Friday, September 17, 2010

Mommy's Audio Books - Storytelling

Yana’s latest post, Is Listening to Audio Books “Cheating?” has started me thinking. It’s a good thing, too, because she is starting to get pretty annoyed at my lack of contributions to this blog. She started me thinking with this sentence, “Additionally, oral language precedes written language, and oral storytelling has been a valuable cultural cornerstone of many civilizations. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with listening to a story now and then.”

Here is what I am thinking about.

I don’t know how it happened. Somehow, in an unexplained turn of events, my husband has secured the role of bedtime book reader. This was once a role I cherished. My oldest boy was a brilliant reader and an avid book lover, and I was secretly proud, if not self-righteous, with the knowledge that I was responsible for his outstanding abilities.

I felt this way because, even before he was born, I was reading to him. No matter what material I was reading, I shared it aloud with him. Newspapers, school books, term papers—nothing was off limits.

As he grew older, we took trips to the library together. We never left the building with less than 30 books in tow. A few days later, having read all of our books multiple times, we returned for more. His personal book collection grew as well.

I never forced him to read. I simply shared my enthusiasm for books, and exposed him to as many as I could. Reading time was bonding time, and any time was reading time.

Flash forward 8 years.

I am no longer sanctimonious. I have learned, thanks to my youngest boy, a love for reading belongs only to those who love to read. Though my intentions were the same, and I read to him as often, he has not learned to love books like my oldest. I shared the same material, I filled his room with books, but when the time came to actually sit down and read, he was more interested in jumping on my head, turning pages, and talking over my words. His need for attention surpassed his need for the written word.

I guess that is why my husband won his role. His patience was greater than mine.

Recently, however, I decided to try something new—Storytelling. I must admit, it isn’t easy. I have never been an excellent public speaker. Coming up with off-the-cuff stories isn’t quite my forte either. But, the good news is, I have a large collection of children’s books to draw from. I have read and reread so many children’s stories, that I can almost verbalize them verbatim. I think I will call my stories Mommy’s Audio Books (MABs).

In recent weeks, I have discovered that MABs are big sellers in our home. Through them, my little one gets the one-on-one, face time attention that he craves. He is happy to sit still for an MAB, and I don’t have to try to find my place after an interruption.

I am confident that storytelling is helping my son to learn, and instilling in him a love of learning. I hope one day that he will be a great storyteller too. Sequencing, problem-solving, a strong vocabulary, and self-confidence, are just a few of the benefits he will gain. Storytelling is helping me to learn as well. I am able to discover my voice, connect with my listener, and get feedback.

So, I agree with Yana, “There is nothing wrong with listening to a story now and then.” And, there is nothing wrong with telling one either.


PS – On my most creative nights, I can come up with some pretty remarkable stories. Perhaps one day, I will turn them into books.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Is listening to audio books “cheating?”

I used to think so. I’m somewhat of a book purist (some would say snob), and I tend to prefer my books the traditional way, in print. No fancy eReaders for me! Similarly, I used to feel that audio books were somehow not real books. Maybe it’s a holdover from my student days, but I still consider reading “work,” even though it’s my favorite hobby—a labor of love, if you will. The physical act of holding a book and running your eyes down the page equals reading; listening to an audio book while cooking, driving, or laying on the couch equals entertainment, like watching TV. Right?

A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine helped to change my outlook on audio books. She listens to them quite frequently, especially while commuting, and gave me a few to try out. I can’t say that I was an immediate convert. There have been a few books I simply could not listen to for one reason or another. For example, I don’t enjoy books read by a large cast, as if the book is a play rather than a novel. Sometimes a reader’s voice, accent, or phrasing grates on my nerves so much that I have to switch to the print version.

Books read by the author tend to be the best. And sometimes you will get lucky with an amazing reader, such as Ron Perlman, who read part one of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain. Aside from great performances, there are some useful benefits to audio books:
- It gives you something to do other than listening to music or talk radio while commuting or taking long trips. And you feel so productive when you’re listening to a book!
- The addition of audio books can help double the amount you read. You can be reading one book and listening to another at the same time!
- At least for me, listening to a book in the car keeps me more alert and makes me a better driver. There is no time to daydream, or you might miss a crucial point.
- You are more likely to listen to something that you might find too difficult/tiring to read. I, for example, find it very difficult to read non-fiction books. Even if I find the topic interesting, I have trouble concentrating on it for an extended period of time if I’m reading. I don’t mind newspaper or magazine articles, but books exhaust me. However, I can listen to non-fiction books all day long! This could also work for literature classics (which you’ve had laying on your nightstand for two years but just can’t seem to read past page 20), such as Anna Karenina or A Tale of Two Cities.

“Aha!” you might say, “But this is proof that listening to audio books is cheating. It’s like using a shortcut.” And to that I would say, “Absolutely not!” That would be like saying that reading a textbook is superior to listening to a teacher’s lecture. We all know that a great teacher can make a subject come alive. Here’s how I see it: at its most basic level, reading is absorbing content from an outside source. Whether you absorb it visually or auditorily is irrelevant. Additionally, oral language precedes written language, and oral storytelling has been a valuable cultural cornerstone of many civilizations. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with listening to a story now and then.

What I do wonder about with regard to audio books is whether authors should consider modifying their writing style to cater to audio audiences. Sometimes in a book you might come across a long dialogue in which the speakers are not identified. If you are reading this dialogue, you might get confused, but you could always go back and count from the beginning who is saying which line. If you are listening to this same dialogue in an audio book, it might be very difficult to follow if the speakers are not identified in some way. Another example involves visual cues in text, such as using italics to indicate thoughts or using page breaks to indicate time or perspective shifts. These nuances would be lost on a listener and could cause a misinterpretation of the content. But is it the responsibility of the writer, the purveyor of the written word, to be concerned with how his or her finished product is used—in print, electronic, or audio format? Would format consideration put constraints on the writer’s creativity? I have a feeling that writers will have to address this issue in the near future.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

FOUND: in the break room

Originally uploaded by yanasphotos
The tea is not made of ice (not "ice tea" like "peach tea") but put over ice; therefore, it is "iced." Also, it's "fridge," not "frig." That means something TOTALLY different. Look it up.

Corrections are mine :)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I Wrote This by Hand!

The other day while sitting in a meeting at work, I had an idea for a blog. I was watching a coworker take notes on the meeting—longhand. Yes, she was actually writing on paper with a pen. Which got me thinking, when was the last time I wrote anything longer than a greeting card message by hand? Sure, I scribble notes on Post-its and write shopping lists, but the days of writing my high school essays on college-ruled paper seem like ancient history. So, I decided to write this by hand so I can accurately analyze the differences in my writing process.

Obviously, writing by hand takes longer, but not just because of my incredibly fast typing skills. When I write by hand, I think about each word before committing it to paper. Going back and correcting, even with the aid of white-out, is messy, and I want to get it right the first time.

On the other hand (pun intended), when I type, I do it quickly, almost stream-of-consciousness, and I edit as I go. If something doesn't sound right, the delete key takes care of it in a flash. I can also cut and paste to make the writing smoother, make it fit together if something doesn't flow. When I type, I can quickly check my spelling by plugging a word into Google or use the thesaurus to find just the right word.

So it would seem that typing is faster and more efficient, allowing for corrections and editing on the go. But are we losing something meaningful when we stop writing by hand? Is there some sort of connection between the writer and the written word that can only be transmitted through the pen/quill/whatever early humans used to create cave paintings? (Which, I suppose, raises a similar question about the value of traditional vs computer-generated art...)

Here's the way I see it: some things should/will always be done by hand. I certainly appreciate a hand-written card or note much more than an email. Even though I blog, I still sometimes write in my paper journal. I always admire nice handwriting. And while computers have provided us with the ability to create some amazing graphics, they can't make sculpture.

Ugh, my hand hurts! I can't wait to type this up.

Full Disclosure: I wrote this by hand in 3 different sittings because my hand kept getting tired. I am weak. It took me all of 5 minutes to type it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Resources for Writerly Fun

As writers, we use a variety of resources to help us do our work: dictionaries, thesauruses, style manuals, reference materials, Wikipedia, and many many more. But in between the writing spurts, writers also needs distractions, something to get the creative juices flowing when we are stuck staring at a blank screen. I'm not sure what people did before the computer... stare out the window? But before the internet, this "break" was often accomplished by playing a few games of Solitaire or Minesweeper. Then along came email, news websites, lol cats, and ultimately Facebook, all of which are excellent time wasters, but sadly have very little to do with writing and, therefore, rarely spark creativity.

However, the internet is always evolving and providing us with new forms of entertainment. Wordle creates "word clouds" from text you provide, giving prominence to words that appear most often. It allows you to change the color schemes, fonts, and layouts of your clouds. This little application really helps you see your text in a new way and definitely makes you feel less guilty about not actually writing.

This is a Wordle of this website, The Write Impression.

Wordle: The Write Impression

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Online Graduate Education


It's September, and students everywhere are back in school. This year, I almost counted myself among their ranks again. Almost... Since I graduated with my MA in Technical Writing back in 2003, I have been wistfully imagining my name with "Dr." in front of it. So, last December, with layoffs looming at work and the economy tanking, I took the GRE (AGAIN!) and applied to the only English department PhD program at the local university.

But as the time neared for me to start my classes, I began to have doubts. This was not ultimately the program of my dreams; it was just the only one available to me. I would have enjoyed focusing on a different aspect of language than I had previously studied as an undergrad (literature) and graduate student, such as mass communication or rhetoric. However, the local university doesn't have any programs that fit the bill. As the thought of spending 5-7 years doing something I wasn't in love with didn't appeal to me, I decided to drop the classes and look for an alternative.

Of course, I turned to the Internet, but to my surprise, my choices there were limited as well. One would think that in today's technologically-savvy culture, more universities would be offering degree programs that could be completed entirely online. It seems like a win-win situation for the school, as it would attract a broader student base (possibly even more out-of-state students to pay higher tuition rates) and spend less money on classroom space. And while there are quite a few online master's programs, the PhD programs, especially in the fields of writing and communication, are few and far between. In fact, I was only able to find four that even came close: Technical Communication and Rhetoric; Language, Literature, and Linguistics; Professional Studies in Information Management (library science); and Media Psychology.

Why aren't more universities offering online graduate degrees? Graduate education is ideally suited for the online format: much of the learning takes place outside the classroom anyway through directed reading, writing, and research, and any discussion among students or between students and professors can easily take place in forums or through email or web conferencing. So, what's the hold-up? Are universities falling sadly behind the times?

I feel as though the old guard is unwilling to make any significant changes in the hallowed halls of academia because it is trying to hold onto an outdated model of teaching and learning. Graduate education, while still elite to some degree, is now available to a much broader segment of the population and has become somewhat of a mass commodity. A graduate degree is no longer a direct path to a teaching position at a university but a stepping-stone to a myriad of career options. Graduate students are no longer twenty-somethings attending full-time but working (or recently laid-off) professionals who must balance other responsibilities. Universities must evolve to provide more options in graduate education. They are missing out on at least this student's tuition and probably many more who find their degree opportunities limited.

P.S. Thanks to Hayley's last post about idioms, I had to look up every expression I used in this post (such as "fit the bill," "win-win situation," and "few and far between") to make sure I was using them correctly :)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Writing Cooking Instructions

Last weekend my husband and I saw Julie and Julia, a movie about a blogger who cooked her way through Julia Child's classic French cookbook and wrote about it. I loved the movie because it includes so many of my favorite things: cooking, eating, writing, and Paris. It got me thinking about cookbooks, recipes, and learning to cook.

I learned to cook by watching and helping my mom in the kitchen. When I moved out on my own, I picked up a few cookbooks or found recipes online and experimented a good deal. What I found out was that not all cookbooks or recipes are equal—some work better than others. It turns out that there is an art to writing cooking instructions.

The first thing a cookbook writer, like any other writer, must consider is audience. Is this book for beginners or experienced chefs? Julia Child's cookbook, despite containing some difficult recipes, is easy for beginners to use because it includes instruction on basic cooking techniques, such as poaching an egg or sauteing mushrooms (don't crowd them!). I learned an important lesson about audience when I gave a friend my recipe for vegetarian chili. After making it, she complained that the chili was too watery. We eventually figured out that she had not drained the cans of beans but poured them into the pot, water and all. I had thought anyone would know to drain the beans, so I did not include that step in my instructions!

A cookbook for beginners might contain tips about grocery shopping, choosing produce, stocking your pantry, as well as a list of cooking terminology. What does it mean to blanch something? How do you zest a lemon? It would probably also have colorful photos with each recipe and short, easy-to-follow steps. A cookbook for more experienced chefs would look dull in comparison, containing mostly text to allow more room for numerous recipes. These chefs don't need a picture to tell them how a meal should look.

One of the most important aspects of cooking is measurement. Too little baking powder, and your cake won't rise. Too much salt, and the meal is inedible. A cookbook writer must consider audience here, too. Should the measurements be based on the metric system or on U.S. customary units? Should people put in a pinch of nutmeg or 1/4 tsp?

Over time, and a few disasters later, I have become an experienced cook. I can usually tell just by looking at a recipe if it will be good, and I don't hesitate to alter a recipe even the first time I make it. But would I make a good recipe-writer?

What makes a well-written recipe? What are some recipe writing no-nos that would make you put down a cookbook? And how, if at all, is writing cooking instructions different from writing instructions in general?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Idiotic Idioms

In general, I pride myself on my finely-honed grasp of ordinary language, its meanings, and implications. Recently, however, my confidence was put to a test. Over the course of the last two weeks, I have been challenged on three separate occasions and found myself searching for answers to my initial lack of understanding. The cause of the chaos—idioms.

An idiom is a phrase whose meaning cannot be revealed by the exact definition of the phrase itself, but conveys instead the figurative meaning that is known only through common use. If a listener hears an idiom for the very first time, she may find difficulty connecting its meaning to its intent, as its literal meaning delivers an entirely different message.

For example, perhaps you never heard the idiom, “read between the lines.” Upon hearing it, you may look around you for something to read and the lines upon it, when actually, “read between the lines” means “discern the meaning which is not obvious and explicit.”

To get back to MY idiom idiocy, it all started with a book that I was reading in which the writer wrote, “Come what may, I would continue to love him.” As a natural editor, I thought that May should have been capitalized. Only then did I discover that I had missed the meaning of this term all along. I have always thought the word may meant the month of May, as in, “a year from now, come what May,” I will continue to love him.

The second realization occurred in much the same way. The writer of my book wrote, “I didn’t know how I would make ends meet.” I always thought it was ends meat. I relayed my potential blemish to my family, who, in turn, laughed at me. However, upon looking this one up, I discovered that I would have the last laugh. The idiom, “to make ends meat” derives from the age of the Great Depression. When times were difficult, butchers making sausage had to resort to stuffing more filler into one end than the other so they could tie off the second end. They could not make both ends meat. (A side note—Microsoft Word’s spell check tried to change this spelling to meet.)

I even discovered a poem (writer unknown).

Economics for Sausage Makers
"I buy a pig," the butcher said,
"And grind 'er up complete,
Excepting for the nose and tail,
For they ain't fit to eat.
That's why I'm always broke," he wept;
"I can't make both ends meat."

My third and final recent discovery came just the other day. While watching television with the closed caption turned on, to allow for a better understanding of the program with a screaming toddler in the room, I read below as the character on the screen discussed his fool proof plan. I always thought it was full proof, as in this plan is a proven one to its fullest capacity. It did not occur to me that the plan could also be a plan that even a fool could not compromise.

When researching this, I discovered that I am not alone in my rationale. Google the term full proof, and you will discover pages upon pages of businesses, ministries, and average Joes who agree with my thinking.

This leads me to my conclusion. Idioms are not a part of language, as I once thought; they are part of a culture. We should remember this when writing to a broad audience, such as Internet users across the globe. Perhaps over time, more idioms will become universally recognized, but until then…

Que sera sera. Whatever will be will be.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Where has all the journalistic integrity gone?

Today is the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Charley, one of the most destructive hurricanes to hit Florida in recent memory and one of the only hurricanes to seriously affect Orlando. Appropriately, the hometown paper contains a feature story on the hurricane, its aftermath, and the outlook five years later. Now, the Orlando Sentinel (or Slantinel, as my husband likes to call it) has never been a paragon of excellence; it has not won any awards for quality. And in recent years, with about 2/3 of its staff being laid off, the paper has become something of a sad joke.

Just the other day, I was curious as to what time the space shuttle was landing at Cape Canaveral. Silly me, I thought the local paper would have a story about it. Well, it did, but it simply said the shuttle was landing that day and neglected to mention the time, which I found after a few minutes of searching on the NASA website. The story was a pathetic four sentences, something to the effect of: The space shuttle will land today after a 15-day mission to the international space station. Wow, what an overload of information!

Anyway, getting back to today's feature article. It contains this little gem: "Charley devastated this Gulf Coast community in 2004, crashing across Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte like an angry drunk swinging a billy club. Originally forecast to hit Tampa Bay, it sucker-punched Southwest Florida, making a hard right into Charlotte Harbor just before landfall."

An angry drunk swinging a billy club? Sucker-punched? While these sorts of descriptions might work well for a creative writing class, they seem just a tad out of place in a newspaper article. I only took one journalism class in college, and even I know that this is not newspaper style.

I know these questions have already been asked by people more important than me, but what happened to real reporting? What happened to our newspapers? All across the country, cities are losing their newspapers, and no one seems to care. Do we even need them anymore? In today's blog- and Twitter-filled world, are newspapers completely obsolete? Call me crazy or old-fashioned, but I would still rather read a factual account of an event in The New York Times than to watch a YouTube video or an iReport on CNN. Is it because I'm a writer at heart and have a soft spot for the printed word, or is it because at the advanced age of 28 I have somehow fallen behind the times?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Writing to complain

In a typical day, we might write in a variety of styles, including a business email, a grocery list, a blog, or a status update on a social networking site. These all have different purposes, whether to inform, remind, or entertain. But what about adding another useful style to our repertoire—writing to complain?

I have always been a fan of the letter to the editor. I enjoy expressing my outrage at some newspaper article in a sassy and well-worded letter. I enjoy even more when it gets published. In fact, when I am a retired old lady, I plan to spend my days reading the papers and crafting witty letters to the editor (although by the time I reach retirement age, newspapers will have gone the way of the Dodo bird).

In addition to the personal satisfaction they afford me, I have recently discovered that letters of complaint can actually pay off. A while ago, I ordered a bathing suit online from a well-known retailer (one that is popular with the first lady). The suit, when it came, didn't fit correctly, and I had to send it back. For this transaction, I had to pay about $15 in shipping fees and in the end had no actual product to show for it. Instead of just getting upset, I decided to write a letter to said retailer to express my disappointment. One email exchange later, the retailer refunded $13 of my shipping costs and wrote me a nice message with the hope that I will shop in their stores again in the future.

I believe a few keys to a successful complaint letter are:
1. Be respectful.
2. Stress your status as either a first-time or long-time customer.
3. Compliment the retailer's brand or reputation (e.g. I have had good experiences in the past, have heard good things about your store from friends, or similar).
4. Express your disappointment rather than your anger.
5. Suggest possible solutions to the issue (I had simply suggested the retailer review it's shipping charges, where shipping a bathing suit cost the same as shipping a winter coat).
6. If necessary, politely threaten to never do business with the retailer again.

Have you had any successes writing a letter of complaint about a product or service? What other tips would you suggest?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Explanation of a long absence and a blog about friendship

After a brief (ahem) hiatus, we are back. Seriously. I feel newly inspired to write about writing lately, and hopefully we'll both be a little more consistent about posting in the future. In the, um, almost year since our last post, much has changed and much more has stayed the same. My husband and I bought a house, so the only thing I was writing for a while were checks to pay the bills. I am still working as an editor, reading and writing, and talking to Hayley on a weekly basis about some sort of writing-related issue. We've just forgotten to blog about it!

In this post, I would like to discuss how writing can affect personal relationships. How many professionals working as writers have been asked by a friend or family member for help writing/editing a resume, cover letter, school paper, or business proposal? And while this sort of request may seem innocent at first glance, it can be a minefield of miscommunication and mismanaged expectations. Of course, it all depends on how close you are to the person and what sort of relationship you have, but it's always good to be aware of a few pitfalls of working for friends.

Here are a few tips for writers on how to avoid ruining a friendship through heavy-handed editing:

1) Before you begin the project, discuss your friend's expectations. Does she consider herself to be a fantastic writer needing only a grammar check? Does she think "editing" means you actually writing the paper for her? Set the ground rules for the extent of editing the project requires and stick to the plan.

2) Discuss how to manage your feelings over the course of the project. This may sound silly, but it is often necessary. Working for friends is often harder than working for complete strangers because of the difficulties of finding a balance between the personal and professional relationships. Ask your friend whether she will be hurt or offended by brutally honest feedback about her work. Discuss the manner in which you will suggest revisions, whether by email, over the phone, or face-to-face. A more personal format may be less threatening and help avoid misunderstandings. In the end, do not be offended if your friend chooses not to take some of your advice.

3) Most of the editing you do for friends and family is probably free or offered at a greatly reduced rate. If you expect to be compensated for your time, whether in the form of money, barter, or dinner, discuss it upfront. Leaving the discussion until the project is finished might cause friction. If you are doing the work for free, remember to manage your own expectations. You will most likely receive a thank-you note or call from your friend, or maybe even something more (like that free dinner), but do not expect anything if you said you didn't want anything.

4) Don't take on a project out of a sense of obligation. If you truly do not have time to devote to it, the project will become a stone around your neck and make you resent your friend for saddling you with it. If you really feel guilty about not being able to help, spend a few minutes putting together a list of resources for your friend, such as books or websites with resume-writing tips and samples. Then you can say, "I'm sorry I don't have time to help you with your resume, but here are some resources I use that you might find helpful."

Do you have any other tips to share, whether from the perspective of the writer or the friend getting help with her writing?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Writing Ambiguously for Smarties

Careful writers always take into consideration those essential elements that when ignored lead to poor writing. The components of poor writing could include:
  • Weak vocabulary

  • Poor punctuation

  • Long sentences

  • Ineffectual grammar, syntax, or structure

  • Unrelated clauses

  • Overemphasizing to accentuate

When any of these weaknesses strike either alone or in combination with others, poor writing often occurs. However, there are certain times when these weaknesses can be valuable in writing. Perhaps the writer is choosing to write ambiguously. As a technical writer, I too find it shocking that someone would choose to write in a way that leaves the reader with an unclear message, but consider this:

You and your obnoxious neighbor have arrived home from work at exactly the same time and you notice that he is making his way toward your car. “Here we go!” you grumble to yourself. “What did I do (or not do) now?” You inspect your lawn to make certain your tree limbs aren’t blowing in the direction of his house. You remember measuring the grass “to the millimeter” when you last cut it (at his request) to ensure it matched the level of his. What could he possibly complain about now?

As you sit lower in your seat, praying for the power of invisibility, he knocks on your car window. The smile on his face is unusual (and actually looks painful), but you quickly learn his motive. He begins to tell you about his strong desire to becoming the President of your home owner’s association and he would like for you to write a letter of recommendation for him. “Ha! Are you kidding?!” you almost shout out loud. But in the spirit of neighborliness (or perhaps to get away quickly) you tell him you will.

Now what? You know that he will have an opportunity to read what you have written, but you can’t imagine setting your neighborhood up for failure. What do you do?

The answer—you write ambiguously. You disorganize the syntax or structure of the sentence. You punctuate unclearly. You leave your readers (decision makers) with a choice about how they want to view your message.

Here is an example:

Dear Board:

You won’t find many people like Mr. XYZ. (Thank God). I, myself, find that he is always trying. (read: annoying) In fact, I must say that one usually comes away from him with a good feeling. His fellow neighbors and I often discuss how he takes a great deal of enjoyment out of living within our community. (He takes it away from others as well.) And, there is no questioning his dedication to the beautification of his home. (If you do question it, he will go ballistic.)

Here in the community, his input is always critical. (He never says anything nice), and I must say that he stands alone in his ability to get along with others. (No one will stand near him.) It is hard to imagine that anyone could fail to be impressed by or like Mr. XYZ.
(He will make an impression, but no one will like him.)
I sincerely hope that you will consider my recommendation of Mr. XYZ when selecting our new association President.

Thank you,
Fellow Homeowner

For more information and recommendation ideas about using ambiguous writing effectively, you can read The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations by Robert J. Thornton. Ideas for this post were selected from the reading of this truly enjoyable book.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Spell Checkers are Grate!

Here is a poem that I believe illustrates Yana's point in the following post. I am borrowing it from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style.

Who wood have guest
The Spell Chequer would super seed
The assent of the editor
Who was once a mane figure?
Once, awl sought his council;
Now nun prophet from him.
How suite the job was;
It was all sew fine...
Never once was he board
As he edited each claws,
Going strait to his deer work
Where he'd in cyst on clarity.
Now he's holy unacceptable,
Useless and know kneaded...
This is kow miner issue,
For he cannot urn a wage.
Two this he takes a fence,
Butt nose naught watt too due.
He's wade each option
Of jobs he mite dew,
But nothing peaks his interest
Like making pros clear.
Sum will see him silly
For being sew upset,
But doesnt' good righting
Go beyond the write spelling?

Sometimes a spell check is not enough

I am an editor. I read a lot. And I often find mistakes in the things I read, from books to newspaper articles to cereal boxes. I know that grammatical and punctuation errors are a fact of life. Not everyone was an English major in college, blah, blah.

But some errors are just so easily preventable. Here's a little tip for all writers, editors, and publishers out there: running spell check is not enough. You actually have to read stuff before you put it in print!

Here's a recent error I found in the novel "You Suck: A Love Story" by Christopher Moore. And I quote:

"Jeez," Drew said, then realizing that he had said it allowed, he cleared his throat and said, "I'll be right there." p. 223

On a similar note, here's an excerpt from a recent article in the New York Times:

Is It Ripe, or Rife?
By Philip B. Corbett

Even in the rush to publish, writers and editors at The Times strive for polish and precision in our prose. Sometimes we succeed.

But sometimes, after the dust settles, we are dismayed to see painful grammatical errors, shopworn phrasing or embarrassing faults in usage. A quick fix might be possible online; otherwise, the lapses become lessons for next time.

These comments are adapted from After Deadline, a weekly newsroom critique overseen by Philip B. Corbett, the deputy news editor who is also in charge of The Times’s style manual. The goal is not to chastise, but to point out recurring problems and suggest solutions.

Since most writers encounter similar troubles, we think these observations might interest general readers, too.

Words to Watch: Ripe or Rife?

These similar-sounding words are easily confused. “Rife” means (among other things) “full of, abounding in,” and is used with “with.” “Ripe” does not normally have that sense — it means, essentially, “fully developed, mature.”

The uncertainty is understandable, especially since metaphorically “ripe” may carry an overtone of “fullness.” Often we end up saying “ripe with” when we mean “rife with.”

A couple of recent cases where we went astray:
Responding to an episode ripe with the potential to stoke unrest, the commander, Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, held a meeting Saturday with Iraqi leaders.
The blogosphere is ripe with tales of people who mail in their house keys to their banks rather than hold on to their depreciating homes, but there is not a lot of evidence that it is actually happening very often.

More Words to Watch
A colleague on the sports desk offered a few other pairs of words that we’ve occasionally mixed up. Beware:

1. loathe is a verb meaning to hate; loath is an adjective meaning unwilling or reluctant.

2. peddle means to sell; pedal is what you do to a bicycle.

3. chord in music and mathematics; cord for the spinal or vocal kind.

4. discreet means prudent, circumspect or modest; discrete means separate or individually distinct.

5. forward indicates a direction; foreword is the introductory note in a book.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Intellectual Property and Blogging

I blog because it’s enjoyable. I blog because I want to write something every day. I blog because I want to let others know that I am here. Do I feel the need to protect those things I write? Not often. But sometimes I think about the stories, poems, and other “intellectual property” that I put out there. Is it protected simply because I posted it?

What is intellectual property in the electronic age? What happens when we make our work available on the World Wide Web through blogs and such? Several treaties have been passed to address the problem of vast opportunities for worldwide distribution of copyrighted materials and to protect those writers and artists from theft of their electronic material. However, chat rooms, discussion boards, e-mails, web sites, blogs, and even home pages also make it possible to publish thoughts, ideas, and works that upon “publication” are immediately available for anyone and everyone to access and read. They become public property and can easily be used without permission or commission. The WWW makes it simple and cheap to deliver cost-free copying of information.

With this change in technology, can intellectual property remain protected? According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), “intellectual property refers to creations of the mind: inventions, literary and artistic works, and symbols, names, images, and designs used in commerce.” Using some else’s intellectual property, words, or forms of expression in a work and failing to cite the source of a direct quote or failing to give credit for a paraphrased idea is a serious offense. In the past, intellectual property was just that—property. It was considered to have monetary value. To publish another’s work without that person’s permission would be a crime equivalent to stealing capital.

Does the capability of the Internet to provide free copying of content change the role of intellectual property? Do writers lose their desire to put out their best stuff as a result of mass copying? What can free writers and such do to protect themselves as well as their intellectual possessions?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On being a working writer

When I was in college, I wrote a lot of papers. Some were academic; some were creative. The process usually went something like this:
1. Get assignment.
2. Complain.
3. Do nothing for the duration of time allotted for assignment.
4. Do minimal research at the last minute.
5. Write paper at 2 am while my cat slept on the desk near me.
6. Turn it in.
7. Receive an A. Most of the time...

Now, I have a real job that involves writing and editing. I am expected to produce copy, often under very tight deadlines. I no longer have the luxury of slacking off until the very last possible moment... Or do I?

I find that my writing process hasn't changed an awful lot over the years. When faced with a writing task at work, I will often let it marinate in my head for a day or two before I actually start writing. During that time, I'm not actively thinking about the task, but my mind is subconsciously formulating outlines, titles, sentences, and solutions to problems. If I sat down immediately to the task, I would most likely spend a day staring at a blank page and getting progressively more frustrated. The "marinating" process allows me to come to the task prepared to tackle the project. When I actually do open that Word document, I am ready to make magic. Isn't that what writing is, really?

I wonder how other working writers face these issues. Can anyone just write on command? I think that no matter what you're writing, there's some sort of creative aspect to it, whether it's in the document's organization, tone, graphic design, or audience. The working writer's job is to take all of that into account, be creative, and complete the project on time. A pretty tall order!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Writer's Blockade

Writer’s Block is nothing compared to the barricade I am standing behind. Take a moment to imagine, if you will, my obstruction. A giant purple dinosaur, a furry red monster, mountains of books offering one to five words per page, and an assortment of flashing, beeping, singing paraphernalia (a miniature kitchen, a smiling car, a table and chair that talks, even shoes that flash) together impede my view of the world outside of stay-at-home-momville.

There are many women, as well as men, who consciously make the transition between holding careers and staying at home with their children. These stay-at-home moms and dads (SAHM, SAHD) often possess college degrees, or positions of power, and have the ability to work in coveted occupations, but feel that the most important job that they could possibly embrace is the one of raising their children. I once read a woman and work poll/reader survey that found “if moms could choose to do whatever they wished, only 4% would choose full-time employment.”

So, here I sit in the majority as a mom who chose to stay home with her children over her career. Does that mean my mind should no longer focus on anything non-toddler or teen related? I co-created this blog, The Write Impression, in an effort to keep my foot in the “real world.” My goal is to appeal to other writers, continue to write, think about writing each and every day, and learn more about writing. These are things that I feel should not end just because my career is temporarily on hold. So, why do I sit here not knowing where to begin?

This blog entry is an appeal to all writers and blog readers who visit our site. Tell us what you want to read about. Give me the key to unlock the block! Perhaps we have answers to your questions, or perhaps you have answers to ours. In either case, I promise to break through this blockade and begin writing more regularly. I look forward to writing with you.

Friday, August 1, 2008

What To Do With a Writing Degree

My daughter is entering her junior year in high school, so the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” discussion came up the other day. She asked me why I chose technical writing as my college major. In her summation, there was nothing interesting to do with such a major. Of course, I informed her she was so very wrong, and then I proceeded to identify the many things that one could do with a major in writing.

Here is a short list of possible careers. Feel free to suggest more.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

RE: Definition

You put forth an interesting question, Hayley, though a difficult one. Putting a definition on something, as you say, is very limiting, so let us try to define this profession as broadly as possible so as to give ourselves room to grow and change. First, let's look at each word separately.

1.belonging or pertaining to an art, science, or the like: technical skill.
2.peculiar to or characteristic of a particular art, science, profession, trade, etc.: technical details.
3.using terminology or treating subject matter in a manner peculiar to a particular field, as a writer or a book: a technical report.
4.skilled in or familiar in a practical way with a particular art, trade, etc., as a person.

1.the act or process of communicating; fact of being communicated.
2.the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs.
3.something imparted, interchanged, or transmitted.
4.a document or message imparting news, views, information, etc.


When I think of the word "technical," I think of something that requires specialized knowledge. This could be almost any discipline, from medicine to computers to the environment. Even what I do (edit social studies textbooks) requires specialized knowledge. Though I don't think of myself as a technical communicator, per se, my job seems to fit under that description.

And "communication" obviously covers a wide range of media: brochures, manuals, books, magazines, press releases, newspapers, websites, blogs, speeches and presentations, and even textbooks.

So I suppose my best stab at a definition would be:
Technical communication is the act of imparting specialized information to a given audience through a wide array of media.

Can I get any more vague?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Defining Technical Communication

“Well, somebody has to do that job!” is the common response I often receive after explaining, to the best of my ability, the profession I have chosen—Technical Communication. The reaction often leaves me wondering if I am successful in attempting to give explanation to the field. Over time, I think I stopped trying to define it altogether. How can a person identify each and every point of correlation where technology meets the written word?

Defining technical communication is difficult because a single definition cannot take into account all of the aspects that define the profession. By trying to define it, we limit it. For the purposes of study, however, we need definitions, even reductive ones. People outside of the profession need clarification about what technical communicators do if for no other reason then to provide the foundation for professional standing in their discipline.

I have heard that “the future is bright” for technical communicators. New technologies are continually being developed and there will always be a need for someone to explain them. Unfortunately, when people attempt to define the skills of technical writers, they often ask, “What software do you know?” Of course this is a result of technical writing taking advantage of the latest technologies, however, it does not take into account writing techniques, audience analysis, design, or even usability testing. Keeping this in mind, I find it necessary to establish a common definition that will assist in promoting the status of the profession to ensure its dynamic future. Any suggestions?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Socrates on Writing - A Historical Perspective

In his work, The Phaedrus, Plato offers insight into his teacher’s views on writing.

Socrates: Writing, you know, Phaedrus, has this strange quality about it, which makes it really like painting: the painter's products stand before us quite as though they were alive; but if you question them, they maintain a solemn silence. So, too, with written words: you might think they spoke as though they made sense, but if you ask them anything about what they are saying, if you wish an explanation, they go on telling you the same thing, over and over forever. Once a thing is put in writing, it rolls about all over the place, falling into the hands of those who have no concern with it just as easily as under the notice of those who comprehend; it has no notion of whom to address or whom to avoid. And when it is ill-treated or abused as illegitimate, it always needs its father to help it, being quite unable to protect or help itself.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Meet Your Blog Authors

The Write Impression is a place to come and share resources, ideas, and general information about anything related to the world of writing. Hayley and Yana are friends and writers on very different paths here to share their interest, insight, and impressions.

Meet Hayley

I began learning, practicing, and performing technical writing in 1999 when I asked my college advisor the question, "What in the world is technical writing?" Although I eventually earned both my BA and MA degrees in the discipline, I find (like many other working technical communicators) that I continue to ask the same question.

The majority of my writing experience comes from my career as a marketing coordinator and proposal writer for a large engineering firm. I am currently, however, the 37-year-old, stay-at-home mom of a teenager and a toddler, and I am slowly but surely adventuring into the world of freelance technical writing.

Meet Yana

My love of writing came about as a result of my love of reading. I became a serious reader around the age of seven and haven't stopped since. About two years ago, I co-founded a book club with a friend of mine, and it's still going strong. I earned my B.A. in English literature, but as graduation neared, I began wondering what exactly I was going to do with that degree. This led me to pursue a master's in technical writing, which is where I met Hayley.

For the past 6 years, I have been working as an elementary social studies textbook editor. I love the variety and creativity of this job, especially the historical research I do. Occasionally, I've done some freelance editing in various disciplines, and I've edited countless resumes and cover letters for my friends and family. In the future, I hope to continue gaining experience in different areas of editing and publishing.