What Do Hiring Managers Want?

What Do Hiring Managers Want?

Notes by Gail Saari
May 20, 2003

In part two of our Getting Work double feature, panelists discussed what managers want in the editors and writers they hire. Our panel, representing both traditional book publishing and high-tech ventures, also addressed rates and market currents.

Panelists were: Lasell Whipple, managing editor at Jossey-Bass; Joy Ma, former managing editor for PC Games magazine, currently with Key3Media; Lorena Jones, managing editor at Ten Speed Press; and Walter Keefe, of Synergy Personnel Services, Inc., in San Mateo, a full service staffing company with its primary focus in technical communications.

Assembling this panel was a cooperative effort by John Maybury, Kristi Hein, Diane Lee, and Bonnie Britt, with suggestions by Rosana Francescato.

The discussion began with a look at the current business environment and job market. The past two years have been lean ones for technical writers, Keefe said, with 30 to 40 percent of the people he represents not working regularly. In the short term, the chief financial officers of publishing and technology firms are hesitant to hire additional personnel, especially full-time staff. Thus the market for independent contractors and freelancers remains slightly better than that for permanent staff. Keefe also sees that pay rates have slipped back to those last seen in 1997-98, with some technical writers working for as little as $35.00 per hour. Many technical jobs that used to go to Bay Area workers, writing and editing as well as computer programming, are now going to workers abroad.

At Ten Speed Press, fewer titles are being produced, Jones said. Previously the press used independent contractors for developmental editing and production management, but currently the editorial staff of eleven persons does most of this work.

For job seekers, therefore, finding work requires more effort and initiative than merely submitting résumés. In fact, said Keefe, the ability of job seekers to submit résumés exceeds the ability of companies to process them or even acknowledge receipt; he therefore suggests networking and word-of-mouth recommendations as more reliable, if labor-intensive, ways to turn up job opportunities. There was an interesting consensus among panelists that cover letters carry more weight than résumés in getting the attention of a hiring director.

Whipple, who oversees twelve production editors, pointed out that a project manager might be handling 10 to 15 projects at a time and would prefer to use a copyeditor with whom she or he has already worked. Jossey-Bass's hiring process involves an infamously difficult copyediting test intended to ensure that candidates considered have the necessary editing skills. Even so, taking on a new copyeditor involves a large investment in training and is not undertaken lightly.

Both Jossey-Bass and Ten Speed use copyediting tests to determine not only that a potential candidate has the necessary grasp of grammar and usage but also to get a sense of how the editor approaches challenging material. Jones cites as a tell-tale sign of a skilled copyeditor the ability to recognize when writing is not strong and to suggest alternative wordings. Another desirable trait is the ability to write tactful queries and to find a balance between too many queries and too much or too little editorial initiative.

Computer skills are becoming important as well. Online editing is often done in Microsoft Word, with the "Track Changes" feature turned on. Knowledge of HTML, XML, and Adobe FrameMaker were also cited as useful. Whipple mentioned the paperless initiative that Jossey-Bass is attempting, using Adobe Acrobat PDF files with their electronic note features for transferring manuscript proofs and notations across the Internet.

Recommendations for the job-seeker:

  • Get out of the house: attend professional talks, take courses, teach courses, meet potential employers, and offer to do pro bono work for non-profit organizations.
  • Be flexible in your expectations, especially in terms of remuneration.
  • Register with two or three staffing services.
  • In your cover note to a potential employer, offer to take their copyediting test.
  • You can also offer to do the first three hours of work for free as a trial.
  • Along with a well-written cover letter and résumé, send editing samples, including marked-up roughs, queries, and suggestions.
  • Production managers or managing editors are most interested in the titles you have previously edited: in the types of projects you have already done and whether your experience, skill set, and subject knowledge are a good fit with the assignment at hand.
  • Good handwriting is important.

In addition to these meeting notes, you can read "What We Want in a Copy Editor" from Jossey-Bass.



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