Guidelines for Interviewing Technical Writers

What guidelines can you offer when interviewing writers? I’ve worked on both sides on the fence in the past, (i.e. interviewed and been interviewed) and picked up a few things in the process. Hopefully, these will be of some help.

Guidelines for Interviewing Technical Writers

How much time should be allotted to complete the test?

I’d suggest one hour. Some people will race through it, while others will deliberate over the grammar questions forever. Nonetheless, one hour should be sufficient time for them to complete the test. By allocating this amount of time to the test, you are also emphasizing its relative importance. If it were a simple 10-minute quiz, it wouldn’t carry the same weight.

Here’s a suggested approach for administering the test:

When advertising the vacancy, mention that an evaluation test is part of the assessment process. By saying this upfront, you will ‘weed out’ under-qualified writers who know that they would not pass the test.

When scheduling interviews, remind the applicants that there will be a 1 hour test. Explain to them what this entails, for example, that there is X number of questions on grammar, procurement, technology etc. Among other things, this illustrates your company’s professionalism as you are helping the applicants to prepare for the interview. In turn, it would be unprofessional to spring the test on applicants when they turn up and catch them by surprise. Completing the test take about 90 minutes and some of your applicants may have other arrangements to consider, such as day-care, commuting etc.

When they arrive, I’d interview them first and then do the test. If they are unsuitable for the position, you can cancel the test and say that it’s not necessary at this point. For those who are suitable, I’d do the following:

  • Give them a pen and paper (always helps).
  • Glass of water/coffee.
  • Find a quiet room with a PC or laptop.
  • Give them a printout of the test (most writers like a hardcopy).
  • Walk through the test so that they understand what’s required. They can ask any questions at this point.
  • Once they are ready, leave the room and let them do the test in Word.
  • After 20 minutes, drop in to see how they are doing. This is not to police them, but to see if they genuinely need any assistance.
  • After 60 minutes return and print out their test.
  • At this point, I’d suggest that they have a break so that you can score the test.

Once you’ve completed this, sit down and go over the scores. As everyone likes to know how they performed in a test, I’d walk through the results and discuss these with the applicant.

For example, if they scored poorly in one section, ask them how this area could be improved. And finally, I’d thank them for taking the time to do the tests and hope that they’ve gained from it.

How many points for a passing score?

You could use 40 for a pass and disqualify anyone who comes in below this. Most experienced writers should get between 60-80 depending on their skills.

What I’d look for here is an imbalance in the scores. For example, if someone failed most of the grammar questions, but did very quite well in other sections, discuss this with the writer.

You may discover that many writers have no formal writing training and will suffer in the sticky grammar questions but compensate in other areas.

I’d use the scores/results to manage the overall interview process, i.e. you have material in front of you that you can discuss with the applicant and explore their abilities as a proposal writer.

You could also ask for their thoughts on this evaluation process and if they had suggestions to improve it. This might give you some insight into writers with potential management or creative thinking skills.