Re: Interviewing writers

Subject: Re: Interviewing writers
From: Eric Ray <ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com>
To: David Castro <thetechwriter -at- yahoo -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 01 Feb 2000 06:51:57 -0700

David Castro wrote:
> But, the topics I had to choose from were completely different from what I'd be
> writing at this company. This company would not be asking me to write
> directions for how to copy a file using Windows Explorer. I wouldn't be asked
> to write how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
> What I would recommend to anyone on the list who wants to create a writing test
> for applicants is that you create writing topics that are *relevant* to what
> the writer will be doing at your place. If they will be writing application
> help, give them a screen capture from some part of your application, and ask
> them what they'd be able to write from just seeing the interface. Or, if they
> will be writing to programmers, give them an API method and ask them to
> document it. Don't ask them to write how to copy files using Windows Explorer.

Additionally, make it clear, both to the testee and test evaluator, what
you're looking for from a writing test. A writing test can look for
oh-so-many issues. For example, I could imagine (if I believed in writing
tests, which I generally don't) administering a test to see:
* how does this writer approach a problem?
* how effectively does this writer realize and address insufficient info?
* what questions does this writer ask/not ask?
* how does this writer structure information at the macro (document and
paragraph) level?
* how does this writer structure information at the micro (sentence)
* how is this writer on mechanical issues (or at using system tools
like spell-checkers to address deficiencies with mechanical
* does this writer reinvent the wheel, or reuse information? (That is,
does the writer reference other documents on "use of knife
to spread stuff", "opening bread with twist-tie",
or "assembling sandwich without dumping contents on shoe",
or does the writer do it all from scratch?
* does this writer explicitly make and follow good assumptions about
* does this writer make assumptions clear, either in the test or in
a README for the test?

However, a cynic could also see how a writing test could completely
(and unfairly) trash a candidate, if it's administered ineffectively.
For example, if the interviewer is testing for mechanical issues
and sentence-level structure (probably inappropriate for anything
but a very junior writer position, and pretty inane at that), but
the writer is taking the test with the assumption that it's testing
for "how does this writer approach the problem" and "does this
writer understand how to work smart", it'll be an unhappy end,
as there's no possibility to do everything in a writing-test
timeframe. At any rate, as an interviewer, I'm more concerned
with how people approach a problem than with on-the-spot
execution of a trivial exercise.

That said, I've just completed a stint of interviewing writers for
some senior-level contract positions (not TECHWR-L related), and
after a phone interview and up to three additional interviews
with other members of this writing team, there was NO need for
a writing test. (I'll grant that the stakes aren't as high with
contract employees, as they can easily be released if they can't cut
it.) It was quite clear who had really done the work, who was
evasive, who was unfortunately vague, or whatever. I'm sure I've
been buffaloed before, but it's pretty tricky to pull the wool
over the eyes of three or four different people, each picking at
different aspects of your presentation/portfolio/resume.

POGIPAT (Practitioners of Good Interviewing Practices Against Testing)

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