What should a Program Manager look for in a technical writer? There are many writers that write well, but do not qualify as technical writers. Technical writers have the ability to research many subjects related to technologies and business, finding answers to complex problems, even if the problems are outside of their normal knowledge base. Creative technical writers often come up with surprising and unexpected solutions.
Technical writers may often be quirky people, but they excel when given the latitude to freely explore a topic and independently produce results. Limiting the number of in-house meetings that they are required to attend will allow them more constructive time for writing. If you just fill them in on any changes or updates to their writing requirements, your resulting product will end up being amazing.
When interviewing technical writers, look for these 7 qualities:
- Do they enjoy learning?
You may notice I did not say that they necessarily learn quickly. You’re looking for someone who makes a habit of learning new things in both their personal and in their professional lives, not a person who learns fast because they have to. A fast learner is not always an efficient learner. Ask them what they are enjoying learning lately. What things do they enjoy reading about? Writers should always be avid readers. Reading encourages ideation, and creativity, as well as giving writers useful information for future use.
- What do they like about writing?
Technical writers who like the challenge involved in solving problems make the best writers. They should be technology detectives who like researching things. Ask if they mind editing another writer’s work. Often a writer who edits goes beyond proofreading, and can add content and clarify another writer’s work, improving on the quality of the product. This also shows that they can work as a team player. If they appreciate editing, they will not resent being edited by another. They will seek the chance to help others, and get help in return.
- Have they worked in many different types of writing?
You want someone who is not afraid to write in different styles, and is willing to produce different types of products. A user manual writer does not necessarily have to possess experience writing manuals. For instance, a technical reports writer will use the same abilities to write a user guide (manual). Great technical writers can go beyond past or present job descriptions. They are able to use any assigned format using a template, discover new ways of presenting content and find new tools to produce excellent results.
- What’s the first question they ask when documenting a new feature?
Hopefully the answer would not be “Why would I ever document a feature?”, because technical writing involves documenting anything and everything about a project or software. A good answer would be “How would people use the feature? Why would they use it? What are they trying to do when they use it?” Great documentation starts with understanding the user. This is “task-oriented” writing or presenting the feature from a user’s perspective. Conversely they may have to also document features as seen from the programmer’s perspective. Which leads to the next quality to look for.
- Do they understand the technology of the field about which they are writing?
While a technical writer may be able to create a user guide based on how the product is used, they may not be able to write an internal guide for programmers based on the original remarks within the code. If the current programmer’s remarks are insufficient, the writer will have to read the code and translate it or ask the programmer to translate it. Most programmers don’t have a lot of time to explain things, thus the writer should be able to read programming languages. This type of documentation is “function-oriented”. It is for use by other programmers in maintaining, troubleshooting, and enhancing the program. The technical writer is telling future programmers what the program is doing and how. It needs to be clearly written, in a logical order, and without leaving out anything relevant to the purpose for which it’s written.
- Likewise, a technical writer for complex medical research may need to have some background in medical subjects, or at least own a very thorough medical terminology book, and a strong desire to learn more. Otherwise, if the writer has to learn about a subject or technology that is new to them, they must be given sufficient time learn everything about it, inside and out.
- Have they written this sort of documentation before?
This is not necessarily indicative of ability, even though some technical writers may specialize in types of documents or industries. Technical writers should be able to write reports, online content, proposals, help/knowledge base, training manuals, and any other type of document for finance, data management, telecommunications or intelligence.
- Do they have writing samples?
Asking for samples may not be useful if the writer has been producing classified materials; that writing is not available to the general public. The best candidates can adapt to any writing requirements. So ignore the fact that they do not have writing samples if they seem to possess the other traits required. Besides, do you ever ask an accountant, a project manager, or a programmer for samples?
Now that you know what to look for in a technical writer, you just need to find the right candidates. Although you have a budget to hire a technical writer, you also have your own heavy workload. As a manager you need to spend most of your time managing. You don’t have time to wade through a virtual stack of resume’s. It makes more sense to let a professional documentation service provide you with fully vetted technical writers.
Meta-Systems Documentation, Inc. (MSD, Inc.) is one of the best providers of documentation services. It is a highly-specialized technical documentation consulting company that provides technical writing and engineering documentation services to developers and integrators of engineered systems. Founded in 1990 by Dave Jordan under the name of Mil-Spec Documentation, MSD’s first clients were Baltimore-area prime contractors to the US Navy and DoD. MSD’s Technical Writers support IT and IC (Intelligence community) prime- and sub-contractors located in the Maryland, Northern Virginia and Washington DC technology corridors, as well as nationwide (remotely). Dave Jordan has an extensive background in engineering documentation, technology consulting, and management. For additional information, go online to https://msd-corp.com
The content of this blog does not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or experiences of Meta-Systems Documentation, Inc. or it’s management.
About the Author
Jean Fischer is an MSD communication consultant specializing in technical writing for emerging technologies, information technology, marketing, and intelligence. Connect with Jean today!