Monday, February 22, 2010

How to Prepare for a Technical Writing Test

writing testRelatively speaking, writing is an easy skill to test. So the number of employers who don't ask to see a portfolio when they are looking for technical writers is quite surprising.

However, a good portion of those employers who take seriously the task of filling a technical writing position do want to see examples of your writing. Because of this, you should always have a varied and up-to-date portfolio ready when you start looking for technical writing jobs. You should have each writing sample available in both hard copy and digital form.

For the hard copy versions, you should make them double sided, and in colour. Ideally, the digital copies should be in PDF.

And, as you look for a job as a technical writer, you should be prepared to do a writing test at some point.

I have encountered two types of writing tests during the technical writer job interview process: the basic test, and the advanced test.

The Basic Technical Writing Test


The basic writing test is usually administered on the premises of the organization with which you are interviewing. The test is given to check your writing ability, how well you conform to the conventions and structure associated with technical writing, and how quickly you can produce results.

The basic test will inevitably ask you to write a set of instructions for a simple task. Some of the most common tasks that show up on the writing test are:
  • Making a sandwich
  • Making a cup of coffee
  • Planting a tree
But wait, you might be asking, what do these tasks have to do with technical writing? The choice of a mundane, every day task is to ensure that everyone taking the test knows how to perform it and can write about it to some degree. Again, it's all about demonstrating structure and conventions.

So how should you write the set of instructions? First, ensure that the title that you give the instructions includes a gerund. In other words, if you are writing instructions about how to make a sandwich, entitle it Making a Sandwich, instead of How To Make a Sandwich. Why? Because it is standard in most technical writing to include a gerund in instruction titles.

This is despite the fact that the "how to" designation is a much more common term for people to type into search engines. But the goal here is to show that you are aware of technical writing conventions, not to make the instructions more searchable online.

Writing the Introduction


Second, include a clear purpose statement in the introduction. Something along the lines of "The following instructions will show you how to make a sandwich."

Then, mention who the intended audience is for the instructions. This might seem superfluous, but I would include it to let your potential employer know that you are familiar with intended-audience statements. This statement could be something like "These instructions are intended for those with a basic understanding of using kitchen utensils."

Next, indicate how many tasks are included in the instructions. To see more information on breaking instructions into tasks, see this post. When you state how many tasks there are, format them in a bulleted list. If there is only one task, you do not need to preview it in the introduction—doing so would be redundant.

Next, include a list of what is required to perform the instructions.

Finally, you may want to include a time estimate of how long the instructions should take to perform.

Writing the Steps


After you have written the introduction, begin the instructions with an infinitive clause. For example, To make a sandwich: If you are doing the writing test on a computer, you should bold the infinitive clause. Using bolding and other intra-text highlighting methods indicate further knowledge of good technical writing.

Then proceed with writing the actual instructions.Make sure to adhere to the rule of seven when writing the steps.

Within the instructions, it is probably a good idea to include at least one warning, caution, or note. If you have enough time, you may want to include one of each. I won't go into the details of how to format and write this kind of extra information, but you should make each type stand out in a unique way.

When you have completed the instructions, you may want to include a closing statement. Some kind of feel-good sentence like "If you have followed the above instructions, you now have a completed sandwich." However, be careful not to get too cutesy here. Some technical writers loathe fluff of any kind.

Be absolutely certain to maintain consistent terminology throughout your instructions. For example, if you refer to a slice of bread in the introduction, do not call it a piece of bread in one of the steps.

Because you know that you are likely to come across the basic writing test, prepare a few sets if instructions in advance and commit them to memory. Then, regurgitate the relevant one when you are called upon to create a set of instructions during a writing test, and you will impress with your efficiency and the quality of the final product.

Other Components in the Basic Writing Test


But wait, there could be more to the basic writing test than just a set of instructions! You will probably also be asked to highlight mistakes in a series of sentences, and/or re-write them. I won't go into the details about how to do well on this section—that's really down to whether you have the fundamentals of grammar mastered. However, look for the old chestnuts to show up here—its and it's, there, their and they're, and subject and verb agreement, to name a few.

You may also encounter a section that asks you to demonstrate your creative writing skills. After all, as a technical writer you will be asked to tailor your writing to specific audiences, industries, and types of documents. Writing a white paper or proposal is much different than writing a user manual. Common topics that you might be asked to write about are:
  • A recent holiday you took
  • A book you read
  • A movie you saw
I would generally keep this kind of mini-essay as simple as possible. Remember the basic five paragraph college essay? Start with an attention grabbing introduction, and include a thesis sentence and a preview of what is to come. Then, follow with three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. This demonstrates that you are always conscious of structure and also allows you to show-off your writing skills.

The Advanced Technical Writing Test


More advanced writing tests are not uncommon. These may crop up when the position requires more technical knowledge.

One possible version of the advanced test will see you presented with a jumble of specifications for a product or piece of software. The scenario that is being suggested is that an engineer has given you this information and you are expected to format it using language that will be appropriate for the intended audience. In this case, I would essentially adhere to the advice that I have given above regarding the basic test. In other words, format the information into a set of instructions (unless it specifies otherwise on the test). However, there are some important things to keep in mind with the advanced writing test.

First, the convoluted information that you receive will no doubt include a lot of false assumptions about the knowledge level of the end user. Therefore, you must take numerous sentences and paraphrase them in a way that will allow a novice to understand. Try to eliminate as much jargon as possible.

Clear and understandable prose is always the goal with technical writing. Change as many passive voice sentences as possible into active voice (again, don't overdo it here—some sentences are simply more appropriate when written in the passive voice), and make sure that there are not too many overly long sentences larded down with numerous clauses. Of course, you don't want to go overboard with short sentences either. Otherwise, your writing will sound too choppy. A good mix of sentence length is always best.

These are only a few of the writing test possibilities you may encounter during your search for a technical writing job. No doubt there are other variations that appear as well, both depending on the industry and the specific organization to which you are applying. I could easily imagine a test that asks you to quickly learn about a software program with which you are unfamiliar and then write out instructions for a basic task using that software.

When approaching any writing test, you should aim to be as prepared as possible and know what skills you want to demonstrate to potential employers.

19 comments:

E said...

Hey there,

Thanks for this post-- great stuff here. The tip to prepare a couple sets of steps in advance is very helpful. For those looking for a couple more tips to add to this advice, I've found the site HoffmanMarCom.com to be a great source for tips on how to write a white paper. Hope this helps!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, this is really very helpful :)

Anonymous said...

This post is excellent. Am an unemployed Tech. Writer who has to take a test (for the first time) for a writing vacancy and I found this article very helpful.

Anonymous said...

Very helpful one. Thank you

Anonymous said...

Very useful stuff. It is very obvious it will be of great help to technical writers who are interested in enhancing their skills

Anonymous said...

Yes This is really helpfullll1 I could really make out why I didnt clear previous interviews!!

LeaveGodAlone said...

Very helpful. I am an experienced tech writer...and I am trying to refresh my memory...good stuff...

Anonymous said...

Very useful article! Thanks a lot...

Anonymous said...

Really a very helpful post. I am an experienced technical writer and preparing for job switch.

marie said...

It is really helpful for beginners as well
marie

Anonymous said...

nice pointers and information about basics and advanced technical writing tests. Certainly very helpful.

Anonymous said...

I'm preparing for an interview (or maybe exam) for a tech writing position, and I don't have much experience. This is very helpful. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks

Anonymous said...

thanks

Vineela said...

Very very useful. I have asked all my students to read this article carefully every time they go for an interview as it sums up the thinking, analytical, technical, written skills needed for a technical writer. Almost DDLC in a nutshell.

PR said...

Very useful tips for that are usually asked in first round.

Anonymous said...

I too, am greatful for these tips!
Matt G

Anonymous said...

Great Post! I had a writing test last week and I would have been lost without this post.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant advice. I am preparing for a written test and this article has really helped. Thanks for sharing.

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