Testimonial – Making a difference

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for your instruction and guidance in class.
Having teachers who have a passion for what they teach makes the difference.

—Joe Coll, Technical Writing Student, BCIT
(Now Technical Writer at Ballard Power)

Testimonial – Award Winning

We have been making great software, but now with this award, we can call it award-winning software.

—Scott Edmonds, CEO and President, 2012

Five Super Fantastic Tips to Improve Your Writing

When I’m editing (either corporate technical and marketing materials or student papers at BCIT), I pay particular attention to sentence construction. Technical and business writing is prone to awkward sentence construction, because the material is so complex. And marketing writing only compounds the problem, because the writer feels compelled to decorate the writing with as many superlatives as possible.

Here are five tips I use to keep my writing clear:

1. Avoid nominalization. Most people are familiar with it even if they don’t know what it’s called. In nominalized writing, the writer turns verbs into nouns. It’s most common in bureaucratic writing, and I believe, originates from a writer’s attempt to gain ground on the target audience—it talks down to its readers.

Here’s an example:

Improve driver safety by notification of Emergency through panic button depression.

You can see that nominalization also results in a lot of passive voice. By returning the nominalized verbs into true verbs, your sentence instantly has more life:

To improve driver safety, notify Emergency by pressing the panic button.

2. Keep the subject and its corresponding verb as close to each other as possible.
Here’s an example:

Before:
“This concept demonstrates how simple data related to, for example, salt dispensed on the public highways during the winter months when combined and processed with external data like geo-spatial, traffic fatality, and weather data can be turned into useful information.”

After:
“This concept demonstrates how simple data can be turned into useful information (for example, data from salt dispensed on the public highways during the winter months becomes useful information when combined and processed with external data such as geo-spatial, traffic fatality, and weather data).”

3. Move parenthetic content away from the core of the sentence. In the example above, I’ve moved the parenthetic material away from the structural core of the sentence, but mirrored the point to reinforce the meaning. Parenthetic content is not always contained in parentheses (brackets). You can also use commas and even em dashes to indicate a parenthetic idea. I distinguish each as follows:

  • Parentheses – an idea entirely outside the structural core of the sentence; a lesser point.
  • Comma – a subordinate idea, but closely related to the core of the sentence (i.e., the sentence would be lessened without it).
  • Em dash – a non related point that has a slightly exclamatory quality to it. It’s unrelated to the core meaning, but it’s an important aside—I use them a lot in web writing!

4. Check your logic. The most common logic error in grammar has a name: It’s called the dangling modifier. It occurs in sentences in which the doer is unclear (either because the sentence carries two or more doers or it’s omitted). It’s often the source of humour, as in the famous quote of Groucho Marx, “Last night, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How the elephant got into my pajamas, I’ll never know”.

Here’s an example taken from technical writing:

“The currently open table appears in the top-left corner of the window.”

“Open” in this case is not a verb; it’s an adjective. The intransitive verb “appears” is doing whatever action it can. “Currently” is a misplaced modifier. It should read, “The open table currently appears in the top-left corner of the window.”

5. Limit your use of adjectives and other superlatives. I call this “super fantastic writing”, because it’s used when “fantastic writing” just isn’t good enough. I recently edited a document that made the claim “…saving you more than millions of dollars in lost revenues”. As in point four above (Check your logic), it just doesn’t make any sense. Without an exact number, you can’t add a superlative (“more than”). As an editor, it’s sometimes difficult to persuade writers to release their white-knuckled hold on such writing—but it must be done. Decorating your writing with lots of adjectives, superlatives, and other do-dads doesn’t make it better or more persuasive.

Testimonial – Personable, expert, creative

I felt challenged in Jason’s class and I credit him with helping me to develop the level of organization and precision I needed to succeed as a technical writer. He is an inspiring educator, and I look forward to encountering him in future courses.

—Helen Dudley, Technical Writing Student, BCIT
(now Vocational Rehabilitation Consultant at WorkSafeBC)

Testimonial – Clear and engaging style

Jason’s clear and engaging style carries over from his writing into his instruction. He happily goes out of his way to ensure participation and understanding.

Pritpaul Bains, Technical Writing Student, BCIT
(now Marketing Technology & Operations Manager at Macmillan Publishers, New York City

Braving Paris—by Bicycle (Part II)

In Part I, I described some of the catches with Velib’ that makes it difficult and how to get around them. Now I’ll describe how to return your bike and some good routes in Paris.

Returning Your Velib’ Bicycle

The beauty of Velib’ is that you don’t have to return the bicycle where you picked it up. You can park it at any of the Velib’ stations—if there’s an opening. Here are a few tips about returning the bicycle:

  • You’ll learn to keep your eye out for the line of green lights that identify the stations.
  • Be aware that sometimes the stations are full and you’ll have to cycle to another to drop off the bicycle. Each station has a map of the vicinity showing the proximity of other stations.
  • If your destination is time sensitive, plan extra time in case you aren’t able to park right away. I had little trouble with this, but it is a potential concern if you need to be somewhere on time.
  • When you return the bike, slide it into its slot. A yellow light appears for about ten seconds while it registers your return. It then turns green. Don’t leave until you see the green light; otherwise, you’ll be charged for indefinite use. If the light is flashing or you here a buzzer, there’s a problem with the connection. Try reparking the bicycle or move it to a different stand and try again.

What You Can See

The advantages of cycling in Paris are huge. Velib’ is a jump-on/jump-off transportation solution, and unlike the Metro (which is underground), you can experience the incredible excitement of Paris as you go. Also, many of Paris’ great monuments are close to each other—well within the 30-minute free grace period.

Here are some of my itineraries and approximate travel times (all my trips started in the Marais near Place de la Revolution)

  • Pont Sully / Ile Saint-Louis / Bertillon ice cream (famous in Paris) (20 minutes). Caught a beautiful sunset silhouetting Notre Dame by the Seine.
  • Ile de la Cite / Notre Dame / Pantheon (45 minutes) – Night right around these monuments. Each monument has its own distinctive lighting style.
  • Rue St. Germaine backstreets to La Tour Eiffel – (20 minutes). There’s a warren of backstreets with fascinating shops. Lots of Velib’ stations if you want to park and walk for a bit too. I got caught in an insane traffic jam on the Champs D’Elysée with repercussions all the way to Avenue de l’Opéra and Tivoli. Nothing was moving, not even bicycles.
  • Musée Gustave Moreau / Ile de la Musique (45 minutes between the two) – Moreau was an influential romantic painter. His studio and living quarters have been preserved. From there I cycled to the other end of town to Ile de la Musique to see the museum of rare and antique musical instruments.
  • Chateau de Vincennes / Palais du Louvre (45 minutes each way) – this was an epic journey out to the medieval chateau in Vincennes (take in some of the Bois de Vincennes park if you can) and then downtown to the Louvre. Yes, I did this in one day. The cycling was easy compared to all the history and culture I took in. I was exhausted.

Doing the Right Thing

Yesterday, I toured the Basilica de Saint-Denis in the Paris suburb of the same name. Why, on my first day in Paris, I would visit the suburbs may be a mystery to some, but I wanted to start at the beginning and in terms of basilicas and Paris and indeed France, this is where it all begins. Saint Denis is the patron saint of France and his remains are interred here along with those of a great deal of France’s royalty from Dagobert to Marie-Antoinette.

I started in Saint-Denis not just to see the gothic church that inspired all others—Saint-Denis’s firsts include its beautiful rose windows, and its pointed arches—but I think there’s an anti-revolutionary spirit in me. I know that revolutions never replace an ancien regime with anything better, if the revolutionaries do not live the qualities they aspire to. It’s always an inside job. Gandhi had it right.

Over the last few months, I’ve been given the opportunity to place my values in front of my needs and am the better for it. There is a business application for this that I embrace—it has to do with doing what’s right. Here are three examples:

  • At the tail end of a contract, my manager was let go and I ended with four days of my time owing to the company. Later, the replacement manager asked me if he could hire me back. This is common sense, but while I could have signed a new contract and never mentioned the four days owing (nobody but me would have known), I offered up my four days. As the new manager didn’t know what sort of budget he had, this was enormously helpful, and later paved the way for him to hire me back for an additional four-month contract. Honesty is its own reward.
  • Likewise, I quoted 24 hours to a client to copy edit his 30-page financial report. I must be getting good at copy editing because the entire job (including the copy edit and designing a new template and style sheet), took me only 6 hours. With the previous example of integrity in my head, it was easy to ignore the little devil on my shoulder and bill only my working hours, not the proposed contracted hours.
  • Finally, a fellow musician in Montreal put out a panicked message to all her clarinet-playing colleagues on facebook for a certain part of music she needed. I responded that I was too busy packing for my trip to help her. During the day though, I kept thinking about that rare clarinet part and gradually found that it was easy to locate it in a box of my music, scan the section she wanted, optimize it into a compressed PDF, and finally post it to my site where she could download it.

The fascinating part for me was not that I did these things, but that they got done simply by me not resisting their accomplishment. I under-promised and over-delivered.

Basilica Saint-Denis

Where it all begins

Testimonial – Trevor

“Thank you for your insights and motivation! I have great respect for all your accomplishments and wish you all the best.”

— Trevor, client, December 2011

Communication – How to Keep your Clients Happy

I sit in cafés watching the patrons tapping away at their laptops or PDAs and wonder how many of them are billing hours for their labours. If they are, I also wonder how they maintain communication with their clients. Are they off in a dream of worker freedom or are they providing value for their clients at least as effectively as if they were in the corporate office?

Having worked from home as both employee and contractor, I know that the only way it can be effective is if I can ensure that the trust between me and my clients (boss) is rock solid. How I do that is through communication. Below are some of the communication tools I’m using:

Skype Skype is a software application that allows users to make voice calls over the Internet. It’s one of my favourite tools—so much so that I often use it during business hours in Vancouver to save my cell phone minutes. Last year, when I was in Portugal, I found that the Skype connection on my iPod (needs WiFi) was better than on the laptop.
Google Talk Google Chat is good because your clients can contact you on a moment’s notice (provided you both have it open). By seeing I’m online and available, my clients can have the assurance that I’m working on their projects, etc. etc.
Cell Phone Want to run your laptop and phone abroad and not sure what to do? I was in Foreign Electronics the other day picking up a power adapter and they advised me to remove the SIM card from my phone on arrival in France and just use my phone for WiFi only. I’ve already ensured that all the hotels where I’m staying have WiFi, so if I need to talk, I can use Skype. If I want a cell phone, I can pick up a local SIM card (check that your phone accepts one – my iPhone 5 doesn’t).
Web Texting Most cell providers, such Roger’s, allow you to send and receive text messages through their web site free. So, if you’re working very remotely from, say, the south of France, you’ll want to keep your texting as low cost as possible.

Grammar tip – Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers

Check Sentences for Misplaced or Dangling Modifiers

Let’s face it, misplaced and dangling modifiers are just plain fun (as long as it’s not you who writes them). A misplaced modifier usually just doesn’t make sense, because they appear to modify the wrong thing.

After our French lessons, we could understand the French spoken by our visitors from Québec easily. It’s misplaced because it sounds like the visitors spoke easily, when it’s our “understanding” that should be modified. “…we could easily understand…”

A dangling modifier often renders the sentence hilarious. The most famous example of a dangling modifier is by Groucho Marx:

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas.
How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.

There are web sites exclusively devoted to documenting them.

Here’s another example: “It wasn’t long before the two got engaged, lived in several Canadian cities, pursued their separate career paths and explored their new surroundings while weighing the pros and cons of each.”

What are they weighing the pros and cons of?

  • Their surroundings
  • Their separate career paths
  • Several Canadian cities
  • Their engagement
  • All of the above