Beta testers wanted for Certification Commission website

The STC Certification Commission is working on a website, and could use some beta testers. I’m not talking about beta-testing certification itself, but the website that provides information about certification and from which applicants can apply.

If you’re interested in helping out with beta testing, or if you’re interested in volunteering to help build out the site and its contents, please contact me directly. I thank you in advance!

Passwords and humanism

Anyone with an active Web life has a lot of online accounts. I have over 100! Most are trivial, but some involve credit-card information, and a few are critical in my life. Keeping track of them has gradually become an issue, and the potential damage of getting hacked grows. For the new year, when I log in to an online account, I am strengthening my passwords. I want to follow a system that I can remember without having to write anything down. But I think it’s impossible, because the people who create sites operate independently and because software is anti-humanistic, at least in the view of this human writer. I will explain, while attempting not to reveal my secrets.

Continue reading “Passwords and humanism”

Production: It still matters

The last thing we do on a project is production, whether it be making sure that the electronic version is ready for distribution (golden master) or working with a printer on page proofs (golden oldie). Today, as one-stop information producers, we usually do the production ourselves, and we’re usually anxious to skip a formal production cycle. The project is waiting, you know? But it’s an area of practice in technical communication certification, and it’s still important.

How important? You can readily purchase examples of pre-production books that have gone straight from author to market. They are called e-books. And as Karen Dionne in The Huffington Post writes, “E” Stands for “Errors”. I’ve noticed myself that the results are not pretty.

For their print editions, book publishers still go through the production cycle, which catches most of the errors prevalent in e-books. (Way back when I proofread a few books for the Dummies Press.) So the printed edition is more accurate and has added value in the print edition. Unfortunately, the relative pricing doesn’t reflect this.

I don’t intend for this to be a screed against e-books. They are here to stay, and as a content creator I’m happy to see my work in the hands of consumers in any medium. However, I worry that publishers will drop production in print editions too, when what they should be doing is adding it to e-book editions. It is in our interest both as consumers and as technical communicators to speak up when we see errors in e-books, especially if we happen to have access to the print editions and can verify that the error isn’t in the printed version.

(And back at the office, it’s not a bad idea to resist the urge to send that golden master without going through a production checklist!)

A kerfuffle

Last week, a post on the venerable Technical Writer’s List (TECHWR-L) email discussion group asked about STC certification. As a TECHWR-L veteran and head of the Certification Commission, I was waiting for the opening, and I responded and said I would answer questions.

Some 150 replies later, the owners, Connie Giordano and Al Martine, noticed the lights flickering and invited me to join them for a podcast on the topic that ended up running an hour.

CAUTION: Contents under pressure. Not for use by children under the age of three. May cause drowsiness.

Sharpening the saw

I joined Digital Equipment Corporation at the peak of its success. As the company’s fortunes declined, employees got nervous about their future. Since I had outside experience, I was asked for résumé critiques by some highly proficient technical writers who faced the prospect of going elsewhere after spending ten, fifteen, twenty years—or even longer!—in one place. These were smart people who functioned as sharp tools in their environment. I saw a résumé from a colleague who listed (on ten pages, if memory serves) twenty years’ worth of output of Digital manuals. What admirable productivity! Give that writer a Digital achievement award. But transferring that highly developed skill set outside of its native environment was not easy, because such a finely honed tool can appear useless for any other task. I later heard that kind of work history discounted as “one year of experience, repeated twenty times.”

One of Stephen Covey’s seven habits of successful people is “sharpening the saw.” He meant self renewal, but I’m thinking here of self development. Our field is changing as fast as any other. (Wth new fields to document and new tools to do it with, maybe ours is changing faster!) We all know that our best strategy is to stay in “continuous learning” mode. As this article from the Boston Globe puts it:

“This notion of being proactive, and figuring out where your field is heading and what you might need to learn, is really important for long-term success,” says Larry Israelite, manager of human resource development at Liberty Mutual, the Boston insurance giant.

It’s important to keep this in mind, because it’s easy to fall into the trap of keeping on keepin’ on. There’s a mounting body of research evidence suggesting that, the more experience one has, the less one is likely to engage in any formal learning at all. A 2009 study of Canadian IT professionals found that 51 percent spent no money on training in 2008 and another five percent only spent $500. In the scheme of things that’s not much. I know it’s cruel to point it out, but even doing an excellent job, year after year, isn’t enough to protect you.

Who’s going to look out for you? Even enlighened employers that take professional development seriously say it’s your responsibility to manage your own career. As Israelite says in the article, “the employee really has the obligation and the responsibility to look at where she’s trying to go—in the same company or another one—and doing what’s necessary to prepare.”

It is because of the steadily changing nature of professional work that professional certifications are typically not granted permanently but for only a limited period. A certification with renewal requirements is much stronger and more credible than one that is not. Three years, plus ongoing professional membership, is standard.

For those fortunate enough to be employed, both certification and recertification can tap into corporate training and development budgets. For those between jobs, the cost becomes an investment in one’s own career, but in a job search there’s another advantage to a certification that must be both earned and kept. Previously, it was difficult for an employer to determine whether or not a practitioner was current with best practices. A maintained credential provides this information better than a list of courses taken.

Which is cause and which is effect? Do certified professionals keep their certification because they continue to develop themselves, or do they continue to develop themselves to stay certified? In the end it doesn’t matter. As Israelite says, “People who take personal accountability for improving themselves are more successful on just about any dimension than people who wait to be told by their manager, ‘Hey, you really should learn this.’” If the need to stay certified serves as an incentive to keep sharpening the saw, I think that’s just fine!

Are the rules of good art the same as the rules of good writing?

Front and side view of WW I Nieuport 28 Fighter

I’m a lousy artist, but I know a good illustration when I see one. For example, take this illustration, which appears on page 50 of Hat in the Ring, by Bert Frandsen (2003: Smithsonian Books). The drawing is by Charles Frandsen Architects, PC. Though I have no idea who actually drew it or what (if any) tool was used, I regard this as a fine technical illustration.

Professional illustrators speak of “visual grammar.” What are some elements of visual grammar, and can they be related to the rules of written grammar? And are there any commonalities in professionalism between writing and illustration?

This is a typical aircraft drawing showing front and side views. (Sometimes a third view, from the top, is included.) Both views are drawn to the same scale. (Sometimes a person’s silhouette is drawn for perspective.)

Looking at the callouts not as words but as drawn objects, I’m struck by how consistently they are rendered. All are capitalized, all have the same apparent size, none touch the drawing. Notice how the callouts are aligned. I think alignment is akin to parallel construction of lists. The vertical space between each callouts is almost the same. Curved lines with arrowheads connect each callout to the feature of the drawing being described. The lines are all curved the same manner, even when they don’t have to be, helping you to distinguish them from the lines of the aircraft itself. Callouts on the left side are connected by lines starting at the end of the callouts; callouts on the right side are connected by lines starting from the beginning of the callouts. These unimportant lines are also the thinnest. In fact, the callouts themselves are not the first thing you notice; they are appropriately unobtrusive.

Edward Tufte expounds the principle that visual information should be conveyed using a minimum of ink, and we wordsmiths, with our goal of concision, recognize the worthiness of this goal. This drawing follows that principle of visual minimalism; very little is superfluous. Even the lines that show the side of the fuselage and the shaded tail markings serve to remind us that the aircraft is a physical object with a surface and a three-dimentional volume. Every other line provides information, even the circle showing the disc of the spinning propeller and the lines under the wheels showing the angle of repose of the plane on the ground.

So, as a professional writer, what do I recognize and value as the principles behind this drawing? I am doubtless missing many things, but I see at least consistency, concision, and appropriate emphasis. What else am I missing?