Tag Archives: writing

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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Filed under Technical Writing, Writing

Millennial Avoidance

I came across a post today from the writer of TranscendingBorders mentioning that she deleted all of her social media outside of her blog. About two weeks ago I attempted something similar, albeit less dramatically, in taking a temporary break from Facebook. I still have my account, and I’ll return to it eventually after I finish my little Facebook-avoidance experiment.

Like many millennial Facebook users, I spend way too much time being nosy and following the exploits of my friends in lieu of doing something productive. So during my free time, whenever I get the urge to visit Facebook, I turn on my Kindle, write for this blog…basically exercising my creativity. I also apply this to other random internet distractions like YouTube. Fortunately I’m not a heavy Twitter or Tumblr user.

What have I learned so far? That I spend way too much time on Facebook.

In the past week and a half I finished the book I was reading, got through two more, and written some blog material. Not a bad start, although writing will soon turn to wedding planning (I popped the question last December!)…and writing about wedding planning, but more on that later. I am not trying to say Facebook is evil as it turns 10 years old, but sometimes you need to step back and re-examine how you spend your time. The results may surprise you.

Ironically, all of my blog posts and Goodreads activity shows up on my Facebook. Even though I haven’t been checking in, my Facebook d stays active.

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Filed under Life, Social Media, Writing

Unlearning the Essay

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a big fan of the English Literature degree. Here’s another reason why I believe it inadequate preparation for most professional careers:

The 1,000 2,000 3,000 any number above 350 words essay.

Every English Literature class requires the essay, an overly long piece of writing that accomplishes three goals:

  1. Prove that you actually read the required material and pay attention in class.
  2. Prove that you are capable of coming up with a clever and sophisticated argument.
  3. Prove that you can analyze scholarly essays by using an overly complex system of citation (MLA, APA, or Chicago, pick one) and pretending to sound original.

These points hold merit in developing skills you will use in the real world. Yet the execution demanded by English Literature professors through this essay holds no merit whatsoever. An essay is a long drawn out series of black words on white pages. For scholars and professors this boring presentation is fascinating. In the real world, your thousands of words will go ignored.

Real-World Example: In the ecommerce world I work in, if I want to make my point to a customer I not only require a nice design, I also require brevity in words. I can, and often must write a product description in less than 350 words (one standard page). If I go beyond this length, prospective customers  must scroll down excessively, and I risk them losing retained information and interest in the product. Essays often require at least 5-10 pages, usually more on the upper levels of literature classes. I can count the number of times I’ve written something that long at work on one hand. And I can spare a few fingers in the process.

Whew, that was a long paragraph. Still with me? My point is, although commonly used and hated by students everywhere, the long essay is too frequently used in the college level. Students need to learn to be brief and make their points quickly. Their future bosses don’t want an introductory paragraph, thesis statement, support, and conclusion. They just want the thesis statement.

Incidentally, the essay also fails in a design standpoint as well. If I used any of the above formatting tricks in a paper in college I’d lose points. Yet they actually help me design my information, which technical writers need to consider when drafting a document. If technical writers designed all of their documents like essays, they would not get very far. My blog design is white letters on a black background for a reason.

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The Evolving English Degree (I.E. What you *can* do with a BA in English)

A long time ago (2007) in a community college far away (about 20 minutes from my house), I took a class trip to attend a Broadway production of Avenue Q. The opening number of the play was “What do you do with a B.A. in English?” Given that I was about to finish my associate degree in English I found this song highly amusing, partly because it was true…at the time the play debuted.

The truth is I’m not a big fan of the classic English degree. I, a holder of a B.A. in English, should clarify. I hate the English Literature degree. When I was finishing my community college days (I was a “attend community college for two years then transfer to a four-year school” student) I realized that, while I enjoyed reading old books and writing papers on them, I was not getting any real world skills. Unless you want to become a literature professor, knowledge of Chaucer and Melville will not help in a workplace setting. I wanted to continue developing my writing skills; however, I did not want to spend my valuable class time sitting in a circle talking about old books. I could attend a book club instead and save thousands of dollars.

Fortunately for people like me, colleges are seeing the need for non-literature based English classes. Writing as a professional skill is actually rather critical in the workplace. Mainly because of the following adage:

When writing skills are needed, it is often a lot easier to teach a writer (technical/business/niche workplace skill) than it is to teach (technical/business/niche workplace) people how to write.

The University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) happens to be one such college. Their English degree consists of two mutually exclusive tracks: an English literature track, and a communications and technology track which develops skills applicable for both print and electronic media. Media students will use in the workplace. Going to UMBC and getting an English degree on the latter track was an easy choice for me. I found writing about the latest trends in technology infinitely more useful than writing about old books. Colleges all over the country are implementing similar additions to the English major. Additions reflecting the need to develop writing skills that directly apply to workplace settings. Considering the new challenges and opportunities in image brought forth by online and  social media, these additions are critical.

So when I say I have an English degree I mean just that – an English degree, not an English Literature degree. My workplace toolkit is not The Divine Comedy. I actually don’t have much classic literature experience at all. The English degree I hold is adaptable, it allows me to write my way into a job. Literally. My first real (and still current as of this writing) job after college involves maintaining a website for a medical device business. Although I did not know anything about medical equipment when I started, within a month I knew everything I needed to know because of the writing and analytical skills I developed. Now I can tell you how to hook up an ECG, or the difference between a otoscope and opthalmoscope. And all the while I write to convince doctors and healthcare professionals that they should buy this cool equipment from the company I work for. Obviously my medical experience does not permit me to perform an exam or open heart surgery. I am not a highly trained healthcare professional that attended years of brutal medical school. I simply fill a niche, yet essential role.

And there are tons of those roles out there. It is what technical writers do.

That is the awesome thing about being a technical writer. I can adapt. I wield a mean pen and do not need to quote ancient authors. I am not sure where my future careers will take me, though I am confident that I will be able to write my way into an enjoyable position. I acknowledge that on the grand scale of college degree usefulness English Literature is not bottom of the barrel. However, I will argue that an English Literature degree is archaic in today’s digital age. The English degree will always continue to be relevant as it quietly adapts to a constantly changing world. Eventually, the world will begin seeing this.

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Level 99 Writing

When I am not engaging in technical writing or working on websites, I like to take some time to focus on creative pursuits. Though unlike the hordes of aspiring book authors out there I have no interest in writing the next bestseller. My creative pursuits involve creating fun adventures for my Dungeons & Dragons group. Yes, I am a fantasy nerd and I am proud of it. 🙂

Anyway, I recently received an email containing an amusing comic from Dueling Analogs. The comic described the difference between a level 1 character firing a gun, and a level 99 character firing a gun. The level 1 character could barely make a dent in his soda can target. Meanwhile the level 99 character…well let’s just say there was not much left within a 5 yard radius.

That got me thinking about some parallels between adventuring and writing. Writing is actually a lot like adventuring and leveling up.  Face the harsh reality – newbie writers make a lot of mistakes. Regardless of the “class” of writing you pursue (technical writing,  creative nonfiction, fanfiction, etc.) your prose will be rough around the edges. Yet just like gaining experience points and leveling up in an RPG, the more you write the better you get. Those silly syntax errors gradually begin disappearing, your voice becomes more energetic, and your writing evolves into a new Pokemon higher quality material. Taking damage and harsh criticism along the way is inevitable, but these roadblocks are all part of the adventuring and writing experience.

With enough experience, your writing will grow from a mess of unimpressive “to-be verbs” into a literary shockwave that will knock the socks off your readers.

Stay dedicated to your class of writing, and eventually you will be a level 99 writer like  F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ray Bradbury.

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Medical Device Online Marketing: Part 1

The nice thing about the Professional Writing degree I’ve been pursuing  at Towson University (and finishing, graduation in three weeks, yay!) is the freedom to chose my own topic for many of the projects and papers I’ve written. To fully take advantage of these open-ended opportunities I’ve worked on answering questions and solving problems that have plagued me in the professional world. For one of my last papers, I am examining a problem that has been bugging me since I’ve started working at Medical Device Depot – enhancing online marketing capabilities for the niche field of medical device sales.

Selling an EKG machine or a blood pressure gauge is obviously not as simple as marketing a t-shirt, food, or something that most people in the world have a need for. Initial thoughts into the topic may bring up the question – is there really a market for medical devices? Considering the success of the company I work for, I can definitely say yes to that. The problem becomes reaching out to the target audience, of which a significant portion are older people who think iPads and laptops are scary monstrosities.

Although doctor’s are more inclined to stick to traditional non-online methods than other interested customers, the ever-widening generational gap for healthcare workers brings more people online. Medical devices are no longer becoming stand-alone, as an increasing number of machines are utilizing laptops and PC’s to enhance the potential and capability of medical devices. EKG’s can be viewed and printed on bigger laptop screens, data can be transmitted wirelessly through the internet. The list goes on. Although a significant portion of doctor’s may prefer to keep their practice as technology-free as possible, the younger generation is rising up and embracing the courtship of medical device and computer/internet technologies.

With laptops, bluetooth and wi-fi gaining an increasing presence in the healthcare industry, it makes sense that medical device stores can tap into this field to market goods. Shopping sites like Nextag and Amazon are starting to realize this as well, with more and more webstores offering categories for medical devices. When also considering that the target audience for medical devices extends far beyond doctors (physical therapy clinics and dentists just to crack the surface) there are many people out there searching for new devices.

The question therefore becomes: how do you reach these people? The same way you reach out to people looking for non-esoteric goods. Well, sort of. I’ll elaborate further in a later post.

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The Art of Review Writing

One of the last two professional writing classes I’m taking to finish my degree involves writing reviews. Although I mainly took it because I needed a final elective and it sounded interesting, I’m learning quite a lot about writing in general.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that you learn from doing. The more you write, the better your writing becomes. Yet in a world where everybody and their mother wants to become the next Stephen King, I prefer to take a more…practical approach. Although I enjoy writing stories and poetry as much as the next bookworm it sadly does not pay the bills. Hence my education and class writing has always leaned towards the practical side of writing. You’d be amazed at what jobs you can earn with good writing skills and a little creativity.

Writing reviews is one such method of practical writing. The idea is simple: you have an opinion on something and you want to share that opinion with the world. Sure you could write a simple Facebook or Tweet that says “OMG Hunger Games is the best (or worst) movie (or ripoff of Battle Royale) ever made.” Yet when you do this you ignore the obvious response – why? That ‘why’ is the key to writing a good review. If you can come up with a well developed argument for your opinion, you say far more than a one sentence post on a social network ever will.

There is also the obvious advantage that reviews are very easy to get published. After all, reviews for everything from the latest movie or restaurant to the chair your sitting on is subjected to some sort of criteria and rating system. They also make very good blog content, which is why I’ve been posting reviews I wrote for said review writing class here on my blog.

Want to write something practical? Try a review sometime. It’s an excellent exercise in writing.

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