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What To Do When You're Not Picked to Be America's Next Top Tech Writer

Mar 20, 2009 • general

This is a guest post by Thomas Curnyn, a technical writer in Dublin, Ireland. He currently works for a software company specializing in school administration and scheduling software. He's been at his job for the last 5 years and has been a writer for 10 years altogether.

Tom wrote quite a while back about writing tests (10 Alternate Tests for Evaluating Technical Writing Job Candidates — A List for Hiring Managers) and he mentioned some things that should set off the alarm bells if you're evaluating the work of a potential new writer for your team:

  • The writer doesn't use numbered steps.
  • The procedure had 20+ steps without being broken into separate tasks.
  • The writing is unclear.
  • The writing is poorly organized.
  • The formatting is sloppy.
  • The writer doesn't structure the content with styles.
  • The steps are inaccurate.
  • Field definitions aren't illuminating.
  • You can spot misspellings and grammar errors.

I'd have to agree with all these and I think writing tests are a great tool to spot someone who's maybe done some testing or worked on a support desk and thinks, hey, how hard can it be to do documentation? But what happens when you take one of these tests and you know how to write? What happens if you know what a gerund is and when to use a semicolon? What happens when your writing is clear, well organised, well formatted, when you've 10 years' experience, when you KNOW you're a good writer, when you've taken a writing test, feel that you've aced it, and one week later you're told that you've failed?

Well I think you have maybe three basic options. You:

  1. Can accept that you had a bad day and move on
  2. May decide that you don't cut it and maybe admit that you don't know how to use a semicolon after all!
  3. Have the good sense to realise that you are a good writer and the reason you failed has nothing to do with you or your writing

I recently failed a writing test set by a multinational software company. Obviously I was a little surprised and upset to fail a writing test – a test that I thought would be a formality. I felt like I was an experienced doctor who'd been asked to perform a routine procedure (to remove an appendix, for example) something I could do in my sleep, and then being told a week later that I'd killed the patient.

After my initial shock I tried to figure out where I went wrong. The test had three parts: two separate grammar tests and a third "Tech Writing" test. Looking back now on the grammar sections of the test, I should have realised that the testers didn't know what they were doing when I got questions like this:

What is the right word is in the following sentence?

You _____ a moron if you don't know this.

(a) are

(b) is

(c) being

This company, being the real morons in this story, wasted 30 minutes of my life by giving me not one but two of these asinine tests. By the way, the example above was probably one of the trickier questions!

The third test was a more typical Tech Writing test: describe how to use a calculator, explain to your grandmother what a computer virus is - that sort of thing. These tests can be challenging - what calculator functions do you describe in 30 minutes? Should I telly grandma the difference between a Trojan and a Worm or is that too much detail? Anyway, unlike the basic grammar tests, I could see the point in this – it allowed me to show that I can write well, organise my thoughts, and work under time pressure. I did pretty well, I thought – certainly well enough to get a passing grade.

So why did I fail?

I believe that tests are a useful tool for evaluating a potential writer but this belief is predicated on the idea that the people setting and marking the test know what to ask in the quiz and what to look for in the answers. In my case I don't think the people correcting my paper knew what was good or bad writing. In fact, I have a feeling that the people correcting my work weren't even technical writers.

As a little epilogue to my story, I recently asked my friend who works in this company, and who recommended me for the role in the first place, whether they'd ever hired someone and he told me that they'd not even got to the interview stage because NOBODY had passed the test! Why, you may ask, could there be such an appalling failure rate for what sounds like a pretty simple writing test? Apparently it's because the test was designed and graded by non-native English speakers based in the company's HQ in Germany! What exactly they were looking for (and how I and all the other applicants went so horribly wrong) I do not know. They certainly hadn't read Tom's post on the subject. For them, and I'm just guessing here, maybe a numbered list looked all wrong. They may have thought, Hey why is this idiot using the active voice? We were always told in school to use the passive voice. What's all this white space about? Where are the big chunks of text that show this guy can churn out the text?

I have to admit that hearing that I was not the only one to fail this writing test was reassuring but I think it's important to be confident in your own abilities too and not depend on a test for validation of your skills. I think (at the risk of sounding like Dr. Phil) that it's important not to automatically assume that you are a failure when you fail. If you ever feel like you're the doctor who's just been told he's killed the patient be sure that the person who's giving you the bad news is also a doctor and, more importantly, knows how to take a pulse!

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

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.