Category Archives: Technical communication

Lottie Applewhite: friend, colleague, exemplar

Some of the greatest leaders lead without having Manager or Executive in their job titles. We call them exemplars.

lottieaLottie Applewhite passed away on May 15, 2017, in Chapel Hill, NC. She was a technical editor for many decades. She loved her work, she took it seriously, and she was very good at it.

But that tells only a small part of the story. Lottie set an example with her conscientious and diligent work. She advised and encouraged countless colleagues, from the most distinguished to the least. No matter who you were, Lottie greeted you with a welcoming smile and then gave you her undivided attention.

STC (the Society for Technical Communication) honored Lottie as a Fellow — the highest honor it bestows on a member. In the late ’90s STC chose to honor 10 of its most distinguished Fellows as exemplars — and, fittingly, Lottie was one of them. It was the perfect word to describe her.

Lottie lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay area before moving to Chapel Hill around 1990. A few years later I attended an event hosted by the STC San Francisco chapter. When they found out where I was from, several of them clustered around and asked me to tell Lottie how much they missed her, how much they wished she were still there.

Shortly after coming to North Carolina, Lottie met Diane Feldman, a young editor, and took Diane under her wing. Diane, who went on to have her own exemplary career, always credited Lottie’s friendship and mentoring as big factors in her success.

Writing in Carolina Communiqué, the Carolina chapter newsletter, Diane described their relationship:

When I expressed an interest in her work as an author’s editor of medical manuscripts, she consented to share her extensive expertise with me. And so I joined the ranks of the hundreds of people who have been inspired and invigorated, amused and amazed, motivated and mentored by Lottie Applewhite. I’ll attempt to capture just a few of the qualities that secure her place as a most memorable character in the eyes of nearly everyone she meets.

Intellectual curiosity. When Lottie wraps her mind around something, whether it’s a medical manuscript, a recipe, or the personal problem of a friend, she probes to learn the “why” behind the “what.”

Rigorous professional standards. Lottie will always take the extra step — from making a special trip to the library to asking help from an expert — to ensure that the work she delivers is of the highest quality.

Genuine love and respect for others. If Lottie has a criticism to deliver, she does so in a way that makes you grateful for the attention. If you have done something that she appreciates, she will always let you know — often in the form of a note or a letter.

Generosity of spirit. Even when she has dozens of projects requiring her attention, Lottie will take the time to help and to teach. She does not hold close the expertise she has acquired, but shares it willingly with those who call upon her for information or assistance.

Joie de vivre. This is the most important secret of Lottie’s success. She embraces life fully, with energy and enthusiasm. Whatever the project, you know that if Lottie is involved there are going to be a lot of laughs. I have had the pleasure and privilege to learn much about my trade from Lottie Applewhite. Her professional expertise is uncommonly valuable, but the life lessons she teaches by her example are priceless.

The words are Diane’s, and I can attest to their veracity. Lottie leaves her imprint on hundreds of technical communicators who are better professionals, and better people, for having known her.

If I can leave even a tiny fraction of the legacy that Lottie has left, I’ll have been a success.

Farewell, Lottie. Thanks for brightening every room you were in. Thanks for affirming so many of us. Thanks for showing the way.

Will you still need me? STC at 64

Today, the first full day of the annual STC Summit, marks the 64th year that STC (the Society for Technical Communication) has been in business.

Sgt. Pepper's album cover with STC logo

Hmm…What if I Photoshop all of the STC staff and directors’ faces into this image?


Which brings to mind a Beatles lyric:

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?

The “Will you still need me?” question is especially relevant as STC — a 20th century organization — copes with flat membership numbers and attempts to navigate the changing professional landscape of the 21st.

As I’ve said before, I think the technical communication profession — and the people in it — still do need STC. But the reasons are changing, and have been changing for some time. As a result it’s not a sure bet that STC will remain relevant over the next few years. Continue reading

Making a difference, forever

Be careful what you post on the internet, they say, because once you do it’s out there forever.

I suppose that’s true. In fact, it’s been true since before we had an internet.

In the beginning….

In September 1980, about a year after I hired on at IBM in Kington, New York, a colleague and I started producing a little newsletter to help the technical writing staff master the intricacies of our computer system.

In those days before personal computers, even though we were writing books for datacenter professionals, most of the writers had received only rudimentary training in the practical aspects of using computers to do their work. Our system, the same one the engineers and programmers used, was complicated and not especially user-friendly. (The term user-friendly itself was shiny and new in 1980.)

I think it was my colleague, Susan, who came up with the idea of a newsletter. I eagerly agreed to help. I don’t remember who came up with the name, VM Voice. VM, then as now, stood for Virtual Machine and was the name of that intimidating computer system.

vmvoice

Our maiden issue: Starting with the basics

We started with the basics, gently introducing our readers to VM and its components. Over time we evolved to more complex and specialized topics, always targeting the technical writing staff and its particular needs. Each weekly issue ran to two or three pages — printed and then placed into everyone’s mailbox.

We did about 50 or 60 issues before the well of ideas dried up. Then time passed.

Fast forward to the present….

In March 2017 a longtime IBMer, preparing to retire, was cleaning out his desk. He found a stack of old papers and spotted a familiar name on the top sheet: the same last name as another guy in his office. “Know who this is?” he asked.

“Well, my mother worked at IBM. I’ll ask her.”

Soon the stack of papers was in the mail to Susan, herself long retired. She reached me through a common LinkedIn friend and asked if I remember VM Voice.

Of course I remember. It’s a wondeful memory.

I consider VM Voice to be one of my career’s biggest success stories.

  • We saw a need and we met it.
  • We had fun, especially trying to present complex, even daunting, subject matter in a way that our audience would find comfortable and reassuring.
  • We got instant feedback, and it was almost always positive.
  • We made a difference: the information in VM Voice — homespun as it was — made people better at their jobs.

Seeing those scanned copies of VM Voice reminded me that when you plant a seed, you never know precisely what will happen. When you publish something, either online or in the old-fashioned paper-and-ink way, you never know when and where you might see it again, or who might be affected by it.

The first moral of the story: In technical writing you have lots of chances to make a difference. Never lose sight of that, even when the work seems like drudgery.

The second moral: Before you publish something, make sure it’s good.

Because the internet has a long memory.

And because some people never clean out their desks.

DITA satisfaction: Take the survey

Want to know why people are using DITA? Want more insight into the challenges as well as the benefits?

DITA Survey bannerHere’s a way to get those insights — and do The Content Wrangler a favor in the process. The Content Wrangler, the online persona of Scott Abel, has been for many years a leading voice in the worlds of content marketing and technical communication.

If you’re using DITA, if you’re evaluating it, or if you’re in the process of adopting it, take the 5-minute DITA Satisfaction Survey.

The results, which will be sent to you when the survey is over, will provide helpful data about what people see as the main reasons for using DITA as well as its risks and challenges.

The data will benefit individual DITA users and the DITA community as a whole. It’ll equip us to respond to common problems and complaints, and it’ll inform the DITA Technical Committee about what changes and enhancements are most needed.

Take the survey by May 15 and you’ll be entered into a drawing for Google Cardboard.

Sassy and also substantial

Peter Sokolowsky

Peter Sokolowsky (Image Source: cbs.com)

We’re having “a national conversation about language.”

So said Peter Sokolowsky, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster Dictionary, during an interview last week on CBS This Morning.

A national conversation about language? I don’t recall that ever happening before. If you ask me, it couldn’t come at a better time.

When the M-W Dictionary went online in 1996, Sokolowsky explained, it was the first time the dictionary’s curators could see what people were curious about. They’d never before been able to collect data about which words people were looking up.

In the past couple of years we’ve become hyper-aware of fake news, alternative facts, and the ways people use words to twist reality — or accuse others of twisting reality.

The watchers at M-W are doing their part: keeping close tabs on what people are looking up. When United Airlines sought volunteers to give up their seats and then had a passenger dragged off a plane, thousands of people went to the dictionary to look up the meaning of volunteer. Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account took note.Tweet from Merriam-Webster about the word volunteer

Increasingly, M-W’s tweets themselves have drawn attention. Continue reading

Create your story — and choose the right ingredients

Seth Godin took me to school. Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t realize it. But his April 11 blog post sounded like a direct rejoinder to my earlier piece: Just the right choice of words.

Here’s what Seth had to say:

If you watch a well-directed film with the sound turned off, you’ll get a lot out of it….

There are a few places where all that matters is the words. Where the force of logic is sufficient to change the moment.

The rest of the time, which is almost all the time, the real issues are trust, status, culture, pheromones, peer pressure, urgency and the energy in the room.

In fact, Seth’s post echoes the response Mark Baker wrote to my piece:

It isn’t the choice of individual words. It is the juxtaposition of words that achieves the effect. The art is not in the selection but in the arrangement, not in the vocabulary but in the story.

Both Seth and Mark know their stuff. So, did they take me to school? Do I feel chastised? Ready to write a retraction?

Um, well….No. Continue reading

The technical writing beat

At a recent STC networking event, the woman across from me said she was a police officer and wanted to find a job in technical writing.

copwriter.pngShe’d come prepared to make her case. As a cop, she said, I write reports all the time. The reports have to be factual and clear. I reckon I’m already doing technical writing.

Good point. What else you got?

I’m always explaining things to people. How the law works, what they can and can’t do, and why. I deal with people from all walks of life. Many of them don’t speak English as a first language. I have to size up each person and tailor my message so they’ll understand.

Sounds to me like you’re pretty good at audience analysis.

She’d sold me on the parallels between police work and technical writing. It was something I hadn’t considered before – even though I’ve told my students for years that the best exemplar for technical writers is a dogged detective who keeps asking questions until the case is solved.

columboI’ve worked in this profession a long time and met colleagues with all kinds of backgrounds. My encounter with the police officer reminded me that, even though people have followed many paths into technical writing, there are more trails yet to be blazed.

Did you follow an unconventional path into technical writing? Are you even now trying to enter the profession with a background that, at first glance, might appear to have little in common? If so, I’d love to hear your story.  Drop me a line or respond in the comments section.

Baseball, football, and just the right choice of words

As we embark on the first baseball season in 68 years without Vin Scully behind the mic, thank goodness we still have this classic comedy bit from George Carlin.

carlin

Image source: georgecarlin.com

I have a writerly purpose in sharing it with you today. Carlin’s piece demonstrates how, by choosing just the right words, a writer creates a mood and a sophisticated set of images for the reader. In this case it’s actually 2 moods and 2 sets of images.

We see, for example, that football is played on a rigidly structured gridiron, and baseball is played on an elegant diamond.

Football comes across as weighty, even sinister (down) while baseball is light and airy (up).

Football delivers an abrupt kick and slaps us with a warning; baseball provides relief and freedom to stretch.

While I’d never discount Carlin’s deft delivery, I think it’s his pitch-perfect choice of words that makes this piece the classic that it is.

With your writerly sensitivities thus enriched, sit back and enjoy the work of a master comic and master wordsmith.


I enjoy comparing baseball and football:

Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game.
Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle.

Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park. The baseball park!
Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.

BaseballBaseball begins in the spring, the season of new life.
Football begins in the fall, when everything’s dying.

In football you wear a helmet.
In baseball you wear a cap.

Football is concerned with downs – what down is it?
Baseball is concerned with ups – who’s up?

In football you receive a penalty.
In baseball you make an error.

footballIn football the specialist comes in to kick.
In baseball the specialist comes in to relieve somebody.

Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness.
Baseball has the sacrifice.

Football is played in any kind of weather: rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog…
In baseball, if it rains, we don’t go out to play.

Baseball has the seventh inning stretch.
Football has the two minute warning.

Baseball has no time limit: we don’t know when it’s gonna end – might have extra innings.
Football is rigidly timed, and it will end even if we’ve got to go to sudden death.

In baseball, during the game, in the stands, there’s kind of a picnic feeling; emotions may run high or low, but there’s not too much unpleasantness.
In football, during the game in the stands, you can be sure that at least twenty-seven times you’re capable of taking the life of a fellow human being.

And finally, the objectives of the two games are completely different:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! – I hope I’ll be safe at home!

(Transcript source: Baseball Almanac. The original source, of course, is the inimitable George Carlin himself.)

The first all-emoji technical manual

This week the technical communication world is abuzz over the April 1 release of Remco Children’s Bedroom Suite: Assembly Instructions. Written by breakout author Julian Rebusser, it’s the first technical manual written entirely in emojis.

Recently I caught up with Rebusser, Skyping from a very hip coffee shop on the West Coast, for this exclusive interview.

Leading Technical Communication: Welcome, Mr. Rebusser, and thank you for agreeing to appear in my blog.

Rebusser: You’re welcome. I read somewhere online that your blog is influential, and I’m all about building my personal brand.

Tell me about your new book.

It’s got all the instructions for unpacking and assembling a full suite of children’s furniture: bed, night stand, armoire, desk, chair. For a few extra bucks you can even get a lamp

Assembling all of that must require a lot of complicated steps.

Yes. And when I wrote it as a conventional manual, it was like 20 pages of crap

What inspired you to write an all-emoji technical manual?

I had an epiphany one morning, waiting for the barista to brew my double-shot caramel macchiato

Wow. What was that like?

Well, for the first time ever, I thought about my audience.

You hadn’t thought about your audience before?

Of course not. Great writers don’t think about their audience. They think about cool, hip ways to express themselves. But for 2 or 3 minutes that morning, for some reason, I thought about my audience. And I realized something.

What did you realize?

Well, who usually assembles a furniture set for children?

Their parents, I suppose.

Right. And who are those parents?

I’m not sure I follow.

They’re Millennials! Digital natives. People who don’t read books

They don’t read books?

Of course not. They don’t like to read anything. I saw that in an article online.

And so the children’s parents….

Right. If I gave them words they’d never read them.

So, instead, you gave them….

Emojis! Millennials love emojis. I saw that online too. And I knew I was perfect for the job because I speak fluent emoji.

What happened next?

In no time my 20-page draft was down to 2.

Can you give me an example?

It used to take a whole page to explain how to bolt the legs to the bed.

And now?

Now it’s boltlegslegstwobed

I — I’m speechless.

I presented this last week at Write the Docs, and they were speechless too.

So now everyone knows you as the first all-emoji technical writer. What’s next?

Well, it’s all still hush-hush. Can you promise to keep a secret ?

Sure.

Next year when Remco rolls out its do-it-yourself flower garden, I’ll be there with an emoji-based augmented-reality experience. I’m calling it Pokemon Grow.

I can hardly wait.

It’ll totally blow your mind.

Yeah, I’m sure it w– mind blown

Opening the door to singular they

Have you heard? The Associated Press Stylebook is “opening the door” to singular they. The new entry reads:

They, them, their In most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent: The children love the books their uncle gave them.They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable. Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers. We do not use other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze.

(quoted by Gerri Berendzen on the American Copy Editors Society website)

You might be thinking Why are people still talking about this? Hasn’t singular they established itself in the language?

I’d say that it has. I salute AP’ for recognizing that. Even so, they give the appearance of being dragged into it, kicking and screaming and holding their collective nose. Continue reading