Editor’s note: A slightly different version of this article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Intercom magazine, published by the Society for Technical Communication.
I’ll never forget the two-line email reply that my team received from a technical communication job applicant who was expressing disappointment over his rejection: “You must be joking. How many other candidates have a Ph.D. earned under a Nobel laureate?”
Ironically, the message only reinforced our decision to keep searching. Being a technical communicator requires humility, not least because we must regularly receive honest criticism of our work. It was therefore highly suspect whenever an applicant exhibited signs of an ego.
So what are the qualities that an amazing technical communication job applicant should exhibit?
That was the burning question on my mind when I became an interim hiring manager a few years ago. Faced with the difficult task of finding five high-quality technical writers as soon as possible, my team and I reviewed over a hundred resumes and LinkedIn profiles, performed countless interviews, and evaluated a huge collection of writing samples and homework assignments. It took us about eight months to fill all of our positions.
Based on my experience, I’ve written some practical tips for how technical communication job seekers can shine in four key areas: visual design, a well-tailored resume, accomplishments, and writing samples. The most competitive applicants maintained a cohesive level of quality across these categories.
Capitalizing on Visual Design
If you can make your application package clean, well-organized, and visually appealing, you will quickly distinguish yourself from the majority of technical communication candidates.
That’s not to say that shiny design is a substitute for effective writing or strong professional experience. It’s not your job as a writer to demonstrate that you have incredible artistic talent. Nevertheless, showing a firm grasp of basic design principles—balance, alignment, grouping, consistency, and so on—is critical for at least two reasons.
Reason 1: The impression it makes. Recruiters and hiring managers open hundreds of documents in the evaluation process, and you can be sure that they feel a thrill in their hearts when the first thing they see is pleasing to the eye. When I opened a document that was clean, polished, and well-organized, I delved into the details with a positive bias before even reading a single word. Conversely, I went in with a negative bias when the document was ugly, inconsistent, and cluttered.
This is hardly a new idea. In his article “Supra-Textual Design: The Visual Rhetoric of Whole Documents,” Charles Kostelnick argued that, “Attention to the visual rhetoric of the document must extend to the whole document—its global framework—not only its internal workings” (10). In other words, the more you build a cohesive design throughout your documentation—from the outer elements that readers first encounter, to the minute details inside—the more control you will have over achieving the outcomes you want.
Reason 2: The competency it demonstrates. As detailed in the March 2017 issue of Intercom, visual communication is as much a core competency of technical communicators as written communication. The best job applications we received exhibited a fusion of these skills.
This doesn’t mean you must become a design maestro capable of wielding Adobe InDesign, but it does mean making smart design choices. Most candidates we evaluated could have made simple changes to outshine the competition: avoiding underlines, showing better contrast between headings, converting dense paragraphs to concise lists, and adjusting margins and line spacing. And we certainly did not have anything against the use of glossy resume templates so long as the applicant could demonstrate their visual communication abilities in other ways, such as in their homework or writing samples.
For ideas on simple design techniques to use, see Checklist for the Ideal Technical Communications Resume. Written by Synergistech, a company with extensive experience recruiting technical writers in the San Francisco Bay Area, the checklist includes tips on alignment, tabs, spacing, and other such aspects.
Tailoring Your Resume
After we got past the initial visual impression of a resume, the most common issue we observed was the failure to tailor the language in the resume and cover letter to the position.
For example, one of our applicants used an acrostic in her resume to spell attributes like ROCKSTAR, LEADER, and BUDGET in her job history description. The technique was a little over the top, but the even bigger problem was that none of the descriptions had anything to do with technical writing or the job qualifications we had listed.
Perhaps even more surprising, we received applications from experienced technical communicators who failed to demonstrate competence with the techniques that we explicitly identified. Instead, we received long-winded descriptions of tasks that could have been summarized or omitted in favor of ones more closely aligned with our requirements.
The first step I would recommend in this area is to quickly review the standard elements of the ideal technical communication resume. Synergistech has a useful (and free) online resource called The Ideal Technical Communications Resume that directly addresses this point.
The next step is to tailor your resume to make it as easy as possible for a hiring manager, who is already inundated with hundreds of documents, to quickly and easily map your skills to their explicit needs. While this is stated so often that it borders on cliche, half of our candidates failed to adhere to it.
To get a more concrete idea of the tailoring process, consider a job description that listed the following:
- Work closely with other members of the documentation team to ensure uniformity in workflow and writing style
- Demonstrate content strategy experience, including experience defining metadata
- Use single-source publishing tools to create print and online documentation
In responding to these requirements, you should update the pertinent sections of your professional experience to describe where and how you performed similar duties. Incorporate keywords and phrases like “content strategy,” “defining metadata,” and “single-source publishing” (assuming you can claim such experience) into your descriptions, and then place them in a prominent location.
The complement to this process is to ruthlessly omit extraneous details. For instance, you can cut that story about how you analyzed multiple authoring tools to select the right one, or how you attended daily Agile meetings to “understand product market need” (whatever that means), or how you captured images with SnagIt. This is ancillary information that you can mention in the interview process if necessary. Ideally, you could fit your content on one page, though it is acceptable to go longer provided you highlight the most relevant information and emphasize the business value you delivered.
But what if you lack some of the skills shown in the job listing? We had quite a few applicants in this situation. My advice here is simple: don’t count yourself out just because you can’t fill every box. We never expected a complete match, and if you can show how you meet at least half or more of the criteria, you will still likely be considered. A few practical strategies for filling in the gaps are to invest in your own learning, volunteer for a writing project, obtain a certification, or use the cover letter to explain what skills you have to compensate. For a more in-depth discussion on this question, see Synergistech’s Getting Experience When You Have None: Escaping the Catch 22.
I should say a little more here about cover letters. Many organizations provide a place in their application system to upload one, though doing so is not always required. I recommend including one, especially if you are looking for a place to explain in more detail why you are interested in the job and how your skills compensate for any potential gaps in your job history. See Are Cover Letters a Waste of Time? for more details and advice on this particular aspect of your application.
Emphasizing Your Accomplishments
I would be willing to bet that if you have ever searched for job advice from a recruiter or career counselor, you have probably heard something like the following: rather than include vague, squishy phrases about what a “hard-working team player” you are, describe concrete accomplishments or outcomes that you achieved in your previous jobs.
This is accurate advice, and the more specific and quantitative you are, the more powerful your resume will be. But even if you cannot be quantitative, a qualitative statement is better than none. Below are a few examples geared specifically towards technical communicators.
|Quality||● Revised a series of ten user guides to improve clarity, simplify organization, and reduce length by 50 pages overall.|
|Time and Cost Savings||● Wrote over 100 new articles in the product knowledge base that preemptively answered user questions and saved subject matter experts valuable time.
● Created page templates and a content reuse strategy that accelerated the authoring process, reduced the cost of maintenance, and simplified ongoing updates.
|Organization||● Consolidated disparate guides residing in separate wiki spaces into a single wiki space, saving users time and frustration in their searches.|
|Accuracy and Maintenance||● Archived 100+ pages of outdated wiki content that was causing confusion and customer complaints.|
Be prepared to summarize these kinds of accomplishments in your resume and interviews. Think of them as before-and-after stories about you solved a communication problem and added value to the organization. My team and I were intensely interested in stories like that because we often have to justify our strategies and decisions in terms of their value to the business. (At the same time, while you always want to put your awesome talent on full display, avoid exaggeration. Hiring managers have ways of discovering how truthful you were.)
Submitting High-Quality Writing Samples
Writing samples are a critical component of the application process, and in general my team was interested in samples that demonstrated two things: (1) the ability to communicate complex technical or scientific concepts or procedures in a simple, clear, and organized fashion for non-experts; and (2) the ability to create visually effective documents.
This is rather vague, though, so here are some tips that go a level deeper.
One of our most memorable applicants submitted a chapter from her in-progress science fiction novel as a writing sample. Unfortunately it was a very confusing story, and she failed to provide us with additional samples that might still have won us over.
As another example, a PhD scientist submitted a journal article he had published, but because it was filled with so much advanced scientific jargon, we could not tell if he was capable of distilling it for a non-technical audience. Had he submitted samples that convinced us otherwise, we may well have scheduled a phone screen with him.
These anecdotes illustrate a key point, which is to select samples that are closely aligned with the position you’re applying for. If the position involves writing content for a task-based online help system, include samples that demonstrate your ability to write clear, user-friendly help procedures. If you only wrote procedures for print documentation, consider repackaging them as an online help system to show how you’re capable of working with that kind of technology. You could download a trial version of a help authoring tool to do this.
Moreover, be sure you actually wrote a significant portion of your sample and be ready to explain the outcomes you achieved. Smart hiring managers know how easy it is for writers to exaggerate their contribution to a sample. Indeed, my team and I discovered multiple cases where an applicant played a minor role in samples they submitted.
Consider adding a summary of your writing sample to set the context for it. Your summary could include the target audience, the problem it addressed, and a statement of any modifications you made (such as name changes or redactions) to suit the application process. As a hiring manager, I appreciated that kind of context, not least because it saved me time in needing to inquire further about it during interviews. The applicants who did this always set themselves apart from their peers.
Online samples and portfolios were rarer than I expected, which meant that anyone who submitted one was memorable. I would encourage you to assemble an online portfolio if you can, even if all you do is post print samples to it. So much technical writing these days occurs in the web medium, and that trend is showing no signs of letting up.
You have many options here. It is easy to set up a free online portfolio using WordPress.org. You can also link samples to your LinkedIn profile, post presentations to SlideShare (slideshare.net), publish instructional videos on YouTube, or upload documents to Issuu (issuu.com), which can then be easily embedded on a web page for interactive use.
Organization and Design
To expand on my point above, be sure to use good organization and visual design. I was surprised at how many samples that failed in this. A particularly memorable one was a user guide on how to play tic-tac-toe. While it was perhaps a decent way to create an artificial sample to demonstrate one’s skills, the writing was unclear and disorganized, the steps were not presented consistently, and the pictures were grainy and confusing.
It is perfectly acceptable if your sample is based on a pre-existing template that you did not create. However, be prepared to speak honestly about that and realize that other applicants may upstage you on that point. The more of a role you played in the organization and design of your sample, the more competitive you will be.
Some technical writers work in top-secret jobs, and many work under non-disclosure agreements and therefore can’t share what they’ve written from a past job. There are several ways to work around this. In short, you can request permission, redact the intellectual property, volunteer for a non-profit project, update a homework assignment from school, or create something artificial. See Building an NDA compliant portfolio by Connie Giordano, or When Your Portfolio’s Content is Proprietary by Synergistech for more ideas and concrete advice. The key is to be honest and knowledgeable about the context of the sample—and if applicable, to explain how you might improve it with the proper resources.
Conclusion: The Whole Package
As we evaluated one application package after another, my team and I frequently encountered gaps or inconsistencies that worked against an applicant’s success. For example, we saw LinkedIn profiles that looked highly polished, but when we received a resume, we found bad design, excessive jargon, or confusing language. Or the resume was perfection itself, but the writing samples were abstruse, disorganized, and plagued with errors and inconsistencies.
In the end, we came to see how important it is for job seekers to build cohesion throughout their application package. The most competitive applicants maintained a consistent level of quality across their LinkedIn profile, resume, writing samples, blog or online portfolio, cover letter, homework assignment, interviews, and anything else that was written or spoken during the hiring process. Building that level of quality and cohesion takes time and practice, but it’s entirely doable, and it’s a sure way to boost your confidence as you head into your interviews, ready to impress.
“Checklist for the Ideal Technical Communications Resume.” Synergistech. Accessed May 4, 2017. http://synergistech.com/resume-checklist.html.
“Getting Experience When You Have None: Escaping the Catch-22.” Synergistech. Accessed May 4, 2017. http://www.synergistech.com/catch22.html.
Gillenwater, Jamie. “Visual Communication.” Intercom 64, no. 3 (March 2017): 15-17. Accessed May 25, 2017. https://www.stc.org/intercom/2017/05/visual-communication.
Giordano, Connie. “Building an NDA compliance portfolio.” Techwhirl. Accessed February 28, 2018. https://techwhirl.com/building-an-nda-compliant-portfolio/
“The Ideal Technical Communications Resume.” Synergistech. Accessed May 5, 2017. http://synergistech.com/ideal-resume.html.
Kostelnick, Charles. “Supra-Textual Design: The Visual Rhetoric of Whole Documents.” Technical Communication Quarterly 5, no. 1 (1996): 9-33.
“When Your Portfolio’s Content is Proprietary.” Synergistech. Accessed May 6, 2017. http://synergistech.com/portfolio-permissions.html.
Yate, Martin. “Are Cover Letters a Waste of Time?” CareerCast.com. Accessed March 1, 2018. http://www.careercast.com/career-news/are-cover-letters-waste-time