Re: Interviewing technical writers

Subject: Re: Interviewing technical writers
From: Chris Despopoulos <despopoulos_chriss -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: "techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 12 Apr 2012 01:51:19 -0700 (PDT)

Funny...  Nobody responded to the Content Strategy part of the question.  Samples can show an ability to write, but who decided on the content strategy in each case?  If you're serious about content strategy, then this looks like a senior position.  The writing samples should be a clear pass/fail in that case.  If the sample doesn't show senior-level work, then move on.  But even then, junior-level writers can legitimately send you exquisite, senior-level samples because they produced the content under guidance, but produce it they did.

I guess this is a question of ordering -- Resume/Samples, phone screening, interview vs resume, phone screening, interview/samples.  In my opinion, the latter would work better.  You should be able to see in a resume whether the person is looking for a senior position.  You should be able to screen out exaggerations on the phone.  Ask for samples ahead of a scheduled interview -- they can give you something to talk about.

Assets to look for in a resume...  You should look for senior, "content strategy" experience.  That means leadership, contribution to design, decision making...  I also like to think an entrepreneurial background is a help.  Has the person had to specify a project?  Sell it?  And maybe mentoring experience would be good.  Also, look for a trajectory...  How has the person advanced to a senior level?  What, aside from writing, has the person done/learned along the way?  Or...  Is this person ready to make the leap into senior responsibilities?

Red flags in resume...  Aside from obvious lies and typos how often do these appear?  Can the person draw boundaries around a subject and stay in them?  Inappropriate focus...  For example, in the list of accomplishments, if the person goes on and on about putting a mail merge together, then says he wants a senior writing position, you might consider that inappropriate. (Then again, if it was 15 years ago, maybe the person is just not cleaning out his resume properly...  not necessarily a bad thing if the person has been busy all this time.)  But I suggest you stick to the positive.  Find a resume that sparks you, then use the phone screening to verify that spark.  THEN ask for samples, and consider an interview.  That's how I'd do it.

At interview time, one question you should ask might be a puzzle of some sort.  Not to see whether the person gets the right answer, but just to see the thought process.  Or the classic unrelated, open question...  A friend of mine always asked prospects how a toilet works.  If the person simply didn't know, my friend assumed a lack of technical curiosity -- there's some merit in that.  Maybe have a backup or two to account for culture and gender variations...  Why are running shoes made in other countries?  How do locks work?  Why 8 notes in an octave (aside from the name "octave")?  Why no great apes in the Americas?  Is there a concept in your second language that doesn't translate into English?  The "Other Interests" section of a resume should give you clues for an appropriate question.

If you're looking for content strategy, you need to know about strategic thinking.  Yes, doc experience is also important...  it is *content* strategy after all.  But a good hiring process should be able to separate the content part and the strategy part, the better to analyze the candidate.  Writing samples tell you about content and experience, but not necessarily about the candidate's strategic thinking.

========= YOU SAID =========
I'm evaluating resumes for a technical writing & content strategy
position at our company. I'm pretty clear on what I would ask
candidates in an interview, but I'm not sure how to decide based on
their resume who I should follow up with.

Is it appropriate to ask for writing samples before an interview? Are
there particular assets or red flags I should be looking for in a
resume? Any background research I should conduct?

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