Tech Writing Tests

Subject: Tech Writing Tests
From: Barry West <Barry_West -dot- S2K -at- S2KEXT -dot- S2K -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 8 May 1995 10:46:03 EDT

>We use a writing test for all potential contractors (as well as traditional
>interview methods). Becuase we're a consultancy, and come up against a wide
>variety of documentation tasks, the test has to be as generic as possible.

I think that testing is a good idea. Since there is no real way of measuring
competence of Technical Writers other than seeing them in action, a test seems
to be a reasonable tool for getting some idea of the writers ability. For
example, I work for a software company now. When I was hired, I was given a
software spec and asked to read and interpret it, which I did. Doing that
demonstrates, at least at a minimum level, that the writer knows what a
software spec is, can read one, and can understand the objective. It also
allows the hiring manager to take a look at an impromptu sample of the writer's
writing ability, since part of the test is to provide a two or three-paragraph
interpretation of the spec.

Let's be honest. Hiring a Tech Writer can be tricky. I know because I have
hired my share of writers who didn't have a clue about writing. You interview
them; they sound good verbally; they have sound references that you check out
thoroughly; you hire them; and you find that they can't tell which end is up.
And, yes, it is true that no matter what profession we're talking about, we
cannot always judge the competence of the potential employee in an interview.
But in the case of an Engineer, for example, where he or she must earned a
degree, there is some evidence of competence, even if that level of competence
is comparatively low because they barely squeaked through their respective
programs with a lot of tutoring. Still a degree is evidence that a measurable
level of achievement has been met.

The problem with Technical Writing is that you don't need a degree to call
yourself a Tech Writer. Anyone barely passing Tech Writing 101 can call him or
herself a Tech Writer - and very often they do. That makes it tough for Tech
Writers who have demonstrated ability (or demonstrated potential in the case of
junior writers), because it can make all Tech Writers suspect. If someone has
a couple of samples heavily edited by someone else, good interviewing skills,
and references that aren't completely truthful, they could get themselves a
job.

A test is also a good idea because it can uncover someone who is technically
knowledgeable but who can't put two sentences together. A simple test can tell
a lot about a potential employee's ability to analyze and write. And it does
more than that. By requiring the writer to demonstrate his or her skills, the
writer, at least to some minimal extent, is demonstrating a level of competence
(or incompetence as the case may be) with respect to the unique skills
required of a Tech Writer. That tends to further legitimize a profession that
so many now hold suspect.

Barry_West.S2K @ s2kext.s2k.com @ INTERNET


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