BCIT, technical writing student, February 2011

Thank you for a great and challenging class. I am sad that I will be missing your instruction for the Comm 1008. It has just been posted that there are two instructors. They have big shoes to fill—that must be why it takes two!

Writing a corporate blog

I recently wrote a corporate blog and came upon some interesting considerations. It’s one thing to write a blog for one’s own site, but to write on behalf of someone else (i.e., a company) is another matter. There’s of course the matter of style and tone, but what is appropriate especially if there are no clear guidelines.

You may have to spin things slightly to represent the best interests of your employer, but don’t be insincere—people sense it. The story I wrote, Iridium satellites not affected my recent solar storms, concerned the effects of recent solar storms on the company’s GPS location-based tracking services. I realized that it was important not to represent their technology as vulnerable or the solar storms as alarmist.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • Focus on the positive – plays down concerns in the title
  • In first sentence, I use end focus to draw attention to reliability of products/services of company “…has had no affect on Iridium satellites”.
  • I chose a beautiful and re-assuring image of the aurora borealis, instead of something that might cause concern.
  • I was given permission to use images found on the internet (always something to consider), but because I didn’t think the site where I found this image was one I wanted to highlight, I buried the source credit in the code for the image.

Iridium satellites not affected by recent solar storms

Aurora activity is brighter and more vigorous during solar storms

Aurora activity is brighter and more vigorous during solar storms

Leading scientists’ warnings that a massive solar storm, which could adversely affect satellite communications worldwide, has had no affect on Iridium satellites.

In an email to partners, Iridium CEO, Matt Desch, said “Low-Earth orbiting (LEO) satellite systems, such as ours, are actually less susceptible to solar storms than geosynchronous (GEO) satellite systems. Solar storms generate an increase of radiation that can cause issues for satellites and even some electrical systems on Earth.  However, due to our satellites’ robust design, along with our system fault detection and mitigation processes, we have little concern over these kinds of storms. This is because of the altitude at which our satellites fly as well our continued investment in our network.”

WebTech Wireless VP of Quadrant sales, Harald Fritz, said, “We chose Iridium as that critical link when regular cellular coverage is unavailable. Iridium provides the global network coverage as well as best-in-class coverage in northern regions where we service energy, resource, and government customers”. He added that this is important to WebTech Wireless clients, because “customers usually choose this dual mode hybrid solution in mission-critical or worker-safety related applications. This means their staff must always have coverage and be in constant connectivity.”

On February 15, 2011, scientists observed solar flares emitting billions of tons of charged particles that could trigger a $2 trillion global Katrina to communications satellites, electric power grids and GPS navigation systems. It was the largest solar storm in four years. Solar particles interact with Earth’s magnetosphere.

Usability Fun and Games

I convinced myself that applying for a job through the IBM web site was a good use of my time, but I didn’t factor in how much fun it would be.

Like many mega corps, the IBM site asks us to upload our résumés and then goes on to ask us to enter all the same information again manually, field by field. By the end, we’re likely to conclude that any job we should ever get at IBM will net us similar mindless work. But who knows, filling out online applications is my form of Vegas—’cause ya’ never know…

Here’s the kicker. In the section for language competency, I was given a list of languages and a ranking system from which to choose: fluent, intermediate, basic knowledge, and no knowledge. I don’t know what the value is in adding information about a skill in which one has no knowledge. I mean, I could go on and on.

I couldn’t help myself, so I obliged!

No Knowledge required

Three Ways to Improve Your (Technical) Writing Skills

I get asked more frequently about how to make inroads into the field of technical writing and my response generally comes down to three key points:

  1. Get educated: Many technical schools and universities have technical writing programs. They often offer their courses on an iterative basis (i.e., you don’t have to commit to the entire program; you can just take a course or two to try it out). Apart from the training you’ll get, formal training is also a great way to network and immerse yourself in the milieu of technical writing.
  2. Get Informed: Check out the job boards and read the requirements for various jobs in technical writing. If you find the requirements daunting—don’t be discouraged. Many job descriptions are little more than wish lists, but they’ll give you an idea about the kind of skills you’ll need to succeed and the range of industries that need technical writers.
    Tip – rather than searching for “technical writer” over a large date range, I view all posted jobs in, say, the last three days. Positions that require technical writing skills are frequently posted under other names than “technical writer”.
  3. Get involved: Find opportunities to write—don’t wait for a paying job. You may want to volunteer with some non profit or other group as a writer just to get experience. Everyone needs good writing and if you can provide it, you’ll start to acquire samples of work (ensure that any freebie work you do comes with the understanding that you’ll use finished writing as samples of your work).
    I volunteer as a writer for the Vancouver Observer (an online magazine) and it is definitely helpful for keeping my writing skills honed as well as for networking.

Some notable Vancouver job boards:

Steve Bain, Technical Writer and Instructor

Allow me to introduce Jason Hall. He is a fellow instructor with BCIT’s technical writing program and teaches on a variety of subjects and is quite well regarded by the students.

Seminar: What’s the real job of a technical editor?

The Editors’ Association of Canada-BC presents

What’s the real job of a technical editor?

A One-day Seminar

Editors' Association of Canada

If the job of the technical editor is to make complex subjects accessible to normal people, why is it that so many technical documents fail. What is the real job of a technical editor?

Using real-life examples and humour, Jason will demonstrate just how spectacularly technical documents can fail and how you can become an advocate for excellent documentation. This hands-on workshop helps you assess your own skills while exploring what it is technical writers do. By the end of the workshop, you’ll have developed your own toolbox of skills that technical writers need to succeed.

When: Saturday, November 27, 10 AM- 4 PM

Where: SFU Harbour Centre, room TBD
515 W. Hastings St., Vancouver, BC

Instructor: Jason Hall

Cost:

  • Early Bird (on or before Friday, Nov. 12, 2010) Member: $100.00  Non-member: $160.00
  • After Nov 12: Member: $100.00  Non-member: $160.00
  • Note: Registration closes Friday, November 19 at 5 Pm

Register

About Jason Hall

Jason Hall has over 15 years of technical writing and training experience and brings excellence to all his documentation endeavours. He has prepared industry-relevant user manuals and training materials for a great variety of industries from law enforcement to inventory management to health care software products. Past clients include SAP, Best Buy, WorkSafeBC and Health Canada. Jason is comfortable with the full documentation development cycle including interviewing subject matter experts, creating documentation needs analyses, and converting product specs into accessible end-use documentation.

Writing for the Web: Clarity 7/7

Use Standard English

Replace the non-standard English words with their English equivalents. Word constructs like ‘and/or’ and ‘he/she’ are technically not words, so you should avoid them as much as possible. This is a good approach, because it’s easy to rely too much on them even when there is really not logical need. Take for example, “You can call and/or write to request a free estimate”. There’s no real need to say ‘and/or’ in such a situation.

How would you rewrite the following to remove and replace non English words?

  • Our global portfolio (accessed via our web site) invests in U.S. and/or foreign markets (i.e., commodities).

Writing for the Web: Clarity 5/7

Avoid Ambiguous Pronouns

The best way to avoid this kind of confusion (what kind of confusion? The confusion that results from ambiguous pronouns), is to read your copy carefully checking that you can easily identify the noun that belongs to the pronoun. If more than one noun emerges as a possibility, replace the pronoun with its intended noun.

What’s rolling toward second base?

  • The ball
  • The wall
  • Winfield’s head

Writing for the Web: Clarity 4/7

Avoid Helping Verbs (Might, May, Would, Should, and Could)

Helping verbs, also called auxiliary verbs, are tricky for two reasons: they can have multiple meanings and those meanings are sometimes a matter of interpretation.

EXAMPLE: “When you complete your timesheet, you should be paid.”

If you insert may instead of should, implies possibility or permission.

EXAMPLE: “When you complete your timesheet, you will be paid.”