Separating Great from Good: How To Hire the Right Technical Writer for the Job
by Jacquie Samuels
When hiring for any job opening, it’s hard to know quite what to look for to get the perfect candidate. In technical writing, there are a lot of good writers. Good writers create nice, solid content. The end results are comprehensive and complete. Users can (eventually) find what they are looking for.
Great technical writers, however, take everything one step further. They create documentation that lets users find answers right away, maybe even to questions they hadn’t considered. They find solutions that create a groundbreaking user experience of documentation. They can often be quirky people but they excel when given the latitude to do so; and your product will be improved as a result.
When interviewing technical writers, look for these 10 qualities:
- Do they learn quickly?
You’re looking for someone who makes a habit of learning new things, whether in their personal or their professional lives. Ask them what they have enjoyed learning lately.
- What have they taught lately?
The act of communicating product knowledge to an audience is very similar to teaching. A writer who enjoys teaching (even informally) is one who will be happy doing the job. Happy writers are productive writers.
- How do they challenge themselves?
Technical writers who shy away from challenges might still be good technical writers, but they probably won’t be great ones. It’s the ones who push themselves in new directions that will help take your content to the next level.
- Have they ever worked outside their job description?
You want someone who will not limit themselves. Great technical writers go beyond what their job descriptions detail. These are groundbreaking people who discover whole new ways of communicating content and find new tools to get excellent results.
- Do they have integrity?
There’s little else as important as integrity. While it’s not enough on its own to make a great technical writer, it’s certainly an aspect you want your new hire to possess. A person with integrity can be counted on, no matter what happens. They make not just great employees, but great co-workers, great friends, and great people. Get them to demonstrate their integrity by asking them about an error they made and how they owned up to it.
- What’s the first question they ask when documenting a new feature?
There are a couple of good answers to this question. The first would be “Why would I ever document a feature?” but you’ll only get the really confident candidates answering the question that way. Another good answer would be “How would people use it? Why would they use it? What are they trying to do when they use it?” Great documentation starts with understanding the user. Developers design and explain the product features, but technical writers need to document the product from the users’ perspective and this probably won’t involve documenting features but the users’ goals instead.
- Do they understand topic-based writing?
Topic-based writing is an important way to chunk and focus information into tasks, concepts, and references. Although writing this way is easier for writers, it’s also vital for making content easy to read.
- How do they define minimalism?
Minimalism is a way of writing so that content is clear, concise, and totally streamlined. It is an extra step needed after you write your initial draft; it requires another pass (or two) to get the content down to the essential pieces. Like cutting away the clay from a sculpture, you pare away the extra words and noise until you are left with the perfect, minimal content.
- Have they written this sort of documentation before?
Although it’s not indicative of ability, a technical writer who has written the same type of documentation can likely do so again. Technical writers tend to specialize in types of documentation such as APIs, online help, proposals, health care, high-tech, training, CLI, finance, or telecommunications. Sometimes it’s the type of documentation to create, sometimes it’s the industry vertical, and sometimes it will be a combination of the two. Ask for samples. However, the best candidates can adapt to any writing requirements, so ignore this factor if most other key considerations are favorable.
- Do they have knowledge of the industry?
This is possibly the least important factor to consider. Technical writers have to understand what they are writing about to do a good job. That means either that they need previous knowledge of the industry (in any role) or that they are giving enough time to learn the product backwards and forwards before they start documenting it.
In the end, selecting the right technical writer for a job is not a difficult task. There are many qualified writers just waiting for the chance to prove what they can do. Finding the right one is just a matter of asking the right questions and knowing what you’re looking for.
About the Author
Jacquie Samuels is a technical communication consultant providing companies with DITA, CMS, and information architecture solutions and training. She endeavors to help everyone create documentation that is stronger, faster, and smarter. You can connect with Jacquie through Writing Assistance, Inc. at www.writingassist.com or by email through firstname.lastname@example.org