Technical Writing Skills Testing: Writing, Edits, and Editorials

Technical writing skills testing  is one of those things that can spur tales of time-wasting woe, spark an all caps response in the most mild-mannered of technical writers, or send non-test-taker types to the fetal position. Tests have been accused of offending the talented and being a poor indicator of real writing ability. But let’s face it folks, if our profession were a color, it would be tie dye.  So many tools, so many topics, and so many ways of managing content and information generate constant change in what it means to be a technical writer.  The responsibilities for a technical writing job can range from format meister to quasi-programmer, so employers are desperate to hang their hats on anything that’s a technical writing must-have.  Writing and editing skills are those must-haves.

To be effective, the technical writing test must be well-conceived and executed using real-world examples. Only then will a well-crafted editing sample from candidates be helpful to employers in evaluating technical writing skills and a be great way for applicants to showcase mad writing and editing skills.  But, what if the test could test more than just editing?  What if people were asked not just to edit, but to editorialize? Now that just might be really useful.

The New Technical Writing, Editing & Editorializing Test

Sample 1

In the third and fourth quarters, the Company took advantage of opportunities to release two products (HipWidget and HotWidget2) it had planned for release the first and second quarters of the following fiscal year by leveraging unexpected positive schedule balances in both development and testing.

Edit: Accelerated development and testing enabled early releases for the HipWidget and HotWidget2 two quarters ahead of schedule.

Editorial: By the way, I’ve used both HipWidget and HotWidget2 and, in my humble opinion, no documentation in the world could have saved them from being the biggest waste of silicon and plastic since Tamagachis.  Don’t get me wrong, I put them to use. The HotWidget2 is the perfect size and weight to be a coaster and with the way the battery over heats, it makes quite a nice coffee cup warmer.  And I use the HipWidget as a flashlight.  As a user advocate, I would have stretched myself out on the loading dock in front of the forklifts rather than let a single one of those items leave the manufacturer.  It worked at Berkeley and it can work here. Let them pepper spray me, I won’t move.

Sample 2

The user should pick “general” from the settings menu to bring up the general settings screen. Then, once the general menu has been selected, the user should scroll down to the keyboard shortcuts section and select “keyboard shortcuts on.” And that’s how you turn on keyboard shortcuts in your Gmail account.

Edit:
To turn on keyboard shortcuts on your Gmail account:

  1. Select Settings in the upper right corner of the Inbox.
  2. Select the General tab.
  3. Click the “Keyboard shortcuts on” radio button.
  4. Click the “Save Changes” button at the bottom of the Settings screen.

Editorial: At my last job, no one liked numbered lists, so I had to stop using them, but I’ve always wanted to and this gave me the golden opportunity.  I tried to get people to use real numbers, but any time they tried to edit, things would go all wonky until finally they told me to stop.  I know my PC is not a typewriter, but a gal can only fight so long and so hard. I can’t tell you how happy I am to use a real number format.  There’s a part of me that wants to just keep going, numbering on and on…forever.  Sometimes, in my last job, I would just sit there quietly after hours and auto-number through page after page until the overhead lights went out and I could leave without anyone seeing tears streaming down my face. Thank you so much for this opportunity. I’ll never forget you.

Sample 3

Alert: Formulas built into the spreadsheet have been cross-validated and verified against real results data. Resulting calculations from data may become incorrect because of errors in individual factors entered into the system during the human data entry process.

Edit: Alert: Always check your entries for accuracy.
Editorial: I’ve been fighting this sort of alert for years. This is the technical writing version of a Baby on Board sign in a car. And just like those signs, people should mock it until the people who want to use them are so humiliated by global derision that they stop.  Accidents, whether they are at the keyboard or behind the wheel, are accidents.  And neither your little yellow sign nor my little yellow icon with a friendly reminder will stop it.  In fact, case in point, when I lifted my fresh coffee cup to eye level to read the “Caution” message the other day, I splashed coffee on my cheek and burned myself. How’s that for you?  My face is a blistered mess because of this ridiculous need to warn people about things that don’t need warning.  You know what no one ever warned me about? No one ever warned me I’d spend hours writing warnings about things that no one will really read.  Where was that little yellow sign? The one that says, “Why bother?”

 

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Cheryl Voloshin

Cheryl Voloshin is a technical/freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She would never (ever) intentionally rob a team of their will to live and is so utterly dependent on external validation that failure is never an option. Like her stuff? Contact her by email or connect via LinkedIn or Google+

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