Interviewing writers = writing tests?

Subject: Interviewing writers = writing tests?
From: Geoff hart <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 31 Jan 2000 16:33:54 -0500

Speaking as an employer, I'd certainly want to have some firsthand evidence
that my prospective new employee could actually write; a portfolio isn't
very good proof because it's hard to tell what the person actually wrote
(vs. what their colleagues wrote vs. what the editor spent weeks fixing). A
take-home test is similarly awful, particulary if the candidate has an
editor for a friend. Asking someone to explain (orally, rather than in
writing) how they'd attack a problem is a halfway measure, but at least it
provides some immediate feedback. Providing a short piece (say about 1 page)
to edit or otherwise review is similarly deficient, but provides clues and
is much faster than having to review someone's actual writing. The writing
test is still the best way to figure out whether the person can write well
enough (or in your style well enough) to be worth trying out. Referrals from
people whose opinions you respect is another, and that's going to take some
networking. Just as the best jobs often go unadvertised other than through
networks of colleagues, the best employees often get picked up this way.

Speaking as a potential employee, I hate writing tests with a passion. I'm
going to be spending (wasting!) up to an hour of my time in the vain hope
that our styles will be compatible--and all this in the absence of any prior
indication of what you consider to be good writing and in the absence of any
chance to justify to you why I did what I did. Then there's the issue of
lack of access to SMEs, lack of time to let my draft sit before I revise it,
and so on. And did I mention the writing tests I've taken where they didn't
give me a computer and they had to read my (let's be charitable) chicken
scratches? Don't get me started... Bottom line: I don't consider that kind
of testing to be a fair situation. Resolving these and other issues might
make me less annoyed by the test, but I'm still not going to be grateful for
the "opportunity" to spend the time with no clear indication that this is a
good investment in my future.

One thing that balances the scales somewhat would be to use the writing test
as a final hurdle, to be jumped only after the candidate has passed all
other hurdles (i.e., don't make someone take the test until you think you're
ready to hire them, or need to decide between them and at most 2-3 others).
You don't really want to review 50 writing tests anyway, do you? If you've
come that far with the interview process, pay the candidate for their time.
I know that every manager in the audience just growled at me, but if you're
serious enough about someone to want to subject them to the test, you should
be willing to spend $50 for an hour of their time; even if that's lower than
the going rate in your area, it's at least a token acknowledgment that you
value the person's time. If you feel the need to justify that expense, give
them an hour's worth of revision of your current documentation and ask them
for written comments. Or sit them in front of a screenshot (or the actual
product) and provide samples of your current docs; then ask them to document
that screen for you, so at least you're one screen closer to completing your
current workload. But do recognize that tests are an imposition,
particularly if the person isn't in the top three candidates. Science
fiction? Nope. I got my current job by doing an edit for my current boss on
the condition that they'd pay me for the edit, no matter how well I did, and
would almost certainly hire me if they liked the results. Win-win situation,
and the results speak for themselves.

--Geoff Hart, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"The paperless office will arrive when the paperless toilet
arrives."--Matthew Stevens

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