Technical writing/Job interview
Technical Writing is a flexible career that lets you learn for a lifetime. The demand for technical writers is strong worldwide. The conditions and pay are professional.
Landing a technical writing position is difficult for novices. It's also a challenge for those who are leaving their first technical writing job because they've outgrown it. So the advice here is targeted at them. Please feel free to create another page with advice for experienced technical writers.TWFred 07:29, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
Searching and Selecting
Read the technical writer wanted ads and you'll see they mostly focus on the wrong things. Even though it is often not included in the ad, an employer is looking for a person who can think clearly, observe and interview well, distill facts into coherent information and write it at the appropriate level for the specific audience the employer has in mind.
Tools and Software Applications
My personal opinion is that focusing on the tools is bone headed. The tools are all about the same, and the concepts too. Learning any documentation tool takes only a day or two. But, being engineers with no clue about documentation (typically), the most common requirement for a posted job is some list of tools. The most common are Word, Framemaker, and Robohelp. Given that the tools are essentially the same, some technical writers simply claim to have ability in any tool mentioned in the advertisement, knowing that they will make it true if offered the job. This tactic is open to debate (perhaps on the discussion page for this article).
Knowledge of the SDLC
You should have this near the top of your list of skills. Without a good understanding of the Simplified Systems Development Life Cycle (SDLC), you're just playing catch-up and cannot contribute to a really strong team.
(Finally) Editing, interviewing, and writing skills
This should be the first thing, but it's sometimes not even mentioned in a 'Technical Writer Wanted' ad. But the person doing the actual hiring should know this is the reason they want you in the first place. So put this at the very top ... perhaps in the narrative section, or by listing various things you've written.
- Editing, interviewing and writing are the most important skills.
- If you need to brush up, use a reputable Style Guide.
- Take particular note of writing for your audience using a 'persona' (explained in this course) - and note your use of this method in interview. This will show that you have an effective technique for tailoring your writing to match the needs of particular audiences.
- Practice for a potential test. If you are asked to write instructions for a person who has never used an office telephone and has no concept of technology, how would you do it? Remember to focus on using information chunks, and keep structure and function top of mind: know the difference (information chunks, structure and function are explained on this course). Use a visual if at all possible.
If you cannot organize the information coherently, you're lost. Similarly, if you cannot understand basic computer science principles, you're not going to help much. So anything that shows your ability to analyze situations and propose solutions is positive. Again, most ads don't even mention this.
Once again, almost never mentioned, but the real key to success as a technical writer. Emphasize this in your resume. Even a simple statement like, "I like working with people" or "I'm a people person" will do. You can teach people the writing standards and tools, but if they're someone nobody will talk to, they'll never make it as a technical writer.
During my last job interview for a Technical Writer I've been given a question: "What are the most important things in being a successful Technical Writer?" "Strong knowledge of SDLC and being a friend of all your SMEs. It's easier to get information from SMEs when they are your friends, when you don't have to bully them or beg them."
A key skill in working with people is adapting your approach to theirs - people have different styles of behaviour and different motivations. Adapting your own style according to that of the person or situation you are dealing with will help you to connect with them, and you will be much more likely to 'win their buy-in'. Demonstrating in interview that you are able and willing to do this will work in your favour.
Resumes and CVs
benefits -> functions -> structures
Benefits are for the audience, NOT YOU. Don't write about how this job will enrich you or aid your career. Tell them how you will enrich and aid THEIR quality output and commercial success.
A benefit happens when a goal is met. What are the goals of a project manager? Clearly, they want to add skills to their team, while not adding more problems. So no drama or neediness, please. Show how you're going to make the project manager's life easier.
Apply it to yourself. The audience (recipient of the benefit) is the project leader/development manager.
Benefits of having a technical writer
- TW creates cogent, usable documentation or rewrites/clarifies inexplicit documentation authored by developers
- TW can create and maintain permanent records of development activities
- TW manages and coordinates documentation output
- User instructions written by the TW support and help to sell an otherwise ephemeral product
- User documentation that TW creates reduces customer support costs
- Developer time is not wasted on work that they hate to do...and do poorly (saves money, improves quality/happiness)
- TW can contribute input on User Interface development and project workflow with the development team
- Audience Analysis
- Structuring/Linking info
- Creating or advising on Graphics and Layout
Structures that support Technical Writing
- SDLC exists and is followed at least most of the time
- Documentation tools
- Training in product, standards, and culture
- Terminology, Access to Information, Openness or Secrecy as cultural paradigm
- Comfortable conditions/equipment
- Suitable pay to be recognized as a member of the team
A cover letter and resume combo should put those aspects into concrete terms. Show experience in performing the functions, and proof of ability to operate within the environmental structures.
The narrative would focus on benefits in declarative statements that are testable.
Past tense benefits:
- "I wrote 25 instruction manuals"
- "I eliminated the need for the developers to write any documentation"
- "I created the workflow diagram that is the backbone of the UI"
- "The new User Guide reduced support calls by 82% in one year".
Future tense benefits:
- "I write quickly and accurately"
- "I get along with and understand engineers"
- "While I draft your requirement specifications, you can spend more time working with the developers and architects"
- "Editing all the technical documents within your department to a single standard will save you from expensive misunderstandings".
These statements are all testable. Project managers like that, for obvious reasons.
Are the statements you make about yourself testable?
Your resume is your ticket to an interview. It is a marketing tool; your chance to sell yourself.
- The size of the CV that you submit depends on the nationality of the organization that you want to join. Different companies require different forms of a CV.
- Usually two to three pages is enough.
- "Your resume, like a diamond, could sparkle more brightly if cut" (quote amended from The Economist Style Guide's online reference to Raymond Mortimer’s comment on excellence in journalism).
Layout & formatting
- The layout of your resume should be clear; it needs to be easy to read, uncluttered and consistent.
- Ensure that your name is clear and contact details are prominent,it’s a good idea to have a header with your name, address and contact details (thus the reader never forgets who they’re reading about), and footer with the page number.
- Try to stick to one or at most two font types (e.g. Calibri or Verdana), and keep headings consistent (e.g. Calibri 10pt bold, 6pt before & 6pt after, at 12pt—in Word, use Format, Paragraph to format text; or the Page Layout tab in MS Word 2007).
- A good resume will follow a structure along these lines:
1. Name (centre, bold)
2. Profile (or Career Focus)
- This is the snapshot that should grab the reader’s attention.
- Your profile should give a succinct picture of your most valuable skills and experience, show your professionalism and indicate where you want to go in your career.
- Keep the language consistent in style, tone and person. It is not necessary to say "I am a person who will write in a succinct and understandable way for the audience"—instead, "A writing style tailored to the audience’s needs" is clear.
3. Professional experience
Unless you are a very recent graduate or have no relevant work experience, this is more important for prospective employers and should come before education.
- Name the organization and period of employment, and follow this with bullet points highlighting your accomplishments, contributions and awards. Don’t be shy; shoot for the target.
- Quantify your achievements. Ask SMEs how much time you have saved them through writing for them—perhaps 30% of their time at work, given your writing speed and level of understanding?
- Remember not to leave gaps,clarify periods of unemployment. Did you perhaps do voluntary work or study?
- List either your most recent or most relevant qualifications first.
- Include work-based training if it is relevant to the role.
- Give the employer a fuller picture of you as a rounded individual.
- Note: There is also a drawback to this. Listing your interests could give an employer reason to dismiss your resume according to his/her personal likes, dislikes or prejudices. Use outside interests with caution. Also, it is becoming less common to include this type of information unless it is very apropos to the job you're seeking. (Example: an avid exerciser applying to a health/fitness organization).
6. Referees (References) [if required]
- Be sure to notify any referees (references) that you give that they may be contacted by prospective employers—you want them to vouch for you and promote you, after all.
Err on the side of a professional appearance. The company culture may prove to be entirely relaxed, with everyone wearing jeans and frayed t-shirts - all the same, the project manager wants to see a candidate who has respect for the interviewer and a willingness to scrub up. Wear a suit and shirt or similar corporate attire; polish your shoes and remain aware of your posture - like your mum may have told you, sit up straight and relax your shoulders back and down (don't slump).
Pay attention to your body language and pace of speech. Don't ramble on - keep sentences concise and articulate, and answer the question; only elaborate if this will add to the understanding of the interviewer or lift your profile based on the needs of the role. Maintain eye contact without staring at the interviewer/s; if there is more than one interviewer, remember to include all in your eye contact. It is quite OK to smile or use a hand gesture or two if this comes naturally to you.
If you are nervous, be careful not to show this in your gestures. For example, if your foot tends to twitch: hide it, cover it, or stop it. The best way to avoid obvious nerves is to prepare. Even if you have had many interviews, each job is unique.
Make sure that you answer the most important questions in your practice:
- What attracted you to this job?
- What do you know about the company?
- How do your skills match the requirements of the role?
- How do you build relationships with others in a team, or with SMEs?
- How have you dealt with a difficult [difficulty could be specified by the interviewer] situation or person in the past?
PREPARATION and PRESENTATION go hand in hand; as you polish your shoes, practise your answers out loud - and go in with confidence.
- Can these pages be translated to other languages?
- How can I do that?
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