Tag Archives: writing

On Limerick Day

I just learned that today is Limerick Day. (Not National Limerick Day, apparently. Good. I like it when the whole universe can join in.)

As a serious writer of nonfiction I struggle with this particular form. It’s like, well….I ‘ll just let these speak for themselves.

Quill penIt’s Limerick Day – y’all have a ball
Writing doggerel sure to enthrall
Me, I’m gonna go fishing
(Beats sitting here wishing
I had any talent at all)

A technical writer in Philly
Penned limericks bawdy and silly
He had a grand time
Crafting meter and rhyme
Til his editor made him rewrite them all to conform to corporate style

A playful blogger walks into a bar

As a public service, and to provide some respite in the midst of a long winter, I’m proud to present this comprehensive collection of “walks into a bar” jokes for professional writers. Feel free to use them without attribution. Please use them without attribution.

A technical writer walks into a bar. He says:

  1. Put an empty glass under the tap marked Heineken.
  2. Pull the lever on the tap.
  3. When the glass is full, push the lever back.
  4. Hand me the glass.
walkintobar

Image source: Tom Mason via Divus Studio London (www.divus.cc)

A minimalist technical writer walks into a bar. She says: Beer.

A web-content writer walks into a bar, and you won’t believe what happens next.

Past, present, and future walk into a bar. The atmosphere grows tense.

A bar is walked into by the passive voice.

A simile and a metaphor walk into a bar, like fog coming in on little cat feet.

The Oxford comma walks out of a bar — leaving behind my parents, Eleanor Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

Ambiguity walks into a bar. When the bartender sees it, he wipes his glasses.

Redundancy walks into a bar, hops onto a stool, and takes a seat.

A comma splice walks into a bar, it asks for a glass of Bourbon.

A split infinitive tries to surreptitiously walk into a bar, but it gets bounced.

Crowded with happy patrons, a dangling modifier walks into a bar.

After hotly pursuing a hearse, a pun walks into a bar and asks if anyone wants a bier chaser.

Roget paces, steps, and strides into a tavern, pub, or other drinking establishment.

A scholarly writer’s perambulatory movements culminate with his entry into a commercial establishment designed for individual persons to engage in social interaction while consuming distilled spirits.

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
A writer walks into a bar.
A writer walks into a bar, who?
A writer walks into a bar and realizes he’s chosen the wrong presentation format.

Sorry – je ne suis pas circumflex

What’s going on in France?

I’m talking about the way some people are reacting to the modest spelling reforms put forth by the Académie Française. According to a New York Times report, no sooner had the Académie proposed removing the circumflex from some words (only in cases where there would be no ambiguity), than Je suis circumflex became a thing on Twitter. It’s a nod, of course, to last year’s Je suis Charlie [Hebdo] meme.

academie

We don’t need an Academy of English. But if we ever get one I hope it has a classy building like the Académie Française. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

You might think that I, a lover of language, would join the movement. But I won’t. Here’s why.

I grew up in an orderly home. There were rules. There were right ways and wrong ways to do things. As a result, life was pretty predictable. I liked that.

At school I learned the rules of grammar. I didn’t just learn them — I soaked them up. There was a right way and a wrong way to speak and write. I liked that.

Those rules became ingrained. Never split an infinitive. Never end a sentence with a preposition. Never use a plural pronoun (they) when talking about just one person.

Then a funny thing happened. As I grew older, I watched the English language evolve. I had a ringside seat, in fact, because I made my career in writing.

English evolved, because that’s what languages do. They evolve. Continue reading

Living and Learning

I firmly believe that if you’re not learning, you’re not living. With that in mind, let’s look at some things I learned in 2015:

Robot reading a book

That new technologies can tell stories — and what that might imply for the future

How not to enhance a brand — whether it’s your company’s or your personal brand

Sound advice on the art of estimating projects for technical communication (I especially recommend the two articles that are linked in the postscript)

The importance of connotations: of using words in the way your reader understands them, not in the way you think your reader should understand them (or as Mark Baker might phrase it, writing in a way that makes use of the stories you share in common with your reader)Advertisement in Swedish, with the English expression "No way!" prominently displayed

An amusing example of how languages evolve and interact with each other

The need for patience, and resisting the impulse to jump in and do it now

Pluto as seen by New HorizonsTwo essential skills for every nonfiction writer: knowing what to take out, and letting readers experience the story for themselves

Making mistakes, and learning from them

 

My most-read article this year, by far, posed the question What should a Technical Communication course teach? The responses to that article proved the need for a profession-wide conversation on this topic, but (alas) I don’t think the conversation has gotten off the ground. Yet.

Perhaps that’ll change in 2016 — a year in which I look forward to lots more living and lots more learning.

What was the coolest thing you learned in 2015? The most surprising thing?

Good writing adds value: here’s proof

We’ve all heard it. We all believe it in our hearts. Good writing adds value.

But maybe you still don’t have a ready answer when someone says Prove it!

this-weeks-challenge-question-marcia-riefer-johnstonHere’s something for you: Marcia Riefer Johnston’s weekly Tighten This! game. (If you’re not already playing , you should be. In fact, why don’t you go over there right now, and then come back. I’ll wait.)

Each week Marcia supplies a challenge sentence that’s bloated with hot air and/or gobbledygook. The sentences are real, coming from corporate or governmental communications. Many of them are contributed by the game’s participants; Marcia finds the rest herself.

Players are asked to “tighten” the challenge sentence into something less wordy and more lucid. After the judges — Marcia, her husband Ray Johnston, and me — select a winner, Marcia compares the winning entry with the original sentence and calculates a cost savings based on translating the content into 25 languages at 25 cents a word, times 10,000 sentences (about the length of a Harry Potter novel, or a set of hardware setup guides).

In half a year, using Marcia’s formula, the Tighten This! writers have cut bloat to the tune of $29,812,500.

Nearly $30 million in savings, just by turning bad writing into good. That’s value!

Last week’s game brought one of the most dramatic examples of adding value. The winning entry trimmed a sentence from 51 words to 6:

Before:
The line manager or a mentor should be allocated to each new employee to act as a guide and counsellor during the induction process so that new members of staff learn about the company and are given the necessary support and opportunity to put their learning into practice in the workplace.

After:
Assign each new employee a mentor.

That’s fine, you might be saying. But my stuff isn’t translated into 25 languages. In fact, it’s not translated at all.

That’s OK. There are other ways in which good writing adds value.

Sarah O’Keefe’s and Alan Pringle’s Content Strategy 101 contains several sample case studies that demonstrate how good content can support both sides of a business case — cost savings and revenue enhancement — through things like reduced support calls to increased sales. I encourage you to buy the book: you’ll find it to be good value for your money.

So, yes, you can prove that good writing adds value. And adding value is what technical communication is all about.

Cam you share other case studies — especially ones in which you were personally involved — to show that good writing adds value?

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.

Get the name of the dog

Old-style picture of a news reporter at his typewriter

Yep, that’s me — more or less — circa 1978 (source: crayfisher.wordpress.com)

Take a moment and read this terrific article by Justin Willett, a content marketer who worked in a newsroom for 14 years. (The title, Get the Name of the Dog, harks back to a senior editor who advised reporters to get every possible detail for their stories.)

Willet explains how content creators — and I definitely count technical writers in this group — should think like reporters, especially in terms of honing these skills:

  • Interviewing
  • Research
  • Writing – both the inverted pyramid and the art of storytelling

Along with these skills Willett touches on others like attention to detail, critical thinking, and audience analysis. We need to know who we’re writing for, the context in which they’re reading, and why they’re reading.

Willet’s article resonates with me because I got my start in professional writing as a reporter, and because I’ve always thought that my journalistic experience prepared me extremely well for the career I ended up choosing.

Can you think of other reportorial skills that technical writers should master?

What skills did you develop in another field that have served you well in technical writing?

What’s Lurking in Your Content?

Fellow technical writers, admit it. You’ve all done it. You’re writing along, and you come to a spot where you need to insert place-holder text. Your creative juices are flowing, and a simple lorem ipsum just won’t do.

So you insert something clever. Lyrics from your favorite Stones song. Lines from the Dead Parrot sketch. Maybe even a rant about what a dopey product you’re describing.

Then you delete it forthwith. Because if you don’t, those little place-holders have a way of lurking unnoticed until one day they find their way into print.

Cover for the Hello Kitty Dictionary

Image source: mirror.co.uk

Don’t believe me? Check out this horrifying story of what a mother recently found in, of all things, the Hello Kitty Dictionary. At the entry for necklace were two definitions: a piece of jewelry, and a brutal method for killing people.

Improbable as it sounds, the story appears to be true: it was cited by a number of different online sources. Even if it’s a fake, it’s a good object lesson for all of us who publish content.

Reportedly the publisher, Harper Collins, reacted promptly by pulling all copies from the shelves and destroying them.

But I have to wonder: how did that ever make it to print in the first place?

About the author: Larry Kunz lives in an apartment on the ninety-ninth floor of his block. If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he’d be pushing up daisies.

Are you ready for the future of content?

Guess what’s become a hot topic in the content strategy blogs? Good writing.

Brittany Huber laments that there’s so much bad writing out there, and offers some keys for finding the “really good stuff.” For Brittany, the good stuff is clear, scannable, accurate, and inventive.

Meanwhile Kathy Wagner sounds a call for well-written content, saying that good content engages, persuades, and just plain feels good. Kathy points out that “[a]udiences are typically affected in a positive way by one of two things: a truly compelling story, or well-crafted writing.”

quill penAs a writer I’m thrilled. This is right in my sweet spot. Despite what I’ve said about “good enough” being the new measure of quality, I’m delighted to hear content professionals reassure me that craftsmanship still has value.

So if everyone’s in favor of good writing, why aren’t there oceans and oceans of good content out there?

Continue reading

What’s all the fuss about Grammar Day?

What’s all this fuss about national gamma rays?

Um, Emily, it’s Grammar Day. Not gamma ray. National Grammar Day.

National Grammar Day?Grammar Day - Twitter hashtag

Yes.

Oh, that’s very different. Grammar Day is important. Never mind.

Emily gets it: Grammar Day is important. Every March fourth (the date that, when pronounced, forms a complete sentence) lovers of our language march forth — celebrating that language and showing others how to enjoy it.

If it sounds like an occasion for professors, editors, and ink-stained scribblers to feel smug, you’re missing the point. It’s an occasion to spread the good word about good writing, and to have some fun doing it.

Mug emblazoned with "Be explicit"

The “Be explicit” mug I won for composing the winning #GrammarDay haiku in 2012

Why good writing? You write in order to connect with other people. If your writing is clear — your usage precise, your words meaning exactly what they’re supposed to mean — you’ll make that connection. But if your writing is unclear, communication suffers — like it did for Emily — and the connection is weakened. Sometimes it’s completely broken.

So celebrate with me. Come see what’s happening at the National Grammar Day website. Be on hand when the winning #GrammarDay haiku is unveiled. And, who knows? You might pick up some writing tips that will help you connect with people.

(29 February 2016: Updated link to #GrammarDay haiku)