Defining what you and I do

I remember trying to do this in STC without getting too far. Now tekom, the European professional society, has taken a stab at defining the job duties of technical communicators.

Graph showing 7 major areas of competency

Source: tekom

I think they’ve done a pretty good job.

Start with the 7 areas of competence (pictured). These aptly describe, in broad terms, the tasks associated with each stage of the content lifecycle.

Then look at the 27 fields of competence. For example, Content Creation — one of the 7 areas of competence — breaks down into identifying information sources, acquiring and selecting information, using tools to create content, and so forth. You can see these 27 fields in the Profiling Tool, a self-assessment that anyone can take.

Why a competency model?

All of this is a lot to digest. But by and large it reflects our jobs pretty well. In cases where I might quibble with the tekom definitions, it could be because I’m steeped in my own industry and tekom has tried to make the lists industry-agnostic.

Tekom identified four major stakeholder groups for the competency model:

  • Company managers and personnel departments, who draw up lists of job requirements
  • Educational institutions that develop training programs and curricula
  • People who want further education in Tech Comm
  • Practitioners who want to enter the field or enhance their skills

But that’s not all. Continue reading

The impulse to do it now

I’m doing a content inventory and I notice that some white papers have the client’s old logo on them. My first impulse is to fix them — “I’ll just apply the new template. Won’t take 5 minutes.” — even though I know full well that a content inventory has nothing to do with evaluating or fixing the content.

Person editing

This is a stock photo. But I really did look like this about 20 years ago. OK, 30.

I’m handed a 50-page book to edit. Midway through page 1, my right hand begins twitching as I resist the impulse to grab a red pen and start making corrections — even though I know full well that a good editor reads the document through, learning about the author’s style and the conventions followed, before making corrections.

It probably has a name, this impulse to tackle a big job by whacking away at little bits of it. But I don’t know what it is. I must not be the only person who’s afflicted by it. But only recently have I begun thinking about why I’m afflicted. Continue reading

Truth or ignorance? Confidence or fear? It’s time to choose

This week, 14-year Ahmed Mohammed was led away from school in handcuffs after police and school officials thought his homemade clock looked like a bomb. You probably heard about it, as I did, on Facebok or Twitter.

I find so many aspects of this story appalling.

Photo of Ahmed Mohammed

14-year old Ahmed Mohammed (Source: Dallas Morning News)

A bright kid with a passion for engineering — the kind of kid we should be celebrating — was humiliated and outrageously accused. Americans are increasingly skeptical of science. It seems now that we’re feeling threatened by science as well.

Worse, none of the supposed grownups in the story bothered to learn the truth. Confronted with the truth — Ahmed insisted all along that the device was a clock — they chose to persist in their ignorance.

Worst of all, Ahmed was singled out because he has brown skin and a Muslim name. Don’t tell me he wasn’t. He never would’ve been handcuffed if he’d looked like Wally Cleaver and his name had been Josh or Ryan.

Say what you want about this episode. It showed people — educators and police officers, the very people who should know better — behaving at their absolute worst.

Here’s the thought that echoed the loudest to me: Continue reading

John McPhee on writing for your reader

John McPhee writes in this week’s New Yorker about two essential skills for every nonfiction writer: knowing what to take out, and letting readers experience the story for themselves. For McPhee, the two are inextricably linked.

Because McPhee expresses his ideas far better than I could, I’ll use his words and then provide commentary.

Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material — that much and no more.

Photo of John McPhee

John McPhee (Source: Office of Communications, Princeton University)

Some of McPhee’s books and articles have grown much larger than he envisioned them initially, because as he dug deeper he found more and more that was interesting. Still, he says, before a story goes into final production there’s always something that would best be taken out.

He describes the bygone process of greening, in which a writer has to strike (using a green pencil) a certain number of lines from a finished magazine article so that it fits the space. He still teaches greening to his writing students. Sounds like a good idea for us technical writers as well.

Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out.

I like the idea that writing is a progression — from the starting point to the next thing, then to the next. Even though you’re writing nonfiction you’re still writing a story, and as the writer you get to decide how the story will go.

Since my background is in technical writing, I find myself wanting to argue that the “one criterion” shouldn’t be what interests me but should be what interests my reader. Yet I think I understand what McPhee is saying: As the one who’s doing the informing, I’m responsible for choosing what my reader will need or want. My reader can’t know, and I’m shirking my duty if I force them to choose the story.

I think this is true even in an “every page is page one” environment where my reader chooses what content to read, and in what order. Within each chunk of content — each topic — I still have to provide the narrative that will lead my reader to what they need.

To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape…a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images — such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost.

Get lost. In the end it’s about the reader. The writer should become invisible. I’m in complete accord with this: In fact I consider it to be the prime directive of technical writing.

What do you think? Leave a comment. Tell me if you enjoyed McPhee’s piece, and what you think of his ideas on brevity and on connecting with the reader.

Reigniting the conversation: What should a Technical Communication course teach?

About a month ago, on August 7, I wrote a piece titled What should a Technical Communication course teach? It sparked an exciting discussion about reigniting a conversation, involving both academicians and practitioners, about how to design educational programs in Technical Communication.

Ivy covered buildingLots of people weighed in on the importance of having that conversation. Many of you said you’d be glad to take part.

Unfortunately, since the discussion died down, I haven’t heard anything more. So I write this in hopes that it’ll fan the flames and get things started again.

First, a disclaimer: I’m a practitioner. I teach part of a certificate course that’s designed to give students the skills and knowledge they’ll need to work in the profession. But I’m not an academic. As a result, the impressions and opinions I’m about to express might be incomplete or even totally incorrect. I welcome all constructive criticism. Continue reading

Don’t offend anyone — and don’t communicate either

Today’s news brings word that Harvard University is allowing its students to pick the gender pronouns by which they would like to be called.

Humpty Dumpty

When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

In addition to the traditional he and she, students can select the now commonly accepted they. Or they can select other, less well known options like ze, hir, and hirs.

According to a Boston Globe story, the move by Harvard “is aimed at increasing inclusion on the campus.”

I’m all for inclusion. Yet, as the old maps used to warn navigators when they approached unexplored territory, here be dragons.

Why? Based on what I know about human communication, I’d say that Harvard’s new policy will increase, not decrease, the odds of someone taking offense. And the long-term effect might be to shut down, not enhance, communication.

Communication depends on everyone having a more-or-less shared understanding of the language they use. If I use a word, I expect you to know what I mean, and vice versa. I don’t use obscure meanings — unless I’m trying to confuse or mislead you, which is the opposite of communication. I also make a good-faith effort to interpret your words in the way you intended to use them.

But unless I know all the nuanced rules for using words like ze, hir, and hirs, the risk of misunderstandings — and hurt feelings — increases. Will I need to learn a special argot just to communicate with people on the Harvard campus?

Sounds like a lot of trouble. Maybe I just won’t bother.

By seeking to create an “inclusive” atmosphere, by building a cocoon in which no one’s feelings are hurt, Harvard is actually increasing the likelihood that someone will take umbrage. And they might be discouraging people from trying to communicate at all.

If you had just one day

We technical communicators are consummate professionals. We take our jobs seriously, 365 days a year.

We seek to inform, instruct, and assist. Never to entertain. We leave that to other, lesser scribblers. Yessir, we’re all business, all the time.

And yet….

What if we had one day when the rules were different? A day when we’d still write informative, accurate content, but when we could let our professional hair down just a little?

I’m not talking about writing some whimsical placeholder text, and then deleting or replacing it right away. I’m talking about an imaginary world in which we could have a whole day to write stuff that was off kilter, and publish it, and there’d be no repercussions.

Did you ever wish you could have a day like that? Did you ever think about what you’d do?

I’ve thought about it. Continue reading

Email marketing: I was a dreamer

This week in his Power of Connection chat (#PoCchat), on the topic of email marketing, Bobby Umar asked this question: How did you feel when you sent your first e-mail newsletter or announcement?

Old letters and postcards

My first email newsletter didn’t exactly look like this – but it was a long time ago.

How did I feel? Wow! My mind flashed back to the late 1990s and the moment I hit Send on my first email newsletter. I remember feeling this insane hope that my newsletter would be different. That I’d succeed where all those around me were failing. That my recipients would read my newsletter because somehow, magically, they’d recognize that it was a cut above all the others.

You might say I was a dreamer. And undoubtedly I was. But I wasn’t the only one.

Bobby’s question also brought me up short as I recollected how little I knew about content marketing at that time. I didn’t fully understand that my content needed to focus on the reader and not on my products and services. I didn’t understand the importance of developing relationships with my readers before I started lobbing content at them.

It all seems second nature to me now. But, looking back, I can see that I had the keys to this marvelous marketing machine — with barely a clue as to how to run it.

It occurs to me that there are people like that today. In fact, judging from the contents of my inbox, there are a lot of people like that.

So, for their benefit, here are four basics for email marketing: Continue reading

When a good worker struggles

This one’s personal. It’s the story of one of the biggest leadership challenges I’ve ever faced: a good employee whose performance declined but who didn’t (or couldn’t) admit that she had a problem.

Broken pencilsJenny (not her real name) was one of the best pure writers who ever worked for me. She came to me highly recommended, with a history of success both at work and outside of work. When she joined our project, her subject-matter experts quickly came to love her: she was congenial, she asked good questions, and she respected their time. She showed enthusiasm and a positive, can-do attitude.

Soon after we began working together, Jenny told me that she was going through a difficult divorce and adjusting to life as a single mom. She needed a flexible schedule, to accommodate the kids’ activities. We agreed that she could do much of her work at home and in the evenings. I avoided scheduling meetings and important calls in mid-afternoon when she picked up the kids at school. The arrangement suited everyone, at least for a while.

Then she started missing deadlines. She’d assure me that a chapter would be finished by Friday. Then on Friday she’d ask if it could wait until Monday, promising to work over the weekend.

I asked her if things were OK, if she could use some help. The answer was always the same: I’ve got this. I can handle it.

But she wasn’t handling it. Continue reading


Coke’s bogus research: Everything old is new again

Growing old isn’t without its advantages. Here’s one: I remember stuff that happened long ago, so that I recognize it when I see it happening again.

This morning’s paper brings news that the Coca-Cola company has created a nonprofit foundation dedicated to funding research. The purpose of the research? To show that lack of exercise, not excessive calories, is reponsible for people being overweight.

It brings to mind the Tobacco Institute (TI), which famously in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s supported research refuting the growing scientific consensus that smoking tobacco causes cancer. Even after U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry reported in 1964 that smoking and cancer were definitively linked, the TI kept up its campaign through reports and magazine articles. The TI, of course, was founded and sustained by the leading cigarette manufactures of the day.

Now it’s Coke’s turn. I’d say that sugar isn’t the only thing Coke is full of. Continue reading