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

Review: The Dance of the Possible

(Subtitle: The mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity)

dance_of_possibleScott Berkun has delighted me in the past with books like The Year without Pants and The Ghost of My Father. Engaging and original, they touched me in such a way that, long after I put them down, their insights remain fresh in my mind.

Yet after reading the first couple of chapters of The Dance of the Possible, I thought Berkun had let me down. In this, his “guide to creativity,” he was telling me that creativity comes from inside me. That I should keep a journal. The messages seemed shopworn, not original.

Then he hit his stride. Or maybe I just opened myself to listen to him. At any rate, the rest of the book proved to be entertaining, practical, challenging, and authentic.

Authenticity was the secret ingredient in Berkun’s earlier books. He’d embark on a journey of discovery, often self-discovery, and invite me to walk alongside.

This time he’s already gone ahead. He’s done the research and he’s created things. (This is his seventh book.) In The Dance of the Possible he’s left me a set of detailed signposts – showing me how to find my creative path and what to expect along the way.

There’s plain-spoken guidance on topics like finding and nurturing ideas, developing discipline, and seeking feedback.

You can read this book in an hour or two. But don’t. Linger over it. Underline. Jot down notes. (Start that journal.) And, when you’re finished, keep the book handy so you can refer back to it.

Or read a chapter at a time. Most of the chapters are little essays, two or three pages long, about some aspect of the creative process. Each one can stand by itself while complementing the others.

Dancing, it turns out, is an apt metaphor for the creative process. I won’t spoil the book for you. I’ll just say that dancing requires intention, it’s something you can learn to be good at, and – above all – it’s fun.

Four stars out of five. Maybe four and a half.

An abridged version of this review was posted on Goodreads and amazon.com.

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

Welcome to your professional home

Close up of a graduation cap and a certificate with a ribbonThis week brought one of my favorite annual events: the celebration at which the students in our Technical Communication program at Duke University receive their certificates.

This year’s group was especially engaged and astute. Their capstone projects reflected their enthusiasm and skill.

Here’s what I told them during our celebration.

A person who aspires to become a doctor passes through a carefully prescribed series of steps: medical school, internship, residency. An aspiring lawyer goes to law school and takes the bar exam.

But people follow all kinds of paths into technical communication. I majored in the humanities and hoped to be the next Bob Woodward, until I discovered that technical writing paid better than writing news. Your other instructors were researchers, software engineers, and trainers. One even went to school to study technical writing. Each of us followed our individual path until we found our professional home.

You too came to this place from a variety of backgrounds. Your cohort includes an academic editor, a user-interface designer, a couple of teachers. You’ve worked in medical research, medical transcription, policies and procedures. We even have an actor and playwright.

Whether technical communication turns out to be your professional home, or you apply the skills and principles you learned in this class in other lines of work, you’ll always be part of the technical communication community.

It’s a diverse community that lives and works all around the world, encompassing many different disciplines in many different industries.

Despite its diversity, its members share a common belief in providing information — relevant, factual, truthful information — to the people who need it, when they need it, where they need it. That belief drives us to make a positive difference in the world.

The members of our community are also creative, and, in our own way, we enjoy having a good time. In fact, right after this we’ll adjourn to the bar and argue about the Oxford comma. Actually, I’m kidding. We don’t argue about the Oxford comma. Every technical communicator knows that the Oxford comma is indispensable.

How many spaces to put after a period. That’s what we argue about.

Read my message to a previous class from the same certificate program: You’re now a technical communicator.

Is “soup to nuts” what we need?

For almost as long as I can remember, pitchmen (especially on late-night TV) have been selling all-in-one gadgets that slice, dice, puree, and do pretty much everything.

In our world of technical communication we have something similar: “soup to nuts” authoring systems that combine all the major steps of the content workflow under one banner:

  • Creating content
  • Managing content
  • Reviewing
  • Publishing
breakfast_gadget

This is actually a thing — but are you using it in your kitchen? (Source: Nostalgic Electrics)

Vendors have been offering systems like this for several years. The sales pitch is alluring: unify all of your content under the banner of one integrated toolset. Lots of content, a multi-step workflow, and one brand to rule them all.

Yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen a company, or even a decent-sized organization within a company, use one of these single-vendor systems for its entire content workflow.

I’ve used parts of these systems. For example, I’ve used easyDITA for content management and publishing, but not for content creation and reviewing. I’ve used XMetaL, but only for creating and publishing content.

In fact I’ve never used these systems for reviewing. All of my SMEs have said the same thing: “Give me a Word document or a PDF that I can mark up. Don’t make me learn a new tool.”

Do any of you use a single, soup-to-nuts system to create, manage, review, and publish content? If so, I’d like to hear from you. Is it working well for you? How easy was it to set up, get buy-in from content producers and SMEs, and train everyone? Continue reading

Getting the team to play together

Gettin’ good players is easy. Gettin’ ’em to play together is the hard part.
– Casey Stengel, manager of 7 World Series winning teams

hands_unity.pngOur work group had gathered for a morning of team building: a role-playing game in which we’d need to work together to solve a series of puzzles. At precisely the appointed starting time, the facilitator burst in and announced that he’d locked the door from outside and the game would begin.

“But one of our people isn’t here,” someone said. (In fact, the missing member had been delayed by a work-related call and had let us know that she was about 5 minutes away.)

“It doesn’t matter,” the facilitator said dismissively. “The rules are clear. We begin on time.”

“No,” our manager replied. “We wait for her.”

No one else said a word. But it was clear that everyone in the room — except the badly outnumbered facilitator — stood in complete agreement.

If team building was what we’d come for, then mission accomplished.

The facilitator muttered something about deducting 5 minutes from the time of the game, which elicited a collective shrug, turned on his heel, and huffed out of the room.

Soon the last member arrived and the game proceeded. Each of us learned about our interaction styles and about how we function together. But for me the most meaningful team building occurred at the moment we all agreed, with no words passing between us, that we wouldn’t leave a member behind.

That shared experience affirmed what all of us, I think, already knew: we have a strong team. From long experience, I know that strong teams don’t just happen.

What can you, as a manager or as a team member, do to build strong teams? Continue reading