Critiquing an Engineering Technical Writer Want Ad


For a while now, I’ve been running across want ads for technical writers in the oil and gas industry. I have noticed some huge problems with how many of the broken want ads are written. I’ve also come across a few gems. I’m going to share one of each type here.

While these problems are present in ads for tech writers across industries, they are most evident in the oil and gas industry.

The bad one

Here are some excerpts from an example of a bad tech writer want ad (email us for the full version):

“… We are currently recruiting for a Technical Writer with an extensive background in oil and gas and/or petrochemical industry. This is for a long term contract opportunity with a fantastic company in Houston. This position is at 4 to 6 months, poss. longer”

We’ll ignore the minor grammar faux pas (I’ve written elsewhere about how technical communicators shouldn’t be too hard on others’ writing mistakes, but should seek to eliminate all of their own. The biggest problems are the focus and the scope of the qualifications here.

What exactly does an “extensive background in oil and gas and/or petrochemical industry” mean? If I have worked on newsletters for 20 years for an upstream oil company, does that mean I’m qualified to write safety manuals for a midstream gas company? When you move from niche to niche in oil and gas, most of the processes and terminology change drastically. There’s really no such thing as a “background in oil and gas,” when you get right down to it. The fields of oil and gas are too broad for that.

“The Technical Writer (Engineering) will write, format, edit, and validate technical documents to generate operation and maintenance manuals according to client and product requirements. 
Under close direction, compile data from various sources to be included in project manuals.
Keep supervisor updated on all current issues pertaining to engineering standards manuals.
Excellent written and verbal communication skills.
Thorough knowledge of products/services.
Advanced PC Skills.”

Wait a second. Is what’s most important that the writer knows about some area of the oil and gas industry, or is it that they can organize technical content, and write well? Is writing just an afterthought? Which products/services should they know about? And what are “Advanced PC Skills,” and which ones should the writer have?

Really, what many oil and gas companies want more than anything when they say they want a writer with an extensive background in oil and gas is someone who is willing to write, who knows a particular subset of terminology. They want a terminologist more than a real technical communicator. Is that wise?

Look at this simple graphic:

Overlap between terminology and writing ability

The red is all the people who know a lot of terminology in a particular area. The blue is the people who know how to write and organize technical content, generally. The purple is the people who know a lot of the terminology in that area, and have the ability to write and organize technical content, too.

Narrowing the candidates down to only those who know a particular set of terminology makes the graphic look more like this:

Most terminologists cannot organize content

So what happens? There is almost no chance that the company will hire someone who will do a good job of writing and organizing the content. So the company comes to believe that there’s not much to be said for technical communication. They might as well just hire someone who will write, and make sure they know the terminology. And so the cycle continues.

How do you break that cycle? Check out the following ad.

The good one

Here are excerpts from a far superior ad, from a company that works with oil and gas companies. (Email us for the full version.)

“Technical writing company seeks energetic, enthusiastic, flexible
employees for immediate employment. 

Must have a great attitude and good command of the English language (to
do editing and/or writing of technical documents).”

So I know something about the company culture, and I know what my key role will be.

“Sr. Writer revises or originates technical content according to client
requirements using resources provided by the client. The writer may work
on the client site or in our office. Skills used regularly are 1) target
audience assessment 2) content assessment 3) consulting with client on
document design 4) content organization 5) document formatting 6)
document editing.”

Aha. So it’s saying that my key ability on the job will be to be able to take the right technical content and make it work for the right people. This isn’t talking about a hack who knows some terms. This is an expert in their field.
“Must be an advanced user of MS Word and skilled in the application of
templates and styles. Must be proficient with Adobe Acrobat
Professional. Advanced proficiency preferred with PowerPoint, Excel, and
Visio. “

Again, this is specific. I know exactly which software packages I need to be familiar with before I apply here.

– 4 – 6 years’ technical writing experience with an emphasis on

procedural writing
– Bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience
– Oil and gas experience is a plus
– Supervisory experience is also a plus”

Again, very specific. And “oil and gas experience” is a valid qualification, even if it shouldn’t be the primary concern. Why? Not because it actually helps you much when it comes to writing and organizing the content. But because prestige is very important throughout the oil industry and the gas industry. And being able to say “I have oil and gas experience” can help get your foot in the door at many companies, even if won’t make you more competent.

And I do have oil and gas experience.

4 thoughts on “Critiquing an Engineering Technical Writer Want Ad”

  1. The bad ones were written by Human Resources. I used to work in HR. The hiring manager has no clue as to what they require. They are too busy going from meeting to meeting and don’t have any idea what they want. They just want it yesterday. HR doesn’t know anything about writing or technology. They just make sure the paperwork is correct. This presents an interesting challenge for potential employees.

  2. The bad examples were written by Human Resources. The hiring manager doesn’t know what they need and they are too busy going from meeting to meeting. They just need it now. The HR representative doesn’t know much about writing or technology. They just make sure the paperwork is filled out correctly. This presents and interesting challenge for the candidate.

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