Technical Writers, Technical Writing Technical Writers, Technical Writing
About Us
What's New
Contact Us

Tools or Talent? What to Look for in a Technical Writer

by Jack Molisani
President, ProSpring Inc.


While I feel that it's safe to say most technical managers realize that good training materials and documentation reduce tech support costs, how to find and hire a good technical writer may not be as well known.

Is it possible to tell who is a "good" writer and who isn't? You bet! But before we jump into how to tell the good apples from the bad, we have to examine what a technical writer should be able to do.

Core Competencies

So what skills does someone need to be a technical writer?

First and most importantly, the person must be able to communicate using the written word.

Next, the person must have "people skills." Contrary to popular myth, technical writers do not just sit in a dark cubicle writing their fingers to the bone—they have to interview people to learn about the product they're writing about. And pulling information out of engineers (and support professionals) is often not an easy task to accomplish!

A technical writer must be a "quick study." The very nature of the job requires that tech writers understand what they are writing about, without the advantage of a Ph.D. in mathematics, astrophysics, software engineering, or whatever subject the tech writer is writing about.

A technical writer must also be a good investigator. It is not uncommon to have to dig up information not clearly listed in a design document.

Finally, a tech writer must be able to quickly learn new authoring tools. The media on which writers deliver documents has changed dramatically with the growth of the Internet, and a writer must be able to keep up with the latest in authoring tools and technology. (While this is really just another example of being a quick study, it's sufficiently important to qualify as a separate skill.)

What's Important

Now that we've discussed the core competencies, let me point out something that may have escaped your notice: whether a writer knows the latest online authoring tools was last on the list of core competencies. I bring this up now because it is the most common mistake hiring managers make: confusing knowing a tool with ability to communicate.

To illustrate my point, open the newspaper classifieds and look at a typical want ad: "Technical Writer. Must know FrameMaker and RoboHELP [two authoring tools]. Mail resume to…."

Most tech writers can master new software publishing tools relatively quickly. On the other hand, learning to effectively use the English language so that your audience will receive and understand your communication takes much longer to learn and master. So focus on a writer's ability, and not the latest buzz words. That is, if you find a good writer who does not know a particular tool (let alone a specific version of that tool), then hire that writer and let him learn the tool at the first opportunity.

Note: I'm assuming that you are looking to hire writers as permanent members of your technical team. If you're only looking for contract writers to help for a few months, then obviously you would want them to have the skills you need before you hire them.

Panning for Gold

So now that you know what a technical writer should be able to do, and which skills are more important than others, how do you determine if a writer is good? Let's look at each of the core competencies:

Writes Well: Wouldn't you know that the most important quality is also the hardest to qualify? There is no magic formula to see if a writer writes well, other than, of course, reading something he or she has written. Do you understand it? Is it clear? Logically thought out? Are there any misspelled words or grammar errors?

While the proof of whether a writer writes well is in the writing, I have a rule of thumb that I use when testing new writers: Do they do any creative writing outside of business writing? Screenplays? Short stories? Poetry? Art is about communication, and if someone has a desire or passion to communicate as an artist, then it's likely that his technical writing has a quality that will ensure it communicates as well.

People Skills: This is an easy one to evaluate. How does the candidate interview? Does he confront you and look you in the eye, or does he constantly look about the room in fear? Is he friendly? (And I don't mean social-veneer friendly, but truly personable.)

Quick Study: While it is generally accepted that a technical writer should have some higher education, there are two schools of thought on what is better: a degree in English, or a degree or certificate in a technical subject. Personally, I think the public education system has ruined more writers than it's made, so given the choice of two writers who communicate well (which you've established by looking at samples of their writing, right?), I'd choose the writer with the technical background. After all, it's pretty safe to assume that if a candidate has learned one technical subject, he can learn another.

Good Investigator: I am a firm believer that you can learn more about people from the questions they ask than the answers they give. Pay attention to the questions the candidate asks you.

Authoring Tools: If the candidate has passed the first four criteria, then I almost don't care how many authoring tools he or she knows. Almost. I think writers should always be aware of the latest developments in the field of electronic publishing, even if they have not yet had a chance to use the tools in a production environment. If you are on a tight deadline or are bringing on a temporary employee, then by all means look for the exact skills you need. But if you find someone who writes well, then spend a few extra dollars and send the person to a class if the person needs to get current on the latest publishing tools.

Where to Prospect

I have noticed that since the dot-com sector crashed last year, many (and I mean MANY) unemployed people are applying for technical writing positions in the slim hope that they can get a job—any job.  Unfortunately, you can spend an amazing amount of time reading and/or interviewing candidates that just don't have the core competencies needed to be a good writer.  My recommendation for finding a good writer is to post your opening through a professional writing organization or through an agency that specializes in technical writers (like ProSpring).

The Society for Technical Communication (STC) maintains job listings at international and local levels to which you can post job openings. Visit the STC's web site at to find a chapter near you.

If you need to hire a writer fast, need on-site contractors, or to outsource a project, your best bet is to find a reputable writing service, or recruiter that specializes in finding and placing technical writers. If you would like ProSpring to help, send me an email and I will be happy to call you back.


I'm always happy to hear from my readers, so if you have any questions about how to find a good writer or want to report your successes in doing so, send me an email or call me at the number below!


About the Writer

Jack Molisani has been a project officer in the Space Division of the USAF, the manager of training and documentation of a multi-million dollar software firm, and currently is the founder and president of ProSpring Inc., a technical communication and placement firm.

Jack teaches courses on how to reduce support costs through better documentation and training materials at Cal State University, is a regular speaker at the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and WinWriters international conferences, and was the chairman of the year 2000 STC Pan-Pacific Conference.

He can be reached by phone at 888-378-2333 and by email at



Copyright 2002, ProSpring Inc.