Testing Technical Writers – Summary

January 16th. 2011

The responses to the “Testing Technical Writers” thread have been both generous and lively. My purpose was to get a general feel of the opinions of HATTers on the subject of how to qualify a technical writer applicant for a specific job. Your contributions have been most informative and helpful. Although I have had some experience in interviewing and hiring, I do not think I am qualified to write more than a short summary on the subject.

Whether we are called technical writers, technical communicators or any other label, we are referring to professionals who can transfer the knowledge of software or hardware engineers into clearly understood instructions or explanations. To do that successfully, we have to know the language well, be able to express the subject at the level of the intended reader and guide and instruct the reader in a form that is clear and concise.

The discussion about split infinitives brought up a very relevant point on the qualifications of a technical writer: competency in English. IMO, a writer in English should ideally have a complete command of the language and the jargon used in the particular field of the employer. I know of writers who use words that are common to a small group of people but unfamiliar to a wider and more universal audience. Therefore, the language used must be clear and unambiguous.  Technical writers may also be required to be proficient, to a certain degree, in media such as graphics, diagrams, videos, presentations, according to the requirements of the job.

We have to test a candidate for suitability, based on the resume, the interview and the results of the tests. We can assume that the resume may not be fully reliable, and the interview, even when there are several interviewers, can be misleading. Therefore, we must rely on the tests to wean out the unsuitable. Testing candidates should be well-thought out and thorough.

First, we must find out the level of experience and professionalism of the candidate, or what we expect from the candidate, and select the appropriate tests. A test for typos, for example, may not be appropriate for a senior and experienced candidate who has already provided high quality work samples. Or, if a candidate has already stated that they have had no experience with HTML, there is no point in giving them such a test.

When testing junior writers we need to examine their ability to write instructions as well as their ability to copy writing style and format from a template that we provide. Experienced writers must show their ability to copy writing style and detail level as well as prove their technical competency with the tools. Although there is no question that grammar and punctuation are the essential qualities of a writer, a technical writer must also be able to understand complex concepts and express them simply and concisely at the level of the intended reader.

We have to prepare a number of tests suitable for the different levels of candidates that we expect to apply for the job. Customized tests would presumably give you a balanced evaluation that would justify, or not justify, spending time interviewing the applicant, especially when the higher echelons of management become involved. We must also make the tests reflective of the needs of the organization and the work environment. A candidate’s personality must be adaptable to a team, if such is required, or to work independently, if that is the criterion. If we are a hardware company catering to technicians in the field, we must test candidates for their ability to communicate with technical people.  Applicants who provide an extremely long list of qualifications should be tested on as many of them as possible, and especially those qualifications that are on the list of requirements for the job.

Knowing the jargon of the industry is an essential requirement. A concrete example which actually occurred in my field, web application security, was where a previous writer had written in a manual intended for experienced web-application security professionals: “ … be aware that source code which allows attackers to penetrate and/or manipulate instructions may not be detected …” What the writer was referring to was “vulnerable code”. This should have been the sentence: “ … be aware that vulnerable source code may not be detected …”Any reader from this industry would have known exactly what is meant by “vulnerable code”, but would need to extrapolate the meaning of the first sentence.

Therefore, the ideal situation would be to include in your repertoire a range of tests that cover the requirements for a writer. For example, if you are looking for a technical writer to work within a team in an electronics and software company you would have questions that probe the extent of the team work experienced by the applicant, the extent of knowledge in electronics, familiarity with the jargon of the field, and how the applicant copes with writing about software, as well as suggestions the applicant might have on methods of obtaining information.

Suggested Tests
English – an example would be to verbally explain to the applicant how to operate a widget, and request a written procedure. As an additional twist to this test, especially if you have a suspicion that the writer is not wholly comfortable with English is to ask him to explain or write the procedure in the language he/she is most comfortable with. If they decide on another language then you will know that they are not fully comfortable with English.

Proof-reading skills for typos – provide a test that uses similar words such as: affect / effect — ensure / insure / assure – are / our — there / their – here / hear – to / too / two, alternate / alternative.

Grammar – provide quotes or short speeches by public figures with grammatical errors that lead to easy misinterpretation. Ask the applicant to explain the errors and how they affect the meaning of the sentences. (Note that a question on split infinitives is appropriate, but not to have that as the only test.)

Punctuation – check for spaces after the period at the end of a sentence and quotation marks and periods.

Jargon – if the applicant has stated that she/he has experience in the field, present her/him with a jargon filled document and request in return an explanation in plain English.

Summary Presentations – ask the candidate to prepare a 10-15 minute presentation of one of the works mentioned in their resume, or of the work samples they have brought with them. Or, request a summary of a past work. The summary should cover every aspect of the work while confined to a half-page.

Publishing Skills – request to have an original document in the publishing tool used by the writer, such as FrameMaker or Word. Check usage of styles and style sheets.

Writing Procedures – write a procedure for tying shoelaces without the use of graphics. Or write a procedure using the text of an obfuscated technical specification written by one of the engineers.

Work Organization
How do you start on a writing project, and how would you organize it?
What do you do if you cannot get the information you need?
How do you decide how long a topic should be?

Personality and Characteristics
Is the applicant alert and interested in the work involved and with whom he/she will be working, and not just what the company has to have to offer in pay and holidays?

You want someone who is curious, who can understand the technology that they will be describing, and can communicate effectively. Someone who is technologically inquisitive, good at troubleshooting, can think outside of the box (particularly when it comes to problem solving).

Ask the applicant to present their resume verbally, and ask them questions on the spot. Ask about their greatest design challenge, what did they learn from completing the last major project, and what they would do differently if they had had more time. Sometimes people look good on paper (or online) but you don’t really know what you are dealing with (strengths and weaknesses) until you talk to them face to face.

Again, many thanks to those HATTers who contributed.



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3 responses to “Testing Technical Writers – Summary

  1. Greg

    A couple of comments here:

    Firstly, it’s great fun on HATT watching a gang of Americans pontificating on what is good English! As a borm and bred Englishman – you guys don’t even spell correctly 🙂

    Secondly, when I applied for my current job they gave me the best possible test. The spent five minutes explaining a module of their software to me, then left me to document it. The result showed my command of grammar, understanding of ideas and thought process during documentation. They gave me the job – and at a higher salary than originally advertised 🙂

  2. Rafael

    Good Day,

    As a born-and-bred Canadian, thank you for a very informative article. I see how well it applies, both to the candidate for a technical writing position and to the interviewer.

    * * *
    Article: Technical writers may also be required to be proficient, to a certain degree, in media such as graphics, diagrams, videos, presentations, according to the requirements of the job.

    My Comment: In the best technical writing department where I worked in 1992 thru 1994, we had the technical writer, the illustrator, the lead writer, the Subject Matter Expert (SME), the editor, the Simplified English checker, and the production person. Now in recent technical writing assignments, I often find myself alone to try to do all of these tasks. This is cost cutting gone wild. This is too much of a workload and dangerous.

    * * *
    Article: Knowing the jargon of the industry is an essential requirement.

    My Comment: I am neutral about this. In highly technical fields, we work with the SMEs. I believe it is important to present timely drafts for the SMEs and to learn from their suggestions and corrections. It is interesting to see how people from different cultures manage this. People from one culture see it as part of their work to incorporate markups and corrections from the SMEs. People from another culture see it as a great insult to have any corrections made to their work, and will spend a great amount of extra time to make sure that what they submit to the SME is ‘perfect’.

    My training and background is in aviation. I also wrote procedures for the oil industry and for the nuclear power industry (digital control systems). For these two challenging positions, it took me seven months to become fully familiar with the terms, the lexicon, the systems, and the location of the source data on the many servers. For the oil industry position, I apologized to the manager and said that I was sorry that I represented myself as a ‘quick study’ at the interview. He said not to worry, that my production level was on target and that I would understand the systems soon enough.

    * * *
    Article: Therefore, the ideal situation would be to include in your repertoire a range of tests that cover the requirements for a writer.

    My Comment: A test is a very good idea. For an aerospace company, we were given a paragraph or two of text and asked to write a procedure. A test is non subjective and can highlight areas of excellence or concern.

    * * *
    Article: For example, if you are looking for a technical writer to work within a team in an electronics and software company…

    My Comment: For a commercial pilot training company, I was in a position to review resumes and to participate in interviews to hire my replacement. I carefully reviewed some 30 resumes, and spent at least 30 minutes looking at each one. I searched the Internet for the best responses to people who submit resumes. I wrote a response to each, part form letter and part about what I found to be very good in their experience and resume. I let each person know that I appreciated the 30 minutes with them.

    As a teacher of technical writing, I believe anyone who has a strong interest in products, procedures, methods, and writing will make a good technical writer. I had confidence in the technical writing ability of each candidate for this position. I was looking for a very strong set of soft skills.

    In this position, I know how critical it is to have a good team player. I looked for people who had a team background, who perhaps played sports. I worked once with another technical writer who is a loner and a passive-aggressive. He lacked basic social skills. This was not a pleasant experience. It destroyed any team morale, we lost any cooperative contributions through synergy, and it cost the company a lot of money.

    There was a resume from a woman who had extensive experience in women’s work environments, writing policy and procedures to do with women’s rights issues. This might be a very good fit for some companies, but not for us. We work directly with pilots as our SMEs. On this project, where we were converting paper-based-maintenance-training to computer-based-maintenance-training, we were going to interact with tens of aviation specialists. We can’t risk having everything set on edge if an ‘issue’ arises between the technical writer and the SME. I will say this once only: we are looking for a good fit here.

    This was not mentioned in the advertisement, but given that all candidates had good technical backgrounds, anyone who had any aviation experience was one step closer to the position. I could afford to be honest and generous in my letters of response to the people who submitted resumes, because I included a sentence about seeking people with a knowledge of aviation. In event a candidate might challenge my decision, this sentence made our final decision bulletproof.

    Age. The manager and I together interviewed three candidates we selected: one woman and two men. During our subsequent review, the manager carefully said to me that the company does not practice age discrimination. In fact, many of our SMEs are retired aviation personnel. However, he said that he would like to continue to engage the candidate we selected for many future projects. This was a strike against the oldest candidate, and had nothing to do with the abilities or with the way the candidate managed the interview.

    I am amazed at how effective some techniques are when seen from the position of the interviewer. As candidates, we are always told of the importance of posture and of expressing interest. One candidate managed the interview with a casual, laid back manner. Sometimes he interrupted. I had the impression he was affirming that, yes, he could do anything and everything and we need not worry. His lack of focus gave me cause for concern. He seemed comfortable with pauses in the interview. Too comfortable. Those pauses were soon filled with my unspoken question marks.

    Another candidate was alert and actively listening. He leaned forward into the conversation. I was surprised at how strong an impression this made on me. I had the feeling that I was in a card game with him, and that I was losing. Badly. I would play a ten. He’d play a queen. I’d play a queen. He’d slip an ace. Then, to even things up, he’d toss me a four: ‘Oh, well, I’m not so strong when it comes to building a model!’ What has that got to do with technical writing? As I said, he threw me a four. He knew it and so did I. I found that he listened, picked up on the idea, responded, included an example, and often added a follow-up question. He also took flying lessons at one point. He got the job.

    * * *
    My questions:

    1.What is a HATTer
    2. Where do I find the thread mentioned earlier: ‘The responses to the “Testing Technical Writers” thread have been both generous and lively.’

    • solo2wings

      Rafael, your comments are both comprehensive and encouraging. You back up many of the statements in my post and add your own experiences and views. I read all your reply and found myself nodding in agreement with many of your observations on the behavior of candidates during their interviews. BTW, I was a fighter pilot (see my Linkedin profile: http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=576484&trk=tab_pro ).
      HATT (Help Authoring Tools and Techniques.) is a forum for writers, Help authors, and other online information developers. This is the link for the Yahoo group: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/HATT/
      The thread is found in the archives for the forum; it is called Testing Technical Writers. You have to be a member to view and post messages.

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