Technically Writing With Purpose

(Inspired by a writing prompt from The Daily Post)

One of the things I love about technical writing is the ability to write without having to resort to flowery language. While embellishing an email or newsletter is fun on occasion, I do not need to tell a story in a user manual. The only epic journey involved in furniture assembly involves a trip to IKEA  during a holiday weekend. My purpose in creating documentation often involves explaining something, and then removing half the words in the hopes that users will be less scared by a 50 page manual than a 100 page manual (do not be scared reader, I have graphics!) While I am exaggerating a bit, there is a reason you will never see this in a user manual:

You are advised to enter as many search fields as possible, for when accessing the seemingly infinite cosmos of data records, a broad search may bring thousands, nay, tens of thousands of results! While one could seek the aid of “alphabetical” or “recently added” sorting options, the daunting task of filtering so many records is certain to bring you to your knees after reaching page four of four hundred with not even the slightest hint of your beloved result in sight. So beware, dear reader, always enter at least two or three search terms, least you find yourself staring directly into the abyss.

Instead, I would write something like this: Enter additional search criteria if too many search results appear.

My purpose in technical writing is often to explain, not to reveal anything about myself. This might sound odd to the student tasked with providing original thought and justification, but even in creative writing a little brevity (and a little less preposition use) can go a long way. Your editor will thank you later.

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Goodreads Quick Review: Raising Steam

Raising Steam (Discworld, #40, Moist von Lipwig #3 )Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although technically a Moist Von Lipwig novel, this read more like a “farewell to Discworld” novel. With the arrival of the steam engine, a lot of page space is dedicated to Discworld characters discussing, riding, or fighting atop the locomotive…in some cases all three at once.

The plot is relatively tame, and constantly interrupted with irrelevant cameo scenes from Discworld characters across its storied history making one final appearance. The central conflict is mostly subdued and then quickly dispatched with some hit you over the head moral lessons about fantastic racism along the way.

While this is a good novel, it is not much of a Moist novel, which I find disappointing because I love Moist. Still, as the final “complete” Discworld novel it does provide a nice ending to Ankh-Morpork and its crazy cast.

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The Seven Deadly Sins – Anime Review

seven1

At first glance, The Seven Deadly Sins looks like a run of the mill Shōnen anime with a medieval fantasy twist. Indeed the story sounds all too familiar: Elizabeth, a naïve, helpless princess with a good heart escapes from her corrupt kingdom (complete with sick bedridden king and evil regent!) to recruit the titular Sins, a merry band of asskickers who once served the kingdom before mysteriously disappearing after being framed for a murder they did not commit ten years prior. While this sounds like the setup for a medieval A-Team, none of the Sins are together anymore and mostly do not feel compelled to live altruistic lives. With the help of Meliodas, Captain of the Sins and name of my next Dungeons and Dragons character,  Elizabeth sets out on a journey to find the remaining Sins, save the kingdom from the corrupt Holy Knights that now run the show, and shed some light on the aforementioned mysterious murder that set this plot in motion. As this universe was also inspired by someone Dungeons and Dragons epic-level campaign of munchkin powerhouses, you can also count on the appearance of dark magic, demonic powers, a talking comic-relief pig, and the obligatory historical domain character cameo.

The Seven Deadly Sins - obscured by shadows for maximum intrigue.

The Seven Deadly Sins – obscured by shadows for maximum intrigue.

The opening episodes quickly establish that the Sins do not require the emotional resolve needed for typical Shōnen protagonists to unlock the depths of their powers, beat the odds and save the day as is the case in shows like Dragonball, Naruto, or One Piece. The Sins are quite capable of providing bursts of power on their own as needed, which tends to be after a sufficient amount of drama has passed or the resident foolish princess interjects herself into combat situations.  While it would beeasy for most of the Sins to appear arrogant, they thankfully do a good job of not outwardly showing it, instead shrugging of danger with friendly banter mixed with “been there, seen that.” Emotional shōnen powerups eventually appear, but they are mostly reserved for the final act with the exception of a few nice hints of foreshadowing (there is a good reason Meliodas fights with a broken sword).

So how do you create compelling action scenes with such over-the-top displays of badassery? Why with an equally badass group of immoral villains. This being medieval fantasy, that gives us the “Holy Knights” a faction of corrupt Knight Templar who, like all good fictional Templar, are more gray than white on the scale of holiness.  Since this is a Japanese anime, the idea of fantasy magic manifests itself more as an (often elemental) extension of physical combat instead of magical chanting. In other words, the characters are more “magic knight doing cool things with weapons” as opposed to “the wizard casts a spell.” While the latter does appear from time to time, this universe hasn’t quite figured out an answer to the age-old “magic is mysterious enough to solve everything!” conundrum so traditional displays of magic are reserved for moments of maximum plot drama.

A typical attack. Note the large over-the-top explosion.

A typical attack. Note the large over-the-top explosion.

This might sound like an anime twist on a stereotypical high fantasy adventure, and that is what you get at the end of the day. Despite the lack of originality, the anime is pretty good and fun to watch. There is plenty of compelling storytelling scattered around the fighting, and each of the Sins have very complex, well-written stories that gradually come to light as they each have their moments in the spotlight. This spotlight is frequently shared by the antagonistic holy knights, with their own complex pasts that bring a touch of gray morality to the entire cast. While I do have to knock the story a bit for being slightly too optimistic and cheery overall, it is nowhere near Disney-level and there are plenty of dark, dramatic moments.

While the Seven Deadly Sins may not break any new ground, the anime plants a lovely garden of action and plot in the old ground. If you like high fantasy or seeing crazy Dungeons and Dragons-esque adventures come to life, this short anime series is worth a look.

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From WordPress.org to WordPress.com

I used to consider taking the leap into WordPress.org. This article effectively sums up why I didn’t. Sometimes the simplest solution is best.

Live to Write - Write to Live

wordpress-logo-stacked-rgbI recently moved my personal blog from a WordPress.org site to a WordPress.com site and thought I’d share the experience in case anyone else was considering a similar move.

WordPress is a blogging software that comes in two flavors. WordPress.org offers free software that you download and install on a server (most people rent server space from a hosting company). WordPress.com offers a hosted version of the software, a basic wordpress.com site is also free, but there are premium options that provide personalization (like using your own domain name) and customization (number of columns, header size, colors etc). A wordpress.org site is a good idea for someone who wants complete control of every aspect of their website or blog. A wordpress.com provides allows more of a point and click interface. The trade off is that you have limited options on wordpress.com, still for most end users wordpress.com will meet their needs.

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Goodreads Quick Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire HunterAbraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter portrays itself as a truth-seeking biography of Lincoln’s life…specifically that he was actually a paranoid maniac who wanted to hunt down all the evil vampires because they killed his mommy. And because all vampires are evil…except the few that are not.

Hey, at least they aren’t good sparkly vampires.

This is not a good book, and for that I am very disappointed. Abraham Lincoln hunts vampires – how can you go wrong? With clumsy writing and horrible pacing for starters. Put simply, the plot takes a long time to get going, and once you get to the part of the story where things should get really good (The Civil War, which is naturally a vampire plot to enslave all humans) you are over three-quarters of the way through the book. Long stretches of time are devoted to Lincoln rambling about his hatred of vampires, or characters that do not deserve it (John Wilkes Booth who is, surprise surprise, a vampire, could have had his own novel)

If you want to portray Abraham Lincoln has a super cool vampire hunter, then you need to abandon your inhibitions and take no punches with your writing. Unfortunately the author seems nervous about tackling one of the most famous figures in America, and the end result leaves poor Mr. Lincoln a shell of a man.

One tip if you decide to read the book: skip the prologue. It can be safely ignored, and as a framing device (though I hesitate to label it such) it is never brought back at the end.

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Goodreads Quick Review: Proven Guilty

Proven Guilty (The Dresden Files, #8)Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can always count on Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files for an enjoyable (and memorable) read. While Proven Guilty is no exception with its avalanche of movie monsters, fairy monsters, and courtroom drama, it simply lacks the punch of Dead Beat and the last few books. The intense life and death struggles are still here…they are just sandwiched between a lot of drama.

While I give Butcher some credit for playing with the formula a little bit, it could have done with about 50 less pages of Harry’s existentialism over trying to be the perfect hero (we get it, you feel bad about recent events, you can stop reminding us every other page) and his sudden desire to act on his Murphy feelings (lets not kid ourselves, we all knew how round one of this was going to end). The extra pages gained could have helped him on the rushed trial sequence at the end.

Speaking of sudden, I give Butcher extra credit for creative use of divine intervention. Every time a Knight of the Cross story comes up, I always fear a cop out in the form of “he works in mysterious ways.” This book does a wonderful job of playing with the concept, so perhaps I should stop worrying and love the Butcher.

Don’t let the three stars and review fool you. The sharp writing and clever humor remain intact and I enjoyed the book. But if I compare it to previous books in the series, it just lacks the Forzare! of previous books.

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Goodreads Quick Review: Mortis

MortisMortis by Hannah Cobb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mortis delivers just the sort of tale you would expect about an honor-driven underground school of child assassins-in-training. The plot is sneaky, and at times purposefully deceptive, but nonetheless fairly written.

The story revolves around Jane, a student with the special power to turn invisible in any conditions short of broad daylight. She could use this power, along with her excellent stealth and combat skills, to rise to the top of her class and become a true name to be feared among the Master Assassins, those who graduate from Mortis. Instead, she adopts the moniker of the mouse and purposefully hides her abilities as an average student. Ironic, as while everyone in Mortis may view her as nothing special, her ability to perfectly blend in as average while secretly possessing great talent technically makes her superior to the assassins who flaunt their power.

This fact does not go unnoticed by Jane’s two closest friends: Willy, a fiery spirit whose unpredictability can only be matched by her ability to find humor in the darkest moments, and Felix, the protective, skillful boy who constantly skirts the line of lawful stupid but never quite crosses it. Together these three form the power trio who wonder about the morality of raising orphans to become remorseless assassins.

As you go through the initial chapters you might be wondering why Jane has the unique power to turn invisible. You might also be wondering just what’s in that secret passage below the ship cavern, or Willy’s pointed secret, or why Thomas Wade has purple eyes and the ability to see through Jane’s invisibility. Don’t worry too much about these details. The book takes pride in keeping the reader in the dark, dangling details but never fully explaining them until it is necessary to strike. Annoying, but justified in keeping with the theme of a book about assassins. You’ll find out what you want to know as you need to know it.

I give the book credit for its rich world building – the author clearly took a long time developing the rich world of Mortis, and these details reveal themselves just like the plot points – on a need to know basis. Unfortunately this works against the book when it feels the need to deliver Mortis trivia during climactic moments. Thank you for describing the nursery at the end of the book, but I do believe we have more important matters to attend to.

I also praise the book for attempting to show the morality and ethics of the assassin’s art. This is not a happy-go-lucky anime where killing is seen as nothing special – the story takes time to dive into the realistic side-effects of what happens when a teenager is tasked with taking a life. Even if you’ve been trained to do it your entire life – theory is different than the reality of what lies before you.

Sometimes you have to make a critical decision. A decision that not only impacts you, but friends and strangers around you. The trick is, can you live with the decision of what you do (or do not do)?

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