Pencil Test for Technical Writers

Subject: Pencil Test for Technical Writers
From: "Wing, Michael J" <mjwing -at- INGR -dot- COM>
Date: Sat, 10 Aug 1996 14:26:15 -0500

With all the discussion on certification, qualifications, correct
language usage, and technical aptitude, and so forth, I am wondering if
maybe a simple pencil test would help in choosing a candidate for a
Technical Writing position. Because contact time with development and
other resources is restricted and because the information for the
product/service for which they are writing is incomplete and transitory,
the position requires a writer who is an innovative thinker. By
innovative, I mean that they must fill in the information gaps by
extrapolating from the information at hand, see past the black-and-white
and describe variations in the product/service, visualize the
product/service in terms of its application(s) and not just its
step-by-step functioning, and so forth.

The test consists of the candidate writing as complete of a manual as
possible about a pencil (or any other common, simple item). The purpose
of the test is not to write a succinct operator's manual. It is to test
the writer's cognitive, writing, and information organization and
dissemination abilities.

Let's suppose that four candidates with equal experience apply for a
Technical Writing position. The following are the results of each
candidate's pencil test.

Candidate A

Cannot think of much to say except that a pencil contains wood (or
plastic), graphite, and an eraser. It's primary purpose is for writing.
Not only is there not much information in this candidate's test, it is
also poorly written.

Candidate B

Provides as little information as Candidate A only the information is
very well written.

Candidate C

This candidate provides a full manual. It includes techniques for using
the pencil, techniques and hints for sharpening the pencil, a theory of
operation on how the graphite is transferred to the surface (and effects
of different paper qualities on using the pencil), a comparison of
pencils of different hardness and their typical uses, how to replace the
eraser, how to operate a mechanical pencil, and so forth. However, like
Candidate A, this manual is poorly written.

Candidate D

Produces a well written manual that is as complete as Candidate C's.

In this scenario, I would offer the position to candidate D. Candidate
A is out of contention. However, to change the scenario, if no
candidate of D's abilities resulted from the test, then it's a contest
between B and C. In this situation, I would choose C. The reason being
that this candidate seeing past the pencil as more than just plastic,
graphite, and an eraser shows a good deal of innovative thinking. This
thinking cannot be corrected by an Editor nor looked up in a reference
book. To me, it is easier to work with C's writing deficiencies than
it is to work on B's lack of innovative thinking.

Mike Wing
_/ Michael Wing
_/ Principal Technical Writer
_/ Infrastructure Technical Information Development
_/ Intergraph Corporation
_/ Huntsville, Alabama
_/ (205) 730-7250
_/ mjwing -at- ingr -dot- com

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