4 things we hate to hear (but hear all the time)

July 20, 2007
  1. “We’ve been working on this project for about nine months and are now in user testing. We go live in two weeks and the users have requested a user manual. How soon can you get started?”
  2. “I’ve written all the instructions. I just need you to pretty it up.”
  3. “We need the user guide in three weeks, but we will probably be changing the GUI right up to go-live. Will that be a problem for you capturing screenshots?”
  4. “Can’t you boil it* down to a one-page cheat sheet?”
    *”It” is a 100-page+ manual.

New tech blog aggregator

July 18, 2007

At last night’s STC chapter meeting Robert Armstrong announced the launching of FindTechBlogs.com, a new service from KnowledgeStorm, based just outside Atlanta in Alpharetta.

KnowledgeStorm describes itself this way:

. . . the Internet’s top-ranked search resource for technology solutions and information. We give technology vendors the most opportunities to reach business and technology professionals conducting research on the Internet and convert them into Web leads.

Find Tech Blogs will host your blog or allow you to add a feed from your existing blog to their aggregator. It’s all free. In addition, they will pay you for blog posts that advertise companies in their network. Robert, if you read this, please post a comment with more details on this aspect.

You can use their search tool to quickly find blog posts on the topics you are looking for. According to the press release:

“Two of the big challenges with blogs are finding content that is relevant and accessing that content easily,” said Jeff Ramminger, executive vice president, KnowledgeStorm. “FindTech Blogs addresses both of these by aggregating quality B2B-specific blog content and by evaluating blog content to ensure that it is accurately categorized. In our blog and RSS feeds study, we found that 60 percent of respondents don’t subscribe to a RSS feed, so this aggregation enables them to easily stay current on relevant blog content.”   

July 17 STC chapter meeting

July 18, 2007

Our chapter meeting took place last night. We were going to have our competition winners from last year showcase their work in a progression format. Unfortunately, none of them were able to attend.

So we switched to general progression with some “table topics.” Our initial list of topics was this:

  • How did you get your first job in technical communications?
  • What’s your worst tech comm experience on the job? Share your horror story.
  • Contractor or regular employee? Pros and cons
  • Technical writer skills and alternative jobs
  • Judging STC competitions
  • How to submit a winning entry

But we had a small turnout so we chose the last four topics above.

Three young people who are just entering the field attended as well as some “old-timers” we hadn’t seen in a while.

Is the iPhone the Paris Hilton of consumer electronics?

July 14, 2007

Um, I think the headline says it all.

A style guide for all occasions?

July 12, 2007

A monthly entertainment for me is reading the Chicago Manual of Style’s Q&A.

This month a reader sent in the following style question:

Q. My fashion expert daughter insists that denim does not go with “almost anything,” as I say it does. What is your opinion? Does denim match almost anything, including other colors and other fabrics, e.g., silk?

A. Finally, a real style question! If only we Chicago manuscript editors were a little more fashion-forward . . .

In deference to Jakob Nielsen’s admonition to post polished articles rather than shallow, hastily written postings, I am reprinting here a slightly edited version of my article on CMS originally published in CommLink, the Atlanta STC chapter newsletter.

Gems from the Web Site of The Chicago Manual of Style 

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) is the definitive reference for writers, proofreaders, authors, publishers, and editors. Weighing in at almost 1000 pages, the 15th edition contains hundreds of rules on grammar, punctuation, and capitalization. Many an editorial dispute has been quickly settled with the words, “What does Chicago say?”

CMS is also a soup-to-nuts (or manuscript-to-dust jacket) guide to book production. In the new edition you’ll find a diagram of the book production process, with references to the relevant chapters of CMS at each stage. New material on publishing for journals and electronic format was added as well.

Monthly Q&A

If you’re a word nerd like me, check out the monthly Q&A on the CMS Web site . Writers and editors from all over the world contact CMS about the finer points of writing. When a publishing team cannot agree on the placement of a hyphen or comma, they appeal to the oracle at CMS to issue its judgment.

Lay people may find these exchanges a good cure for insomnia, but I relish them. It’s fun to see what’s puzzling my fellow scribblers and how CMS would handle it. For example, when asked the best way to denote the title of a book or movie in a text-only medium such as a list-serve, CMS suggested placing an underscore on either side of the title: “Last night I saw _Star Wars_ with my friend.” Perfect!

I’m a strong believer that “there is no such thing as a stupid question,” but some of the questions sent to CMS test the limits of my faith. The witty replies reveal a sense of humor you might not expect from this venerable institution. One person asked whether to begin an e-mail with “Hi Mom!” followed by an exclamation point or, “Dear Mom,” followed by a comma. After replying that it didn’t much matter, CMS quipped, “and I think I can speak for moms everywhere in saying that we’ll take whatever we get in this regard.” Another writer who asked why an ellipsis contained only three dots received this response: “How many dots would you like? You can have as many as four if you put an ellipsis after a period. I don’t know of any significance behind the choice of three. Perhaps the number gradually came to be popular and then was standardized in style sheets and grammar for the sake of consistency, as well as to prevent . . . . . . . silliness.”

To questions about spellings or meanings of words, the CMS gently reminds us that “Dictionaries are good for this type of question.” The response was a bit sharper this month when someone asked how to spell “cell phone”: “Any writer who has deadlines should also have a dictionary. I always swear I’m not going to look up words for people, but it’s like being a mom and picking up socks—something just makes me do it. It’s ‘cell phone.’ Please buy a dictionary—and pick up your socks.”

Origins of CMS

The origins of CMS are described in the History of the Manual section of the Web site. The manual was born in the composing room at the University of Chicago Press in 1891. In those days, type was set directly from the handwritten manuscripts submitted by university professors. The typesetters created a proof, and the proofreaders copyedited the proof. To ensure consistency, they created a style sheet from notes “jotted down at odd moments for the guidance of the first proofreader.”

After continual revision and improvement, the sheet was circulated as a standard for the university as a whole. By 1903 it had grown into a pamphlet, and three years later it matured into a book. A facsimile of the first edition—a scant 122 pages—is posted on the CMS Web site. Compare this to the hefty 2003 volume and you’ll appreciate the work of the editorial staff over the last century. The first edition is a joy to read, a window on the history of writing, editing, and publishing.

The appendix includes three articles:

  •  Hints to Authors and Editors

  •  Hints to Proofreaders

  •  Hints to Copyholders

“Copyholder?” This word does not even appear in the index of the 2003 CMS. Like typesetters, copyholders have faded into the past, first eliminated by efficiency experts and then made obsolete the advance of technology. The copyholder held the original manuscript and read it out loud to the proofreader, who entered the corrections on the typesetter’s proof. “Enunciate your plural s’s distinctly,” counsels the early Manual. The politically incorrect social relations of the period are clear: The copyholder is always “she” and the proofreader “he.” One final hint to the copyholder reads, “Remember that you are the housekeeper of the proofroom, and take pride in its neat and orderly appearance.”

Written in a tone that will remind you of Miss Manners, the Hints to Proofreaders are priceless. More essential and practical tips are dispensed in four pages than you’ll find in an entire shelf of self-help books at Borders. Consider these tidbits:

 “Don’t stultify yourself and discredit the office by asking foolish questions on the proof. The author will be thankful for any sensible suggestion you may make, but will resent trivial criticism.”

 “Make a study of the ’personal equation’ in the case of those individuals (editors and others) with whom you as a proofreader will constantly have to deal. One person may expect of you as a matter of course what another might regard as an unwarranted interference.”

For an eloquent study in humility, read the brief Preface to the first edition. Here the authors acknowledge the manual’s imperfections and explain why the rules and regulations in the manual “cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law,” but instead “must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.”

Here are a few more excerpts: 

“Concerning the character and content of the book, little need be added. Its origin, its primary aim, and its limitations as outlined above will suggest the bounds of its usefulness. It does not pretend to be exhaustive; a few things must be taken for granted, and the traditional territory of the dictionary has only exceptionally been invaded. It does not presume to be inflexibly consistent; applicability, in the printing-office, is a better test than iron-clad consistency, and common-sense a safer guide than abstract logic. It lays no claim to perfection in any of its parts; bearing throughout the inevitable earmarks of compromise, it will not carry conviction at every point to everybody…. ·

“As it stands, this Manual is believed to contain a fairly comprehensive, reasonably harmonious, and wholesomely practical set of work-rules for the aid of those whose duties bring them into direct contact with the Manufacturing Department of The Press. If, in addition to this its main object, this Manual of Style may incidentally prove helpful to other gropers in the labyrinths of typographical style, its purpose will have been abundantly realized.”

If you have tackled the thankless task of creating a style guide for your organization, you may find comfort in these words.


Change management for Office 2007

July 11, 2007

The company I work for is upgrading to Office 2007 in September. (We’re currently using Office 2003.) XP will continue as our operating system.

I’ve been asked to handle change management for this rollout.
Office 2007 apps — Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access — use different menus from the previous versions. Microsoft considers these improvements. Long-time Office users may find the reorganization annoying.

Admittedly it will be easier for first-timers to use these products, but we have few of those in my building. The challenge I’ve been given is to minimize the anticipated drop in productivity as employees hunt for menu options they used to know how to find.

You can learn on your own, but it’s frustrating. I upgraded a couple of months ago, and I couldn’t figure out how to print, for heavens sake, the first time I open up Word 2007.

The Ribbon is the new menu. Microsoft calls it a “fluent user interface.” Menu options are grouped in what their usability experts consider to be logical chunks. All icons are labeled.

It’s sort of like saying, “The typewriter keyboard doesn’t make sense so we’ll reorganize it for you. . . There, isn’t that better?”

Well, it’s not that bad, but you see my point. The old Office design may have sucked, but we all learned it and now we have to figure out the new one. All of this is occurring in a more competitive, highly stressful work environment with fewer employees the same amount of work, where every minute wasted can have consequences — not the least of which is our ability to get out of the (lowercase) office at a decent hour and enjoy life such as it is.

My strategy will be to use a communication plan, a variety of training options, and recruitment of early adopters who can be, if not champions, change agents.

One group I plan to enlist is the administrative assistants. They are heavy users of Word and PowerPoint, and to some degree, Excel. Employees turn to them for help when they can’t figure out how to use the new printer or submit an expense report. They can play a key role in smoothing the way. I’d like to convince some of them to convert now, become familiar with the new design, and provide feedback that we can build into an FAQ or daily tips. It’s hard to know what will trip people up since we all use these applications differently.

Luckily, a ton of good online training and documentation is already online at the Microsoft site and some others. This means we won’t have to reinvent the wheel. Microsoft also has trainers who will come to your office and conduct sessions (if you can guarantee 60 people will attend).

Has anyone else made the leap to Office 2007? Any advice or thoughts?

Why aren’t more tech comm leaders blogging?

July 10, 2007

I’ve been wondering why leaders in our field — people like JoAnn Hackos, Karen Schriver, Ginny Redish, Saul Carliner, Ann Rockley, etc. — aren’t blogging.

Are they just too busy or do they not see any value in it?

After listening to Karen Schriver’s presentations at the STC Summit in Minneapolis, I hoped she’d have a blog where I could read about her research and her observations on trends in design. But, alas, she doesn’t even have a Web site.

JoAnn Hackos publishes a regular newsletter: Information Management News with some pretty good articles on a variety of topics. Is that a better strategy?

In Alertbox this month, Jakob Nielsen says yes. “Write articles, not blog postings.”

To demonstrate world-class expertise, avoid quickly written, shallow postings. Instead, invest your time in thorough, value-added content that attracts paying customers.

Don’t Call Me Tina does not presume to offer world-class expertise, so we will stick with dashing off our shallow postings.

Articles, blogs — whatever — I’d just like to hear more from some of these people instead of having to wait for the occasional article in Technical Communication or crowd into an STC conference session to hear them speak.

Mike Hughes is an example of an expert who uses a blog to present his musings on user experience. Scott Abel is another. They are very different blogs. Mike’s is written in a personal style, yet he poses challenging questions and provides unique insights on UX. Scott’s is more formal with article-like postings on content management and announcements of relevant events.

It’s interesting that one of the most popular tech comm blogs is Tom Johnson’s I’d Rather Be Writing. Tom didn’t start blogging because he was an expert. (No offense, Tom) He was interested in the medium and began exploring to see how far he could go.

Today he is an expert in a certain sense. More than any other person in our field, he is using Web 2.0 technology to share knowledge among technical communicators. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. Tech writers (and others) flock to his site to see what’s new and tune into the podcasts. His Technorati ranking is 13,936. The Content Wrangler is 76,900. DCMT is a lowly 3,827,667.