What do technical writers, doctors, lawyers, auto mechanics, and IRS agents have in common? You’ve probably had a bad experience with a member of this group. Unfortunately, this bad joke is based on the harsh reality that many IT managers have had difficulty hiring and working with technical writers, making many IT pros hesitant to repeat the experience.

At the opposite pole are experienced and skilled technical writers growing frustrated because they have to fight this type of bias by justifying their value in interviews as they seek new employment opportunities.

This article offers tips on hiring strategy, including how to determine your business need and find a technical writer to meet it.

“Technical writer” is a subjective job title
One company’s technical writer is another company’s technical editor or desktop publisher. In some companies, technical writers have never written a single original document. Other companies require technical writers to write original technical documentation based upon work with the product they are documenting, analysis, and interviews with subject matter experts.

When sorting through technical writer resumes, you should consider:

  • How do they present their technical writing experience on their resume? Do they illuminate the technologies they documented? Do they mention business impacts?
  • Do they make direct mention of the technologies they were tasked to document on their previous projects?
  • Do they have experience with clients from industries similar to yours?

Make an honest assessment of your documentation needs
Your organization’s documentation needs should help you write the script for your technical writer requirements. Ask these questions:

  • Do your developers, engineers, and other technical staff author their own documentation? If the answer is yes, and it is working, you could get your documentation needs met by hiring a technical editor or even a desktop publisher. If it isn’t working, you need a technical writer with the appropriate skills to come up to speed on your technologies without sapping your technical resources.
  • Are you in a “documentation black hole” where you need somebody to come in and develop documentation from the ground up? This scenario is also going to require a more senior technical writer but with the technical resource and stakeholder cooperation.

In this situation, you want a writer who can work independently and not rely too much on internal resources. While it is impossible to escape the documentation technical review process, the more work a technical writer can do upfront means a better focus for development staff during documentation technical reviews.

Ask about past documentation projects
You may think you don’t have the right background to question a technical writer candidate about their writing samples because you took only the college English classes required to graduate.

You can recognize good documentation by just working in the field. If you are not confident of flying solo in the interview, bring in the product manager or somebody involved in marketing the product to talk about the product and its client base.

Some questions to ask when presented with a writing sample include:

  • Did you write this document? Grill the candidate on her level of participation in the writing project and how that level of participation fits into your requirements for hiring a technical writer.
  • How do you immerse yourself in new technology? What are your technical requirements to begin a new project?
  • What do you need to be successful?
  • What is the role of the technical writer in your view?

Look at industry experience, not awards
Some writers proudly trot out their writing awards on their resume, but these awards shouldn’t carry much weight in the hiring process. Often the technical accuracy of winning technical documentation is never taken into account.

Verifiable industry experience should weigh in more than writing awards because industry experience is most important when your project enters a critical phase.

Ignorance as an asset is a myth
There is an industry myth that says a technical writer needs to be technologically ignorant to be effective, but that is never the case. Many of the negative stories about technical writers are based on this myth. Hiring managers contribute to this by underestimating the importance of technical aptitude and accepting technical ignorance as the status quo.

Technical writers have to be technical, but not in the same sense as programmers, developers, and other staff members. Technical writers who handle the job correctly must not only worry about documentation format and style, they must also immerse themselves in the technology, business, and applications of the projects they are tasked to document. To do that, technical writers need some technical expertise.