How to Interview Technical Writers

by Ivan on June 14, 2009

Here are some tips for interviewing technical writers, for example, if your company needs to hire a contractor to write some documentation for your next release.

I’ve worked on both sides on the fence, (i.e. went to lots of interviews and also interviewed applicants for roles our Publications Dept) and picked up a few things in the process.

Hopefully, these will be of some help.

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A Technical Writer is someone how writes technical documentation for a piece of software, for example, a User Guide or a System Administration Manual.

They are responsible for writing text that is accurate, readable, accessible, and helpful to its intended audience.

1.  How to test Writing Skills

Most companies use assessment tests to determine the skill level of potential employees.

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Download Technical Writer Assessment Tests here:

http://www.klariti.com/Technical-Writing-Tests/index.shtml

How much time should be allotted to complete an assessment test?

I’d suggest 1 hour at most. 45 min should be enough.

More experienced writers will race through it, while others might deliberate over those tricky questions until absolutely sure.

Nonetheless, 1 hour should be sufficient time for most to complete the test.

Also, by allocating this amount of time to the test, you are also emphasizing its relative importance. If it were a simple 10-minute quiz, it wouldn’t carry the same weight.

Here’s a suggested approach for administering the test:

When advertising the vacancy, highlight that an evaluation test is part of the assessment process. By saying this upfront, you weed out under-qualified writers who know that they would not pass the test.

When scheduling the interview, remind applicants of the assessment test and to ensure that they arrive on time.

1. Explain to them what is involved, for example, that there is X number of questions on grammar, procurement, technology etc. This demonstrates your company’s professionalism as you are helping the applicants to prepare for the interview. In turn, it would be unprofessional to spring the test on applicants when they turn up and catch them by surprise.

2. Completing the test take about 90 minutes and some of your applicants may have other arrangements to consider, such as day-care, commuting etc.

3. When they arrive, interview them first and then do the test. If they are unsuitable for the position, you can cancel the test and say that it’s not necessary at this point.

In the interview ask them about:

  • Technical Writing software they have use and which products they prefer to use.
  • Note if they have a preference/bias towards a specific platform
  • Ask why they prefer one Technical Writing tool over another, for example, why do they prefer Adobe RoboHelp over MadCap Flare?
  • Ask for examples of how they solved problems. This helps get a handle on how they interact with other members of the Technical Publication Dept.

About.com has some sample questions for holding interviews:

http://humanresources.about.com

Different Types of Questions

Use different types of questions when interviewing prospective employees.

  • Behaviors – about what the person has done or is doing
  • Opinions – about what they think about a topic, for example, the rise in video as a tool for technical communications
  • Knowledge – ask specific questions to get facts, for example, what version of Adobe FrameMaker do you use?
  • Background/demographics – ask standard background questions, such as education, training to develop a profile of the applicant and also to cross-check their resume

Sequence of Questions

  • Ask questions about some facts. This approach encourages respondents to relax and engage in the interview.
  • Ask questions about the present first.
  • Then discuss the past or future. It’s easier to talk about the present and then work into the past or future.
  • Close by allowing respondents to provide other information they prefer to add and also give their impressions of the interview. More assertive types will have suggestions/opinions and express themselves more confidently.

Wording of Questions

  • Use open-ended questions.
  • Avoid Yes/No questions. Let the applicants choose their own terms when answering questions.
  • Stay neutral. Avoid wording questions that might influence their answers, e.g. showing a prejudice towards a specific platform or development environment.
  • Ask questions one at a time.
  • Be careful asking “why” questions as this may make the person to feel defensive, e.g., have to justify their response/feelings.

Conducting the Interview

  • Ask one question at a time.
  • Remain as neutral as possible. Avoid showing strong emotional reactions to their responses.
  • Encourage responses with occasional nods of the head, “uh huh”s, etc.
  • Be careful when taking notes. For example, if you start to write feverishly, it may appear as if you’re shocked with the answer, which is likely to influence the following answers. Likewise, if you stop taking notes it implies that you’ve lost interest.
  • Move from topics to topic, e.g., “ok, we’ve been talking about Adobe FrameMaker and now I’d like to move on to Structured Authoring.”
  • Remain in control of the interview. Stop respondents from straying to other topics, rambling, or turning the tables on the interviewer.

Starting the Written Assessment

For those you want to assess, do the following:

  • Give them a pen and paper (always helps). Some people like to sketch or keep notes when writing.
  • Glass of water or coffee.
  • Find a quiet room with a PC or laptop.
  • Give them a printout of the test. Hardcopies are often easier to read than words on the screen.
  • Walk through the test so that they understand what is required.
  • Encourage them to ask any questions so there are no misunderstandings.
  • Tip: Remind them when the test will finish.
  • Once they are ready, leave the room and let them do the test.
  • After 20 minutes, drop in to see how they are doing. The point here is not to monitor them, but to see if they genuinely need any assistance.
  • After 60 minutes return, stop the test, and print it out.

At this point, I d suggest that they have a break so that you can score the test or let them know that you will call them tomorrow with the result.

This may be the most practical approach if you plan to hold a second interview.

If you want to do it the same day, then get the printout and go over the scores. As everyone likes to know how they performed in a test, walk through the results and discuss them with the applicant.

For example, if they scored low in one section, ask them how this area could be improved.

Finally, thank them for taking the time to do the tests and hope that they have gained from it.

Download Technical Writer Assessment Tests

Full URL: www.klariti.com/Technical-Writing-Tests/index.shtml

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Ivan Walsh, Internet Business ExpertAbout Ivan Walsh Got a question about running an online business? Contact me on Google Plus, @IvanWalsh, and Facebook

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