Thursday, August 4, 2011

In which I talk about what I think one should look for in a good technical writer

So my recruiter and I aren’t really looking for the same thing in candidates, that much is clear. I’m not going to let that stop me. I’m going to find someone who suits me and who fits in with my master plan, and who has a chance of getting along with my other team members. Most of all I’m going to look for someone who can write well. Also, I’m going to have to work with this person, hopefully for a long time, so I want to have some sort of common ground with them. Could we have a conversation if we got stuck in the lift together or would it just be really awkward?

I have interviewed two people so far, two very different people, and the difference between them really highlights some of the things I tend to a look out for when I’m out to hire a technical writer.

Writing examples is a good indicator of how good a technical writer is but you have to be a little careful. Did they lay out the document themselves or did they work with a template? Did they write the document from scratch or was there an existing document that they used to work from?

One reason I google potential candidates is to find evidence of writing activity. Blogs, for example, can tell you a lot about a person’s writing style and passion for writing, and also about the person. (But, this is also why Spilling Ink is not associated with my real name because I wouldn’t want a potential employer to know that I’ve suffered a breakdown, for example. Spilling Ink is my playground where I vomit out things that happen to be in my head.)

I’ve struggled with whether I should administer a writing test when candidates have made it through the first interview and I think it’s a good idea to do it. The problem lies in what kind of test it should be. I’m currently working on some ideas I have and I will hopefully come up with something that makes sense should we get to that stage.

If I’m to employ someone as a writer in my team I’d like to see some enthusiasm. Enthusiasm gets you far especially when there are obstacles involved. I’d like to know that a writer who’s going to work for me is passionate about writing and a lot of the time you find really good technical writers among people who just can’t help themselves, they’re people who just have to write. Evidence of random writing activity is great.

If you’re a budding technical writer start a blog, it’s free, and start writing about anything really but write about things that know you can show to a potential employer. If you can include instructions somehow (even if it’s a cooking blog) it’s even better.

I interviewed someone once who had a cooking blog that they brought print outs from. They brought that and print outs from a site I had found googling where they write a dumbed down tech type blog. That showed me what I needed to know. They can write, they can do it simply and they know the value of adding a picture here and there. They have potential and this is even though they have zero experience in the technical writing field. This person was trying to break into technical writing and was the best candidate I’d seen in a while.

Technical knowledge in a field can be great if you’re a technical writer but I’d take good writing skills and a passion for writing over that any day. It’s much easier to teach someone how something works and get them to describe it in a way that makes sense to others than to work with a writer that somehow can’t get it together with the writing or who has some really bad writing habits.

Having said that, some writers are really good at sourcing information but they are somewhat clueless as to how to present it. These people can be great as what I call “skeleton writers”. They’ll get you the basic information in a very basic way so you can pass it on to someone who can pad it out and make pretty. They have their uses. If I can have one of each I’m set as a manager because then I have an all-rounder team to work with. It’s very rare to find both of those skills prominent in one person in my experience.

That's not all of course but it gives you some idea.

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