5 tips for hiring technical writers

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Photo by J. Kelly Brito on Unsplash

I’ve written about hiring technical writers two or three times in the past with some interesting results. In fact, my initial article garnered me some not very nice emails from technical writers. It’s a timeless topic, so I wanted to go back and see if any of my initial advice and thoughts have changed in light of today’s economy.

There are still a lot of contrasting viewpoints on the role and skills of the technical writer. The contrasting views can even be confusing to technical writers. This unnecessary confusion also leads to the fallout that affects the salary and career mobility of technical writers. But as a hiring manager, it gives you more room to craft a technical writer position that can be of most significant benefit to your organization.

Here are my tips for hiring a technical writer:

  1. Throw out preconceived notions about the role. Writing your job description for the position may seem like common sense but it means digging down and looking at where your technical documentation needs to go, the challenges getting there, and then when you get there how to maintain the documentation and ready it for the next step.
  2. Ask for what you want in a technical writer (and be prepared to it back it up). It’s one thing to write the technical writer job description that fits your organization’s needs and doesn’t create an additional drag coefficient on your development team and the project as a whole. Even in today’s economy be prepared to pay the freight to get a high-end technical writer. This might mean securing more budget and even cutting out third-party recruiters with their 40–65% markup on contractor’s hourly wages.
  3. Align the technical writer to your business. Academia and graduate degrees have polluted the waters of technical writing and other professions like instructional design. Graduate degrees are no substitute for real-life experience. Look for technical writers that have worked in your industry or a similar one.
  4. Decide on Contractor? Contract to Hire? FTE? My recent look at my local market shows that the majority of technical writer positions are now 3–6 month contracts. If you have budgets and project timelines to contend with then starting out with a contract technical writer might be the way to go for your organization. Look for an experienced technical writer who has a history of coming into new projects, learning the product, and documenting it in your industry or a similar one. Contract to hire is the way to go depending on your budget and is an opportunity to have a shakedown cruise with a technical writer especially if you’ve been burned by technical writers in the past and rethinking the future of technical writers in your organization.
  5. Look for evidence of technical curiosity. A good technical writer needs to be curious about technology. It’s not they need to be a programmer or engineer, but it’s the technical curiosity that drives them staying up to date with technology. There is an industry myth about “ignorance is an asset” that some lazy technical writers still try to push on people especially hiring managers new to bringing on technical writers. It’s not about “ignorance,” instead it’s curiosity that drives a technical writer to learn new technologies and figure stuff out. Technological ignorance in a technical writer will only cost you on the back end with an annoyed development team and lengthier document review and editing cycles.

Rolling your own technical writer job description and ignoring the confused nature of the technical writer role today is the only way to go.

How do you hire technical writers?

Hi! My name is Will Kelly. I’m a technical writer and analyst based in the Washington, DC area. I’ve worked with clients like NetApp, Dell, and Neustar to develop technical, training, and thought leadership content. My articles have been published by IBM Mobile Business Insights, TechBeacon, CNET TechRepublic, Network World, Toolbox.com, ZDNet.com, and others. Follow me on Twitter:@willkelly.

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