Re: Pencil Test for Technical Writers

Subject: Re: Pencil Test for Technical Writers
From: Randy Grandle <randy -dot- grandle -at- CORP -dot- SUN -dot- COM>
Date: Sat, 10 Aug 1996 21:04:33 GMT

Michael Wing <mjwing -at- ingr -dot- com> wrote:

>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.

This "pencil test" could take considerable time as you have described it. Many
good writers (who are in demand elsewhere) would probably tell you to "take a
hike." Their time is valuable.

Moreover, the assumption that the only good candidates are those who are quick
on their feet and can innovative is questionable. The race is not always to
the swift. Some of us like to spend time researching, thinking things though,
and actually planning our work (and we also meet deadlines).

Productive and effective writing is not done "by-the-seat-of the-pants" and
"on-the-fly." Productive and effective writing involves a quality process. You
cannot bypass the information gathering and planning stage of a good
writing process and expect good writers to deliver a quality product.

Many organizations give writing and editing tests, but limit the test time to
an hour or so. This is sometimes called "skills assessment." It can help you
determine if writers have some basic skills, but given the limited time, it
cannot tell how good a writer really is.

As a senior writer, I have taken several "skills assessment" tests because
they were required for consideration for writing positions. I have written
procedures on how to do laundry and on how to change oil in an automobile. I
have also edited jumbled paragraphs of "engineer-speak" to make the text
somewhat intelligible. I have answered questions about the inner workings of
FrameMaker and Word. However, none of these tests measured how good I am.

You find out how good someone really is after you hire them (based on their
actual performance). That's the way it goes for everyone, not just writers.
There is no magic wand you can wave that can circumvent this process.

Randy Grandle

Project Lead Writer
Sun Professional Services
randy -dot- grandle -at- sun -dot- com

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