Uppercase this!

November 20, 2008

One thing that irks me about some subject matter experts is that they love to capitalize words that are near and dear to their hearts.

Accountants explain that Vendors must include a Purchase Order number on the package or the Invoice will not be paid.

Energy industry professionals tell us that Natural Gas and Crude Oil are important fuels.

Lawyers put it over the top by including terms in quotation marks and parentheses:
Our Company (“Company”) will lobby Members of Congress (“Members”) this month.

Bill Walsh wrote cleverly about this annoying problem of arbitrary capitalization.


How’s the job market?

November 4, 2008

Despite the problems in the economy, I’m not seeing big layoffs in our profession yet.

(I probably just jinxed myself with that statement.)

The Center for Disease Control is hiring a Technical Writing Editor. Check out the bureaucratic hoops you have to jump through for that position. 

Oracle also is advertising an open position

Most of the other job postings I saw were contract positions, including a couple at ProEdit. If you’re willing to relocate to Huntsville, Alabama, they do have “permanent” job there. 

Mike Hughes had some good advice on getting through the recession. 

I think flexibility is another good strategy in this market. Draw on all your experience and use it sell your versatility. An STC member I know, for example, just got hired at my company as a Business Analyst. 

This month’s Atlanta STC program explains how to write federal proposals. A good tech writer should be able to make that transition easily. It’s structured writing, with its own terminology, tight deadlines, a collaborative effort that has to be managed like a project. Sound familiar? 

Remember, this month’s meeting is at Southern Poly State U.

A typical day

October 29, 2008

The prolific Susan Wu described her “Typical Day as a Technical Writer” last March. At the risk of boring you to death, I will do the same here.

8:24 am
Pat dogs, kiss husband, and leave home for work. Listen to Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography on CD in the car. Tears come to my eyes when Schulz’s mother says to Charles as she is dying of cancer, “If we get another dog, let’s call him Snoopy.” What a way to start the day.

8:45 am
Arrive at work and boot up computer knowing it will take at least 15 minutes before I can read e-mail. Brings to mind the article in Sunday’s New York Times about this universal annoyance. Researchers are working on a cure.
Two of the four writers on my team will be in the office today. The other two work for other clients on Tuesdays.
Grab a cup of tea in the kitchen. For the second day in a row I find free cupcakes on the counter. Can I resist?

9:00 am
Head down to CIO’s office with my director and the other manager in my group. This is a weekly meeting where we report on what we’re doing. Currently I have about 10 separate projects creating user guides, online Help, training materials, and training content. The other manager is in charge of records management and has even more projects underway. As the meeting wraps up we lament our diminishing 401Ks and our increasing years until retirement.

On the way back to my office I run into a friend from our California office who is in town for meetings this week. We went through some hectic times last year on another project so it’s great to see her again.

10:00 am
Read, answer e-mail, and listen to voice mail, rewrite my to-do list.

Unsubscribe from three lists I never signed up for. My title is Manager, Technical Communications and lots of people think I’m in Telecommunications. Further evidence that everyone just skims instead of reading today.
Howard from Atlanta STC asks if I’ve reserved a room for the November Council meeting. I confirm.  

Another former co-worker has asked to link up with me on LinkedIn. I accept. Hurray, I’m have over 200 connections now. 

10:30 am
Call internal customer who needs our help writing a brief user guide and back-end manual. Discuss deadlines, who will be single point of contact, etc. Call writer to ask if she has bandwidth to take this on. She does not. Consider who else to assign to this job.

Another manager on my floor pops his head in the door to say that I have to move my contractor who is squatting in one of “his” cubes. Luckily, there is another vacant cube for him to move. Otherwise, he’s condemned to the cramped “bull pen.” I dutifully submit a move request and inform the employee. He’s cool with it.

11:00 am  
Receive a draft of a user guide from one of my off-site writers. Begin editing.

Phone rings. Someone from Legal needs another online course set up ASAP. I promise the world and then look at my list of projects and my calendar to see how I can deliver.

Manager of contracting firm e-mails to ask how his employee is doing. I send back a glowing report.

11:30 am
We are preparing to deliver an instructor-led course to employees on Word 2007. I’m reviewing the outline we created and thinking about useful exercises. 

12:00 pm 
Lunch bell rings (in my head).
I decide to do something I’ve been thinking about for several days. Next door they are building a mixed-use development. Today it’s just a big hole with a big pile of dirt next to it. I go to the top of the parking deck and take a picture. Resolve to take one picture each day until the structure is built. Then I’ll put it on YouTube (or something).  What the hell, I’ll get some exercise walking to the 8th floor and back each day.

Grab a salad at the cafeteria in the next building. While I’m eating, check out Twitter.

12:30 pm
Write short set of instructions needed to update our timekeeping manual and online Help. Determine appropriate environment (dev, UA, QA, or TRAIN) to capture screenshots, which user to represent, dates to choose, etc. 

Finish editing the document I began this morning and send to writer. 

2:00 pm
Daily meeting for one of my key projects. It’s not an Agile project, but sometimes it feels that way. 

2:15 pm
Finalize travel plans for trip to NY plant in early December.  Answer more e-mail and go in search of answers to other queries.

3:00 pm
Weekly one-on-one with most senior (in years, not age) employee. She is wearing several hats and overworked, too. I offer help, consolation, cheap advice. We agree to a cram session on the Word classes in late December when most people are out of the office.

3:45 pm
Husband calls to say he’s taking the dogs to walk on the river. Would I leave early to join them? I sigh and decline. Confirm that we’ll have salmon for dinner and green peas. Check out the stock market while I’m talking to him. The Dow is up!!

4:00 pm
Go to the kitchen to wash out my tea mug and notice that two of the six Halloween cupcakes are still on the counter. Take deep breath and return to desk sans cupcake.

4:05 pm
Call contact in Accounting who promised to deliver training content to us today. She confirms she will send it today.
Stop by “hotel cube” where my friend from California is catching up on e-mail. We talk about pets, holidays, travel. She has dinner plans with other out-of-towners who are here for the big Operations meeting tomorrow.

4:20 pm
Return to office to see that Accounting training file is in my Inbox. Grab another cup of tea and begin reviewing. What kind of graphics can we use for this stuff?

5:00 pm
Another look at e-mail. Ann from the STC Management SIG promises to get the candidate bios to me soon. Someone sends me a job opening for a tech writer. I forward it to several people.

Open folder where I send all e-mails for top project. Click through to see if anything is relevant to me. Nada. Delete all.

Another e-mail from the same project pops in with question: “User wants to know what reports are available to her in the application.” I write back, “See the online Help for details on all available reports.” I suppose it never occurred to them to check the Help. Bleeaaah!

Review schedule for tomorrow. Review what I didn’t do on my to-do list. Add a few more things I forgot about.

Check out my sister’s blog. She’s in Japan visiting her daughter who’s teaching English north of Tokyo.

6:00 pm
Pack up and leave. Nearly collide with one of the company’s head honchos on my way out of parking ramp. Rats.

6:30 pm

Microsoft Community Clips: Record your own video help

July 30, 2008

I’m struggling to revise a huge Word document that was not only written by a committee, but by a committee under the tutelage of a consultant. Documentation by bureaucracy, essentially. So I made a trip to Microsoft’s Web site to get some assistance on the trickier aspects of my revisions.

That’s where I stumbled upon Community Clips where you can create your own videos demonstrating tips and tricks in Microsoft applications. According to Microsoft:

Community Clips is a portal for viewing, sharing, and discussing informal “how-to” videos (screencasts) on Microsoft Office products. It also includes a client application for easy recording of screen views and voice.

Haven’t tried it myself, but the first step is to download and install the Community Clips application. Apparently, you can use it to record any software application.  You have to register to upload your video and then you are officially part of the “community.” (Anyone else getting tired of that word?)

The Community Clips site has the potential to become a computer nerd’s YouTube. As of today there are only 326 videos uploaded, but as word gets out, this will increase exponentially. Here’s a funny one on entering accents and other diacritical marks in Word.  (Can’t embed it here because it’s not in a format WordPress supports. Arrggh!)

Benefits of Community Clips

Show what you can do. So often people who are trying to break into tech comm ask “how do I get experience?” Community Clips is a great way to showcase your technical communication talents even if you’ve never worked for the man as a technical writer.

Reusable learning objects. As more and videos are uploaded, help desk technicians and technical communicators can search for instructions they might need and send the customer the link.

Free tool. Microsoft doesn’t have many free downloads, so it’s cool to have a free tool that performs this type of task. It’s part of Microsoft Office Labs, which is an interesting development in and of itself.

”  . . . a proving ground for ideas that come from regular employees and interns who work anywhere in Microsoft.  Most of the code prototypes are developed by the Office Labs team in partnership with the teams that make the products.

. . . we thought it would be interesting to present some ideas we are exploring.

It’s fun to try new stuff, but we also have a reason for putting these ideas out here in public.  We want to find out which of these ideas are valuable, how people use them, and generally what you all think.  To measure how effective the various ideas are we collect a variety of data about how you use these prototypes.

. . . these are free and there’s no official support. . . .

Every couple of months or so another prototype may show up.  Sometimes more than one.  Sometimes it’ll be longer.  We hope you become a regular visitor and participant in the discussions.  Let us know what you think!

So c’mon tech comm people! Record something on Community Clips and add a comment here with a link to your work.

Surviving the recession

July 21, 2008

Technical writers are a hardy bunch when it comes to finding work. At last week’s Atlanta STC Chapter meeting on “Surviving the Recession” the audience had as many suggestions as our speaker Frank Harper

Attendance was double this month over last, most likely because so many are worried about what’s ahead. But the picture wasn’t as bleak as you might think. Several people announced job openings, and Robert e-mailed me about two more the following day.

I haven’t been searching for work lately, so Frank’s ideas were a good refresher. Everyone nodded and laughed when he said, “There’s no such thing as a permanent job.” He stressed that we need to take stock of our skills and find ways to acquire new ones — now, not later.  For those actively seeking work, he pointed to community- and church-sponsored career centers such as Career Quest at Catholic Church of St. Ann in Marietta. Others recommended the program run by the United Methodist Church in Roswell.

Margaret told us about Indeed, a search engine for jobs. Here’s my search for technical writer positions in the state of Georgia. 138 listings! Woo hoo!

I like LinkedIn and use it when I’m searching for writers to hire. Other people mentioned Plaxo, so I went out and joined that, too.

One person said that you shouldn’t put your address on your resume because employers will disqualify you if you live too far from their office. I didn’t know that. . . . I still don’t know it. But others swore it was true.

Frank is old school. He didn’t, for example, urge to start blogging to brand ourselves. He mentioned online networking, but didn’t give it much weight. Office 2007 seems to be one of his pet peeves. But overall it was good sound advice and a great opportunity to share tips with fellow tech writers.

What job-hunting secrets are you willing to share with us?

A technical writer’s 10 birthday wishes

July 3, 2008

Yes, it’s my birthday.

Here’s what my cube looked like when I came in today.  Nice.

At my advanced age, I get 10 wishes instead of only one when I blow out the forest fire of candles on my cake. Here they come:

1. My cubicle is filled with birthday cards and gifts from all my SMEs, project managers, programmers, and upper management — including a small box of Swiss chocolates from the CEO “in appreciation of your wisdom and assistance to all the employees you’ve assisted and trained.”

2. My director gives approval to hire three full-time writers and one technical editor who will be devoted to revising our out-of -date style guide.

3. My content management system is not only granted funding, but can be implemented with the click of a mouse.

4. Company-wide memo encourages us to telecommute 4 out of 5 days a week to save gas and the ozone.

5. Second memo suggests we bring our dogs to the office on the 1 day we do come in.

6. Adobe taps me to participate in a technical communication focus group in Paris for 10 days next spring. (All expenses paid, of course.)

7. An IT project manager calls and says, “Holly, I’m heading up a project to roll out XYZ software to the company in 2010. I want your team involved from the very beginning. Can you meet next week to discuss?”

8. My inbox is flooded with e-mails from end-users with messages like this, “I’ve been reading the ABC manual you wrote and I’m lovin’ it! Especially the troubleshooting section.” or “The new Help file rocks! I got stuck in the application and found the answer quickly in the online Help.”

9. My impossible-to-meet deadline is extended a month.

10. Atlanta STC membership doubles during my term as membership manager.

As Ringo Starr (another July birthday person) sang:
“I don’t ask for much; I only want some, and you know it don’t come easy.”

New book fills a gap: Word for technical writers

January 8, 2008

This just popped into my mailbox.

A couple of technical and medical writers in North Carolina have written Microsoft Word for Technical and Medical Writers.

Many of you are familiar with the—in my opinion, false—debates on Frame vs. Word. The truth is that for the types of complex documents we create, Frame is hands-down the superior tool.

But that doesn’t mean our customers or managers allow us to write in Frame. In fact, it’s a pretty safe guess that most technical and medical writers work primarily in Word.

And we need help because Word can be a pain!

Many manuals on Word have been published, but they aren’t written for people who write the types of documents we do. This book begins to fill the gap. I say “begins” because after a quick glance at the table of contents, it’s clearly just a basic introduction. I’d have to look at the book itself to see how much help they offer with those irritating section breaks and numbered lists. However, if the index starts on page 147, there can’t be much meat in it. And the price: $39.95 (ouch!)

A chapter on screenshots would have been helpful if they really wanted to sell to the tech writer audience. And I saw nothing on the Thesaurus or SpellCheck. Any professional writer should understand the power and pitfalls of those tools.

Also missing is Track Changes. If we are forced to write in Word, chances are the subject matter experts who review our work will enter their edits using that feature. If they forget to turn on Track Changes, it’s useful to understand the Compare Documents command, which allows you to see the difference between two documents.

It’s not clear from the ad copy or the cover which version of Word the book refers to. Word 2007 has a much different menu (the Ribbon) than earlier versions. Not sure what the upgrade rate has been thus far, but if this edition deals with Word 2003, the authors should plan to do an update for 2007 soon.

Having said all of that, I think this book would be great for many of my non–tech comm coworkers, particularly the section on how to use styles. So few Word users understand that feature.

It would be good for someone to review this for STC’s Technical Communications publication. (Heidi?)