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Considerations for Hiring Technical Writers

by Philip Rastocny

Your department is growing … things are starting to get out of control … your staff is about to mutiny. So it is time to expand your group. You already know what skills you need to handle the tasks, but what other assets can you get at the same time? Characteristics of a writer vary from individual to individual, and knowing what to look for before the interview process begins is half the way to hiring the right individual the first time.

Clarity

Quite often, people cannot adequately portray what their abilities are in their cover letters and resumes. What seems like a no-brainer to you – one with many interviews and resumes in your pocket – will seem as foreign to a new graduate as it would be visiting another planet. Does this mean a person should be overlooked because of ineffective skills communication? Without proper clarity, a valuable asset could slip right through your fingers.

Consider this: Many HR professionals skim through the multitude of responses to job postings, sifting through the criteria you specify looking for viable applicants. Specifically instructing your HR people to take a moment and read between the lines of these documents can be very beneficial, especially if you know exactly what you are looking for and how to express it to HR.

Along with required skills you seek comes other intangibles – such as character, attitude, ingenuity, and ownership – that may not easily appear in print. Similarly, other skill sets you want to acquire may also be found in a new candidate. Weighing these intangibles against your immediate needs then becomes the task at hand: how do you get it all? How do I stress to HR the importance of finding the right person?

Focus

Just as one saying goes, “You are what you eat,” I have found another saying to be equally true: “You find what you seek.” If knowing the skills is the first step in hiring a new writer, knowing what other skills and personality traits you need to accomplish other goals is the next step. Some people call this a “good fit” to the group, but I call it a “deliberate invitation.”

Start by creating a list of the assets you normally do in any job description. After that mundane task is out of the way, write another list of other intangibles you desire and review them until you actually see the type of person you want sitting at the desk across from you. For example, imagine:

  • The candidate’s posture
  • How the person might engage someone on the phone
  • How much conscious thought the person gives to responses
  • How other members of your staff might interact with this person

The clearer the image you have of the new writer, the more easily you will “attract” that kind of person. Additionally, the more you focus on what you want, the more likely it will happen. For example, to sharpen my focus, I have:

  • Created tests.
  • Developed screening questions.
  • Spoken with other members of my team about what they need.

I have even been known to sketch an abstract of the ideal prospect on a sheet of printer paper and hang it on my wall. I use whatever method I can to determine exactly what I want in a candidate.

Creativity

Once clarity and focus have prevailed, writing the proper ad to attract this type of candidate is the next task. My grandmother once told me that it is easier to attract bees with honey than with vinegar, so I try to remember this when preparing the ad. So ask yourself:

  • What keywords would this candidate search for to apply for this position?
  • What words would best describe this position to put a nibble on my hook?
  • How can I structure the ad to make this candidate more than just casually interested in my company?

If you give these and other questions enough consideration, you will eventually create the ideal ad for your candidate.

Typically, managers identify common requirements like:

  • Must be proficient in MS Office;
  • Must be a team player;
  • RoboHelp experience required, and so on.

But are these truly the messages you want your candidate to read? Consider what you are writing from the candidate’s perspective and formulate those magical words from your thoughts. For example, if you want to bring new ideas into your group, hire someone with passion that respectfully disagrees with you. Write an ad that brings out this quality using keywords such as energetic, inspiring, or creative while avoiding words like dedicated, hard working, and competent. Then, instruct your HR people to specifically scan resumes for those unusual qualities in the cover letters and resumes.

Open Mindedness

So for now, let’s say you have a few possibilities in your inbox. As you scan the first paragraph, give full attention not only to grammar, but more importantly to the onomatopoeia. Ask yourself:

  • Does this person list hobbies that align with what your ideal candidate would posses?
  • Does word choice seem parallel to what your ideal candidate would use?
  • Does confidence exude from the page?
  • Does the flow of the resume indicate the things you need?

Get over your usual biases and step up to new possibilities. After all, if you do what you’ve always done, you will more than likely get what you always got. If you are looking for something different, you too must change to be open to finding that difference. Simple statements like “Tell me about yourself” are good icebreakers, but a better question may be “What are you most proud of accomplishing?” followed quickly by “How did that change you?”

Patience

Typically, getting through the first few minutes of an interview is painful for most candidates and sometimes even more painful for you. Starting out with a calm demeanor and a smile can alleviate some of your candidate’s nervousness. And when your candidate starts to show all the promise you imagined he/she would, your interest snaps to attention. But what if that is slow in coming? Does this mean that this is not the “deliberate invitation” candidate? Most likely, this part of the process is about you and not the candidate.

Be patient for those who truly would stir your interest and try to find the right words to use in every sentence you make. I was given some great advice in life from a wise colleague: When preparing to speak, engage your brain first. It is easy for anyone to talk on “autopilot,” but when looking for that ideal candidate, be patient with yourself and allow your thoughts and questions to come from within. Surprisingly, I have found that jokes are rarely useful, but pauses are always productive! Taking a genuine interest in someone can also give you insight to their true nature. In any case, take the time to take your time and allow the process to unfold at its own rate.

Knowing

The remainder of the hiring process takes many steps before the offer is extended, each varying by company policy and size. But after that “right” candidate leaves, you get a feeling inside of your gut that tells you “this is the one.” You may not fully realize it with other work pressures pulling on you, but your gut listens to things that your head does not. In picking the person for the offer, consult your gut and check to see if your vision matches your gut feeling.

Base your offer on the goals for your group and your beliefs about the harmony this candidate would bring. After all, productivity is a characteristic that is measured in many ways; teamwork being one of which that transcends individual characteristics and sometimes even academic achievements.

Summary

Many times, hiring situations provide opportunities to expand your group in more than one way. Finding the right candidate can be burdensome, but with a clear goal fixed in your memory and renewed each day, your up-stream paddling toil can easily become a down-stream paddling pleasure. Besides the usual immediate-need characteristic and qualification elements, others should be considered when looking at the bigger and long-term pictures. Changing your approach to the entire process can surprisingly pull in a bigger fish than you were originally anticipating. Asking interesting questions that reveal a candidate’s true nature and taking time to get involved works passed the interview jitters. Finally, consider more than the best candidate; find the right candidate and trust your gut.

The point I am making is this: If you continue to hire people the way you’ve always done it, you’ll likely get what you’ve always got. If you want something else, try a new approach.

About the Author

Philip Rastocny was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1948. He received degrees in Electrical and Biomedical Engineering Technology from Oklahoma State and a Master’s Certification in Project Management from Steven’s Institute of Technology. He has attended the Anthony Robbins Mastery University and also has several other motivational, organizational, and life training programs under his belt.

Philip has worked in the biomedical, communications, and energy conservation industries for notable companies like Bell Telephone Laboratories, Hospal Medical (Sandoz), Avaya Communication, and Lucent Technologies. He has been a technical writer, editor, trainer, IT manager, project manager, and consultant, and also as senior management in energy conservation companies.