How a Technical Writing Phone Interview Works

The First Recruiter Contact

The process started when a technical recruiter contacted me. During the late nineties, when technical jobs were easier to find, I often got four or five calls a week from recruiters when I posted my resume, but calls had been less frequent since the crash. In the previous month, however, I had talked to about five recruiters who submitted my resume for jobs in Phoenix, Tucson, Minnesota and North Carolina. The Phoenix position was the only one that progressed into an interview with the actual client.

When I originally spoke to the recruiter on the phone, she gave me a brief description of the job and asked for my rate. We negotiated the rate for a few minutes and came up with an acceptable number ($25 an hour) and she sent me an e-mail with the full job description and a short agreement asking me to confirm her representation and my rate. I sent back my confirmation and that was it for a while.

I read the job description but did not study it in depth because I have found that (even when business is good) I usually get to the interview stage about once per every five or six recruiter calls. This recruiter happened to represent a company I had worked for in the past. Since working for them, I had received several other calls from recruiters concerning that company. It is a huge corporation and opportunities come up regularly, but no recruiter had actually gotten me an interview since my last contract and I expected very little.

Preparing for the Phone Interview

The process moved forward when I received a call from the recruiter asking if I was still interested in the position and if I would be available for a phone interview. Phone interviews are quite common in contracting situations. Companies often are not willing to spend the time to bring in each applicant and interview him or her for what is essentially a short-term position (this position was scheduled to last three to six months). About half the companies I have contracted for hired me based solely on a phone interview.

I confirmed I would do the interview and she again emailed the job description to me. This time, I pasted the text of the description into Microsoft Word and used it as a preparation tool for the interview. The job listing asked for knowledge of hardware and of three desktop publishing applications (FrameMaker, Word and Acrobat). I wrote a series of short answers in case they asked about any of the products. As I read the project description, I added a brief account of a similar project I had worked on. I also wrote down the name of my previous supervisor at the company conducting the interview, just in case they asked. At the bottom of the job description, I added some questions to ask the interviewers. It is always good to have a couple questions. It shows them you are interested in the project.

I did not necessarily expect to look at these notes, but writing them helped me think about how to approach the interview. I charged up my cell phone and closed my door so the room would be quiet for the interview. I then reviewed the company web site and looked for specific information on the project. Unfortunately, there was very little information on the site.

The Phone Interview

The call lasted about 25 minutes. Two people, the department publications manager and the project leader, interviewed me. They began by describing the project in detail. After a few questions, I realized that this was a very straightforward project. All they wanted was someone to update the legacy documentation to include new specifications. There was going to be very little editing and no comprehensive editing; they simply wanted someone to update the documents.

The tricky part of the project was that some of the original documentation files were missing. While PDF files were available for everything, some of the original FrameMaker and Microsoft Word files would be unavailable. They needed someone with Adobe Acrobat experience who could directly edit PDF files. I have done this before, so I told them about a previous project that involved working directly with PDF files. Additionally, we discussed my web site, which I use as a general sample of my writing. I also provided them with a link to a hardware manual I had written for another company.

Samples are an important part of the technical writer’s resume. Almost every company asks for them, although I am convinced that very few take the time to read them. For this reason, the format of your samples is important. Make sure they look good, because the writing may be less important than the look and feel of the overall document.

One of the key questions I always ask at an interview is how many other candidates the interviewers are meeting. I like to get a feel for what my chances are, and the answer to this question is usually enlightening. In this case, the interviewers seemed to want to avoid answering the question. They eventually admitted that I was the only candidate they had scheduled. Apparently, the last writer they interviewed turned down the position. Now, the company was in a hurry. Their project was near deadline.

I could have been unhappy that they did not come to me first, but I chose to look at the bright side. Unless the interviewers did not like me, I had the job. I became sure of this when the interviewers asked me if I would be available to meet at their offices the next day.

Additional Resources

4 thoughts on “How a Technical Writing Phone Interview Works

  1. Hi John,

    I am looking out for fresh positions in Technical Writing. Your above mentioned post was very helpful. Website field is blank, but will very soon design a website which includes sample.


    Qhaliq A A

  2. Sharmila,

    A technical background is terrific, especially if it is appropriate to the job. Obviously, you want a person who can write clearly and quickly, but literature would not trump technical skill 9 times out of 10.

  3. Hi John,

    Currently I am working as technial writer. I done my ME (master of engineering).

    I got one question

    If you are in the interview panel,

    Will you prefer a candidate with Technical background for technical writer position, or a candidate with a degree in literature?


  4. HI John,
    I am intrested in starting a career as a Technical Writer. I have a Technical background and a BA in English. How do I get started???

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