From: "Nina L. Panzica" <panin -at- MINDSPRING -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 24 Mar 1998 11:41:52 -0500

At 06:23 PM 3/23/98 -0800, Dick Gaskill wrote:

> Sorry John, HR people do not ask for writing samples. Hiring
>managers do. HR people look for a lot of other things.

I don't know a lot about HR, because I'm in the contracting world, but my
rough HR equivelents--the recruiters and agency salespeople--will often
show an interest in my writing samples, particularly if they (the
recruiters, not the samples ;) are intelligent and conscientious. Such
people realize that they look bad and risk their business relationships if
they send an incompetent or unqualified person to interview with their
clients. I imagine that in some companies, somewhere, there are permanent
HR employees who look at writing samples, but given today's downsizing
policies, it's hard to imagine many HR departments who can afford that time
anymore. From a writer's perspective, however, if I ever were to interview
with an HR person, I'd try to make showing my samples a part of the
interview, as I would think that, whether or not the HR person was
competent to judge them, doing so would demonstrate that I have some of
those qualities that HR people screen for.

If you want to get jobs through contracting agencies, you've got to be
prepared to show samples to them. As with everything in life, the people
you show your writing to will vary in their abilities to understand it or
judge it. I've occasionally noticed that the very strict and formal editing
standard I apply to final work occasionally gets me in trouble with
illiterate recruiters (and sometimes even doc managers) who see a phrase
such as "the data are correct" and think I'm a bad writer because they are
personally unaware of the correct usage.

Of course the rock-bottom practical reality of technical writing often
involves being forced into using a non-expert corporate executive's idea of
what is good English rather than the correct usage, but I think its
important that in an interview with a peer (such as a doc manager) you
demonstrate first that you know what the original rules are before you
agree to break them. I imagine this subject has been discussed to death
before, so I'm not going to dwell on it, but for some odd reason the areas
in which I've noticed non-writers with clout are most like to stubbornly
enforce their incorrect views of English on a technical writing staff
involve the capitalization of non-proper nouns--usually because they sound
"important," a refusal to allow you to use hypens where they are mandatory,
and the insistence upon non-grammatical, non-standard ways of punctuating
bullet lists.

> Your writing samples are indicative of your ability to write and
>that's what you're being hired to do. As a pubs manager, I'd never
>hire someone who could not provide writing samples of some kind.
>expect every tech writer to be prudent enough to save at least some
>examples of his or her work.

Agreed. Often all an interview tells you is how good the person is at
interviewing, how smooth they are, how socially well-adjusted, or how great
is their gift for gab. (Not skills that are particularly useful when you're
straining to meet a deadline and need everybody working at full speed
rather than chatting extensively with their neighbors. ;) Because verbal or
spoken skills are so different from written skills, it's essential to look
at writing samples to get a feel for what this person is actually capable
of doing. I know many writers (including myself at one time) who do not
look good on interviews because we are introverted, overly modest, or not
very skilled at speaking. Such a person might be a brilliant and fast
writer with lots of relevant experience but judged incompetent by an
interviewer who did not bother to look at samples. Actually, to correctly
evaluate someone's skills I think you need to both look at writing samples
and listen carefully to what a person says about them. In the case of
somebody who is introverted, this may mean asking lots of specific
questions, and not confusing the shyness with stupidity.

>With the exception of classified material
>and unpublshed documents describing unreleased products, it's not
>necessary to have permission from a client to show a prospective
>employer two or three pages of a document.

Careful, here. What will matter in a court of law are the specific terms
set out in the non-disclosure agreement you signed and whether your actions
have clearly violated those terms or not. I wouldn't think that the small
quantity of material shown to others would matter. These aren't copyright
fair use principles we're talking about. If the non-disclosure agreement
specifies that no single portion of your work for a company may be
disclosed to others at any time then you possibly make yourself legally
liable by showing a single sentence from that body of work, let alone a
page or two, because you are violating the terms of the agreement.

As a writer, it's your
>responsibility to know when the products you write about will be
>released, so you would know when it is ok to use the samples without
>jeopardizing your non-disclosure agreement.

Most non-disclosure agreements I've signed don't say anything at all about
the non-disclosure expiring after a certain date or a certain event (such
as a software release) takes place. Perhaps I am over cautious, but I don't
violate the explicit terms of a non-disclosure agreement, ever, without
direct written permission preferably from my former employer's legal
department, because, as with any contract I sign, I am legally bound by the
nondisclosure terms. If I can't live with those terms, I either won't sign
the nondisclosure agreement or I'll pen in modifications that I need to
have in place before I sign, and wait to see if the employer will accept
these, or a variation of these.

Because I contract and have worked for many companies, I've never been in a
position where all writing samples I've produced were unusuable because of
strict non-disclosure agreements (about 50% of the companies I've worked
for never made me sign anything). If I were in this position, however, I
think I would either (1) create my own writing samples that have nothing to
do with the subject of my employer's work on my own and from scratch but
using the knowledge and skills I had learned in my previous job(s) or (2)
modify existing writing samples for that employer so that they no longer
"disclosed" anything of import. But again, I would let my former employer,
and not myself, decide if they were clean, and get explicit written
permission before showing them to other companies on interviews.

What do you think? Am I being overly cautious?

Nina P.

Nina Panzica
Masterpiece Media
(404) 237-7889
Can't reach me at the above number? Try my pager: 404-596-7889
mailto:panin -at- mindspring -dot- com

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