When interviewing candidates more experienced than you, you might try prefacing your questions with remarks such as “I’m sure you must have done this many more times than me, but how would you do…” and so on. This approach confronts the experience issue head on, and gives you an opportunity to gauge the candidate’s attitude toward working with a less experienced writer.
- Have you worked with an outside printer vendor before?
- In the past, how have you prepared documentation projects for printing by an outside vendor?
- How do you make a PostScript file for use by an outside printer vendor?
- Name some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to meet as a technical writer. How did you meet those challenges?
- Have you set up documentation management systems with any previous employers?
- How have you managed your own documentation projects in the past?
- How have you prioritized your documentation projects in the past?
- How are you proactive when learning about new technologies you’ve had to document for publication?
- Have you ever been asked to perform tasks that were outside your primary responsibilities before? If so, what were you asked to do? How did your efforts make a positive difference to your employer?
- How do you add value to your documentation projects so that the final product exceeds your employer’s expectations?
- Professionally speaking, what do you consider your greatest strength(s)?
- Professionally speaking, what do you consider your greatest weakness(es)?
- Could you give me an example of a time when you were able to turn one of your weaknesses into a strength? (Or, could you give me an example of a time when you overcame a particular obstacle? From this, you could pose more questions such as: why did you consider it an obstacle?)
- How do you resolve differences of opinion or personality clashes with a coworker? (Be careful, though, about asking someone about dealing with a difficult manager. You may cause the candidate to wonder why the question was posed - and to think twice about taking the job!)
- Tell me about a time when your opinion clashed with a coworker. How was that situation resolved? (This is a good way to discover a little bit about the candidate’s character and how compromising he/she is.)
- What would you do if your boss gave you a technical writing job and the SME did not respond to your first two emails requesting information. What would you do if the SME continued to be difficult to contact or work with?
- Do you contribute to publications on your own time? (This type of question will help you determine the candidate’s writing skills.)
- How do you work/get along with editors? What do you think of the editing process?
Synergy/Ability to Get Along with Current Employees
When interviewing candidates, always consider whether he or she will fit in with your current employees. If possible, take candidates to the area where he or she will be working, and let each employee have 5 minutes or so to chat with the candidate. Employees can get together after the candidate has left and share their impressions. This employee involvement has less to do with the candidate’s qualifications than his or her ability to fit in with the group. You may also want to have some of your developers meet briefly with each candidate and give you feedback.
Some people view writing tests as unfair, feeling that few writers finish a new piece of writing start to finish (writing, editing, and revising) in a single day, so it is unfair to expect a candidate to do so. On the other hand, writing tests can give you a sample of a candidate’s raw material. If you do choose to give a writing test, make it simple. Have candidates write a short how-to from a list of suggested topics, for instance.
Give Tool-Specific Tests
For example: You are hiring someone to develop online help, and an applicant claims to be a RoboHelp expert. Give the applicant a short RoboHelp assignment, and see how he or she is doing after a set period of time.
Give Overall Writing Skills Tests
For example: Give an applicant 20 minutes to outline the steps of an everyday activity (making a pot of tea or filling a car with fuel) for a reader who is unfamiliar with that activity. In addition, have applicants mark up a badly-written document - it is a quick way to find out how experienced they are at turning engineering-speak into good copy.
A common misconception is that you don’t have to be as rigorous in your standards for interns as you are with full-timers. You do. People often hire interns based on good writing samples and recommendations, only to find that they lack basic skills. Tougher standards can be a good skills assessment for internship applicants, because they often realize where their skills need improvement.
Don’t expect interns to be able to edit at your level, but they should be able to recognize major problems (or at least flag those problems as questions that should go back to the writer). They should also be able to proofread with accuracy. Allow them to bring a dictionary to the test, and loan them a copy of the AP style guide.
Writing samples that have been looked over by editors or teachers are fine, but you don’t necessarily know how the material looked before it was “cleaned up.” Writing tests can help you discover how “raw” an intern’s material will be (and how much teaching and/or cleaning up you may have to do).
Give intern candidates a simple, non-company specific project to set up. This exercise will show you if the candidate has the requisite organizational skills - or at least the right thought processes - to be helpful. Let them work on the project prior to coming in for an interview, and allow them to call or email with questions.
Contributed by Kathy Whitehead