Author Archives: Larry Kunz

About Larry Kunz

I’m a technical communication professional with more than 30 years’ experience as a writer, manager, planner, and information designer. In my paying job I lead projects and perform consulting for clients who want to treat their customer-facing content as a business asset. I teach a course in project management in the Technical Communication certificate program at Duke University. I’ve also developed and delivered courses in structured authoring to internal staff and corporate clients. I’ll be happy to speak at your next event, either in person or over the web, about Tech Comm or any related subject.

Look that up: the lexicographer’s conundrum

Old dictionary advertisement

“The one dictionary that puts your family in command of today’s English”

Some of the best stuff you’ll read on Twitter is the wit and wisdom of Kory Stamper and her fellow lexicographers — including the fresh and very woke tweets from Merriam-Webster itself. Those tweets prove the point that Stamper strives to make in her book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries: that lexicography and lexicographers aren’t as boring as you thought.

Stamper makes her point well, in a distinctively breezy, engaging, and elbow-nudging way. Although a few of her chapters run long, going a little deeper into the weeds than necessary, I recommend the book for anyone who’s interested in writing or language in general.

Old dictionary advertisement

“Accept Nothing Less Than the SUPREME Authority”

The best chapter is the one titled “Marriage,” in which Stamper deftly portrays the tension between lexicographers, who know that their job is to describe the language as it is, and their employers, who for more than a century have touted their dictionaries as the absolute authorities on how our language should be used.

Stamper emphasizes that our language is a river, and lexicographers work tirelessly to discover and track all of its whorls and eddies. It took her weeks, for example, just to update the various definitions of take.

(My use of took in that last sentence is sense 10e of the definition for take, the verb. I haven’t even mentioned take, the noun.)

Yet since the days of Noah Webster, at least, dictionaries have contended in the marketplace by claiming to be authoritative, by insisting that they alone can give you a mastery of words. Funk & Wagnalls, in its pre-Laugh In days, trumpeted that its dictionary contained all human knowledge since the world began.

Old dictionary advertisement

“All human knowledge since the world began is concentrated in this one mighty book”

Even today, Stamper’s own Merriam-Webster displays these words on your browser tab when you display its home page: America’s most trusted online dictionary.

How should we reconcile the difference between the marketer’s insistence on prescribing and the lexicographer’s work of describing — especially in an age when dictionaries rely on online ads, not sales of printed books, to survive financially?

Stamper doesn’t give an answer, and I suppose there probably isn’t one. People expect dictionaries to tell them how to write (and speak), while lexicographers compile dictionaries to reflect what people are writing.

It truly is a question or problem having only a conjectural answer — sense 2a of the definition for conundrum.

Meanwhile, our language flows on, whorling and eddying as it pleases.

Finding your own community and security

Last week I described a bygone day of two-way loyalty between companies and their employees. While I doubt that day will ever return, I proposed a few ways in which managers can give their people a healthy, realistic sense of community and security.

Maybe you’re not a manager or a leader. You’re a rank-and-file worker, and you’re not in a position to try out any of those things I talked about.

Today we’ll look at it from your point of view. What can you, as a worker, do to increase your sense of community and security when there seems to be too little of both?

Here are a few ideas. Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

Do new things

Network switches in a rack

Happy ending to the video: the switches are installed in a rack.

Last month I made my first live-action video (as opposed to screen shots). The video shows how to install network switches in a rack. It won’t win an Academy Award, but it’s taught me a lot about writing scripts, planning video and photo shoots, recording audio, and editing the whole package. I know those new skills will serve me well on other projects.

Try doing new things whenever you can. You’ll increase your value to your employer, and you’ll add new skills to your repertoire.

The idea is not to make yourself indispensable (as if you could). The idea is to make yourself flexible so that you’re ready to take on new roles or, if need be, to land a new job.

Don’t be a wallflower

I know. You’re introverted. So am I. You won’t see me in the middle of the action at the next company party. But I’ll be there, and I won’t be hiding behind the potted fern either. I hope you’ll be there too, because you can’t feel like you belong to a community if you don’t act like you belong to the community.

Flowers along a wall

Wallflowers are pretty. But they don’t reflect — or inspire — loyalty.

When I mentioned loyalty, remember that I described it as two-way loyalty. You want to know that your company’s loyal to you, while you’re being loyal to your company.

Loyalty to the company doesn’t just mean following the rules, showing up on time, and always speaking well of Good Old Spacely Sprockets. It also means — it especially means — being loyal to the people who make up the company, the people who work alongside you, the people who might want to feel like they’re part of a community too.

So say hello to them. Chat with them at the water cooler. And for heaven’s sake, don’t pass up the company party.

Know yourself — and trust yourself

Maybe, even though things look the same, your workplace has changed. Your car’s in the same parking space. Your cubicle walls are the same shade of — what color is that? But you know things are different. There was such a great vibe when you hired on, but today — for whatever reason — all the joy is gone.

Maybe the management team changed. Maybe a merger or an acquisition upended the culture. Maybe the company’s slipping in the marketplace and everybody’s stressed out about it.

It’s normal to feel uneasy, even helpless, in the face of changes like these. Yet it’s vital to keep your balance. How? Make sure your center of gravity is secure. Take stock of yourself. Remember what’s really important to you. Decide what you are, and are not, willing to do.

I once joined a company I admired for the high quality of its work and for its generosity of spirit. Over time, through a series of setbacks and managerial changes, I saw those good attributes fade away.

Eventually I saw that I was part of a company that cut corners and tried to squeeze as much money as it could from customers and employees.

How long would it be before I was called on to do something that went against my values? Before I was asked to betray a client’s trust by passing off poor-quality work? I had to decide what mattered to me: which lines I could cross and which ones I couldn’t, even if it meant losing my job.

Fortunately, I never had to make such a drastic choice. But by drawing those lines, by determining that I wouldn’t cross them, I empowered myself. I gained a bit of control over my situation — and with it, a sense of security. I knew that, even if things around me went sideways, I could stand firm and hold onto my integrity.

I also kept my resume up to date and constantly checked job postings, which gave me an additional sense of control — hence, again, a sense of security. I kept in close touch with my professional network, so that they became my community. Eventually it paid off: I found a new job in a much better situation.

This work — this taking stock and drawing boundary lines — is something you have to do for yourself. You can’t delegate it. You can’t get it from reading a book or a blog post. It’s uniquely yours. Don’t neglect it, even if right now you’re happy with your situation.

Things change. Make sure you’re ready.

Recapturing community and security

The vast Roebling Mill, near Trenton, New Jersey, produced thousands of miles of steel cable for huge public-works projects like the George Washington and Golden Gate Bridges. At its peak, around World War II, it employed 5,000 people.

Most of those employees lived in a planned community, also called Roebling, in red-brick houses that had been constructed by the Roebling family expressly for their workers to live in.

The loyalty was palpable

When you were part of Roebling, you walked to work beside your neighbors along the leafy streets, through the gate house and down the hill to the factory site. Afterward you walked back together. Perhaps you stopped at the (subsidized) general store or at one of the taverns before going home to your family.

You were part of a community in every sense of the word.

roebling-aerial2.png

The town of Roebling (foreground) and the steel mill in their heyday (Source: Hagley Digital Archives)

Today the mill buildings are gone, although the town with its brick houses and leafy streets remains. The stories of the mill and its people are told in the Roebling Museum, located in the old gate house.

The stories describe a remarkable esprit de corps, a strong bond between co-workers and neighbors who took great pride in their work, whose families gathered together on front porches, whose children competed together on the town’s sports teams.

When you were part of Roebling, the loyalty — yours to the company, and the company’s to you — was palpable.

Nothing lasts forever

When I visited the Roebling Museum earlier this month, those stories reminded me of my first few years at IBM. There I was steeped in a corporate culture that emphasized longevity and two-way loyalty. I never sang songs from the IBM hymn book, but some of my older colleagues had.

On the annual opinion survey, we were asked whether we agreed with a series of statements — one of which was I am confident that, as long as I do a good job, there will be a place for me at IBM. The hoped-for result was that all of us would mark Strongly Agree.

After a while they quietly took that statement out of the survey. After another while, for many of us, the statement proved to be false.

Nothing lasts forever. The Roebling Mill closed for good in 1974 after years of decline. IBM’s first layoffs (sorry, resource actions) took place in 1993. My pink slip came in 2002.

Trying to recapture a little of the old

I’m not suggesting that we can, or even should, return to those days of unswerving loyalty, of living in the safety of the corporate cocoon.

Still, the pendulum seems to have swung too far in the other direction.

Do you work in a place where you feel really connected with your co-workers, with a shared sense of mission and a shared pride in what you do?

Some of you do work in a place like that. But many of you don’t. Perhaps some of you have never experienced what it’s like.

Do you work in a place where you know that your employer has your back, that they care about you as a person and as a professional?

Again, while some of you do, I’ll wager that many more of you don’t.

Community and security

While it’s foolish and naive for workers to believe that the company will always take care of them, there’s value in identifying yourself with a company and in bonding with co-workers.

And while there are no guarantees, there’s also value in knowing that as long as you do a good job, the company will do its best to ensure that it has a place for you.

Community and security. I’ve worked in situations (like those early days at IBM) where I’ve felt like I had a lot of both. I’ve also worked in situations where I had essentially none.

I can tell you which one is better.

So, as managers and leaders, how can we give our workers a healthy, realistic sense of community and security?

Here are a few ideas. I hope you’ll add more ideas in the comments.

  • Let your people know that you value them for the people they are, not just for the work they do. Recognize that some of them might be hurting, having been betrayed by a previous employer they thought they could trust.
  • Invest in your people’s professional development. When you pay for someone to attend a training course, you’re saying that you can see them contributing in the long term, not just on the present project.
  • Let your people have fun together. Even if their families don’t gather on front porches, you can help create an environment where they feel connected by things other than their day-to-day work.

As workers, how can we increase our sense of community and security when there seems to be too little of both? Perhaps that’s a topic for another blog post.

I’d love to hear your story of community and security: how you’ve coped with losing them, or maybe how you’ve lost them and managed to regain them.

Yes, and: Helping you communicate better

When actor Alan Alda signed on to host the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers, in which he talked with scientists about their work, he did what most good interviewers would do. He read up on his subjects and their research, and he prepared a list of questions.

As Alda tells it, the first interviews were dull, dull, dull.

Cover for If I Understood You bookThen he tried a different approach. He did only cursory background reading, and he didn’t prepare a list of questions. Instead, he sat down to have a conversation instead of an interview.

In his new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, Alda describes what happened. The scientists, realizing they were talking with an interested layperson, started connecting on a personal level rather than delivering lectures. Alda, able to sense the scientists’ thoughts and feelings in the moment, let the conversation flow naturally and comfortably.

Instead of playing the role of a lecturer to a student, or an interviewee to a reporter, the scientists connected with Alda — and, by extension, with the PBS audience — as people talking with people.

Empathy: the key to communication

Alda’s book bears out a lot of things that technical writers already know. Empathy, he writes, is “the fundamental ingredient without which real communication can’t happen.”

Empathy comes from knowing your audience — whether it’s the person across from you in a coffee shop, an audience in a lecture hall, or a datacenter manager who reads your web page. Empathy comes from knowing who they are, what they’re thinking, and what they’re feeling.

Alda writes, “My guess is that even in writing, respecting the other person’s experiences gives us our best shot at being clear and vivid, and our best shot, if not at being loved, at least at being understood.”

He’s right.

He’s also right when he talks about connecting with an audience: “You make a connection by evoking emotions. A great way to evoke emotions is by telling stories. Stories are most effective when you establish commonality with the listener.”

Alda backs up his experience on Scientific American Frontiers with some impressive scholarship. He talks with an array of experts (it’s easy to get a meeting when you say, “Hi, I’m Alan Alda and I’d like to talk with you”). He reports on a number of research projects.

Some of the projects were Alda’s own handiwork. He was and continues to be a guiding force behind the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. His contributions to the science of interpersonal communication are such that STC (the Society for Technical Communication) recognized them by naming him an Honorary Fellow in 2014.

Inprov: new insights for technical writers

Still, despite all of his scholarship and all of his hard work, Alda’s conclusions come as no surprise to most technical writers. We already know about analyzing the audience, about connecting with readers, and about telling stories.

Where Alda adds real value for me is when brings his life’s work – acting – into the picture. Much of the book describes his experience with improvisation, in which actors create scenes together without a script and without any expectations as to the outcome. Continue reading

Dazzling their giddy readers

Back in 1946 an unnamed editor at the Saturday Evening Post had a bone to pick with the then-current Second Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary. Specifically, he (given the era and the medium, the editor most likely was a he) was worked up because the dictionary would present all of the various definitions for a word without sufficiently distinguishing the generally accepted ones from the offbeat or archaic ones.

Post cover showing two cleaning ladies in an empty theater

A classic Post cover from, yes, 1946 (source: Saturday Evening Post)

As quoted on Twitter by Peter Sokolowsky, a contemporary lexicographer for Webster’s, the editor had this to say:

Is There a Lexicographer in the House?

This magazine, and every other magazine, we suppose, has frequent recourse to a dictionary for enlightenment on the proper usage of words that crop up in manuscripts. As we are an American publication employing what is called the American language, we use an American dictionary. It is a big, fat, leather-bound volume, heavy enough to snap a man’s instep if it should fall off its stoutly contrived stand. It is also a big, fat fraud. In most instances, it is no more a guide to correct meaning than astrological writings and the prophecies of Nostradamus are guides to the future. Its scholarship, if such pack-rat hoarding of oddities can be called scholarship, is of the on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other variety. Any meaning, no matter how far-fetched or archaic, can be justified by anyone willing to risk his eyesight on the small print. It doesn’t deserve the title of dictionary, although it is highly ranked in lexicographers’ circles; it is largely an anthology of word meanings and it serves only to compound confusion. The English language, from which our own derives, is an unusually lush language, and our English cousins try in a scholarly way to encourage a reasonably disciplined approach to it. The ungoverned tendency here in America is to admit every novelty with which frontier wits and modern saloon columnists have sought to dazzle their giddy readers.

This seems to be as good a time as any for our lexicographers to get together and work toward some semblance of authority in their works. It is even conceivable that one courageous lexicographer with a sound background and a decent respect for the virility of the American language could cut away some of the spurious trimmings without injuring the tree. Is there such a lexicographer in the house? If not, our language stands in danger of growing so many sucker branches that we won’t be able to see the tree for the suckers.

It’s entertaining to read the rant of a 1946 magazine editor. I’d like to go back in time and ask him what he meant by the virility of the American language.

Whatever he meant, his plea for “a decent respect” for the language gets to the real purpose of dictionaries — especially for those of us who write and edit.

Photo of Webster's Second edition

The “big, fat, leather-bound fraud”: Webster’s Second Edition (source: Amazon)

I think that most writers and editors, and certainly most lexicographers, agree that dictionaries should describe how words are used rather than prescribing how they should be used. Yet merely describing, without making some judgment calls, isn’t helpful.

Why is that? Well, why does a writer consult a dictionary? To ensure that the words we choose will communicate our intended meaning to our readers.

That means we have to know, first, how our readers (our audience, in the parlance of technical writing) will understand the words, based on their backgrounds and their frame of mind. Are they academics? Farmers? Politicians? Are they more or less comfortable with new usage, with slang, with meanings that derive from popular culture?

Then, second, we have to know the words themselves. This is where the dictionary comes in. It should be able to tell me whether the words I have in mind are going to connect with the readers I’m writing for.

If it does, true communication is possible. If it doesn’t, then as a writer I’m simply throwing darts in the dark and hoping they hit something. Or worse, I’m a frontier wit seeking to dazzle my giddy readers.

Please, no. Anything but that.

Epilog: The editor, Sokolowsky notes, eventually got his wish, although he had to wait a while. Webster’s Third, published in 1961, was far more discriminating. In Sokolowsky’s words, it jettisoned the all-but-the-kitchen-sink approach — and that policy has continued to the present day.

All or nothing

All or nothing. It seems to be the way of the world. But it’s no way to manage your career.

In baseball, a home run is the best thing you can do as a hitter. You take a big swing, you feel the satisfying jolt as you hit the ball, and the crowd stands up to cheer as you trot around the bases.

Babe_Ruth_by_Paul_Thompson,_1920

When Babe Ruth retired, he held the record for most home runs — and the record for most strikeouts.

The worst thing you can do is strike out. You don’t hit the ball. You don’t get to run. You just slink back to the bench, defeated and humiliated.

Home run. Strikeout. All or nothing.

25 years ago, major-league hitters had an all-or-nothing outcome — a home run or a strikeout — about one-sixth of the time.

Last year, it was almost a quarter of the time. That’s an increase of nearly 50 percent, trending toward all-or-nothingness. Toward the extremes.

It’s not just baseball, either. Here in the U.S., and in much of the rest of the world, the political middle is melting away. “Moderates” are becoming an endangered species. More and more, you’re either an avid liberal or a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. It’s hip to be extreme.

Or is it? There’s one area where I hope you’re not an all-or-nothing person.

When I started my career in technical writing, it wasn’t long before I became a specialist: a technical writer for software. In that role I was familiar with the principles of UX (user experience), but there were other professionals who specialized in that.

In my professional network were other technical writers who specialized in writing about pharmaceuticals, policies and procedures, and grant proposals.

I view specialization as a form of all-or-nothingness. You can do one specific thing. You can become really good at it. With some effort I might’ve become the best software technical writer in the world, hitting a home run every time. But would that have given me the skills and experience to step into a different role?

What about you? Are you trying to become the best in the world in one specialized thing? Or are you broadening your skill set so that you can move from one role to another? Are you learning new skills and making sure that you’re at least conversant, if not expert, in a variety of fields related to your core skills?

If that’s you, then good for you. You’ve found the key to staying current and remaining employable.

Good for you, because you’ll have a much easier time adapting to changing job markets and requirements than someone with a narrow area of specialization.

A baseballGood for you, because even though some hiring managers take the all-or-nothing approach — you have to have exactly this experience and these skills before I’ll consider you — the smart ones understand that your breadth of experience will enable you to fit easily into the job — and grow with the job as it evolves over time.

So, even if the rest of the world is trending toward all-or-nothingness, I hope you’ll overcome the temptation to let your career trend that way.

You can hit lots of home runs but strike out whenever you’re confronted with something unfamiliar or new. Or you can develop diverse skills that enable you to succeed in diverse ways — hitting singles, doubles, and triples, along with the occasional home run, and only rarely striking out.

How have you been able to learn and evolve, avoiding the trap of all-or-nothingness? Share your story in the comments section.

Image by Paul Thompson, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 

Two ideas a month?

Today I learned that, in the view of one pundit on Kinja, all newspaper columnists stink at their jobs. First, because they’re trained to report and not persuade. Second, because no one can come up with a fresh, original idea more than twice in a month. Maybe three times in a good month. Yet the columnist is expected to produce two columns a week.

Waterfall at the Japanese Garden in Portland

Google “image idea” and you get a lot of light bulbs. So instead, here’s a photo of Portland’s Japanese Garden — a good place to get fresh ideas.

The article offered a solution to idea-lorn columnists: use the same ideas again and again. After all, no one except your closest friends reads every column you write. So who’s going to know?

I’m highly suspicious of the finding (that all columnists stink), the explanation (two ideas a month), and the advice (recycle your ideas). Yet I’m prompted to ask, would that apply to bloggers too?

If the likes of George Will, Thomas Friedman, and Dana Milbank are good for only two, maybe three, fresh ideas a month, then surely a blogger like me — even though I try
to publish at least one original post each week — can’t hope to do better.

That would take the pressure off, wouldn’t it? When I struggle to find new ideas, I can just warm up some leftovers, as it were, and dress up an old post as something new. You, dear reader, won’t even notice.

(Insert eyeroll emoji.) If only that were true.

I don’t think columnists are that hard up for new ideas. Bloggers either. Reading Tom Johnson’s blog, for example, I suspect that he has at least two fresh ideas every day before breakfast.

I agree with the pundit about one thing, though: ideas are sometimes hard to come by. But we can still train ourselves to increase the likelihood of having fresh ideas. How? Try these techniques.

Seek other points of view

You’re used to seeing things as you see them. What would they look like from another vantage point? What if you could see them in a larger context?

What would you learn? Would your feelings or your opinions change?

There. Now you have fresh ideas to write about.

To get a different vantage point, maybe you just need to go someplace new, like the Japanese Garden. I like to follow people on social media who aren’t from my family, who aren’t from my home town, who don’t share my religious and political views.

I’m not saying you have to change your mind about anything (although that could be a side benefit). But you’ll get fresh ideas.

Read something new

If I were in my 20s or 30s I might say do something you’ve never done before. And, yes, that’s a good way to get fresh ideas. But when you reach a certain age you already know whether you’re willing to jump out of an airplane (I’m not) or take a trip around the world (love to, but can’t afford it).

I can read, though, and so can you. Those folks on social media who don’t share your comfort zone? They can point you to articles and books that’ll spark fresh ideas. Be careful what you click on, of course. But it’s possible to broaden your horizons without getting mired in internet quicksand.

Read books and articles about topics that are new to you. One of the best history books I ever read was Steven Pressfield’s The Lion’s Gate, about the 1967 Six Day War — a subject about which I’d known virtually nothing.

I also recommend anything by John McPhee for new insights about culture, technology, and environmentalism.

Tell a story

You probably know that I believe in storytelling in all kinds of writing — including business and technical writing.

If you want fresh ideas, start telling a story. You might not know how the story will end. You probably don’t know what insights you’ll draw from it. Start telling the story and see where it takes you.

Fellow technical writer Neal Kaplan recently broke a blogging silence with an appealing story about taking a hike and then taking it again. I think it’s fair to say that the experience rejuvenated his creative thinking process. So be like Neal: go ahead and tell your story.

What are your techniques for increasing the flow of fresh ideas?

Serve the profession. Serve each other. Serve the truth.

These are remarks I made earlier this week at the STC Carolina chapter’s 50th anniversary celebration (with some local color edited out). I offer them as a salute, and an encouragement, to everyone in the technical communication profession.

Fifty years ago our forebears brought forth a new organization, dedicated to promoting and cultivating the profession of technical communication in this area.

It’s a testament to their vision that this idea – cultivating the profession of technical communication – sounds perfectly normal to us today. In 1967 it was crazy talk: technical writers were often an afterthought, subservient to the engineers and scientists they worked with. At universities, technical writing, when it was taught at all, was usually a little enclave within the English department.

The founding members

STC Carolina 50th anniversary logoWhen I got here in 1983, I got to know three of our chapter’s founding members. Dr. Edmund Dandridge, professor of English at NC State University, made a name for himself as a teacher and researcher.

Richard Russell – Dick Russell – retired from IBM just about when I arrived. A whole generation of technical writers regarded Dick Russell as a trailblazer and a mentor.

Austin Farrell without a doubt was the chapter’s father figure. I don’t think he actually smoked, but I can picture him wearing a cardigan sweater, holding a pipe in his hand, offering fatherly advice and wisdom to the people who followed him as leaders in the chapter.

I was privileged to know these founding members, but here’s what I want you to know about them: they were pretty much the same as you. They believed that technical writers, designers, illustrators, and managers should be recognized as professionals – just like the engineers and scientists they worked with. They believed in sharing knowledge and helping people grow in their careers.

The legacy they started

Fifty years later, we look on the legacy they started, the legacy that you all have helped build. I’m grateful and proud that the Carolina chapter has always had strong programs and events, strong competitions, and, of course, strong people.

I keep coming back to the people. If this chapter has a proud history it’s because of its people. Because of all of you who cared. You cared about the profession. You cared about each other. You cared enough to share your skills and knowledge, to mentor, to celebrate each other’s achievements.

You cared. You served.

Even though I said we’re not subservient, our profession really is built on service. We serve our audience – the people who use the information we create. Service is the heart of what we do as technical communicators.

Some of you were active in the chapter many years ago. Some of you are longtime members and have played vital roles. Some of you are relatively new: your hard work, your inspiration, your caring and serving will write the history of our next 50 years.

So, from today onward, how will we serve our profession? Continue reading

A passage particularly fine

I’ve agreed to give a short speech at the STC Carolina chapter’s 50th anniversary celebration next week. It’s a special occasion, so I want the speech to be good.

Right now the speech is about twice as long as it needs to be. Which means that I’m right on schedule. It’s time for me to stop writing and start crossing things out.

I’m guided by this bit of wisdom from the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson (quoted by James Boswell):

Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

Portrait of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson: not particularly noted for his sense of humor

I think I first encountered this quotation when I was in my twenties — perhaps even in college. That’s a good joke, I thought. That Dr. Johnson was quite the kidder.

He wasn’t kidding. But I wasn’t listening.

By the time I turned 40 I began to see wisdom in the doctor’s prescription. Stay vigilant, I took it to mean, lest your writing become flowery or overly ornamented. I was quick to deride those attributes in other people’s writing. Scoffing, I’d hand down my judgment: it’s overwritten.

Today, however, I’m a believer. Today when I write something cunningly clever, a phrase especially well turned — anything that’s particularly fine — I regard it with suspicion.

I don’t always strike it out, I confess. At least not right away. But l move it aside. Then I go back and see whether the piece is actually stronger with it gone. Almost every time, the piece is stronger.

It’s stronger because now, instead of pleasing me, it aims to please the people who’ll read (or hear) it.

You’re looking to be informed. It’s not my place to impress you.

Perhaps you’re looking to be amused or entertained. I’m more apt to do that if I write for your benefit rather than mine.

So (on a good day at least) I’ll furl my flowery phrases and instead deploy language that’s clear and direct. I’ll stop putting on a show and I’ll put you in the center of the story.

Many of us writers fell in love in our formative years with creative writing. It’s taken most of my life to understand that solving a puzzle — the puzzle of communicating effectively with my readers while keeping them engaged — is no less creative than making my prose dance on the head of a pin.

It’s no less creative, it’s no less fun, and it’s a lot more considerate of you, my audience.

(Update: Remember the speech I was writing? Here’s how it came out.)

Survey says: DITA’s benefits and challenges

DITA SurveyWhat are DITA‘s biggest benefits? Its greatest challenges?

The Content Wrangler is surveying DITA users, and last week Scott Abel — joined by DITA cognoscenti Rob Hanna,Mark Lewis, and Keith Schengili-Roberts — presented some preliminary results.

I’ve listed the rankings here, along with some thoughts of my own. Each numbered item is from Scott’s presentation; the commentary between the numbered items is mine.

(The survey is still accepting responses. If you haven’t yet weighed in, you can do so right now.)

What benefits does DITA provide?

This section was open to all respondents.

1, Consistency: content reuse/single-sourcing
Yes: when I think of single-sourcing, I think of consistency. But I also think about flexibility — of being able to publish the same content on the web, as integrated help, as PDF, and in other formats. For me that’s a big benefit, just as much as — and probably more than — consistency.

2. Usability: structure provides predictability

3. Translation: savings from reusing translation
The panelists remarked that they expected this one to score higher, and theorized that many of the survey respondents were content creators but were not the people actually responsible for translation. I think they’re probably right — and I’d also point out that a lot of organizations simply don’t translate their content. It would be interesting if the survey asked how many are currently translating DITA content.

4. Customization: segmentation, personalization
Nice to see this one crack the top 4. I think we (the community of DITA content producers) are just beginning to take advantage of features like metadata and keys. There’s so much more we can do to adapt content based on the audience’s geographic location, experience level, and so forth. (Key scopes and branch filtering in DITA 1.3 hold out even more promise.)

Rank the biggest challenges associated with using DITA

This section was open to respondents who said they use DITA.

1. Reuse: determining reuse strategy
Conref or keyref? What taxonomy to use, and where to put the metadata (in topics or in maps)? Who “owns” the library of reusable content? There doesn’t seem to be much consensus on best practices when it comes to developing a reuse strategy. Maybe, like the consultants always say, it depends — on what the writing team is
used to, on which groups are collaborating to produce content, and on what the corporate culture will support.

2. Usage: making DITA do what we want it to do

3. Training: equipping staff with skills needed
DITA logoThere’s a ton of training out there — in the basics of structured authoring, in DITA itself, and in the various tools. So I’m not sure what the problem is, unless it’s that companies don’t want to pay for training and want simply to hire people who already know everything (see #7 below). Even if you could hire fully-capable DITA writers off the street (and that’s a big if), they still need to be trained in how to use your local style, transforms, and so forth.

4. Technology: understanding software

5. Formatting: developing stylesheets and rules for content
This isn’t rocket science, but it is serious, hard work. It’s often not considered when companies plan a transition to DITA — which makes it even harder.

6. Governance: enforcing the rules
See number 5 above.

7. Staffing: finding experienced talent

8. Creation: understanding how to create DITA content

9. Measurement: what to measure, how to decide
Let’s be honest: rather than what to measure, don’t we really mean making the business case? We still struggle to quantify the cost savings and revenue enhancement associated with structured authoring and DITA. Translation savings, of course, are a big part of the story. But increased usability, customization, and brand consistency have value too. We just have a hard time quantifying their value.

10. Translation: issues associated with DITA content

So there you have it. What do you think? Do any of the rankings surprise you? Is anything missing from either list?

Do you agree with my take?

Thanks to Scott Abel for conducting the survey. Like so much of what he does, it’s of great value to the technical writing community. Thanks to Rob, Mark, and Keith for their contributions as well.