by Jack Molisani
I was speaking with a tech support manager recently who acknowledged that using good technical writers reduces their support costs, but then he asked me how you can tell if a writer is good? While I normally keep my opinions to myself (OK, those of you who know me can stop laughing now), here was my reply:
Is it possible to tell who is a “good” writer and who isn’t? You bet!
But before we jump into how to tell the good apples from the bad, we have to examine what a technical writer should be able to do.
So what skills does someone need to be a technical writer?
First and most importantly, the person must be able to communicate using the written word.
Next, the person must have “people skills.” Contrary to popular myth, technical writers do not just sit in a dark cubicle writing their fingers to the bone—they have to interview people to learn about the product they’re writing about. And pulling information out of engineers (and support professionals) is often not an easy task to accomplish!
A tech writer must be a “quick study.” The very nature of the job requires that tech writers understand what they are writing about, without the advantage of a Ph.D. in mathematics, astrophysics, software engineering, or whatever subject the tech writing is writing about.
A technical writer must also be a good investigator. It is not uncommon to have to dig up information not clearly listed in a design document.
Finally, a tech writer must be able to quickly learn new authoring tools. The media on which writers deliver documents has changed dramatically with the growth of the Internet, and a writer must be able to keep up with the latest in authoring tools and technology. (While this is really just another example of being a “quick study”, it’s sufficiently important to qualify as a separate skill.)
Evaluation of Importances
Now that we’ve discussed the core competencies, let me point out something that may have escaped your notice: whether a writer knows the latest online authoring tools was last on the list of core competencies. I bring this up now because it is the most common mistake hiring managers make: confusing knowing a tool with ability to communicate.
To illustrate my point, read a typical job posting: “Technical Writer. Must know FrameMaker and RoboHELP. Mail resume and salary history to resumes@BlackHoleNeverToBeHeardFromAgain.com ”
Most tech writers can master new software publishing tools relatively quickly. On the other hand, learning to effectively use the English language so that your audience will receive and understand your communication takes much longer to learn and master. So focus on a writer’s ability, and not the latest buzz words. That is, if you find a good writer who does not know a particular tool (let alone a specific version of that tool), then hire that writer and let him learn the tool at the first opportunity.
Note: I’m assuming that you are looking to hire writers as permanent members of your technical team. If you’re only looking for contract writers to help for a few months, then obviously you would want them to have the skills you need before you hire them.
Panning for Gold
So now that you know what a technical writer should be able to do, and which skills are more important than others, how do you determine if a writer is good? Let’s look at each of the core competencies:
Writes Well: Wouldn’t you know that the most important quality is also the hardest to qualify? There is no magic formula to see if a writer writes well, other than, of course, reading something he or she has written. Do you understand it? Is it clear? Logically thought out? Are there any misspelled words or grammar errors?
While the proof of whether a writer writes well is in the writing, I have a rule of thumb that I use when testing new writers: Do they do any creative writing outside of business writing? Art is about communication, and if someone has a desire or passion to communicate as an artist, then it’s likely that his technical writing has a quality that will ensure it communicates as well.
People Skills: This is an easy one to evaluate. How does the candidate interview? Does he confront you and look you in the eye, or does he constantly look about the room in fear? Is he friendly? (And I don’t mean social-veneer friendly, but truly personable.)
Quick Study: While it is generally accepted that a technical writer should have some higher education, there are two schools of thought on what is better: a degree in English, or a degree or certificate in a technical subject. Personally, I think the public education system has ruined more writers than it’s made, so given the choice of two writers who communicate well (which you’ve established by looking at samples of their writing, right?), I’d choose the writer with the technical background. After all, it’s pretty safe to assume that if a candidate has learned one technical subject, he can learn another.
Good Investigator: I am a firm believer that you can learn more about people from the questions they ask than the answers they give. Pay attention to the questions the candidate asks you.
Authoring Tools: If the candidate has passed the first four criteria, then I almost don’t care how many authoring tools he or she knows. Almost. I think writers should always be aware of the latest developments in the field of electronic publishing, even if they have not yet had a chance to use the tools in a production environment. If you are on a tight deadline or are bring on a temporary employee, then by all means look for the exact skills you need. But if you find someone who writes well, then spend a few extra dollars and send the person to a class if the person needs to get current on the latest publishing tools.
Look for an Expert
I advise clients who are hiring writers to look for an expert. Or more exactly worded, an expert to the level to which the candidate has been trained. Are you looking for a junior writer? Well look for an expert junior writer. I wouldn’t expect a junior writer to be adept in writing project plans, but I would expect him/her to be expert at writing conceptual and procedural text, numbered and bulleted lists, etc. Look for an expert. The best people are. (The same advice goes to candidates: Be an expert in your field to whatever level you have been trained!)
Listen to your Gut
My final bit of advice is to follow your intuition. If there is something about the candidate that just doesn’t… quite… seem… right…, it probably isn’t. There are many people on the market (especially now) who talk a good game but can’t really produce what they say they can. Ask them how they produced such-and-such. They’ll hesitate or give a very glib answer. They’ll Trust your instincts. You’ll know one of these candidate when you meet one.
That said, let me end on a positive note. Most writers on the market are very good people and very professional at what they do. Look for enthusiasm, passion and the ability to communicate.
That’s who you want on your team.
Tools can be learned.
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About the Writer
Jack Molisani has been a project officer in the Space Division of the USAF, the manager of training and documentation of a multi-million dollar software firm, and currently is the founder and president of ProSpring., a staffing agency specializing in contract technical writers: http://www.ProspringStaffing.com.
Jack also produces The LavaCon Conference on Professional Development: http://www.lavacon.org
He can be reached by phone at 866-302-5774 x201, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can follow Jack on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/JackMolisani