Re: Predictors of TW success

Subject: Re: Predictors of TW success
From: Jean Weber <jean_weber -at- COMPUSERVE -dot- COM>
Date: Sun, 26 Oct 1997 02:41:27 -0500

I've been reading everyone's comments with considerable interest. I think
most practitioners would agree that knowledge and experience may be
valuable (perhaps even necessary, except perhaps at entry level -- but
that's a different discussion) predictors of techwriting success, but
they're not necessarily sufficient. Most of the discussion seems to be on
the more nebulous area of "what are the other predictors?'

Seems to me one question to ask up front is: successful performance at
what? Tech writing isn't all the same. Once you get beyond some basic
writing skills, the skills and attributes -- and training and background --
that might be needed for one job could be wrong for another, or skills that
are essential in one situation might be of lesser importance in another..

For example, is the person going into a sole-writer situation, or a
documentation group where writers may work alone on projects but have
backup from other writers, or a team where writers' (and probably editors'
and others') strengths and weaknesses can complement each other? Or some
other variation?

Another example: does the work involve a high degree of creativity in
layout and presentation, or does it require strict adherence to a set
company style?

Another: will there be a considerable variety of work, requiring the
ability to shift writing styles or juggle six jobs at once, or is it going
to be the same thing day after day after day?

(Then take these three examples and stir, precipitating out a number of
permutations and combinations.)

Like Teresa Wittel, I'd take several factors into account, though I've had
no experience with testing, either giving them or taking them, for hiring
purposes. Maury King sums things up beautifully (if long-windedly <g>), and
I quite agree about a trial period or contract as a screening device.

Here's some of my criteria:

If I want a highly flexible person who picks up new stuff at the drop of a
keyboard, is delighted to stick to the company style so she can get on with
the research and writing, can meet deadlines yet maintain a high standard
of writing, I won't be looking for someone with "extensive experience" in
anything in particular -- I'll be looking for someone who's worked on a
variety of jobs, possibly with different companies, who is a problem-solver
(the sort of person I can point at a project and say "figure out what the
problem is and then figure out how to solve it" and have some confidence
she'd do so. Then I'll ask a lot of questions designed to see if she really
knows what she's talking about and how she would approach some typical work
situations. I won't necessarily expect her to know all the tools we use,
but I will want evidence that (a) she's at least heard of them and (b) she
will feel comfortable in picking them up quickly (I'd want the sort of
person who gets excited at the opportunity, not one who sees the
requirement as a hurdle she can overcome if she has to). I'd get her to
talk about her role in producing any samples provided. And I would
absolutely get in touch with some of her references and see what they think
about her work.

On the other extreme, if I want someone to handle routine maintenance of
manuals -- tracking s/w or h/w changes and making sure they get in, and
doing all the administrative paperwork that often accompanies maintenance
-- I'd look for a meticulous person who enjoys tedious detail and doesn't
get bored easily; possibly someone who's been in the same job for many
years, doing a good job but not itching to change. I'd be happy with
someone who needs more direction, who perhaps needs his work schedule
spelled out for him, who is happy to be told what to do and how to do it.
Again, I'd certainly check with his references.

And if I'm putting someone into a team, I may not care if that person is
weak in one area that I might otherwise consider important, if the other
team members have the missing skills. For example, I worked with two other
writers on a project some years ago. One writer was great at research,
digging out the facts and putting them into a pre-existing outline. The
second writer was great at taking this material and writing it up in a very
readable manner appropriate to the target audience, and writing the
conceptual material (why and when you might want to do "x" and what the
consequences are of certain decisions). I came along at the end and whipped
the whole thing into the company style, did the indexing, edited the whole
series, and got it all ready for printing. I believe the three of us were
able to get through a large project (about 9 books, if I recall correctly)
using an assembly-line approach in less time than if each of us had, for
example, full control over 3 books. And the result was more consistent in
look and feel, an important consideration in a modular product.

Jean Hollis Weber
Sydney, Australia
mailto:jean_weber -at- compuserve -dot- com

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