There are many career opportunities for technical writers this year.
Companies are expanding their technical documentation teams or hiring technical writers for the first time to keep up with the demand for quality documentation.
And with technology and software becoming ever more complex, this comes as no surprise.
So if you’re planning on hiring technical writers in the near future, we’re here to help you in your search.
This article will provide you with fourteen smart interview questions you can ask to accurately gauge your candidate’s skills, experience, and affinity for technical writing.
Let’s jump straight to question number one.
What Drove You to Pursue a Career in Technical Writing?
This question is an excellent place to start the interview.
Even though the field of technical writing has been rapidly growing and developing, many people out there still don’t have a firm grasp of what that line of work actually entails.
Therefore, a good answer to this question is a specific reason why this occupation, and not any other.
Here’s an example of a Redditor who knows precisely why they went into technical writing and what motivates them:
This person picked a career in technical writing, even though they already found success as a programmer.
They mention they find technical writing a “satisfying challenge,” which speaks volumes about their motivation.
And that’s exactly what you want: someone who is in this field by choice and feels engaged with their work.
Are You Ok Collaborating With Other Team Members?
Too many managers and CEOs consider technical writing a “lonely profession” and neglect to ask candidates if they’re good collaborators.
This is a mistake because quality documentation is always created as a team effort.
And we’re not just talking about working as a part of the technical writing team here.
Even if you plan to employ a single technical writer, they’ll still need to work closely with subject matter experts (SMEs) and managers to ensure the documentation is accurate and in line with project goals.
That’s why top documentation experts always look for candidates who work well with others.
As you can see in the example above, Instabase considers collaboration to be the number one value they look for in new technical writers.
And so should you if you want your documentation to be accurate, up-to-date, and helpful, not just well-written.
Why Do You Want to Work for Our Company?
This one falls under the category of interview questions you should always ask candidates, no matter the position they’re interviewing for.
Jeff Hyman, CEO of Recruit Rockstars, a recruiter who has conducted over 30,000 job interviews during his career, makes a habit of asking this question because, as he says:
What interviewers are looking for when they ask that question is the depth of thinking and seriousness a candidate has about working at this company.
And this makes sense. You don’t want to consider candidates who don’t know anything about your company and haven’t taken the time to research it thoroughly.
That’s a clear sign that the candidate is motivated by nothing more than the salary and that this is just one out of many positions they’re applying for.
When asked this question, a quality candidate should tell you something about your company’s mission and projects and explain how their own goals and interests align with them.
Do You Have Experience With Any Content Development Tools?
As they say, a technical writer is only as good as the tools they use, so don’t forget to inquire about the tools, software, and systems the candidate has used.
This can cover a variety of different software products, so don’t be afraid to ask them to provide you with an exhaustive list.
Technical writers find value in design tools, markdown editors, and, of course, documentation software.
That last item on the list is especially important.
Modern documentation software has a lot of features to present both internal and external documentation in the best light, so if your company uses documentation software (as it should), the technical writer needs to know how to use it to its full potential.
Otherwise, regardless of their writing prowess, their documentation might not be as valuable to users.
Can You Explain the Concept of the Document Development Life Cycle?
Working as a technical writer requires outstanding organizational skills. Every document needs to be researched, structured, and designed before the writing process can even begin.
Without these organizational skills, technical writing can take too much time and produce subpar documents that won’t meet your company’s needs.
Your candidate’s organizational skills can be accurately gauged by checking their knowledge of the document development life cycle (DDLC).
This is another key skill technical writing experts usually look for in candidates. Like this technical writer with fourteen years of experience in the field:
The DDLC consists of phases such as analysis, design, writing, and review, which are analogous to the software development lifecycle (software and documentation are usually developed side by side).
Therefore, proficiency with the DDLC can also be another indication of how well the candidate collaborates with developers when working on a project.
Do You Have Any Practical Experience With [X Area]?
Technical writing is an unusual field. Along with excellent writing and storytelling skills, technical writers also need to have a thorough understanding of the topics they’re writing about.
In practice, this means that you’re likely going to be looking for someone with a degree in English, journalism, or a related field with a special interest and solid experience in technology, engineering, or software.
Not a very common mix, right? In fact, even Google has trouble finding this “rare hybrid” when looking for technical writers.
Nevertheless, it’s very important that you ask your potential employees if they have any experience with the kind of work you’re doing at your company.
A technical writer who has extensive experience writing documentation for kitchen appliances or medical instruments probably won’t be the best fit if your company develops B2B software.
Someone who has worked on projects equivalent or similar to yours is likely to be a much better choice.
This candidate would need a lot less onboarding and should come to full productivity right away.
Long story short, check if your candidate’s industry experience is compatible with your business because technical writers, even the most seasoned ones, come from all sorts of backgrounds.
What Are Some of the Technical Writing Projects You’ve Worked On?
There are many kinds of technical documentation. Just as technical writers can have diverse industry experience, they might also have different experiences with documentation projects.
So, if you’re hiring with very specific documentation needs, it’s definitely worthwhile exploring if a candidate has prior experience with this type of project.
For example, writing instruction guides for end-users is quite different from writing product or process documentation intended for internal use by developers.
The former will require a writer with exceptional storytelling skills and extensive knowledge of UX to do a good job of conveying knowledge to users.
A good example can be found in bit.ai’s user guide below.
The latter requires more technical knowledge, such as proficiency in coding, to create documentation that’s actually useful to internal teams.
We can therefore conclude that asking this question should give you valuable insight into how well the candidate might do on the specific projects they’d be working on.
What Specific Skills Do You Bring as a Technical Writer?
To reiterate an important point from the last two sections, you’re going to interview candidates who come from different industries and have worked on different projects.
That means that each candidate will have a unique skill set that they can bring to the table.
All you have to do is find out what those skills are and decide if they’re necessary for your writing projects.
Here are some skills that technical writers find useful in their work:
- Language and writing skills
- Proofreading and copy-editing skills
- Research and exploration skills
- Interpersonal skills (especially interviewing)
- Specific industry knowledge (such as coding)
- Graphic design skills
- Proficiency with content development tools
Once again, the ideal skill set will depend on the projects you’re working on, so a good practice is to catalog the must-have skills for your ideal candidate and then seeing who among the applicants fits the bill.
Which Tools Do You Use on a Regular Basis?
We already talked about the importance of inquiring about the candidate’s experience with content development tools, but there are other kinds of software a quality technical writer should use in their everyday work.
For example, they should know their way around your project management software so that they don’t have any trouble tracking the projects they’re supposed to be working on.
Other than that, there are also various kinds of text editors and spelling checkers that make a writer’s life easier and help with the review process.
Good examples include Grammarly and the Hemingway App, which assist the writer in maintaining accuracy, engagement, and style.
Last but not least, everyone at your company uses collaboration and communication tools, such as Slack, meaning the technical writer should too.
These kinds of tools are very useful for facilitating teamwork, so make sure there are no obstacles there.
Modern software tools are an integral part of today’s business and every professional should be proficient in at least some, including the technical writer.
What Challenges Do You Face as a Technical Writer?
Another general job interview question you should always ask. The answer will reveal what aspects of the job the candidate needs to work on to become a better writer.
Better yet, it should give you valuable insight into the candidate’s problem-solving skills. If a candidate can locate and understand the obstacles in their work and propose solutions to remove them, you’re talking to a candidate who will continually grow and develop their skills under your employment.
Therefore, a writer who talks candidly about the challenges they face could be a better choice for the position than someone who can’t provide an answer to this question.
Here’s a practical example:
That’s a very honest answer. This writer knows what topics interest them and enjoys writing documentation around them.
If you get an answer like this, you can start a conversation about the kinds of topics they will be writing about and see if they are a match for their interests.
If so, this candidate will likely become an engaged, motivated writer on your team.
What Skills Are Necessary for a Technical Writer?
As we’ve already established, a lot of talent, knowledge, and skills go into technical writing. Having good language skills just doesn’t cut it in this profession.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to ask your candidates who they think is the ideal technical writer.
The answer will show you how aware the candidate is of the duties and requirements of technical writing.
There are a lot of possible answers here, so let’s look at a good example of the skills needed to work as a technical writer at IBM:
As you can see, they mention creativity, problem-solving, communication, empathy, and information transfer, among other things.
The more skills the candidate can think of, the better. The only wrong answer here is not thinking beyond language and writing skills.
What Is Your Strategy for Approaching SMEs?
One of the most challenging parts of a technical writer’s job is working with subject matter experts (SMEs).
However, all documentation produced by a company needs to be totally accurate and up-to-date.
That means technical writers need to meet up with SMEs frequently and get answers to their questions about the product or collect feedback on their work.
Therefore, a technical writer’s ability to acquire information from experts is crucial to their success.
If you ask technical writers, many of them will single this out as the part of their job they don’t like.
You want a technical writer who is a good communicator, someone who can maintain excellent relationships with the people who build your product, but also firm enough to get what they need, even when these SMEs aren’t feeling particularly collaborative.
For this reason, inquiring about a candidate’s strategy for approaching SMEs definitely has value.
Describe Your Daily Routine as a Technical Writer
A good way to find out how your candidates organize their work is to ask them to describe their typical day.
This should give you some indication of the quality of work you can expect from the candidate.
Can they juggle multiple tasks at once? Do they work at a satisfactory pace? How about their accuracy? Do they make a habit of doing proper research?
Here’s a day in the life of Leticia Vargas, a technical writer for Wizeline:
Source: Wizeline on YouTube
Notice that she’s aware of her productivity cycle and prefers to spend her mornings writing and reviewing because that’s when she’s at her most productive.
The rest of her day is spent in meetings, training sessions, and information gathering sync-ups—remember what we said about collaboration and approaching SMEs?
She even makes time for exploring and studying the technologies she writes about, which is really important for a technical writer’s work.
We’d rate this a perfect answer to the question about daily routines, so look for something similar to this.
Do You Have a Favorite Style Guide?
Having a house style for technical writers is always a good idea. You don’t want your documentation to be inconsistent and appear messy.
If you’re using one of the more famous style guides, it might be a good idea to check if the candidate is familiar with it.
Hiring a technical writer who already uses your preferred style is a good way to speed up the onboarding process and get the writer to full productivity in less time.
But apart from that, the answer to this question can also tell you a lot about the candidate’s style of writing and the ways they express themselves.
For example, this is the Microsoft Writing Style Guide:
If this is your candidate’s preferred reference for writing, you can expect a writer who appreciates brevity of expression, writes in a conversational tone, gets to the point as quickly as possible, and detests weak writing.
Your documentation should always have a single voice. So, when hiring a technical writer, make sure theirs is in line with the rest of your documentation.
We think that about covers it. By asking the questions featured in this article, you should get a good idea about your technical writer candidate's knowledge, experience, and skills.
In the end, the greatest piece of advice we can give you is to hire a candidate who shows a real passion for writing documentation and is motivated by a desire to help people succeed with your product.