I received an email the other day from a hiring manager who asked me what tests they should give to their technical writing candidates. She writes,
We are hiring two new technical writers and are trying to come up with a practical for the candidates to complete. We had been asking the applicants to write a quick how to (e.g make a pb&j, withdraw cash from an ATM, etc.) followed by a longer writing sample, but our HR rep isn't sure if this is the best qualifier. Any ideas? What test have you completed in the past when applying for tech writing
Although I've taken various tests before for job interviews, such as documenting how a small company widget works, or finding all the spelling and grammar errors in a document, or actually taking an IQ test, I'm not a fan of tests. Do you ever give doctors a test when you interview them? See now, go into the next room and try to figure out what kind of disease the guy has. You'll have 30 minutes to write a diagnostic report. Or to a lawyer -- we want to see if you're actually qualified for the position. Please write and deliver and 3 page court presentation arguing a case of insanity for the unabomber...
If I were hiring a technical writer, rather than administering tests, here are 10 things I would do to evaluate the candidate:
Finally, if you are determined to administer a writing test, please make it software related (unless your company doesn't make software). And also make it difficult. For example, provide instructions on how to speed up your Firefox browser.
April 6, 2008 Update: I have officially changed my mind about writing tests. While I initially thought they were insulting, I now think they are essential. I guess I had to experience for myself an interaction with someone whose writing I felt to be subpar. It lacked thoroughness, wasn't easy to follow, was poorly organized, sometimes unclear, and was overall not something I'd want my department name attached to.
Many candidates pose as technical writers but really lack the skills. Writing tests can help weed these candidates out. I guess I've come full circle on this. I now would also encourage a writing test, and require that candidates provide instructions on how to document a typical company widget. When you get that writing sample, here are some obvious signs that you shouldn't hire them:
My alternate tests are still valid. I'm just now endorsing the standard writing test.
As an added bonus, requiring writing tests will drastically reduce the number of candidates who apply.
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I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here. You can also contact me with questions.