail and marketing writing.

Art Links also focuses on the marketing and communications departments in general businesses. It's a bull market for those with marketing writing skills-the ability to shape a direct mail letter, craft an effective Web page, or write press releases. Unlike an IT recruiter, which focuses on placing workers such as programmers and technical writers, Art Links services the customer-contact side of the business, where creative flair is communicated through the written word, not machine code. As a result, it stands out.

Ways to Aid Your Search

If you're willing to seek out a recruiter or staffing service to aid your job search, here are some helpful pointers. In most cases, a recruiter won't be able to place you until you acknowledge these key points.

Be Flexible on Salary

Since specialized writing skills are in demand, don't fret about your hourly wage. Marti of Art Links estimated that direct-mail writers in SF receive from $25/hr to $50/hr and up, depending on the company, the quality of the writing, & the writer's experience. She also cited a recent opening for a direct-mail writer at a Web company-at an annual salary of $65,000. For an over-inflated market like SF, that's decent.

Focus on Buildling Your Samples

Your degree may help bolster your salary, but your writing experience and samples ("clips") will land you the job. Nick Corcodilos, a headhunter and the force behind AsktheHeadhunter. com-an advice website for job-seekers-concurs:

...don't think in terms of your degrees. Degrees don't produce jobs. Your ability to work profitably does. There may be little connection between your education and the work you will do-that's a very likely scenario. But it doesn't mean you don't have "the knowledge" to do the work. It means you will have to map any knowledge that you do have against the particular work an employer needs done.

Nick is offering scary advice, especially when we hear about (and know) many people who seek MBAs in order to land higher-paying jobs. But you can't expect employers to beat down your door because of your degree, sans samples and contacts. Or, as Nick said to me:

...making contacts and more contacts is the only way to get a writing job. It's very difficult as I know you know. Seems everyone wants to be a writer, and in my experience, publications hire via their contacts and people they know and trust. It's hard to get into that inner circle... My solution was to create my own product or publication, which is my website, and I self-published a book. That gets attention, but it takes time. (As it turns out, I decided I didn't want to write for anyone else.)

Nick is familiar with academia-he left behind a graduate program in cognitive psychology for the business world and had to claw his way into jobs with little or no corporate work experience.

Target Your Job Search Materials

When contacting a recruiter, always be sure to send them a resume, two writing samples (no more, to start), and a one-page cover letter detailing your qualifications-not rehashing your resume-and what jobs might fit your skills. Your writing samples should not be "creative writing," whether it is fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction.

For the two samples, make sure they are top quality. Internships or volunteer work can help you develop your skills in areas that interest you. If you're going to try for an advertising position, build up a portfolio of previous "creative copy" (not poetry). Creative copy can include advertisements that you've helped write, or ads for products that don't even exist. If you want to work in website design, write and design Web pages. If you want to freelance by writing op-eds, then publish some in your local paper. If you want to qualify for more than one type of writing job, make sure that you've published multiple kinds of writing. Employers are impressed by flexibility. And samples don't have to be published work-they can be directly related to the job you're applying for. Imagine how shocked a hiring manager would be if you came into an interview for a marketing job with a complete marketing plan, plus samples of work that you'd do on the job!

Don't Overstate Your Experience

When writing your cover letter, don't try to fit yourself into too many categories. The job will slip away if you misrepresent your experience.

Be Painstakingly Accurate

"Writers, by virtue of what they do-their resumes and samples say something about their work," says Marti. "So they should be super-careful about typos, because they're the kind of people who you'd expect not to make mistakes." A recruiter is not an editor. They will not rewrite your job materials. They will not be impressed by solid writing samples accompanied by sloppy writing on the cover letter or resume.

Be Open to Options

"It helps people market themselves if they send a few strong samples, without knowing what specific kinds of jobs we have for them," says Marti, and it's true-if you feel good about your writing samples, the recruiter may find a place for you that you never imagined.

Staffing Services Have Different Approaches

Usually, the best way for people to approach a recruiter is through e-mail, fax, and mail. Nowadays, many recruiters store resumes and samples electronically. Be ready to go in for an interview with the recruiter, though some recruiters like to interview via phone.

Apply Locally

A recruiter needs to know where you want to work, geographically. Most recruiters would rather work with locals, and will pass over out-of-town workers for the job-seekers who can start tomorrow.

Look for a Good Match

When looking for a recruiter, focus on the following: word of mouth, a recruiter's reputation, and the quality and feel of their website.

Be Ready to Work

John L. Munschauer, in his book Jobs for English Majors and Other Smart People, offers the following advice:

To find job opportunities that do not require professional knowledge, listen to the language of the employers. Listen for the words, "I need." You will hear advertising executives who speak of the need for people who can write creative copy, newspaper publishers who want to find reporters who can cover an art show one week and an economic conference another, or manufacturers who need people who can supervise labor. These employers all need job candidates who are competent, willing to work hard, and smart. As the owner of a hotel who had originally set out to hire a trained hotel-school graduate put it when he chose a liberal arts graduate instead, "I needed a food and beverage control manager. I knew I could teach a smart person the job in a couple of weeks, and a liberal arts graduate convinced me she was smart."


Keep in mind that you have to show recruiters, as well as employers, how you can fill their needs-or swiftly learn how to do the job. And while being a literary writer may be your avocation, prepare yourself to show enthusiasm and knowledge for business writing, technical writing, or whatever type of writing a prospective employer needs. Present yourself as a working professional, not an artist.


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